This article originally appeared on VICE Australia.
In certain corners of the internet, “death grip syndrome” is the term used to describe a non-scientific condition affecting people with penises in which frequent, aggressive masturbation leads to desensitization, erectile dysfunction, and difficulty reaching orgasm. According to a 2003 Savage Love column that possibly coined the term, death grip syndrome typically occurs in men who, after masturbating the same way repeatedly since they were teens, have trouble achieving an orgasm with a partner.
Death grip syndrome isn’t a scientific term or a recognized medical pathology, but idiosyncratic masturbation—that is, masturbating using the same specific technique repeatedly, growing reliant on that particular technique to orgasm—is a well-documented phenomenon. Among men, that is. Like many issues, when related to female sexual pleasure it isn’t as widely discussed.
And yet, “We see this kind of issue with women, too," says sexologist and sex therapist Isiah McKimmie. “Though not as much as men. Sometimes women have learned to masturbate and bring themselves to orgasm in a particular way or in a specific position that is hard to replicate during [partnered] sex.”
Anna, a law school student, says she “started masturbating pretty early and got used to reaching orgasm in one specific way: facedown, humping things. I have had trouble reaching orgasm with a partner for a long time.”
Kelsey, who is in her mid-20s, says it’s been a “big problem” for her. “I grew up masturbating in the prone position and sort of humping my hands. It took years of practice before I was able to do it any other way. Even now, it takes forever when I’m not in that position.”
Emily, a criminology student in Brisbane, says she also started masturbating at a young age and feels “pretty gutted” that she still has trouble having an orgasm with a partner. As does Katie, a high school senior: “I was really young when I started masturbating, and I've always done it while lying on my stomach. I can't orgasm without this very specific position.”
It’s possible that idiosyncratic masturbation is most commonly associated with men because, from an early age, “Men are encouraged and allowed to touch themselves,” says Cyndi Darnell, a sexologist and sex educator. Women don’t typically get the same encouragement because the vagina is still largely considered “disgusting and private.”
Darnell says that as men and women masturbate differently, there is no direct female equivalent of death grip syndrome. However, there are “similarities and crossovers,” and some women do fall into specific masturbation patterns that can become a hindrance.
However, “There’s nothing wrong with it. There’s nothing to panic about. [These patterns] can be very, very easily changed. It’s not permanent.”
As for why women appear to discuss the phenomenon less, Darnell says “There are a lot of cultural fears when it comes to [female] masturbation.” Take for example so-called vibrator addiction, a myth unsupported by any real scientific studies or research that only serves to pathologize women’s masturbation habits. As a result, women who experience difficulty with sexual pleasure can feel uncomfortable breaking the silence.
As a sex educator and relationship therapist Tanya Koens says, “Women are socialized to be sexy, not sexual.” Even with adequate sex education, many women don’t have access to “pleasure education.” Women also aren’t generally encouraged to learn how their bodies work, Koens says.
In turn, many people who discover masturbation as children or in their early teens quickly learn it’s an activity never to be discussed. Over time, Koens says, this can lead to a “mind-body disconnect” that only widens the orgasm gap and makes it more difficult for women to feel comfortable with partnered sexual pleasure.
Darnell agrees that the taboos surrounding women’s sexual pleasure can inhibit open discussion of orgasmic dysfunction in women and formal research into how women experience their bodies. “Not to mention trans [and non-binary] people’s genitals that we still don’t have a public dialogue about,” she says.
Still, she adds, this is an “exciting” moment, as the field of sexuality research is growing to include the experiences of all gender identities. “The old clinical model that frames sexuality as cis men’s sexuality is rapidly becoming outdated. We’re stepping up, but we still have a lot of research to do.”