Sex Education (2021)

Is it OK to masturbate in a relationship?

We won’t palm you off: our sex columnist, and three interviewees experienced in digital self-love, have some answers.

One of my favourite things to do is set aside some time (hours and hours) for a pre-planned wank.

Call it self-care, call it wellness if you like, but there’s nothing like organising a huge solo session to yourself. Don’t get me wrong, I love an oh God I’m so horny” emergency wank. But there is something so appealing about getting out the magic wand, switching the diffuser on high and putting on the lo-fi hip-hop beats to masturbate and relax to” playlist.

However: when I’m in a relationship, which I am currently, I find myself having less luxury wanks and more grab-at-open-opportunity ones. This is usually because we are having a lot of sex anyway, or because we are spending lots of time together.

The chance to say to my partner do you mind if I pop upstairs for a few hours to spend some quality time with my vibrator?” just doesn’t come up. But if I did ask, I am positive he wouldn’t mind. In fact, we tell each other if we have had a wank, because we actually both find it quite hot.

So why do some people feel threatened or inadequate by their partner masturbating?

First things first: your partner wanking by themselves doesn’t mean that they are unfulfilled in their sex lives with you. Solo play is completely different to having any kind of sex with a partner. Masturbating is extremely normal, whether you are in or out of a relationship.

There are so many reasons for wanting and needing to have some me” time – from relieving stress, to having an orgasm, to trying out new toys which you can only do by yourself – before you do us” time with a partner.

In a previous relationship, I actually perfected the timing of cold start-to-orgasm, i.e. the time it took for my partner to finish his final cigarette of the night, come inside, go to the toilet and come up to bed. Purely because it was a great alternative to sleeping pills.

Solo play can even be time spent exploring new fantasies in your head before testing them out with your partner. It’s also actually also pretty integral to having a healthy sex life. Getting to know your own body, knowing how you like to be touched and how you get yourself off, means you can show and tell the people you are getting off with.

It does not mean that your partner has decided to masturbate in preference to having sex with you. It’s just a different activity altogether.

Despite knowing all this, masturbation is still sometimes considered taboo. The guilt and shame that surrounds it means that some people in relationships will conceal the fact that they wank to their partner. I talked to three people to find out why.

Samantha*

I do it in private when my partner is out of the house. Partly because of shame, sometimes just out of convenience, and sometimes just for some self-care.

I do feel like, in monogamous relationships and living together, there is a pressure to express yourself sexually exclusively with the other person. That your sex life must mean only you two having sex together. It makes me feel a bit ashamed that I wank in private when he’s out. I don’t tell him because I don’t want him to feel like it’s any reflection on our sex life and feeling unsatisfied.

Sometimes I just want a quick secret wank, not to have it turn into part of other sex acts with my partner. Masturbating around each other also hasn’t been a big part of our sex life together and I don’t really want it to be. I take it as a time for me, where I can listen to music, put on my diffuser, regulate my breathing and take a moment to connect with myself and make myself feel good.

My partner has also been resistant to use of toys during sex, although he is generous with manual and oral foreplay – I think he prefers the human connection” aspect of that. So I save my wand for when I’m alone. I think he knows that I occasionally masturbate when he’s out, but doesn’t acknowledge it.

James*

I’m in a long-term relationship and there’s a bit of a mismatch in libido. Masturbation smooths over the edges a bit – it means I can enjoy myself without feeling like I’m adding pressure on my partner to match my sex drive.

I had a fairly traditional upbringing, I haven’t had masses of sexual partners and haven’t been particularly adventurous with them. So wanking has always felt like something slightly to be ashamed of, hence done rather furtively. I really wish it wasn’t, but I don’t know how to begin to have that conversation. I feel a bit of guilt.

I also feel terrible that it’s something I’m keeping from my partner, when I think it’s something we could enjoy mutually. I really hope she’s wanking as much as I am, and getting what she needs out of it.

I’ve never been caught, amazingly, apart from one time when my mother-in-law sort of walked in on me as I was getting started. But I managed to style it out.

I live in a tiny flat with my partner, and we’re both working from home, so I’m certain she must know what I’m up to. But I would dearly love to just have a wank, in my bedroom, with the sound of porn. It’s like masturbating in black and white.

Steve*

In my last relationship there was a big experience gap. I had only been with one sexual partner before. I was also having issues with cumming [with my partner], and my own research led me to believe it might not just be inexperience but my masturbation style and how much I was doing it – which was at least once a day, often twice.

So we practically stopped having sex because I’d masturbated that day or a lot that week, though I never admitted it. I believed that I’d disappoint them when I didn’t cum – again.

The relationship ended and I still feel heavy guilt when I masturbate, like I’m robbing a great orgasm from the future. I still haven’t gotten to the bottom of it despite experimenting while single and exploring the subject. I’m still disentangling it and have an uneasy relationship with self pleasure.

Because I was – and am – so new at this, my anxieties around sex and intimacy meant that I’d chose masturbation over sex. Even when sex was freely open to me, I’d think: I’ve gone a bit overboard [masturbating] this week, I’ll just be a big flop again, and even if it’s good for her, I likely won’t get much out of it like I want to.

*All names have been changed to protect identities.

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