The Ethics of Masturbating In A Relationship

Is masturbation cheating? It’s one of those little questions that shouldn’t matter, and it doesn’t, until it really does. Like, ‘do we have enough oxygen?’ or ‘what happens if you cross a cat with a T-Rex?’

Despite a growing amount of flexibility in our relationships, the majority of them are largely monogamous, and even where our relationship dynamics are less binary, we still have points at which someone’s behaviour is ‘cheating’. However that’s defined, is it possible for masturbation to fall into that category?

The Ethics of Masturbating In A Relationship

The concept of cheating is subjective, so, naturally, you’ll get a lot of contradictory and forceful responses when you question masturbation’s relationship ethics. Many of those who follow me on Twitter claimed that masturbation is healthy, but then, they would, since my Twitter is an echo chamber of sex positivity. If my followers were largely conservative, the answers I got would likely be opposite. 

The science is pretty unequivocal: masturbation at worst has a neutral effect on a relationship, and at best has a positive effect, as long as it’s done responsibly and reasonably. But that’s true of sample groups: on a personal basis, the truth might be different. And those studies don’t include the ethical ramifications. So how can masturbation fit into a positive framework for a relationship? How can it be ethically justifiable?

There is an expectation in most monogamous relationships that each partner is sexually available and sexually exclusive with the other. That means there are no other partners without one partner’s consent, approval, or knowledge. A conservative argument is that since each has the other for sexual expression, the need, or desire, for additional sex should not be present. But that’s just not the case in reality. Partners often have varying levels of sexual desire, and just because they’re a perfect match for each other emotionally and intellectually, that doesn’t automatically make them a perfect match sexually. If that becomes a problem in a relationship, it’s one that needs to be addressed quickly.

A situation in which one partner has a higher sex drive than another can result in one partner feeling neglected and the other hounded. In these circumstances, masturbation can help talk the edge off the discrepancy, and the couple can both focus on activities they enjoy doing together. If the partner with the higher sexual desire is not given the space they need to attend to those desires privately, and their desire is not being met in the relationship, the result is often resentment.

Masturbation is only one part of the cure here. The other, more important one, is dialogue. And open and honest discussion about masturbation and sexual desire is necessary to stem the problem before it becomes a real stumbling block. You need to identify how each of you feels about masturbation. Can you agree that it might be acceptable in certain circumstances? If so, which? And when? This is a difficult conversation for sure, as are most conversations about relationship ethics and dynamics, but it’s a necessary one.

In fact, the reluctance to have such a difficult discussion leads many people to avoid it entirely, and drive masturbation into the shadows, making it a secret. This is where masturbation strays into unethical territory, and potentially breaches the inherent trust of a monogamous relationship. Secret masturbation is, essentially, a sexual act done without the knowledge or consent of the other partner, could be construed as cheating. Discussing it is mandatory. And if that conversation is really that awkward, you might want to reflect on exactly why that is, and whether that’s healthy.

There are situations in which masturbation is used as a strategy to avoid the issues in the couple’s relationship or sex life. For example, it is, bluntly, easier to masturbate than to address a delicate relationship issue, or, there might be too much anger 

(e.g., it’s easier to masturbate than to face potential performance problems with one’s wife or there is so much anger in the relationship that neither partner wants to have sex together). In these cases, the masturbation is a symptom of other problems, although it can maintain those problems by making it easier to avoid addressing them. Again, whether you consider this unethical is down to your interpretation, but it’s certainly away to make the problem go away briefly, but worse in the long run.  If your partner isn’t aware that this is what you’re doing, they may be hurt that they aren’t being given the opportunity to address the problem directly. 

On its own, masturbation is only a benefit to a relationship. Study after study shows it to be true, and you have to dig deep to find recent research that suggests its harmful. The only context in which it might be unethical is when it’s done in secret, and then, it’s likely to be a symptom of a larger problem than the cause.

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Written by: Stuart Nugent

With 16 years in the adult industry, including many years at LELO, it's fair to say Stu has been around the sex toy block a few times. As LELO's resident sex geek, he's been featured in the Independent, the Guardian, HuffPost, Vice, Cosmopolitan, and anywhere people talk about sex. Here on Volonte, he turns his spotlight onto the important events affecting sex right now in a regular op-ed. Views are his own.

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