Masturbation - Normal or Abnormal Leisure?

Seminar Paper, 2002

13 Pages, Grade: 93,3%

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1. Introduction

2. Research Data

3. Why do people masturbate?
3.1 Hierarchy of Needs
3.2 Libido Theory
3.3 Mental Health Theory
3.4 Other theories
3.5 Benefits of Masturbation

4. Why do people refrain from masturbation?
4.1 Effect of attitudes on masturbatory behaviour
4.1.1 Attitudes in primitive cultures
4.1.2 Attitudes in Western society
4.1.3 Attitudes in religion
4.2 Freud
4.4 Myths about masturbation
4.5 Disbenefits of Masturbation

5. Normal versus Abnormal Leisure

6. Conclusion


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1. Introduction

Sex used to be a taboo in western society for centuries. Today, however, it is openly communicated: a sexual theme is mostly expected in movies, pornography can be viewed freely on the internet, adult bookshops liberally advertise their wares and services, people talk openly about their sexual habits, and “Sexpo, an exhibition promoting the use of sex aids and showcasing ´adult lifestyles´, attracted nearly 55,000 visitors” (Veal & Lynch 2002, p. 342). Yet, not all aspects of a human’s sexual life seem to share this outwardly social acceptability.

Masturbation still is widely considered a taboo, and the practice of it commonly connected to feelings of shame and disgust. Interestingly, in October 2000 the Eros Foundation, a lobby group for the sex industry, responded angrily to suggestions from the Liberal Member for Hughes, Dana Vale, that adult products should have ‘health warnings’. “Ms Vale is actually worried about the moral effect of masturbation on young minds because, it is well known that while x-rated videos do cause an increase in masturbation, they also have the added benefit of decreasing sex crimes.” (

Why is it that some people pretend that it does not exist or consider it something abnormal? How can it be then, that in some cultures it is a normal part of human behaviour? This essay will examine this question about whether masturbation should be considered normal or abnormal leisure behaviour of human beings.

2. Research Data

A lot of people use items provided by the sex industry for their masturbation practices. Statistics provided by the Eros website state that 640,000 Australians are on adult video mailing lists. Further, 250 adult shops throughout Australia have an annual turnover of about $100 million. The China Daily website states that the X- rated video mail-order business (estimated by Eros) is worth $50 million per year, making it the ACT’s second biggest export business after timber.

However, this data only covers the economic dimension of sex as leisure. “The sex industries, and the search for pleasure that underlies them, are almost entirely missing from the field of leisure studies. Both the activities themselves and the study of them have been left hidden in the shadows of more conventional activities” (Veal & Lynch 2002, p. 343). For example, in Veal and Lynch´s leisure typology, sexual behaviour could be placed in the category of hobbies/pastimes in the home (Veal & Lynch 2002, p. 141). But examples only include “hobbies, gardening, cooking for leisure” (Veal & Lynch 2002, p. 141) - not the most ancient and possibly most common form of leisure: sex, not even speaking of masturbation.

Obviously there has been hardly any research conducted in this delicate field of leisure, which also resulted in the need to use older references for this report.

3. Why do people masturbate?

To explore the normality or abnormality of leisure we firstly need to examine the motives for masturbation.

3.1 Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow assumes that “a person’s motivational needs could be arranged in a hierarchical manner… (and) that once a given level of need is satisfied, it no longer serves to motivate” (Luthans 2002, p. 260). Therefore the needs of the next level become the person’s main motivators.

Maslow identified five levels of needs: physiological needs, safety needs, social and esteem needs, and the need for self-actualisation. Physiological needs, or primary motives, are “unlearned and physiologically based” and must be satisfied before moving to higher needs. Examples are “hunger, thirst, sleep, avoidance of pain, sex, and maternal concern” (Luthans 2002, p.250).

Maslow indicates that sexual needs, a primary reason for masturbation, are physiological and innate, and therefore normal.

3.2 Libido Theory

Freud identified two drives for human behaviour, “the drive for self-preservation and the drive towards procreation” (Brown 1964, p. 20), or libido. He defined sex as “any pleasurable sensation relating to the body functions” (Brown 1964, p. 20), which includes masturbation.

The libido theory assumes that children go through chronological stages of satisfaction of the libido: the oral phase, with attention focussed on the mouth; the anal phase, controlling the sphincter; and the genital phase, focussing on the penis. “In contrast to the autoerotic pregenital phases, phallic satisfaction requires an external object” (Brown 1964, p. 21). This suggests that Freud considers masturbation as pregenital.

Freud further assumed that the libido is a drive energy in a closed energy system, and that “any symptom removed by suggestion… will make its appearance in some other form” (Brown 1964, p. 22). For example, if a person ceases to masturbate due to social pressures, this will lead to a search for other outlets of the drive energy. This indicates that masturbation is a normal part of human behaviour.

3.3 Mental Health Theory

In early stages Freud had distinguished between psychoneurotic neuroses, originating from memories, and actual neuroses, originating from “contemporary disturbance of genitality, such as excessive masturbation or asceticism” (Robinson 1972, p. 23). Reich revived the latter concept and assumed that neuroses are caused by the “inability to achieve a satisfactory orgasm” (Robinson 1972, p. 24), as the release of energy is necessary to prevent illness.

Reich introduced several criteria for a true orgasm. It had to be “heterosexual, without irrelevant fantasies, and of an appropriate duration” (Robinson 1972, p. 24) - which excludes masturbation.

On the other hand, Reich demanded a sexual revolution involving guaranteeing a child “the right to masturbate and to play sexually with children of his own age” (Robinson 1972, p. 49).

Therefore it can be concluded that he considered masturbation normal for children.

3.4 Other theories

Gordon presents other motives for masturbation like the ease of accessibility, its being an expression of an individual’s “suppressed and asocial components”, and the fact that it is viewed as “forbidden fruit” (Gordon 1972, p. 75), and often the first act of independence of a child.

Another reason may be “that the autoerotic experience was more intense than, although not necessarily as satisfying as that resulting from heterosexual intercourse” (Gordon 1972, p. 75).

3.5 Benefits of Masturbation

DeMartino highlights 50 advantages of masturbation in the areas of sex, health, emotions and relationships. Listed below are some that are pertinent to this study:

I. It helps establish the philosophy that inherently sex is good, and that there is nothing wrong with experiencing it.

II. It can be practiced at a whim because it is easily available, ideal for experimental purposes and there are minimal restrictions in participation. III. It can save time, financial resources and physical energy attributed to interpersonal sex.

IV. Forms of sexuality that people can use in interpersonal sex can be learned.

V. Masturbation can result in more restful sleeping, aiding physical and mental health.

VI. It can be used as a distraction device to temporarily relieve feelings of anxiety and depression and release bodily and emotional tensions.

VII. It can avoid undesirable pregnancy, minimise menstrual tension and the risk of sexually or non-sexually transmitted diseases.

VIII. Masturbation requires none of the physical or financial resources that most leisure pursuits do, like venue, other people etc. (source: DeMartino 1979, pp.10-18)

4. Why do people refrain from masturbation?

In this chapter we will examine the various reasons why people do not masturbate.

4.1 Effect of attitudes on masturbatory behaviour

This chapter will examine several attitudes that have been or are still prevalent throughout history.

4.1.1 Attitudes in primitive cultures

In tribal societies “group survival was of paramount importance. The elders of the tribe considered it a social sin to waste sperm by any practice that did not procreate children” (Dearborn 1971, p. 37). However, the person’s anti-social attitude was condemned, not masturbation itself.

On the other hand, “some primitive cultures have recognised a soothing effect and have utilized masturbation in getting an infant to sleep” (Brooks 1967, p. 60), and obviously considered it normal.

Overall it can be concluded that in primitive cultures has been considered bot normal and abnormal.

4.1.2 Attitudes in Western society

Tissot´s Onana, A Treatise on the Diseases Produced by Onanism, first published in 1767, held a major influence on Western society up to the late 19th century. Tissot “spoke of the preciousness of the seminal fluid, the loss of one ounce of which enfeebled one more than the loss of forty ounces of blood” (Dearborn 1971, p. 38). Accordingly he “attributed most of the known disorders of his day to the loss of semen“ (Dearborn 1971, p. 38), like gonorrhea, dropsy, epilepsy, and insanity.

“Dr. E.T. Brady in 1891 was one of the first to question the part that masturbation was supposed to play in the causation of insanity” (Dearborn 1971, p. 39). In 1888, Lawson Tait “was among the first to try to divorce religious morality from a condition that he considered merely physical” (Dearborn 1971, p. 39).

However, even in the 1969s, Brooks states that “Western society works to restrict masturbation from its onset”, for example as people react with “anger when they discover a baby touching his genitals” (Brooks 1967, p. 60).

In the 1970s two trends could be seen in literature: the first considered masturbation as completely harmless; the second, coming from the area of psychoanalysis, “began to see new dangers in the practice” of masturbation (Dearborn 1971, p. 42).

Overall it can be concluded that masturbation has mostly been considered abnormal in Western societies. One reason might lie in religion.

4.1.3 Attitudes in religion

Religion continues to condemn masturbation. Johnson (1968) notes that its cultural prohibition in America seems to have “arisen from religious doctrine rather from any rational scientific basis”. (LoPiccolo & Lobitz 1972, p. 282)

One factor inhibiting masturbation is the perception that it is ‘dirty’. “Kinsey, et al. (1953) also found the amount of masturbatory behaviour to be clearly lower in the religiously devout than nondevout”. (Fisher 1973, p. 131)

Whilst most religious institutions are against masturbation, Ellis states that after the death of an eighteen century brothel-keeper who traded with consolateurs (dildos) “numberless letters from abbesses and simple nuns were found among her papers” requesting the shipment of a consolateur. (Ellis 1942, p. 190)

4.2 Freud

Freud’s first theories were based on his assumption that “repressed memories of actual events of sexual seductions in childhood” (Brown 1964, p. 19) later lead to neuroses, brought about by a strong sense of guilt.

Parents, especially in Western society, often suppress masturbation in children, which teaches the child that masturbation is wrong. Growing children will experience a need for sex (see 3.1), which can be satisfied by masturbating. Due to the sense of guilt developed by the parents’ attitude, this can lead to a perception of masturbation being a form of self-seduction and lead to neurosis. In Freud’s later studies he introduced the Id, a person’s drives, the ego into which the Id develops, and the superego, which consists of morals provided by socialisation like parents (Brown 1964, p. 29). This explains why “an individual may feel profound guilt after carrying out some action which his reason tells him is not at all immoral” (Brown 1964, p. 29), like masturbation.

4.4 Myths about masturbation

Besides Tissot´s accusations mentioned above, there have been lots of myths making people fear masturbation. The following present some of the most common myths, followed by their opposition:

Masturbation is immature

The Kinsey data, however, show that “adult males … of all ages frequently masturbate, and often do so even after marriage” (Ellis 1955, p. 56). In addition to this, in his study of free-living male rhesus monkeys, Carpenter “observed three instances of self-stimulation to the point of ejaculation in mature males whilst they were in association with females” (Gordon 1972, p. 75).

Masturbation leads to impotence/frigidity Sex tests have disproved that masturbation can “be practiced to excess” as sexual fatigue prevents it (Ellis 1955, p. 57).

Masturbation leads to sexual seclusiveness Actually it is the other way around. An individual with puritanical attitudes about sexual relations is more likely to be driven toward masturbation exclusively.

4.5 Disbenefits of Masturbation

Ellis states that, for a human´s whole life, masturbation is totally harmless “provided

(1) that the masturbator does not erroneously believe masturbation to be harmful or abnormal,

(2) that when socially approved non-masturbational outlets are available he also resorts to them, and

(3) that when other sex outlets are not available he remains interested in them and makes some effort to try to find them” (Ellis 1955, p. 56)

Ellis concludes, much like Freud, “masturbation can be a psychologically unhealthy practice - if an individual exclusively and compulsively uses it as a sex outlet when other sex outlets are easily available” (Ellis 1955, p. 55).

5. Normal versus Abnormal Leisure

In the 1895 Durkheim stated in The Rules of Sociological Method that “the decicive characteristic of the normal form is that it is ‘generally distributed’” (Durkheim quoted in Rojek 2000, p. 141). Obviously this is a very vague and subjective definition.

Rojek, however, comes to a definition of abnormal leisure as occurring either “when the individual refuses to bestow respect or trust on the other” (Rojek 2000, p. 176), or when “pushing limit experience so that it threatens the self or others (Rojek 2000, p. 176). He proposes three categories of abnormal leisure: invasive, involving “a lack of respect for or trust in an element of one’s own self” (Rojek 2000, p. 178), mephitic, lacking respect and trust towards others, and wild, pushing limit- experience.

Applying this definition to masturbation, it can be concluded that it does not fulfil the criteria of abnormal leisure. It usually does not include threats to the self, and also does not come from a lack of respect for oneself or others. The only time when masturbation seems to turn abnormal is therefore, as also stated by Ellis (4.5), when the individual believes that masturbation is bad, and therefore conducts it with a feeling of shame.

6. Conclusion

This report has attempted to determine whether masturbation should be considered a normal or abnormal form of leisure by examining the reasons for and against masturbation, and by applying a definition of abnormal leisure.

From the motives for and benefits of masturbation it can be concluded that masturbation is mostly considered normal, only Reich considers it appropriate only for children.

The examination of the reasons for not masturbating show that the main obstacles are religious or historical prejudices, myths originating from them, and the feeling of guilt as a result.

This is reinforced when applying Rojek´s definition of abnormal leisure.

Therefore it can overall be concluded that masturbation is a normal form of human behaviour, only hindered by social obstacles.


Brooks, Patricia A. 1967 Masturbation in: DeMartino, Manfred F. 1979 Human Autoerotic Practices Human Sciences Press, New York, pp. 58-70

Brown J.A.C. 1964 Freud and the Post-Freudians Penguin Books, London

China Daily website, accessed on June 15th, 3pm

Dearborn, Lester W. 1971, Masturbation in: DeMartino, Manfred F. 1979 Human Autoerotic Practices Human Sciences Press, New York, pp. 36-54

DeMartino, Manfred F. 1979 Human Autoerotic Practices Human Sciences Press, New York

Ellis, Albert 1955 Myths Concerning Autoeroticism in: DeMartino, Manfred F. 1979 Human Autoerotic Practices Human Sciences Press, New York, pp. 55-57

Ellis, Havelock 1942 Auto-Erotism: A Study of the Spontaneous Manifestations of the Sexual Impulse in: DeMartino, Manfred F. 1979 Human Autoerotic Practices Human Sciences Press, New York, pp. 185-197

Eros website, accessed on June 15th, 3pm

Fisher, Seymour 1973, A Summing up of Feminine Sexuality, in: DeMartino, Manfred

F. 1979 Human Autoerotic Practices Human Sciences Press, New York, pp. 129-139

Gordon, David Cole 1972 The Benefits of Autoerotism - Unifcation and Sexuality in: DeMartino, Manfred F. 1979 Human Autoerotic Practices Human Sciences Press, New York, pp. 71-79

LoPiccolo, Joseph; Lobitz, W. Charles 1972, The Role of Masturbation in the Treatment of Orgasmic Dysfunction rchives of Sexual Behaviour in: DeMartino, Manfred F. 1979 Human Autoerotic Practices Human Sciences Press, New York, pp. 280-294

Luthans, F. 2002 Organisational Behaviour McGraw-Hill, Tokyo.

Robinson, Paul A 1972 The Sexual Radicals Granada Publishing Limited, London

Rojek, Chris 2000 Leisure and Culture Palgrave, Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, New York

Veal, A.J.; Lynch, Rob 2001 Australian Leisure Longman Pearson, Australia

13 of 13 pages


Masturbation - Normal or Abnormal Leisure?
University of South Australia
Leisure Concepts
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Masturbation, Normal, Abnormal, Leisure, Concepts
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Sabine Haecker (Author), 2002, Masturbation - Normal or Abnormal Leisure?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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