How men use masturbation as a distraction from emotional pain

Male masturbation is far more complex than most people imagine, and sexual gratification is only one aspect of it. Indeed, having counselled hundreds of men on this issue over the years, it is societal criticisms, assumptions and misunderstandings which make it so hard for a man to share his feelings on the subject. 


Masturbation in itself is a normal biological function of a healthy man and can play a positive role in sex and arousal. From a young age, men can learn, through masturbation, to explore their bodies, individual sexual fantasies, and even how to last longer during sexual intercourse. (For a more fascinating insight into the use of masturbation, and intersexual dynamics between the sexes in general, I recommend Sperm wars by Robin Baker).

However, there is also another effective use for masturbation, which concerns using it to deal with overpowering and uncomfortable feelings and thoughts. This is far less understood, but it is essential that people develop awareness about it. I call this ‘distraction masturbation’ and can be understood through the following four-step distraction cycle.

Distraction masturbation

1. Uncomfortable feelings

As human beings, we will typically do more to avoid pain than seek pleasure. Anxiety, boredom, sadness, uncertainty, loneliness, depression, stress, worry and anger are powerful experiences and manifest themselves as extreme discomfort in the body. Our first impulse is to get rid of the uncomfortable feeling. Some people are lucky enough to have the ability to share their feelings with another person, but for others, this just isn’t an option in the first instance. 

I’ve mentioned in previous articles that men are far less inclined to talk about their feelings and emotions. Unfortunately, this is one of the main reasons that male suicide is so high. Shocking samaritans statistics show that the male suicide rate for 2020 was 15.3 per 100,000* compared to the female suicide rate of 4.9 per 100,000*.

So how do men deal with such emotions in a private, non-judgmental way? 

Through the safety and distraction of masturbation.

2. Distraction from pain

In times of stress, people deal with uncomfortable feelings in numerous ways. Some people comfort eat, drink alcohol or take drugs to dull their pain. Others throw themselves into work or exercise and some self-harm or act out through anger or violence.

Whilst men might engage in all of the above as a way of distracting from uncomfortable feelings, a powerful way to temporarily stave them off is through masturbation.

The reason that masturbation is such an effective distraction from discomfort is that pain is replaced with pleasure in the short term. If this has been an effective way for a man to deal with difficult feelings in the past then he will keep doing it, simply because it works. In this instance masturbation acts as a safety behaviour whereby the man can take himself away from the stresses and worries of his life and, if he uses online pornography, safely enter an intimate, voyeuristic world for a short time, distracting himself from his troubles. 

3. Masturbation and release

Men are far more likely to use pornographic material to masturbate to, versus imagining a past sexual encounter or creatively visualising a seductive experience. In my therapy practice, I have found that the nature of pornography a man chooses to watch is both highly unique to him and often says a lot about his sexual fantasies and state of mind. 

Watching particular pornography can be an effective way of validating confusing or socially unacceptable thoughts and emotions. For example, if he feels disempowered or angry and unable to express frustrations about his life or to the people around him, he may watch more aggressive pornography or simply masturbate more regularly. This way he is safe from the criticism of his partner because he is experiencing private time away from judgemental eyes, whilst at the same time expressing his anger through the act of masturbation.

Either way, whatever he chooses to watch offers him a way of expressing emotions safely whilst at the same time acting as a temporary tranquilliser for emotional pain at the point of ejaculation. 

4. Guilt, shame and relief

As with any distraction from uncomfortable feelings, the pleasure or momentary relief from masturbation is short-lived. I have found generally that men will either suffer tremendous guilt and shame at having used porn to deal with emotional discomfort or simply pure relief.

Guilt and shame can stem from being caught with pornographic material by a loved one or even self-disgust. In my own experience, the majority of men who come to therapy with such issues have been criticised, judged and given an ultimatum by their partners to stop masturbating to porn or risk losing the relationship for good.

This is often when men contact me, through fear of potential loss and the breakdown of the relationship. They feel tremendous shame at being caught and paralysing guilt at hurting their loved ones. But even without being caught, men often feel self-disgust at ramping up masturbation habits to deal with difficult emotions, and further seek to hide their sexual habits because of this. 

The more self-disgust a man feels, the more he masturbates to relieve himself from his disgust. It’s a vicious cycle of distraction from physical and emotional discomfort. 

On the other hand, a man may not feel any guilt, shame or disgust, but pure relief at the benefits of masturbation instead, and thus continue with the distraction. Either way distraction masturbation is an important window into how men deal with difficult emotions and come to understand their sexual preferences. 

If this is something you relate to and would like to get off your chest and understand further, please feel free to contact me via my Counselling Directory profile to book a counselling session.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Romford RM3 & Brentwood CM15
Written by Adam Day, Counsellor/Psychotherapist/Coach
Romford RM3 & Brentwood CM15

Adam Day is trained in various approaches as an integrative therapist; these include humanistic (person-centred/existential), cognitive behavioural, transpersonal and psychodynamic. He is available for therapy throughout the week from 10am to 8pm.

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