Is It Healthy to Masturbate to Thoughts of People I Know?

Dear GoodTherapy.org,

Some people masturbate to thoughts of faceless figures. Some people masturbate to porn. Some people have fantasies about characters from fan fiction.

Me? I tend to masturbate to thoughts of people I actually know, ranging from friends to coworkers to professors to the guy next door to my boss’ husband and everyone in between. Is that healthy? I mean, in most cases I would never actually have sex with these people (it would usually be taboo or inappropriate), so I wonder if it’s healthy to even imagine it or if I should be trying to redirect my fantasies elsewhere.

I personally would be flattered to know that a friend or coworker or whoever was masturbating with me in mind, but I feel a little guilty about it sometimes, like I’m using someone’s image for my sexual gratification without their knowledge or consent. When I’m around these people I don’t act any different; I don’t get weird or creepy or anything. So is there any harm in what I’m doing? Is this normal and healthy? Am I some sort of deviant? —Thinking of You

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Dear Thinking,

Thanks for your question. First, a quick remark regarding your question of whether this is “normal.” I gently discourage people from using this word in therapy, though I understand why they do. Perhaps because I tend to work within an existential-humanistic viewpoint, I have discovered there is no normal. I mean this within the context of understanding a specific person’s psychological and emotional life. So many behaviors or emotions are confusing from a distance, but then make sense as you understand them empathically.

Often the word “normal” often gets conflated with “rational,” or within the bounds of acceptable socio-cultural definition. Thus, it is defined by social norms, which change over time.

But consider that it is not necessarily “rational” to watch a pretend series of moving images on a screen, with actors dressed in costume and special effects generated by computer, in such a way that emotionally involves us with the characters and story we’re seeing (even when that story is called Star Wars or Wonder Woman). It is not rational to be engrossed or frightened by an obviously “fake” science-fiction novel or TV series. All of this is, however, quite human in our need for narratives and fantasies that serve a variety of emotional and psychological purposes. Certainly, sexual fantasies can go beyond the bounds of “rational”—and wouldn’t life be boring if they didn’t?

It seems to me fantasies, even dreams themselves, are often closer to the emotional or psychological truth of our existence than logic or rationality. Rationality is necessary, but too much of it becomes constricting; it’s the non-rational, creative, or unbounded energy that brings color and, frankly, gets the party started (so to speak). It’s hard to imagine a line of people lining up to see a movie about lives which remain rational or “normal” throughout.

Were you in the therapy room with me, I would be curious to hear more about these fantasies of yours, as a window into what might be happening on an unconscious or soulful level.

On the face of it, your fantasies and masturbation, even wondering about the social ethics therein, don’t strike me as unusual or alarming. Having said that, you don’t mention the frequency or intensity of said behaviors. It’s hard to tell whether they happen enough to warrant being considered compulsive. When a compulsion is present, a person often feels they ought to “get a handle” on things, and may feel guilty the behavior (or set of feelings driving the behavior) is hard to manage.

Hard to say, in other words, whether this behavior is relatively harmless (to yourself or others), a way of blowing off some sexual steam, or if it is somehow getting in the way of real-life relationships.

We all sometimes wonder about our own private habits, of course, and may secretly want validation we are not “beyond the bounds” of normalcy (whatever that is), or wonder, “Is this a problem or isn’t it?” Your question does intimate danger or risk in such self-pleasuring, since these fantasy scenarios are possibly “taboo or inappropriate.” This makes me especially curious.

What is the taboo you might be breaking? You don’t mention the specific content of your fantasies, which I am guessing are compelling or captivating in some way. In many cases, the intensity of sexual scenarios relates to some emotional intensity—pain, desire, fear—in our psyche that has not been fully explored or understood, or relationally shared, but which can create turbulence, even shame, until better understood. (That’s not a bad description of the purpose of psychotherapy, incidentally.)

You may know the content of sexual fantasies and desires so often symbolizes or “disguises” a person’s deepest wishes, hopes, and fears. Sexual fantasies are dream-like, and can be interpreted as such, much as Sigmund Freud hinted (though he stubbornly insisted on only one valid interpretation). These fantasy and dream images become a kind of “map” of yearnings or deeper desires not easily expressed consciously, for all manner of reasons.

Sometimes such needs become “eroticized” or take sexual form. The person who feels they are never noticed or truly seen may have exhibitionist-type fantasies in which they are finally “noticed” by others; the “nudity” in this scenario may correspond to a desire to feel unbounded, spontaneous—as young children are often unabashed about their own nudity.

I would suggest paying attention to the emotional hopes or wishes suggested by your imagined scenarios. The only true “taboo” I can imagine is stifling further exploration toward listening to or observing more closely the needs, wants, or hopes your psyche may be trying to communicate.

Within such scenarios, we may see or be “seen” in the most unencumbered and exciting ways. Urges or impulses that are usually kept in “storage” are free to roam. Pushing and playing with boundaries is part of the excitement, in whatever form that takes. This holds true, of course, for both masturbatory and shared sexual activity.

As another example, S&M scenarios are commonly enjoyed by those who (for instance) struggle with feeling overly compliant during their “real” life, but are then empowered to dominate in the bedroom. Meanwhile, those who enjoy being tied up or submissive might struggle with a sense of over-responsibility in “real” life.

Is it possible your fantasies are a way of asserting yourself and your needs in a way that feels elusive in your actual relationships? Are there needs or emotions that are hard to share or communicate in your interactions with others?

Clearly there is an aftermath here of guilt or self-doubt. Again, in what way is this activity “taboo” or possibly “deviant” (a strong word)? Is it that you are somehow “exploiting” these folks without their awareness? In what way might it be wrong to do so? Have you ever felt exploited in any parallel way? Are you concerned such fantasizing might somehow lead to taking action (if there is anything “edgy” or dangerous about your fantasies)? Is there something shameful about the desires symbolized by the fantasies themselves?

I can’t escape the feeling that, at the bottom of all of this, there is something emotional and very human hoping to be more deeply understood.

There is a rather significant detail left out of your note: you don’t mention if you are single. If you are, does it mean your partner would be hurt or offended?

I’m imagining for a moment you are single. Is the “taboo” an offense against yourself, in not seeking an actual sex partner and depriving yourself of an intimacy that may be overwhelming or anxiety-provoking? Or in “permitting” some (possibly sexualized) desires or needs to take shape and find expression, even if privately?

Or, if you are partnered, is there a sense of guilt or “forbidden-ness” around attraction toward others? People are often surprised to learn one can be married or monogamous and still be attracted to others. How far to take such an attraction does subjectively and culturally vary, of course. (There are cultures or traditions, for instance, which allow bigamy, and there has been quite a bit of discussion lately in social and mainstream media about open relationships.)

In short, your question is a provocative one and is worthy of further exploration in therapy. I would suggest paying attention to the emotional hopes or wishes suggested by your imagined scenarios. The only true “taboo” I can imagine is stifling further exploration toward listening to or observing more closely the needs, wants, or hopes your psyche may be trying to communicate.

Kind regards,

Darren Haber, MFT, PsyD

Darren Haber
Darren Haber, PsyD, MFT is a psychotherapist specializing in treating alcoholism and drug addiction as well as co-occurring issues such as anxiety, depression, relationship concerns, secondary addictions (especially sex addiction), and trauma (both single-incident and repetitive). He works in a variety of modalities, primarily cognitive behavioral, spiritual/recovery-based, and psychodynamic. He is certified in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, and continues to receive psychodynamic training in treating relational trauma, including emotional abuse/neglect and physical and sexual abuse.
  • 4 comments
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  • Terrell

    Terrell

    July 21st, 2017 at 9:57 AM

    Gee it must be kinda weird to run into people later after you have thought about them in this intimate way?

  • Sandra

    Sandra

    July 24th, 2017 at 10:40 AM

    I don’t think that it is necessarily wrong that you would imagine yourself with another person that you know. I guess to me this only becomes a problem when it begins to interfere in some way with other parts of your life.
    Does it keep you from interacting or does it cause you to neglect other more important responsibilities in your life?

  • anonymous

    anonymous

    July 26th, 2017 at 10:13 AM

    I don’t know, I think that part of the fun of masturbation is to have it be a little separate from our normal everyday life. I just don’t want the same old same old to be a part of sexual fantasy.
    That does not work for me
    I would rather you know dream big? Dream about the person who seems to be a little more unattainable rather than my next door neighbor
    But hey, to each his or her own.

  • AnonymousHuman946

    AnonymousHuman946

    November 23rd, 2018 at 3:51 PM

    I dunno. I have a thing about masturbating to someone I may have met in real life. To me, it just feels wrong somehow. Disrespectful. I mean, I watch porn and whatnot, but the women on those screens take that job with the intent of becoming the subject of someone else’s fantasies. They make a living of expecting people to do that. It’s literally the point of them being actresses in the mature entertainment industry, and in fact, is necessary for them to make a living. But someone you just meet out in the real world while you’re working, or at the library? I can’t imagine they like the idea of some stranger they just met going home and masturbating to the thought of some fantasy they have about them. Most people don’t even want to think about the possibility that numerous men they meet might universally be doing that, unless it’s someone they are actually attracted to, and might be interested in. I could never masturbate while thinking about some woman I just met. I have to approach people I meet in the real world with what i consider to be a healthy measure of dignity, for their sake, and keep things platonic. At least to that extent. It’s like a personal, moral imperative.

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