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This Is How We Masturbate While Heartbroken

During the torment of a recent breakup, approaches to ‘sadsturbation’ vary wildly. But one way or another, we all come to grips

Malcolm, a 30-year-old digital producer in New York City, was so heartbroken when his ex left him for another man that he couldn’t masturbate for weeks. “I just thought about how she was gone and how we wouldn’t ever be together again,” he explains. “I couldn’t focus because of that sense of loss, or worse, because I was imagining her with the new guy.” He describes the post-breakup period as “pretty brutal,” and it was months before he felt truly enthusiastic about masturbating again. 

On the other hand (so to speak), Bruce, a 41-year-old finance worker in Connecticut, had no such qualms after he was dumped. He masturbated freely after his relationship “imploded,” and found that he could still fantasize about his ex comfortably. “It’s honestly a way to celebrate good memories,” he says. “And I do still carry a torch for her.” 

During the torment of a recent breakup, approaches to masturbation vary wildly. Some people find the very idea of playing with themselves in times of emotional distress unbearable, as some of the redditors on this /r/BreakUps post attest. Others use masturbation as a way of feeling better after a breakup, like Lauren, a 31-year-old librarian from Missouri. “In the few hard breakups I’ve been through, I found myself buying a new vibrator almost immediately after the breakup,” she says. “I’m not very good at casual sex, so when I lose the person I was consistently having sex with, I still want to feel good.”

Thoughts on masturbation after breakup? from BreakUps

In fact, some treat masturbation as a salve — an almost spiritual release from bad feelings. “My boyfriend died a few years ago, and in the depths of my grief, I was drawn to [masturbation] as a means of releasing what was quickly piling up inside,” explains Heather, a 42-year-old office worker in Hawaii. “It was like a pressure-valve release, which then made me cry immediately afterward, but it may have been the only way I could properly purge at the time.” She says it was an “almost intuitive” release of built-up emotions. “It was like the crying wasn’t enough,” she continues, “and my body required more to survive or function under such intense emotional stress.” 

The pro-masturbation camp seems to be having a cultural moment. Social media has lessened the stigma around both sadness and masturbation, and users are more likely to speak about both without shame, to the point that BuzzFeed dubbed the phenomenon “sadsturbation,” i.e., when people use masturbation to “distract [themselves], to feel better or to straight up induce a cathartic cry by helping [their] hormones go haywire through a good ol’ trusty orgasm.” There is a physiological basis for the idea that masturbating can help you feel better, too. “It relieves stress, it helps you feel more relaxed and it does boost endorphins and testosterone levels,” psychiatrist Madeleine Castellanos told BuzzFeed. “[All of] which can improve your mood.” 

But these apparent benefits prove elusive to those on the other end of the spectrum, who find, like Malcolm, that they can’t bring themselves to masturbate during times of emotional distress. Marie, a 27-year-old advisor in New Zealand, says she “seriously struggles” to masturbate when heartbroken, and that if she does, she’s hit with a torrent of negative feelings post-masturbation that she calls the “shame wave.” “That’s a name I’ve given to a weird wave of shame and disgust I sometimes feel after I cum,” she explains. “I used to get it a lot when I was younger, and now I just get it when I cum after thinking about something gross or sad, like an ex I shouldn’t be thinking about.” 

For people who find masturbating difficult post-breakup, this is the key hurdle: Their minds drift to their exes, and that immediately makes them feel bad enough to lose focus. “I’d feel sad that I won’t ever again be doing the things I’m imagining with them, and that they’re probably having fun with someone else, and that I’m alone,” says Thomas, a 35-year-old massage therapist in Seattle. “I get sad about all the things we talked about doing sexually that didn’t happen before we broke up, and how good their body felt, and how much I miss it.” 

Some heartsick lovers have found a compromise, which is that they’ll masturbate during periods of heartbreak, but will switch up their usual fantasies to avoid thinking of their exes. “When I’m heartbroken, it’s really hard to think of that specific person — it makes me lose my concentration and then I can’t get off anymore,” explains Rebecca, a 29-year-old assistant in Brazil. “I’ll think about a sexy scene I saw in a movie or porn instead.” Alex, a 47-year-old union organizer in Oregon who identifies as straight, says that when he’s “acutely heartbroken” he’ll fantasize about sex with men: “It’s like my brain needs to go the most uncharted waters for a bit.” 

Masturbating when heartbroken seems to be a trade-off. There will be the high that the physical release of orgasm provides, and the inevitable low of sad, pining feelings either during the session or immediately afterwards. Whether it’s worth it for any particular person seems related to how good masturbation makes them feel generally. For people who feel a lot of shame or forbearance around masturbation — as we’ve all historically been encouraged to feel — masturbating while heartbroken is unlikely to be worth the wellspring of negative feelings it can trigger. “I can only seem to masturbate when I like myself, and I always like myself less after a breakup, either because I feel guilty for not being able to make it work, or because I’ve been dumped by someone who I wish liked me more but doesn’t,” Marie says. “Either way, it’s a big blow to my sense of how good and worthy of a person I am, and how much I ‘deserve’ pleasure.” 

But for those who are able to masturbate when heartbroken, the logic seems to be as follows: The negative feelings are inevitable, so why not at least have an orgasm in the meantime? “I’ve never been too sad or lonely to jerk off, and I’ve been sad and lonely most of my life,” says Thomas, a 28-year-old writer in New York City. “Have I felt weepy in the midst, though? No comment.”