Sex Ed

Masturbating Makes You Feel Gross? Blame Your Amygdala.

In case you haven’t gotten the memo, masturbating is both normal and healthy. Woohoo!

[Animation: Black man dancing happily in front of a light blue, pink, and blue screen.]

Something that feels good… is good. Fascinating.

There’s more to the masturbation story than rainbows and puppies, however. Apparently, just knowing  that it’s good doesn’t always make masturbation an amazing act. Ever since I began to teach sex ed, people young and old have asked me about the “gross” feeling that people sometimes get after they masturbate. For a while my answer always circled back to the idea that sexual shame is inescapable in modern society. And that’s definitely part of it, but even the most liberated people I know have confessed to occasionally feeling a little squicked after masturbation.

And that’s strange, right? Yes, we all have sexual shame, but masturbation isn’t like intercourse – it’s generally considered acceptable, or at least inevitable. And yet – even gung-ho masturbation advocates like myself don’t always feel amazing about doing it. Every once in a while I’ll jerk off and feel… well, gross. Maybe a little regretful. Lethargic. Lonely. Unsettled. When I was younger, I would have followed up on this feeling with a litany of questions and accusations:

  • Am I addicted to masturbating?
  • Masturbation is draining my creative energy!
  • If I masturbate too much, will I become infertile?
  • Masturbation is the reason I want to sleep with strangers.
  • Masturbation is the reason I don’t want to sleep with my partner!
  • Is masturbation keeping me from finding partners?

The correct responses to all of that, by the way, are: no, no, no, no, no, and no, but I’ll address those claims in another post. The point is that whenever masturbating left me with a weird feeling, I would start freaking out about how my masturbatory habits reflected on my personal characterIt got so bad that when I was 16, I drew out a calendar in my journal and would place a tidy check-mark on each day that I resisted masturbating.

Like I said above, it’s easy to dismiss all of this as a simple case of sexual shame. A few days ago I was reflecting on it, however, and I couldn’t help but wonder if the issue might be biological in addition to sociological.

Enter: your amygdala.

[Animation: A brain with eyes, a mouth, and legs against a bright yellow background. The brain is bouncing up and down.]

This is your brain on sex.

The amygdala is a small region in the brain, and I’m going to let you down now if you think I have the expertise required to truly explain anything neurological. From what I’ve read, however, it seems that the amygdala helps us feel and perceive emotions. It also controls things like fear and startle responses, which means that it’s responsible for deciding whether we should punch people, turn into a puddle of mush, or run away when loud things happen.

Okay, so for the purposes of this post, the amygdala does two things:

  1. Control our emotional perception.
  2. Control our fear responses.

What does this have to do with masturbation? As it turns out, the amygdala activates intensely during arousal, and it de-activates intensely during orgasm.

This makes some intuitive sense. In order to get the engine revving, so to speak, you’ve got to actually feel things, and in order to feel things you’ve got to start gathering social information such as “Who am I looking at?” and “Do I find them attractive?” and “Might they be interested in sex?” Even when you’re watching porn or conjuring sexy images in your head, your brain still has to do this work in order to become aroused.

And then, in order to actually orgasm, you have to surrender control of your body (because orgasms require involuntary muscle spasms). Shutting down the amygdala essentially gets rid of the fear and anxiety that might prevent you from letting yourself do the wiggly-jiggly.

“Which makes me feel bad because…?”

The crux of the matter is that your capacity for empathy actually diminishes in the moments of your orgasm and then snaps back into place when the deed is done.

My theory is that this sudden toggle of the empathy switch doesn’t always leave us feeling great. Think about it: while we’re masturbating, we feel great. Maybe we click through to some more “hardcore” or unconventional porn (or simply flip the channel in our brain) because, after all, our amygdalae are deactivated, and then WHAM! Orgasm.

Suddenly we’re alone in our chairs/beds/bathrooms/kitchens, our orgasms are finished, and our amygdalae are back on. Our brains are still processing (or watching) the sexual imagery we’ve just masturbated to, but suddenly we’re capable of assessing the situation from a social and emotional perspective. Was that porn too violent? Why did I masturbate in the first place? Am I addicted? Why didn’t I wait until intercourse?? All of that social junk that we’re usually so good at waving away floats past us as we prepare to clean up.

[GIF: Cat on stomach on couch, sighing.]

No more petting the pussy…

This also helps to explain why people seem to feel weirder after masturbation than after partner play. When we’re with partners, “pillow talk” helps us establish a pleasant, non-sexual environment. Unlike after masturbation, we’re not left with hardcore porn playing in the background or the weird sensation that we’ve just been objectifying someone for the past half hour, because a real-live, non-objectified person is right here in bed with us.

Also, cuddling and other forms of physical affection induce our bodies to produce oxytocin, a chemical that makes us generally feel happy, connected, and peaceful. The rush of oxytocin we get from having sex with others probably fends off that “blech” feeling pretty well.

So, there you have it: a somewhat amateur take on the mystery of masturbation melancholy. The next time you catch yourself feeling bad for #feelingyourself, however, remember that it might just be your amygdala causing some ruckus in your brain. Put your judgments, fears, and self-doubt behind you for a couple of minutes. Clean up. Take a little walk. Thank your amygdala for being kind of amazing, even if it does let you down sometimes.

Still feel bad?

1 comment

  1. Pingback: Stop Talking About Sex: The Importance of Metaphors - Yaybody

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