We Have Questions: Idiosyncratic Masturbation
Thirty years ago, Carol Queen, Ph.D., worked at a peep show. One night, she encountered a customer who was slamming and rubbing his penis on the edge of the booth.
Queen, ever the curious sexologist, asked the man, "When you masturbate at home, do you rub up on your bedsheets?"
"Of course!" the man replied.
"Like that was the only way it could be done," Queen recalled. "He literally had no idea that jacking off could involve the hand."
Queen, a sex educator, activist, author and staff sexologist at Good Vibrations, an adult store based in San Francisco, cited the man's self-pleasure technique as an example of idiosyncratic masturbation, or a type of self-stimulation that can't be easily duplicated by a partner's hand, mouth, vagina or anus.
Idiosyncratic masturbation trains a person to respond to a certain type of stimulus, such as a specific rhythm, pressure or sensation. In some cases, a person with an idiosyncratic masturbation style might find it difficult to orgasm during partnered intimacy that fails to replicate that stimulus.
To learn more about idiosyncratic masturbation, we interviewed Queen, who has spent four decades studying human sexuality and pleasure. In an email Q&A, Queen dived into the what, why and how of idiosyncratic masturbation, and shared thoughts on making your solo play and partner sessions more pleasurable.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What are some examples of idiosyncratic masturbation?
Queen: Any technique, common or rare, that involves a kind of bodily stimulation that partner sex cannot easily replicate might fall under the category of idiosyncratic masturbation. It could include self-stimulation that includes especially long-duration play or edging, stimulation by rubbing the body onto objects or surfaces, and many variations of sex toy use, including "pervertibles," or objects that you find around the house.
People who might develop an idiosyncratic masturbation style include someone who likes strong vibration, e-stim or electric shock, various kinds of kink-related body play, or techniques that involve the musculature or Valsalva breathing or both, for example, when someone can orgasm from hanging from a pull-up bar.
Why do people develop these types of techniques?
Many people start self-pleasuring and exploring their bodies before they learn anything about masturbation. Even a trusted source like sex education often has nothing to say about masturbation until college-level courses. So many people just stumble upon a technique that engages their arousal system, brings them to orgasm or otherwise is pleasing to do.
It's surprisingly common, actually, for people to find their idiosyncratic thing without even knowing that it might be considered a form of masturbation, especially if they are young when they discover it. It's also not super-rare for a person not to understand that their thing, or masturbation in general, is related to partner sex, and how.
Finally, porn: If someone mimics porn and the porn they stumble upon is unusual, that might take them down a path of idiosyncratic stimulation.
Does idiosyncratic masturbation tend to occur more frequently in one gender than another?
Oh, this is not gendered. It can be discovered and enjoyed by anyone. However, it might be extra-noticeable among those with vulvas, because partner sex, as many people understand it, doesn't involve enough clitoral stimulation to reliably lead to orgasm. It is super-common for people with a clitoris to masturbate with clitoral focus, and a good many of these people don't have partner sex that shares or includes that focus.
How might relying on idiosyncratic masturbation lead to problems with your sex life?
I want to emphasize that this example isn't a problem caused by the masturbation technique, but by the techniques used during partnered sex. In lots of couples, one or both partners can't or won't learn the specifics of the way the other person likes to be stimulated; for example, men who say that oral sex is too complicated or who find it offensive that their partner does not come during intercourse. But there are people of all gender identities and orientations who can't or won't keep up with their partner's specific stimulation needs. Only some of these have to do with the partner's masturbation choices being too difficult to learn from and replicate in some way.
Now, having said that, masturbation is almost always idiosyncratic in one sense, which is that each of us is different, and different kinds of stimulation—including speed, touch pressure, duration and many other elements—are needed and appreciated by different people. There is no one baseline. We always have to learn specific things about each partner to be the best possible sex partner for them.
I do not want to make anyone think that masturbation leads to sex problems, because that's oversimplifying what's really going on. Having orgasms via any method basically unlocks the body's ability to have them, but we often must explore the flow of sex and arousal in order to discover new ways to get there.
For people who might be stuck in an idiosyncratic masturbation rut, how can they unlearn old habits?
The two things I would strongly recommend are communicating clearly with your partner about what you each experience during partner sex that might be related to this issue. While you're at it, talk about what you think sex is and should be, and listen for any assumptions about what sexual stimulation should be like that are biasing you away from an open attitude about arousal and play.
The other thing is slowing down and lightening up when you masturbate. This can bring your technique closer to the ability to respond to sensations that happen during partner sex. A classic technique is to use your nondominant hand. Or use your hand, period, if you usually use a toy. Any changes you make to masturbation may take a while to bear fruit, and that's to be expected. See, you are not just reexperiencing your arousal cycle to allow more space for your partner, but for your own explorations.
Is there anything else we should know about idiosyncratic masturbation?
Discussing this has really reimpressed for me the way idiosyncratic masturbation illustrates how varied sexuality is. If you look at the many ways people can be stimulated by kinks, various kinds of sensations, etc., idiosyncratic masturbation is connected to all of that and makes the playing field of "human sexuality" so much more diverse. I would never suggest people restrict their stimulation, unless it's being done in some manner that's actually harmful to the body. We want to broaden it or at least find ways to be inclusive of it, if possible.
Finally, having an orgasm during partner sex is fabulous, and I will not ever denigrate it. But it isn't a law even though it might be a goal. Plenty of people are having sex without orgasming during sex.
I'd also like to suggest there's a difference between "this sex isn't satisfying without an orgasm" and looking at sex from a normative perspective that says it's not worth having unless everybody climaxes. If the people having the sex are content, great. If not, that's when they need to figure out how to change what's happening.