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What is OCDOCD SubtypesMasturbating makes me feel guilty or afraid. What can I do?

Masturbating makes me feel guilty or afraid. What can I do?

6 min read
Melanie Dideriksen, LPC, CAADC

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Masturbation is a normal, even healthy form of expressing sexuality. Whether it begins early on or later in life, almost everyone engages in masturbation at some point in their lives. But what does it mean when you feel guilty, ashamed, or afraid of masturbation? Or if you’re questioning if your behavior is “normal,” and even have intrusive thoughts related to masturbation? 

As a therapist who treats OCD, I’ve learned that for some people, their religious or moral beliefs may factor into their fears and guilt about masturbation. Sometimes, there could be a history of sexual trauma at play. But sometimes the reason is something else that you might not expect: obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

OCD is a mental health condition in which a person has intrusive thoughts that trigger unpleasant feelings, leading to compulsions to help them reduce anxiety or distress. When these intrusive thoughts are religious or moral in nature, this is known as Scrupulosity OCD (sometimes called religious OCD or moral OCD). 

It is important to talk with a qualified mental health professional if any of these things are present to determine if the guilt, shame or fear you feel is due to a larger issue. Once you know the root cause of your struggle, you can get the help you need. 

Intrusive thoughts about masturbation

Let’s take a look at how these thoughts might occur and what kinds of feelings they could cause. I’ll use Michael as an example

Michael was raised in the Church of God, and is now planning to marry his high school sweetheart who is Catholic. Michael decides he will convert to Catholicism in order to marry in the Catholic church. He is taking RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) and learning about confession. The priest hands out a list of some of the “sins” one might want to confess and masturbation is listed.

Immediately Michael feels intense shame and guilt. He thinks, “I just masturbated in the shower just this morning. What is wrong with me that I didn’t know this was a sin? Will I be able to stop masturbating forever? What if my fiancée won’t accept me now?” Michael starts to have intrusive images of himself masturbating. When he attends mass with his fiancée, he feels worried that people can tell he has committed this sin and has not yet confessed it. 

Michael attempts to suppress the urge to masturbate, but finds that the less he masturbates, the more frequent and distressing his intrusive thoughts become. He starts to notice himself thinking about masturbation constantly. He talks to his fiancée who laughs it off and says, “Oh, don’t worry about it. Most Catholics don’t even believe that about masturbation anymore.” 

This reassurance makes Michael feel a bit better for a while, but he cannot shake his anxiety. He feels he is stuck in a vicious cycle of thinking about his past masturbation, justifying it, researching different Christian beliefs about it, seeking reassurance from his fiancée, and avoiding masturbation at all costs. If he slips up and gives in to masturbating, Michael feels guilty and urgently prays certain prayers, washes himself, and avoids being around others, even his fiancée, out of fear that they can sense his feelings of guilt.

Religious or moral beliefs like Michael’s are just one example of how someone might develop shame around the topic of masturbation. Other factors that play a part in feeling guilty, ashamed, or fearful of masturbation could be a history of sexual abuse, general messaging during one’s upbringing that sex is dirty, or ignorance around what our bodies do, what it means to be aroused, and why we feel certain physical sensations

Regardless of the reason for the guilt, shame, or fear, it can get to the point where one may meet the diagnosis for OCD, depending on the presence of obsessions and compulsions, like Michael’s intrusive thoughts and repetitive behaviors. Let’s take a closer look at when this fear of masturbation may be a sign of OCD. 

Do these symptoms sound familiar? Learn how you can overcome them.

As an OCD specialist, I understand how overwhelming these symptoms can be—especially when they latch onto parts of your life as important as your own sexuality. You’re not on your own, and you can talk to a specialist like me who has experience treating people with your specific experience.

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When might fear or shame about masturbation be a sign of OCD?

Someone diagnosed with OCD has both obsessions and compulsions, though they’re sometimes not as easy to identify as you may think, and they certainly don’t always align with the caricatures you may see in popular media. 

According to the DSM-5, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, obsessions are “recurrent and persistent thoughts, urges, or images that are experienced, at some time during the disturbance, as intrusive and unwanted, and that in most individuals cause marked anxiety or distress.” 

Meanwhile, compulsions are “repetitive behaviors that the individual feels driven to perform in response to an obsession or according to rules that must be applied rigidly.” Compulsions can be physical or mental acts and are done in an attempt to reduce the anxiety caused by an obsession. 

In Michael’s case, his fear of masturbation has taken hold after it was triggered by learning about his Catholic church’s views about masturbation. He fears that he won’t be forgiven for this sin and engages in compulsions of researching, seeking reassurance from his fiance, scrupulous praying, and avoidance of masturbation. 

Michael’s fear of masturbation might fall into the Religious Scrupulosity subtype, and if his symptoms occupy a lot of time or cause a lot of distress, he would likely be diagnosed with OCD so that he could be treated effectively.

How can I recover from my fear and guilt about masturbation?

When fear about masturbation is a result of OCD, the best treatment is typically exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy, which is the gold standard of treatment in OCD. Any theme of OCD can be debilitating, but it is highly treatable. By doing ERP therapy with a specialty-trained therapist, symptoms of OCD related to fears of masturbation or moral/religious scrupulosity can be reduced quickly and effectively.

You might be wondering what “exposures” mean, in simple terms. Exposures involve working with a therapist to face your fears and triggers directly. While there’s no one-size-fits-all exposure, here are some examples:

  • Imagining masturbating, then refraining from researching the implications of thinking about masturbation
  • Reading sections from books about masturbation
  • If masturbation does happen, not telling another person about it to get reassurance that everything is OK

These are just a few examples of what exposures and response prevention exercises may look like—in therapy, ERP will be tailored specifically to your fears. 

The purpose of exposures is to provide the opportunity for response prevention, or purposefully resisting the urge to engage in compulsions for quick relief from your fears. Over time, this allows you to sit with the discomfort and anxiety you feel about your thoughts, urges, images, or behaviors, relying less and less on compulsions that only make your fears worse.

The bottom line is that there is hope for anyone struggling with fears about masturbation. If you are feeling ashamed, guilty, or fearful about masturbation, it’s definitely worth speaking with a mental health professional who has the qualification and experience to help you feel better.

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