Recent events have brought a swirl of renewed attention to sexual soloing—solitary sexual self-stimulation—with contemporary cultural and professional views largely supporting sexual soloing and tradition and religious teaching discouraging it. We welcome the opportunity this recent attention offers to revisit individual and relational implications of sexual soloing and invite reflective consideration of the question, “How could avoiding ‘sexual soloing’ be a good thing?” We take a sexual positivity approach to the question, focusing on possible benefits from seeking to avoid sexual soloing.

Sexuality is both a divinely and evolutionarily embedded part of our human experience. This juxtaposition and dualism—of sexuality’s intimate and sensual dimensions—means we will experience competing motivations. Tension in sexual matters compels us to choose—e.g., between restraint or license—and resulting experience informs learning. Sexual choices are some of the most significant choices we make in life and can leave a long wake that includes waves of emotional, psychological, intimate relational, and spiritual reverberations. Over the lifespan—of both the individual and the couple—the sexual arousal and satisfaction template is shaped and reshaped, formed and reformed. 

Mature sexuality is a multifaceted, complex expression and striving. Our human experience of our sexuality presents us with discernment of its relational, psychological, spiritual, and physical dimensions, which helps us shape our sexual values, longing, and practice. Given the profound psychological, emotional, relational, and spiritual reverberations of sexual choices and experience, epistemically couples would do well to allow reason, tradition (e.g. parental, religious, and cultural guidance), inspiration, and divine authority to inform sexual decision-making, rather than relying solely upon the judgments of sexual researchers or clinicians. And as in many areas of life, in matters of sexuality, we are certainly wise not to undertake to learn everything by experience.

Every sexual choice can be evaluated against our ultimate goals and values. Religion seeks to sanctify sexuality toward divinely ordained individual and relationship happiness, joy, and well-being. Scholars, therapists, and educators hopefully seek to do the same—not just map paths to pleasure—and hundreds of thousands of studies, articles, and books attest to their ongoing attempts to figure it out and get it right.

Engagement in sexual soloing versus a commitment to relationally oriented sexual development is a potentially significant choice, one that each person and couple make for themselves. Positive or painful feelings connected to this choice can certainly be suggested and socialized to us, yet they can also arise within us. Those feelings that come from within, and from other learning arising from the effects of our choices on our relationships and spirituality, can be a personal guide. Toxic shame and shaming are never a good motivational foundation. Yet dissonance, the natural outgrowth of discrepancy between our values and our actions, can lead to productive guilt and positive change, enhancing personal and relationship well-being.

Religion seeks to sanctify sexuality toward divinely ordained individual and relationship happiness, joy, and well-being.

So what are some experiences and feelings that could lead to a sexually positive desire and decision to avoid sexual soloing? How might avoiding ‘sexual soloing’ be a good thing?”

It Makes Staying Away from Pornography Easier

Rationalizing sexual soloing as a “sex-positive” self-awareness practice is only sustainable as a theoretical abstraction—separated from the contextual reality of sexual soloing. There is no denying that pornography is the paired partner of sexual soloing.  Sexual soloing motivates pornography use, with both women and particularly men viewing pornography primarily with the goal of self-stimulation. Pornography is the arousal trigger and pornographic fantasy its accelerant or fuel. We cannot decontextualize or ignore the stimulus–response linkage between sexual soloing and pornographic images, scripting, and fantasizing. Sexual arousal and experience do not exist in some pristine isolation but in an increasingly tightly bound stimulus-response (S–R) equation.

Since sexuality is inherently relational, arousal for sexual soloing requires conjuring a pseudo-relational stimulus, replacing a real human being with a fantasized sexual fragment. Pornography fills the emptiness, but it isn’t real, holistic, or wholesome. Yet while unreal, it can become habituated. Pornographic imagery, scripts, and fantasies represent a fetishized sexuality, disconnected from relationship reality even as it pretends to it.

Given the linkage between sexual soloing and pornography, it is relevant to our consideration of sexual soloing that research indicates a persistent negative association between pornography use and romantic relationship quality. The implicit and explicit scripts within pornography—eroticism, objectification, promiscuity, and misogyny—are decidedly anti-relational and hardly a useful “discovery” pathway for healthy relational sexuality.[iii] Pornography’s scripts don’t socialize for positive relationships; only the real-life marital relationship can. As sexual soloing has been found to contribute a stronger effect[iv] on brain activity than exposure to sexual media alone, it thus plays a large role in influencing pornography use, sexual template conditioning, and relationship outcomes.

Some sexual academics and clinicians argue that sexual soloing represents useful sexual self-discovery and preparation for sexual success as a couple. But pornography’s concomitant images, scripts, and fantasies don’t socialize for positive relationships, sexual or otherwise. Only real-life social development before marriage, and relational sexual experience in marriage, provide that preparation. Sexual soloing combined with pornographic images, scripts, and fantasies risks poorly mapping sexuality to a distorted hedonistic template, and at worst the anti-relational, anti-attachment pornographic template.

  • Avoiding sexual soloing helps impressionable youth and adults alike stay away from pornography use and habituation, steering clear of pornography’s fetishization of anti-relational, toxic sexual imagery, scripts, and fantasizing as the basis of sexual arousal. Avoiding sexual soloing helps hold that “flight” from takeoff until the “copilot” is on board, preventing the sexual arousal template (SAT, conditioned patterns of sexual arousal) from veering off course.
  • Avoiding sexual soloing promotes healthy social development before marriage, laying the groundwork for relationship and sexual well-being in marriage.

It Makes Developing a Positive Relational Sexual Template Easier

Sexual arousal becomes tightly bound (conditioned) to the unique S–R equation each person layers up. A sexual arousal template (SAT) is formed.[vi] Ideally, the sexual arousal template of both the individual and the couple is shaped in the couple relationship, formed and reformed across the lifespan. Whether that template is a sandy sedimentation or a solid sexual foundation depends in part on its guiding context—solo, or relational. Thus, in pursuit of individual and relational well-being, the risk and reality of habituation to sexual soloing is ingraining a sexual arousal template (SAT) poorly suited to truly and fully intimate, relationally focused sexual being.[vii]

Relational sexuality involves mindfulness and responsiveness to the other, which allows the cultivation, expression, and experience of attachment intimacy through sexual giving and receiving. Conversely, pornography and sexual soloing shape a sexual template (SAT) and preferred experience consisting of thoughts, attitudes, and actions that undermine sanctifying sexual expression in marriage. Pornography also promotes depersonalization, sexual objectification, and exploitative attitudes (e.g., here, here, and here) in relationships more broadly.[viii] Avoiding sexual soloing and the development of a SAT outside the refining context of real-life relationships, holds the space open for the development of a relational orientation in the normal course of socializing and courting, and for a relational SAT in marriage.

In adolescence, staying away from pornography and sexual soloing makes developing a positive relational sexual template (SAT) down the road easier. In couple relationships, staying away from sexual soloing promotes nurturing the relationship for sexual wholeness. Sexuality is like an upper-atmosphere flight in the jet stream. Sexuality charts a true course with a pilot and co-pilot, a navigator who helps keep the flight on course while the pilot guides the plane. In marriage, each partner is both their own pilot and co-pilot for their partner. Sexual soloing—before marriage or in marriage—ditches or jettisons the co-pilot and allows the flight to drift off course toward some other destination than a relationship one.

  • Avoiding sexual soloing can promote a relational sexual template and lead to strengthening marriage relationships, both sexually and generally.
  • Avoiding sexual soloing helps ensure that the sexual flight is copiloted safely and surely in marriage toward its relational destination.

It Makes Staying Away from Toxic Fantasizing Easier

Sexual response is inherently relational and so requires another person. Sexual soloing invites if not requires as part of the stimulus ritual the indulgence in sexual fantasies—focused on triggering and heightening sexual arousal and gratification—that behave nothing like real-life relationships, nor require any such thing in return.

Relational sexuality involves mindfulness and responsiveness to the other, which allows the cultivation, expression, and experience of attachment intimacy through sexual giving and receiving.

Tied to anti-relational scripting, pornographic fantasies are not rendered in terms of commitment, emotional connection, authentic intimacy, nor attachment giving and receiving. Rather, they are eroticized renditions of promiscuous, free-wheeling sexuality liberated from any and every constraint or purpose except the user’s physical gratification. For the purposes of ready arousal and gratification, sexual soloing is devoid of relational content, interest, or intent. Consequently, the “other” in sexual soloing becomes no more than an objectified arousal trigger, a sexual fragment of a whole human being. Pornography commonly supplies and promotes this fetishized fantasizing.

  • Avoiding sexual soloing makes it easier to stay away from, habituate to, or fetishize toxic sexual fantasizing. Avoiding sexual soloing prevents an inherently relational flight from lurching off course toward sexual fetishization.
  • Avoiding sexual soloing holds open space for a relational sexual template and the development of holistic marriage relationships that are deeply aware and caring, strengthening marriage both sexually and generally.

It Promotes Positive Individual Coping

As well, to the extent that sexual soloing is a ready-made “feel-good” experience, pornography and sexual soloing can easily become an individual escapist hack, not just a relationship one, hijacking healthy development. Sexual soloing can become a way of coping without facing the myriad emotional and developmental as well as relationship challenges during the teen and young adult years, and a means of sidestepping working through individual as well as relationship issues in adulthood. Habituation to sexual soloing in adolescence and continued resort to it in adulthood may subvert the development of alternative and arguably more positive emotional coping strategies and problem-solving.

Thus, the damaging duo of pornography and sexual soloing become an avoidance and hindrance to the development of healthy psychological, social-relational, and spiritual coping strategies. Like addictive indulgences, pornography and sexual soloing is palliative, but not curative. The bonded double helix of pornography and sexual soloing is not good DNA for life’s individual or relationship journey.

Those who obey the Word of Wisdom are promised “treasures of knowledge” (D&C 89:19). As we avoid resorting to mind-altering substances as a way of managing mortality, we learn instead productive coping. Would not the same apply to any other “psychoactive manipulation”?

  • Avoiding sexual soloing and practicing sexual restraint promotes the development of positive coping strategies.

It Promotes Relationally Supportive Self Mastery

Sexual restraint has long been advocated as a path to relational intimacy and wellbeing. Sexuality that is relationally attuned and responsive necessitates the ability to subdue the powerful natural impulse and drive toward entirely self-preoccupied arousal and experience. Avoiding sexual soloing helps individuals begin to develop self-mastery over sexual drive and motivation, a competence vital to healthy, intimate, attachment-supportive relationships. Sexual self-restraint and self-mastery are vital both in relation to sexual expression within marriage as well as to sexual abstinence outside of marriage. The years before marriage provide an opportunity to progress in this core sexual competency of self-restraint and self-mastery.

Sexual soloing, however, fosters a lack of sexual self-mastery. By its very definition, action, and context, sexual soloing is relationally out of touch. Sexual soloing represents and powerfully reinforces a sexual substrate of hedonism—not a mutual partnered focus on caring and pleasure but a self-focus on self-gratification. Nothing about the self-pleasuring of sexual soloing supports relational awareness or relational attentiveness, and habituating relational inattention may creep beyond the sexual realm to a general “me” focus that runs counter to the other awareness and self-restraint so vital to life and relationship success. Sexual soloing is just one of numerous reinforcers of corrosive and addictive hedonism, precisely because it is relationally untethered.

  • Avoiding sexual soloing can promote sexual self-mastery, a competence crucial to couple relationship and sexual well-being.
  • Avoiding sexual soloing prevents mapping sexuality to a distorted hedonistic template, or at worst the anti-relational, anti-attachment pornographic template.

It Supports Preparation for Relational Attachment

Sexual soloing offers an opt-out from relational mindfulness, sensitivity, responsiveness, respect, and responsibility, and not surprisingly some find it easier to retreat from relationships and disappear into solipsistic self-pleasuring than to accept the necessity of individual mastery and the challenges of real-life couple relationships. Some may even come to prefer sexual soloing over real-life risks and rewards.[xiv] Understanding sexual soloing in this manner clearly shows it to be no preparation for mature relationships. With the “quick-fix” and “easy escape” of sexual soloing always available, and with partners commonly keeping it a secret, sexual soloing can subvert relationship communication, partnership, and growth and undermine the trust and safety necessary for secure attachment.

During the single years, avoiding sexual soloing holds off on the development of the sexual arousal template (SAT) outside the refining context of real-life relationships, holding that space open for the development of a relational orientation in the normal course of socializing and courting, and a relational SAT in marriage. In couple relationships, staying away from sexual soloing promotes turning to the relationship to ‘get things right’ through mindful giving and receiving. Mutual sexual consideration and cooperation, cultivated through self-mastery, is necessary for more fulfilling sexual experience and relationship attachment.

Whether one resorts to a spiritual or humanistic account, we are inherently wired for what Martin Buber called I-Thou relations respecting the other’s personhood rather than I-It relations objectifying and instrumentalizing others. Consequently, there is something inherently offensive to our psyche in the fantasizing of the exploitive use of a fellow being. We cannot do this thing and feel good about it. Avoiding isolated exploitive fantasizing—for the purpose of sexual arousal—can help us promote humanistic “I–Thou” rather than “I–it” orientation that is consistent with caring values and thus sustains our sense of spiritual congruence and relational connection both within and outside of marriage.

  • Avoiding sexual soloing confirms and strengthens a relational and attachment-oriented (sexual arousal template (SAT) anchored in “being for the other.”

So, What Then?

So, when considering sexual soloing, what are some takeaway thoughts for the years before marriage, and in marriage?

In the Teen and Young Adult Years

While setting forth benefits of avoiding sexual soloing, we need to seriously visit the question of the effects and outcomes of toxic shame surrounding this nonetheless maturationally normal developmental challenge. Toxic shame does not help change or positive development happen, and we need to seriously introspect on our change strategies.

We must start by understanding that young people are completely inexperienced with and unprepared for sexual drive when they first encounter it, and they face it with all the limitations of the adolescent brain—not completely wired-up, not fully mature, not yet as capable as they will be as adults of impulse control, inhibitory response, and prognostic self-governance (forward thinking). Yet all the while, they are quite prone and vulnerable to moral and spiritual perfectionism, severe black-and-white self-judgment, and toxic shame.

High-risk teen drivers on today’s sexual highways need more insurance and assurance. Accidents are likely, and they—their hearts, minds, and spirits—need to be insured against collision and toxic shame. We need to do our utmost to create internal and external barriers to pornography and pathways for healthy relational socialization, pointing sexual desire and drive towards a horizon of intimate, fulfilling marital love. A sexual positivity approach to restraint is greatly needed.

Certainly, in almost every case we can approach this normal life experience and developmental challenge with (a) a lot more compassion and understanding, (b) developmental perspective and patience, (c) attention to progress not perfection, (d) a vision of restraint tied to relational sexual positivity, and (d) sensitivity to individual differences in innate capacity across the maturational arc. After all, shaping and reshaping, forming and reforming our sexual template is an ongoing refinement.

Of overwhelming importance is spiritually anchored emotional regulation (SPAER) of the inevitable experience of discrepancy and dissonance over where we are versus where we aspire to be. Spiritual emotional regulation consists of erasing toxic shame—the divine-identity attacking feeling that ‘I’m a failure,’ ‘inherently bad,’ ‘irretrievably flawed,’ ‘irredeemable.’ There must be a commitment to zero shame (them) and zero shaming (us). Yet tossing out toxic shame does not mean surrendering sex-positive striving, including considering the discernible benefits of avoiding sexual soloing.

We can spiritually differentiate productive guilt from polar extremes of toxic shame or guiltless permissiveness. Productive dissonance is a “guilt” (see Alma 42:29) that (a) affirms self, (b) targets behavior, and (c) focuses on growth. “Caring others” have a role in monitoring emotional responses to behavioral discrepancies and promoting patient optimism and developmental resolve. An abiding, three-fold spiritual witness of (a) their divine nature, (b) God’s love, and (c) Christ’s redeeming power are vital recurring affirmations.

In the Married Years

Importantly, therapists and scholars of sexual well-being invite an understanding of challenges couples may face, such as anorgasmia. Some newly married women have very little knowledge of their bodies and struggle to know themselves as sexual beings. Knowing our bodies is good and adds to couple sexual well-being. Women, as well as men, need to understand the complexities of a woman’s (and man’s) body and psyche and the multidimensionality of sexual arousal—physical, emotional, psychological, relational, spiritual—for both of them. We recommend that couples explore and understand their arousal together with their partner.

In marriage, sexuality is ordained and sanctified. How to achieve couple sexual growth is an important couple conversation. Shame about seeking sexual self-awareness can turn into a cycle that becomes a barrier both to sexual positivity and couple sexual growth, possibly even leading some to turn away from, instead of toward, the beauty and bonding of sexual intimacy. In marital context, couple sexual discovery—clinically termed sensate focus—is not sexual soloing, but rather a shared couple practice that contributes to sexual bonding and secure attachment. As couples share their bodies, guide each other, and both receive and give intimate physical, emotional, psychological, and relationship pleasure and nurture, physical intimacy becomes a powerful, tangible, bodily representation of “being for each other” (Olson, 2000) and strengthens the couple bond.

Sexual self-awareness promoted by sensate focus, combined with guiding communication in the couple relationship, can for some couples be an additional contribution to couple sexual development early on and a benefit to the couple sexual relationship. As women gain sexual self-awareness with their partner, they can be a good guide to their partner and gently teach how they prefer to be aroused. A transitory phase and temporary intervention in couple sexual development, in terms of intention, purpose, and aim, this couple intervention is couple-oriented—done with the aim of improving the partnered sexual experience, and is recursively directed back to the couple relationship. Pornography is nowhere a part of this process; in actuality, in multiple ways, it would hinder it.

In marriage, sexuality is ordained and sanctified.

Partners’ shared investment in sexual self-awareness in the couple relationship is for the benefit of the relationship and should not be conflated or confused with sexual soloing. Sensate focus is typically a transitory developmental sidebar for young couples, though some couples may revisit it at various points across their sexual lifespan and changing circumstances. Sensate focus does not involve pornography, with its imagery, scripts, and fantasizing.

Some may find sexual self-awareness practice (sensate focus) uncomfortable. While clinical professionals, sex educators and scholars commonly endorse individual sexual self-discovery, we are simultaneously both compassionate towards these circumstances and yet still wary of solo self-discovery. Given the mutability of sexual motivation, an initial intention of self-awareness readily risks crossing over into sexual soloing. Nearly always, behavior hidden from one’s partner is a reasonably reliable warning signal. Because it is difficult to parse motives, even more difficult for a partner to parse them, and because sexual motives are highly mutable, we believe it is beneficial to altogether avoid sexual soloing prior to marriage—even in the name of sexual self-awareness—and to recommend couple shared sexual discovery in marriage whenever possible and mutually agreeable.

Finally, in all this, couples, therapists, and educators need to be aware, willing to acknowledge, and accept that not all women (or men) center sexual pleasure, satisfaction, or (every) sexual experience in orgasm. We’ve created a cultural expectation around sexual experience that pressures some women—including by their partners—that orgasm is the essential climax of sexual experience and that without it the experience and “performance” and satisfaction of one or both partners must somehow be deficient. Among couples who do not present clinically, there are likely quite a few who reject arbitrary expectations and pressure and are patient with the pace of progress in their sexual relationship. In cultural, clinical, and couple contexts, “performance” pressure should be rejected.

Conclusion

Sexual choices are a reality and sexual soloing is increasingly one of the most common. In the pursuit of wellbeing, healthy sexuality points to a relational sexual model. The reality we conceive is that sexual soloing runs in an opposite direction from relational sexual being. When sexual soloing is considered in terms of its quite invariable practice—tied to pornographic imagery, scripts, and fantasy—it sheds the modest clothing ivory tower intellectuals have garbed it with and one can readily discern likely toxic effects. Even where triggered by stress or other distress, sexual soloing’s likely relational–sexual side effects make it a poor “therapeutic” for relieving stress in the body and mind, and a questionable sexual preparation for future marital intimacy. For the purposes of ready arousal and gratification, it is tied to pornography and to scripting and fantasizing devoid of relational content, interest, or intent. It does not, therefore, succeed in simply “tiding the person over,” whether that be ‘over the stress’ or ‘until the arrival of an intimate sexual relationship.’ Nor, tied as it is to non-relational[xx] or anti-relational  scripting, is it actually likely to be useful discovery and preparation. Rather, it habituates the sexual arousal template (SAT) to a solipsistic hedonism—relationally tuned-out and disregarding of attachment view, desire, and practice. Sexual soloing and pornography combined advance the socialization and fetishization of exploitive, not intimate sexuality through porn’s relationally toxic fantasy.

The Savior taught the higher law of seeking for purity and holiness in our thoughts as well as our actions and suggested that’s where our work begins (Matthew 5:27–28; Proverbs 23:7), as have many others. One cannot help but perceive the importance of gaining mastery over thoughts and imaginations (Jacob 2:5–6), supposing for sure that exploitive imaginations must be incompatible with the companionship of the Spirit.

Nevertheless, high levels of shame induced or experienced in relation to this maturationally normal developmental challenge are harmful to sexually positive change and development. Sexual soloing can certainly be addressed without shame, focusing on sexually positive development and progress. Each person can seek to be discerning and perceptive of individual, psychological, relational, spiritual, and sexual benefits of avoiding sexual soloing.

 We express our thanks to three content-expert scholars for their careful peer review and helpful feedback.

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