If you haven’t heard of “death grip” among people who masturbate, you’re probably not alone. While many people (especially those with penises) have experienced this common phenomenon, not many have the language to explain the behavior and side effects.
Hence why I, a certified sex educator, am here to fill in the knowledge gaps the vast majority of people currently have. (Thanks for nothing, Random Gym Teacher who taught us how to put a condom on a banana and traumatized us with pictures of genital warts.)
Why We Call It “Death Grip”
Firstly, it’s important to say that there is nothing wrong with masturbation. It is a healthy expression of human sexuality that should be celebrated as normal and OK. Opening the door for a discussion of death grip does not mean we’re suddenly anti-masturbation.
The term “death grip” was originally coined in 2003 by the legendary sex columnist Dan Savage. (Savage was also the first person to use the word “pegging”—that’s when a cisgender man is anally penetrated by someone wearing a strap-on or dildo.) Death grip is not an official medical diagnosis; it’s just a common term for a recognized phenomenon, and it has many causes that need to be identified for the greater good.
Accredited psychosexual and relationship psychotherapist Silva Neves tells TheBody that death grip happens when “men [or people with penises] are masturbating with a strong grip and become used to feeling sensation and pleasure with that kind of hard friction only.”
The (very dramatic) “death” bit comes from the indirect effects of such a tight grip: You become so used to the feeling of your hand holding your penis in a strong, tight way (usually without lube, let’s be real) that your penis has trouble responding to other forms of sexual stimulation.
Now, don’t get too worked up about the scary name and description. Death grip is a very common occurrence—and there are ways around it.
If you’ve experienced (or are currently experiencing) issues with staying hard or ejaculating during partnered sex because of death grip, there are ways to adjust your behavior, re-learn how to feel different sensations, and move on. No amount of furious hand-sex will cause permanent damage.
Why Does Death Grip Happen?
When you constantly, persistently masturbate with your hand, the body starts to become habituated to this routine. Death grip is basically all about consistent, intense stimulation.
This is not limited to one’s hands. If you’re someone who furiously humps mattresses, pillows, or other rough surfaces as your sole form of masturbation, you may also fall into a death grip pattern.
According to Neves, when your body is hella used to getting off from a tight AF grip, you can start to experience “erection problems due to not feeling enough sensation or pleasure with a partner, because the grip of the mouth or vagina is not as strong, or has gentler friction.” This goes for buttholes as well.
Does this sound like you? Because to me, it sure sounds like it applies to the zillions of penis owners around the world who haven’t had comprehensive sex education. I reckon that it is happening all over Planet Earth right now, as you’re reading this. And research shows that those who get a lot of pleasure from masturbation will continue the behavior as habits become deeply ingrained.
So, if you are someone who is experiencing sexual concerns due to death grip, what can you do?
Death Grip Treatment: Technique and Mindfulness Are Hugely Important
Masturbation is not addictive, but it can become a problem in certain contexts. If you’re masturbating intensely, in a certain way, over and over again for your whole life, your sexual patterns can become habituated. Your body is not broken or “addicted” to masturbation; it just doesn’t know how to respond sexually to anything else.
Ty David Lerman, a psychotherapist and certified sex therapist, talked to TheBody about the use of systematic desensitization to address this. You “gradually wean off the specific behavior and introduce new ways of being stimulated; because the type of specific masturbation varies widely, the way to desensitize would also vary,” he explains. “To get the most tailored approach, seeking out a sex therapist is highly recommended.”
If you’re not ready for professional intervention, you can also try some at-home techniques to make progress on your own. This is where technique and mindfulness come into play.
Kenneth Play, a sex hacker and international sex expert, tells TheBody that there is a twofold solution available:
- Changing up your masturbation routine.
- Introducing mindfulness into your practice.
“This might involve taking a break from porn and fantasizing to just focus on the sensations in your body,” he says. “To truly get in touch with the body, sometimes we need to give the mind a break from the intense stimulation we are used to giving it as well, and use that time to really pay attention and zone in, rather than zoning out in front of a screen.”
The Bigger Picture: Death Grip and How Our Society Treats Masturbation
The bigger social issue with death grip is that it is psychologically dangerous for lots of young penis-owning (and clit-owning) people out there who will walk into the world of real sex and wonder why their penis or clitoris isn’t responding the way they want it to.
This can have all kinds of effects on sexual self-esteem, leading to a possible reduction in social-sexual experiences and more masturbation. It’s a vicious cycle that leaves you in the throes of death grip, without solutions.
And this is why education is so crucial.
While technique and mindfulness will always be important in order to fully experience one’s entire pleasure potential—we are creatures who enjoy variety, after all—so many of the issues caused by death grip could be avoided if we just gave young people access to comprehensive sex education.
As we’ve previously covered on TheBody, comprehensive sex education is so important to our overall well-being that it has the potential to aid in trauma reduction when we’re adults. “Human sexuality is as varied as there are humans,” Lerman says. “Everyone is different on many levels.”
If we universally accepted that masturbation was normal, healthy, and OK; if we educated kids about what porn actually is (and isn’t) instead of allowing it to be their default sex education; if we opened up a door for curious young people to ask questions about sex in a safe and open way—well, there’s no way to measure the positive effects all of this would have on society as a whole.
Masturbation is not bad. You are not bad. Our educational systems are flawed, and we all deserve better. And don’t worry: With some work and perseverance, you can leave death grip behind, and your sex life will flourish. Hang in there, buckaroo.