Ben has always been an imaginative masturbator. As a young child, he discovered prone masturbation, which involves lying face-down on virtually anything and humping away. “I’d press my pubic bone against a folded pillow, wadded-up clothes or a hard surface, like a sink top,” he explains. “The feeling of this heavy pressure at the base of my penis is what would drive me to orgasm.”
But as a teen, Ben, a pseudonym, learned he wasn’t fapping like his friends were and set out to master the more common method of masturbation: Simply stroking his member. He immediately ran into problems, however. “Being used to prone masturbation, the only way this worked was with a very tight grip and a lot of friction,” he tells me. “I’d ultimately need to rub my skin quite raw to orgasm.”
This isn’t uncommon: Frequent prone masturbation has been shown to result in obstacles like anorgasmia (an inability to orgasm) and erectile dysfunction, since it puts a good deal of tension on the phallus, which can dull other forms of penile stimulation. In fact, it’s been estimated that 60 percent of prone masturbators struggle to cum during partnered intercourse, and even more than 60 percent have trouble becoming erect.
By his mid-30s, Ben, who’d continued both prone masturbation and overzealous rubbing of his dick, had developed a bad case of “death-grip syndrome,” a desensitization of the penis that results from these especially rugged methods of wanking. As a consequence, he dealt with persistent erectile dysfunction and a deep-seated displeasure with his sexual abilities, most of which revolved around not being able to cum from partnered sex. “Several partners were disappointed,” he tells me. “I was frequently worried about not being able to perform.”
Ben isn’t alone in his experience with death-grip. “I’d been masturbating for many years in the exact same way,” says OnlyFans creator Will Tantra, a sex and masturbation coach. “My body and cock got very used to my practiced path to orgasm, and I was finding it increasingly difficult to perform and reach a climax with others.”
At this point, it’s important to note that in this context, “performance” connotes a relatively narrow definition of sex, one that’s based almost exclusively around the presence of an erection, the cum it produces and the hole it goes into. Anything that falls outside that convention — like say, having sex without orgasming or preferring masturbation to penetration — is seen as not up to par. This puts an enormous amount of pressure on people with penises who are expected to engage in P-in-hole sex and pathologizes other, less goal-oriented forms of pleasure. So, while there’s nothing inherently wrong with enjoying a firmer grasp — or humping your pillows — it’s the expectation that men “perform” that causes them pain, as well as the actual effects of the grip itself.
Because of this, many guys with death-grip try to undo it — something Tantra was able to accomplish through “consistent practice” and “dedication.” He says the solution is surprisingly simple: “The masturbator has to add variety to his solo sex practice.”
“He’ll need to masturbate in all the ways he may find himself having sex, from body position to type of lube used,” he continues. “He’ll need to simulate as closely as possible the feeling and stimulation his body and cock will be experiencing while engaged in partnered sex.”
For those experiencing negative side effects as a result of their approach to masturbation, the advice for death-grip sufferers could be boiled down even further: “Masturbate gently.” Tantra says slower, moister and more supple strokes are the aim, or as he puts it, “Make your hand feel like a mouth, hole or pussy.” But what makes that so grueling is going without the stimulation your old ways provided until your penis and mind regain their sensitivity to mellower modes of pleasure. “It was slow-going,” Ben says, who’s been working to loosen his grip for a whole two decades.
Beyond simply willing himself to take it easy, Ben found solace in a Fleshlight. “My hands still grip that thing hard, but none of that pressure gets transferred to my penis,” he explains. “It was very difficult at first, because sometimes there just wasn’t enough sensation to get an erection or to orgasm. I ultimately did, but I sometimes felt like crying — it was so difficult.”
Moments like these caused Ben to “backslide many times.” The other struggle for Ben was a mental one. “I had to just accept that what I feel is what I feel,” he says. “Orgasms are still pleasurable, even with reduced sensation, and after a long while, the brain does sort of rewire itself to better receive and tune into the sensations that are there.”
On top of that, Ben credits some of his success to foreskin restoration, a process that, while not widely studied, is believed by many men to improve the sensitivity of their penises. “With that skin, there are a few more nerve endings,” he explains. “It’s definitely not the original foreskin or original nerve endings, but I believe the sensations have increased and expect that to continue.”
Still, even with the effectiveness of those interventions, Tantra suggests being open with partners about how you enjoy pleasuring yourself, no matter if it involves a solid grasp around your shaft. “It helps couples bond when they share this act together,” he says. “It’s also a huge educational tool, as partners get to see firsthand how their partners please themselves, and this gives them insight into how they can get them off as well.”
While Ben admits that he still feels “dependent on the Fleshlight, or if I’m lucky enough, another person,” there’s also been considerable improvement. His well-fluffed pillows can attest to that.