What is Death Grip?
Death grip, a term coined by famed sex advice columnist Dan Savage, refers to masturbation with a tight grip (or using any sensation involving intense pressure), followed by difficulty orgasming in partner sex.
While death grip is a common experience for men, there is a lack of sex positive resources to address this issue. Most advice out there about death grip is sex-negative: shaming masturbation or shaming porn.
Instead of demonizing masturbation and porn, a more effective approach to death grip involves understanding why it happens in the first place, and working with your body in intentional ways to increase your ability to feel subtle sensations.
What Causes Death Grip?
If you experience death grip, it often has to do with how you learned to masturbate as a boy. Many boys grow up perceiving masturbation as shameful. Sometimes, this perception is formed by direct messages from parents, pastors, and peers. Other times, boys receive indirect messages, like awkward silence around masturbation.
When boys first start masturbating, they learn an AMAZING FEELING can be produced through nothing more than touch. It seems revolutionary.
Maybe there was someone in your class who “discovered” masturbation and wanted to tell everyone about it. Maybe there was a boy in your class who openly masturbated while the teacher was reading a book.
If you knew someone like this, then you know sharing their discovery didn’t end well. These masturbatory Marco Polos are often harshly punished. What’s worse, they usually don’t understand why.
In one way or another, boys learn masturbation is “bad.” They also decide it feels great, so they’re not going to stop doing it.
This atmosphere leads to a sense of secrecy and urgency around masturbation. It’s done in quiet and in a rush to get it over with as quickly as possible. This is especially so if you grew up in a situation where you were afforded little privacy.
The result is a habit of trying to give yourself as much stimulation as possible, before you get caught, followed by a sense of shame after orgasm takes place.
What’s actually happening with “death grip”?
Fast forward to the present day, when that boy is now an adult man cruising the internet for advice on death grip. What’s actually going on?
Most of the time, death grip doesn’t come up as a problem until a man begins to have partner sex. Until then, it’s a habit that’s mostly unconscious. In those first partner sex experiences, there’s a lot of anxiety. Men are faced with massive performance pressure around sex.
During sex, something doesn’t seem right. Penetration doesn’t feel like much, or their partner is being too gentle with their hands. There’s a mixture of frustration and embarrassment — frustration pleasure isn’t being felt and embarrassment at not performing as desired.
For some men, it can go further — they might feel like their penis is numb, and that’s scary.
Here’s what’s happening: because there’s been a long habit of applying a lot of pressure stimulation during masturbation, that’s become the internal ‘normal’.
In partner sex, your partner’s mouth, vagina, anus, or hand is unable to apply the same degree of pressure. Something feels “off” and sometimes orgasm isn’t possible without taking matters (and your cock) into your own hands.
What can I do about death grip?
One important thing to note is that mouths, vaginas, anuses, and other people’s hands DO all provide stimulation. The kinds of sensations they create are different.
To help your body, specifically your penis, experience these different sensations, you need to practice on your own when you masturbate.
Here’s what you can do in order to increase your ability to feel different types of sensations:
Step 1: Set the mood when you masturbate
Start having sex with yourself the way that you want to have sex with your partners. Make sure there’s enough time available and that you won’t be interrupted. Clean up your room. Create a nice space for yourself. Get physically comfortable before you start. Treat yourself the way you would treat a partner in sex.
Step 2: From now, start using lube
Many men do not use lube when they masturbate. Some use spit, though that dries out quickly in the open air. Get a good quality water-based lubricant and start using it every time you masturbate. Use a quarter-sized dollop and reapply if it feels like it is getting tacky on your skin. Lube helps to increase sensitivity to touch.
Step 3: Use a light touch
Start masturbating with a light touch. You can vary this, or ease yourself into it. If you normally masturbate with your cock squeezed tightly in your fist, begin by loosening your grip. If you normally masturbate by squeezing your cock tightly between two fingers, use the same two fingers but don’t apply any more pressure than necessary to keep your penis between them.
A special note here for men that currently masturbate by humping a mattress — if this has been your pattern, first know that this is also really common. It presents you with particular challenges because the amount of pressure you create with your body weight is greater than any you could create with your hand alone. Your first step will be switching to using your hands only, and only after that trying the actions in the paragraph above.
Step 4: Focus on what you feel
Turn your attention toward the physical sensations in your penis. Pay attention to what feels good, what feels meh, and what feels bad. You’re looking for what feels good and, to a certain extent, also what feels meh to come back to as your sensitivity increases.
Step 5: Patience
The first couple of times you do this, expect to feel frustrated. Masturbating this way will probably take much longer than normal. Feelings of shame are likely to come up. It’s normal if this happens — remember, you’ve spent a lifetime racing to the finish and you learned to do that because you got the message that masturbating is shameful.
Be gentle with yourself — it’s okay if this change is difficult and if you can’t orgasm without switching back. If you fall into your old pattern, dust yourself off and try again the next time, going a little bit further than before. Consistency will help make progress.
Step 6: Remember your frenulum
This is the little triangle of skin on the bottom of your penis where the head meets the shaft. In most men, this spot is densely packed with nerves and able to produce a lot of sensation with minimal pressure stimulation. Try a very light touch in this area with good lubrication.
What about porn? Do you have to give that up?
No, you don’t. Instead, make one change to how you use porn, if death grip is a problem for you.
Porn isn’t morally bad, provided that all performers are of age, all scenes are consensual, and all performers are compensated for their labor. There’s no shame in using it. Ideally, look to reputable producers and pay for the porn that you consume.
What you need to keep in mind is that porn is the visual equivalent of what you’re doing when you apply a lot of pressure to your penis — porn is really intense visual and auditory stimulation. The intensity of porn can disconnect you from the sensations in your penis.
To undo death grip without swearing off porn entirely, watch porn without touching yourself. Store up the images in your mind, especially the ones that get you really worked up. Then, close your laptop, go to another room, and masturbate while replaying the scenes you really liked inside of your mind.
This approach to porn and masturbation will help you to be more present in your body and more able to feel subtler sensations.
You can also mix up the types of fantasy fuel that you use to get aroused. If you normally get aroused watching video porn, try looking at still images, listening to audio erotica, reading or writing sexy stories, or exploring other erotic media outside of your norm.
There is nothing bad, wrong, or shameful about masturbation. Masturbation is normal, natural, and a critical outlet for sexual expression throughout your life.
You can masturbate when you are single and when you have a partner. You can masturbate when you are old, when you are young, when you are sick, and when you are healthy. You were most likely doing it in the womb and most likely will be able to right up until you die.
That means, for your whole life, you have the ability to give yourself pleasure. Orgasms are good. Pleasure is good. Exploring your body is good, and learning how to do that in different ways, through different types of sensation, will help you be a better lover.