The internet is filled with urban legends and dubious claims about human sexuality, and death-grip syndrome happens to one of them, but only to a certain extent.
In the late 20th century, death-grip syndrome was casually discussed in Usenet forums, and it later appeared on the web through the writings of American sex advice columnist Dan Savage in 2003. In essence, death-grip syndrome refers to inhibited sexual experiences in men whose masturbation habits have reportedly resulted in desensitized penile nerve endings.
Death grip syndrome is not formally recognized as a medical condition, but healthcare professionals who specialize in sexuality know what it entails, and they also understand the misconceptions that surround it. From here on, we will abbreviate death grip syndrome as DGS, and we will clarify what it means for people who encounter this condition in their lives.
What Death Grip Syndrome Is Really About
DGS is an intimate concern that is most talked about among men, but it can also impact the sexual health of women. We don’t have to let our imagination run wild to correctly guess DGS refers to penile masturbation.
Part of the term makes an allusion to a fantasy martial arts technique whereby a strong hand grip can be deadly. A syndrome is a series of symptoms that add up to one or more health conditions.
According to internet lore, DGS is caused by a strong grip around the penile shaft during masturbation. This behavior or technique is believed by many to result in diminished sensitivity of the fine nerves that cover the penis, thus causing a desensitized sexual experience outside of masturbating.
Individuals affected by DGS will not notice reduced libido or desire, but they may find sexual relationships unsatisfactory to the point of not being able to reach climax.
The symptoms of DGS can range from performance anxiety (learn more) to erectile dysfunction and from delayed orgasm to sexual guilt. The sum of these issues make up the syndrome, but we can say with almost absolute certainty that desensitized nerves are not to blame in this regard.
This is why human sexuality researchers do not acknowledge DGS as such, but they do admit that certain masturbation patterns and behavior can converge with other factors that can get in the way of sexual health.
The medical community rejects DGS because they cannot support the idea of nerves desensitized by masturbation. As long as people are getting off during self-love sessions, we can safely discard physiological nerve damage.
Even if they almost reach orgasm but are ultimately not able to, we can safely rule out vascular or neurological issues that can have a real impact on penile health. In other words, most self-reported cases of DGS involve men who do not have to consult urologists in order to get better.
DGS is more about incorrect behaviors and inadequate compulsions than anything else. Before we get around to clarifying DGS and how it can be alleviated, let’s discuss why it is not limited to men.
According to Isiah McKimmie, a respected Australian sex therapist who has evaluated various research studies related to anorgasmia–the inability to reach sexual climax–many women suffer from DGS because they have gotten used to pleasing themselves in very specific ways.
Whether they use vibrators or just their fingers, women can get into DGS patterns that can negatively impact the relationships they manage with sexual partners. However, an actual loss of sensitivity in the clitoris or other parts of their genitalia can be ruled out just like with men.
What Death Grip Syndrome is Not About
For sociological reasons, men are more likely to believe themselves to be afflicted with DGS than women, but women are more likely to have a hard time reaching orgasm even if they do not masturbate at all. To better understand this dichotomy, we have to get back to the etymology of DGS which we can trace back to a 2003 column written by American sex advice personality Dan Savage.
Mr. Savage has never taken credit for coining DGS as a term; in fact, he would be the first to tell you that he had seen the term used by members of the BBS and Usenet communities he was a part of.
As a sarcastic but refreshingly honest counselor, Savage has answered many letters from male readers whose sex lives were complicated by DGS, and his answer is invariably the same: You are masturbating in a way that is taking over your healthy sexual life, and you will need to retrain your penis as well as your train of thought in order to “get back to normal” as such.
Desensitization of nerves is real, but it is not generally related to masturbation. In Thailand, traditional practitioners of the Muay Boran martial arts, which feature a lot of kicking with shins, are known to constantly strike banana trees with their lower legs in order to train their nerves and brains to ignore the excruciating pain of impacted shins.
The network of penile nerves, which includes the perineal, dorsal and pudendal, cannot be desensitized in this manner. As we have already mentioned, if you get turned on and can climax through masturbation, this is all the proof you need to rule out desensitization.
If you think DGS is getting in the way of a healthy sexual life, the problem may not even be with the grip itself. Let’s say a guy has decided that masturbation is the only sexual activity he needs in his life; he knows what he needs to climax and exactly when and how to get it done. We are talking about a man who is happy having sex without a partner.
Do you think this man will ever suffer from DGS? Not as long as he is still able to make himself reach orgasm; what might happen, however, is that he may seek sexual gratification from a partner later in life, and he may not be able to perform when the time comes.
The overly firm grip of DGS is just a euphemism for many other factors that dictate the enjoyment of human sexuality. It is easy for a man to blame his own sexual shortcomings on a strong grip that no one else can replicate. All the same, a woman can talk herself into believing that there is no match for her Hitachi Magic Wand vibrator. What we are really doing with these flawed rationalizations is ignoring the why, when, where, and how of the matter.
We are trying to bring physiology into a highly psychological and behavioral matter. Masturbation is a form of sex, which means that it should be analyzed with a “whole picture” approach instead of focusing on grips and strokes. We must remember that sex is not unidimensional; it is extremely dynamic and is seldom enjoyed with a single source of stimulation.
How Death Grip Syndrome Happens
For most people, DGS is not something that shows up overnight, even if it feels like it. In the most extreme cases, genital pain will be a symptom along with delayed or failed climax, which suggests an issue combining a forceful grip with friction, speed, and compulsion. In men, this often means masturbating too much, too fast, too hard, and too often.
For women, this usually means a hard touch, not enough lubrication, and a loss of enthusiasm during longer sessions.
Healthcare professionals usually see DGS as a psychosomatic form of sexual dissatisfaction. The cause for men, in this case, would be penile hyperstimulation, but it would not be the sole factor.
The prevailing internet urban legends surrounding this condition would argue that you are just stroking too hard, but this is a partial assumption that ignores many other aspects of human sexuality. DGS bothers you because it prevents you from enjoying sex with partners, which is what you really want in your life.
DGS will gradually sneak up on you in a way similar to getting hooked on cigarettes. You will not consciously notice that the pleasure you are driving from masturbation is interacting with your brain reward system.
Your mind takes note of every little thing that culminates in a fantastic orgasm each time you masturbate; these mental notes include additional factors such as setting, mood, pornography, sex toys, lubricants, lighting, medications, emotions, and recreational substances.
If the bulk of your sex life consists of incorporating some or all of these factors into self-loving sessions, you are in effect creating a deep-rooted sexual habit that also happens to involve the brain reward system. In other words, you are developing a compulsion.
This is a good time to clarify something. DGS will only happen if you allow it to happen, and it is only a problem if it interferes with other aspects of your life. Anyone who decides to dispense with sexual partners is entitled to enjoy masturbation; the techniques and frequency are irrelevant as long as they do not disrupt a normal and healthy life.
There can only be DGS if you feel that having sex with partners is not as fun or pleasurable as the elaborate masturbation sessions you have gotten used to.
DGS is a lot like crossing a line that you didn’t know about. It can be distressing to live with this condition, particularly if you grew up in an environment where touching yourself was treated as a shameful sin.
It goes without saying that masturbation can be a solid foundation for a healthy sexual life. If your libido and stamina are sufficient to frequently masturbate and still find time and energy to enjoy sex with partners, DGS is not something to worry about. With all this in mind, it is vital to know that you can always go back to the line DGS inadvertently made you cross.
Overcoming Death Grip Syndrome Through Behavioral Retraining and Neuroplasticity
DGS is fairly easy to self-diagnose. You know you are getting off through the masturbation sessions you have crafted, but this is not what you want out of sex. Most of us are wired to enjoy sex with partners, particularly through intercourse that culminates with climax. Let us not forget that we are also creatures of habit, and it is quite easy for us to get really good at pleasing ourselves. This is what you need to undo in order to reverse the negative effects of DGS.
We can consider DGS to be a valid health concern when it produces shame, guilt, and frustration. The guilt should never be centered on masturbation; not many people are able to achieve mastery of pleasing themselves, and many others spend a good part of their lives expecting others to deliver the level of sexual pleasure they crave. DGS is not a big deal unless you blow it up to such proportions.
The first step is to let go of the guilt and shame; perhaps all of us would have been able to avoid DGS through better sex education in our school systems. You want to be left with just the feeling of frustration and the rationalization that you can reverse this condition.
Sex therapy counselors and behavioral psychology researchers from the University of California Santa Barbara recommend the following process to overcome DGS and get back to enjoying sex with partners:
- Stop for an entire week. You have to go “cold turkey” and abstain from everything you usually incorporate into your sessions. This means pornography, toys, aromatic candles, special lotions, liquor, cannabis, and everything else you normally use for the purpose of sexual gratification.
- Give yourself a session in the second week, but only once. Make this session all about yourself and your body, which means that you should dispense with everything that is not your hands, toy, and lubricant. Forget about music, pornography, aromas, wine, controlled substances, and any other “extras.” This should only be you and your mind thinking about partners and not about reaching orgasm.
- You can masturbate more than once during the third week, but no more than three times, and only when you are physically turned on. Try rubbing lotion around the most sensitive spots of your genitals, but not directly on them. This would be a good time to experiment with a light touch; you can always be playful and see how long you can last with “edging,” which is gently letting go when you are getting closer to orgasm. If you get to a point where your soft moves will move you to climax, you know that you are doing things right. Just like during the previous week, all masturbation extras should be ignored. You should consider talking with your partner about what kind of extras you both agree should be part of your sexual relationship.
- Ideally, you should not have masturbated more than four times in three weeks without enhancements. Most people should be able to resume enjoying sex with partners from this point on. What you are accomplishing with this method is modifying your behaviors and rewiring your brain reward system; to a certain extent, this is similar to the way many people are able to break free from addictions and negative patterns in their lives. This is what mental health professionals refer to as neuroplasticity.
In the end, DGS is more in your mind than anything else. As long as you are able to make a sincere commitment to getting better, you should be back to a baseline level in about a month.
Keep in mind that mastery of your own libido is not only a healthy trait; it can also make you a better lover through the process of building self-confidence.
Here’s something else to keep in mind: If luck is on your side, an amazing partner may come around and “fix you” with the magic of high sex appeal. If this is the case, congratulations; you may not have to follow the steps above, but you may now have to work on the art of keeping your partner happy, which requires a different kind of mastery.