Let's unpack this.

By Korin Miller
May 12, 2020
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This is the latest article in Health's column, But Why? Here, experts decipher the psychological reasons behind the most puzzling human behavior mysteries.

An unidentified woman became a viral star after video surfaced online that showed her masturbating in Ikea.

The video, which was originally posted on Chinese social media, showed the woman getting off on several pieces of furniture at an Ikea store as other shoppers waled around in the background. This wasn’t a fully clothed kind of thing; the woman was half-naked in the video as she got busy on different sofas and beds, according to AFP.

It’s unclear exactly where this took place and when, but it appears to have happened pre-pandemic, since plenty of people can be seen mingling around without masks on.

The video has since been taken down, but not before it snagged nine million views. It was so popular that Ikea actually issued a statement over the whole thing. "We resolutely oppose and condemn this kind of behavior, and immediately reported it to the police in the city of the suspected store," the company said in a statement to AFP. Ikea also said that the chain would take "even more careful security and public cleanliness measures,” before asking customers to "browse stores in an orderly and civilized way.” (Because apparently some people need reminding.)

This is hardly the first time a woman has been caught pleasuring herself in public. Women have been busted by police for masturbating on a busy street, a college library, and even inside Starbucks. And there are plenty of stories of men doing similar acts. (Public masturbation is at least a misdemeanor, depending on what city or state it happens in, and the masturbator risks getting a citation or being arrested.)

There’s nothing wrong with a little self-love. In fact, masturbation is actually good for you—it relieves stress, helps you sleep better, boosts body confidence, and might even ease period cramps. Yet doing it in a store or other heavily trafficked public space definitely isn’t the norm. But why, then, do some people masturbate in public? Psychologists and sex therapists we spoke to say plenty of different reasons can explain this.

Sex in public is a common fantasy

That includes solo sex, licensed clinical psychologist and sex therapist David Ley PhD, tells Health. “Fantasy of sex in public is quite common,” he says.

One study published in The Journal of Sex Research surveyed the sexual interests of 1,040 men and women from the general public and found that about 30% of them had engaged in some form of paraphilia—a pretty broad term to describe sexual arousal to unusual objects, situations, fantasies, or people. Paraphilia includes things like voyeurism (feeling pleasure when you watch someone when they’re naked or doing sexual things) and fetishism (having sexual urges related to an object or unusual part of the body), psychotherapist and sex counselor Ian Kerner, PhD, author of She Comes First, tells Health. Sexual behavior related to paraphilia can involve masturbation.

Another study published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine asked 1,516 men and women about their sexual preferences, also finding that the fantasy of having sex in public is common. But fantasizing about doing a sexual act in public and actually doing it are two completely different things. Of those people who are into paraphilia, Ley estimates that only about 5% would act on it to the degree that it’s offensive to other people.

It can be a form of partner power play

Kerner says masturbating in public is really no different than enjoying common taboos like having sex on the beach or in an elevator—it’s just that it involves solo sex. But that doesn’t mean a person is necessarily acting alone. One partner could be controlling a vibrator behind the scenes or simply watching for their own pleasure, says Kerner. “I see this behavior pattern so often in connection with couples,” he explains.

It can be about creating porn

Public porn that shows exhibitionism is trendy right now, says Ley. “Watching porn of such exhibitionism is exciting because of the shock value, and it’s a safe way for the viewers to explore and experience that excitement,” he adds. A few years ago, Arkansas parents were arrested and charged with several felonies after shooting amateur porn in a restaurant and home improvement store. And in February, Santa Monica, California residents were upset after porn that was shot in a local library—during business hours—landed on an adult film site. “As long it is shocking and sensational, such videos will keep getting made, Ley says.

It could be due to a fetish or disorder

But it's more likely to be on the disorder end of things, psychologist James M. Cantor, PhD, director of the Toronto Sexuality Centre, tells Health. “Technically, fetishes involve sexual arousal to atypical objects rather than atypical behaviors,” he says. In other words, it’s possible for someone with a fetish to be aroused by objects in their environment, like low-cost furniture. But if they’re constantly and strongly aroused by the idea of public masturbation in any situation, it could classify as a disorder (specifically exhibitionist disorder), says Cantor.

It can simply be for the thrill of it

Public sex acts can be arousing—and with that, some people may just get excited about the idea of masturbating in public and act on it, Delaware sex therapist Debra Laino tells Health. “If someone does this occasionally, like every six months or so, it might just be for the thrill of potentially getting caught,” she says. “But if someone is an exhibitionist, they usually can only get off that way.”

Either way, this kind of behavior is definitely frowned up on by the general public. “In sex therapy around such issues, we commonly work on helping people to find safe, ethical ways to explore the fantasy—through nude beaches, swinger clubs, or even camming, as safe, noncriminal options that respect the rights of others,” says Ley.

So while you might get (understandably) excited the next time you witness the wonder that is Ikea furniture, keep in mind that plenty of people aren't going to be into it if you funnel that excitement into self-pleasure. Better to save that energy and inspiration until you're in the privacy of your own home.

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