Roommate masturbates every night

Dear Alice,

I'm a freshman with a problem. I have a roommate who masturbates every night and it makes me sick. She waits until she thinks I'm asleep and then really goes at it. One night she even woke me up after I was asleep. I find it disgusting to hear her moans of passion as she plays with herself. Should I tell her to stop or should I just find another roommate?

— Disgusted

Dear Disgusted,

You're certainly in a predicament. Although it may be unintentional, you're being exposed to a sexual situation to which you didn't consent, and that can cause a lot of upset or anxiety, among other emotions. Since you've indicated that your roommate thinks you're asleep, it's very possible that she has no idea that you've heard her or knows that you're aware of her behavior. If you feel comfortable, you may choose to compassionately let her know how you're feeling about the situation and give her a chance to make a change or find a compromise with you. You may also decide that this situation has created an environment in which you no longer feel comfortable living (even if it was unintentional), and you'd be within your rights to request a room change. 

If you feel that this situation is an annoyance but if she were to make changes you'd like to keep living with her, you may choose to discuss it with her. It's entirely possible that your roommate may have no idea you've heard her and may feel a range of emotions when you share this with her. So, you may keep that in mind if you choose to bring up a topic such as her habits around sexual behavior. Sex may be much harder to talk about than other sources of interpersonal conflict because it can feel personal and private to so many people, but if you choose to approach it with your roommate, the situation will likely still benefit from some compassionate conversation. For many people, masturbation is an important tactic to care for their body, brain, and emotions, and it can be a soothing way for some folks to release the tension of the day or help fall asleep. However, it's still a sexual act, and it's critical that your roommate garner consent before masturbating around you. 

If you choose to discuss it with her, you may consider being direct with your roommate about how you’re feeling about the nocturnal noise situation. When approaching this potentially awkward conversation, it’s often useful to think about what kinds of changes or resolutions would be acceptable or preferable to you. Do you want your roommate to wait until you’re asleep before masturbating? Do you need your roommate to be quieter? Do you want your roommate to masturbate in another space before coming to bed? Maybe you'd prefer your roommate to wait until you're not in the shared room? While it’s probably not feasible to ask your roommate to forego masturbation entirely, it’s perfectly reasonable to not want to be awake or in the same room when it’s happening. It’s your bedroom as much as it is hers, and you both are entitled to a living space that is safe, comfortable, and meets your basic needs. You may even prepare some potential solutions, such as scheduling some time each day when you can each have the room to yourself: maybe you want to use that time to nap or read or call your best friend without an audience, while she gets some much-needed privacy to unwind.

As you prepare for this conversation, it may also be useful to practice what you want to say or to think about how you might be comfortable describing the problem. If or when you decide to talk with her about her masturbatory habits, it might be helpful to address:

  • What's been going on — specifically, what you hear at night and the frequency with which it occurs
  • How it affects you or makes you feel
  • What you would like to see change and some potential options for compromise that fulfill both her physical needs and your privacy needs

If you’re able to focus on the impact to your well-being, avoid judging or shaming her self-care habits, and approach the conversation with a collaborative spirit, hopefully compromise will be quickly reached. However, if you're unable to come to an agreement or your roommate refuses to change her habits, you may decide to pursue a room change. 

You may also decide to pursue a room change without talking to your roommate first. If you feel that her habits have created an environment that is inhospitable or unsafe, you may choose to go directly to your housing office right away, rather than having a conversation first. Masturbating around another person can be a form of sexual harassment. Only you can define or label your experience, but if this definition resonates with your experience, you may find that talking to your roommate doesn't feel like something you can or would like to do. If you find that you're also experiencing a variety of mental, emotional, or physical health concerns from trying to process what you've been through, you may find it useful to reach out to a mental health professional or survivor advocate to help you cope with it all. The RAINN National Sexual Assault Hotline may also be able to provide some support. They can be reached through a chat feature online or at 800-656-4673 (HOPE). Surrounding yourself with a support system of people you trust which may include friends or family can also be beneficial. 

Depending how you feel about the situation, taking some time to talk to your roommate could provide a lot of clarity. Learning more about her intentions and how much they know could provide some insight into what is happening and help you both come up with ways to handle this moving forward. You may also decide that living with her is no longer appropriate for you and talk to your housing office immediately. Either way, you're within your rights to proceed in whatever way you feel most comfortable. 

Last updated Jul 01, 2022
Originally published Nov 16, 1995