A Scientist’s Response To The “War On Masturbation”

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In the not-too-distant past, masturbation was routinely denounced as an activity that not only damages your health, but also your soul. Physicians and priests would warn people about the dangers of this so-called form of “self-abuse,” which included everything from blindness, to insanity, to eternal damnation. They also went to great lengths to prevent people from touching themselves. For example, masturbators might have their hands tied together at night or be forced to wear a chastity belt of sorts to prevent contact with their genitals. Some "experts" at the time also recommended that boys who were frequently caught masturbating be circumcised without anesthesia, while masturbating girls should have carbolic acid applied to the clitoris. Yes, masturbation was deemed so awful that it was worth cutting or burning your child’s genitals in order to stop it.

We should be thankful that these extreme attitudes and barbaric practices have died down considerably in recent years; however, this does not mean that the war on masturbation is over. For example, consider that Brigham Young University-Idaho released a public service announcement earlier this year claiming that letting your friends masturbate is like leaving a wounded soldier on the battlefield. See for yourself below.

This video is perhaps not surprising in light of the Mormon Church's historically strong stance against any and all masturbation. In fact, the Church was distributing literature to youth as recently as the 1990s claiming that masturbation leads to "a shattered life," among other negative personal outcomes. In the past, the Church even provided followers with a number of tips for squelching masturbatory desires, such as the following:

"When you bathe, do not admire yourself in a mirror. Never stay in the bath more than five or six minutes -- just long enough to bathe and dry and dress and then get out of the bathroom into a room where you will have some member of your family present."

"...if you are tempted to masturbate, think of having to bathe in a tub of worms, and eating several of them as you do the act."

Oh my! But the Mormons aren't the only ones who have spoken out about the dangers of self-pleasure. There’s also the popular and growing anti-masturbation movement on Reddit entitled “no fap” ("fap" means "masturbation" for those who are unfamiliar with this term) out of which we have seen a number of people (largely men) claiming that giving up masturbation improved their lives in numerous ways, ranging from enhanced self-confidence, to higher energy levels, to better skin.

In light of these and other recent claims that masturbating is harmful or must be stopped, I thought it would be worth taking a look at what the science on this topic actually has to say. Is masturbating really bad for your health? And will it necessarily ruin your relationship and "shatter" your life? Generally speaking, no. First, several studies have found that people who masturbate seem to report better physical and psychological health than those who abstain. For example, studies have found that masturbation is linked to higher self-esteem among women [1] and, among men, a lower likelihood of developing prostate cancer [2]. Research has also found that masturbatory orgasms provide a boost to the immune system. Specifically, one study found that after a masturbatory orgasm, men experienced an increase in leukocytes and natural killer cells (both of which are helpful in fighting off infections) compared to men who did not climax [3]. Related to this, some sexual health experts have claimed that female masturbation may prevent certain cervical infections because the cervix opens during sexual arousal, allowing bacteria to be flushed out. Of course, I should also mention that masturbation is the safest form of sex anyone can have because there is no risk of spreading or contracting STIs.

Second, masturbation does not appear to be harmful to people's sex lives or relationships either. For example, studies have found that masturbation is linked to having more sexual partners and more frequent sex [4]. Likewise, research on heterosexual married women has found that female masturbators report having happier marriages and more satisfying sex than their non-masturbating counterparts [5]. These and numerous other studies have revealed that masturbation is linked to more positive than negative outcomes.

So is masturbation ever a bad thing? In rare cases, masturbation can become problematic, such as when it takes on a compulsive quality or when it creates conflict by becoming a complete substitute for sex with one’s current relationship partner (and, hey, if someone decides to give up masturbation for one of these reasons, that's perfectly understandable and, in fact, may be a very healthy decision--but it's not a reason to speak out against masturbation as a whole). There are also certain masturbation techniques that can be dangerous (e.g., autoerotic asphyxiation, which involves depriving oneself of oxygen while masturbating). For most people, though, masturbation is unlikely to be harmful and, to the contrary, could potentially yield benefits for one's health and sex life—hardly just cause for waging a war.

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[1] Hurlbert, D. F., & Whittaker, K. E. (1991). The role of masturbation in marital and sexual satisfaction: A comparative study of female masturbators and nonmasturbators. Journal of Sex Education & Therapy, 17, 272-282.

[2] Giles, G. G., Severi, G., English, D. R., McCredie, M. R. E., Borland, R., Boyle, P., & Hopper, J. L. (2003). Sexual factors and prostate cancer. British Journal of Urology International, 92, 211-216.

[3] Haake, P., Krueger, T. H., Goebel, M. U., Heberling, K. M., Hartmann, U., & Schedlowski, M. (2004). Effects of sexual arousal on lymphocyte subset circulation and cytokine production in man. Neuroimmunomodulation, 11, 293-298.

[4] Pinkerton, S. D., Bogart, L. M., Cecil, H., & Abramson, P. R. (2003). Factors associated with masturbation in a collegiate sample. Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality, 14, 103-121.

[5] Hurlbert, D. F., & Whittaker, K. E. (1991). The role of masturbation in marital and sexual satisfaction: A comparative study of female masturbators and nonmasturbators. Journal of Sex Education & Therapy, 17, 272-282.

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