The Science of Masturbation

You won’t become addicted to your vibrator — in fact, it’s probably good for you

InIn the 1950s, people were told that masturbation could cause blindness, fatigue, and disease, sapping a man’s strength and turning him feeble-minded. John Kellogg and Sylvester Graham even developed their eponymous corn flakes and crackers in the 19th century as part of a bland diet to reduce men’s sex drives and discourage them from masturbating.

Today, we recognize these claims as an absurd campaign stemming from moral judgments rather than legitimate health risks. And yet, movements opposing masturbation persist, most notably with the “NoFap” community. (Fap is a British slang term for male masturbation.) This latest trend has risen out of concerns around the easy accessibility and variety of internet porn, and it has led to some men swearing off masturbation because of worries they’ll become addicted.

But many experts say the current anxieties around masturbation and internet porn are overblown. Instead, they believe problems related to masturbation are largely due to underlying depression, anxiety, or relationship issues. In fact, studies have shown that masturbation has a number of benefits, including increasing sexual satisfaction, sex drive, and self-confidence, and it can be an easy solution to different sexual appetites in a relationship.

“There’s no specific frequency of masturbation that you could look at and objectively say that’s too much or not enough. It’s not so much about frequency but about how is it affecting you personally.”

According to one of the largest surveys on sexual behavior in the United States, almost everyone masturbates: Between 12% and 69% of Americans have done so in the past month, depending on age and gender. (Men ages 25 to 29 had the highest rates, while women 70 and older had the lowest.)

PPeople masturbate for pleasure, to relax, to fall asleep, and to ease stress and anxiety. Orgasms look the same in the brain for men and women and regardless of whether they’re triggered by yourself or a partner. Not surprisingly, the brain’s reward network becomes highly active when you orgasm, especially an area called the ventral striatum, which is associated with feelings of pleasure and motivation. Good music, tasty foods, and recreational drugs also turn on this region.

As you become more aroused leading up to orgasm, several important neurochemicals are released, including endorphins — also known as endogenous opioids — which helps explain why sex, solo or partnered, feels so good. Endorphins are also why masturbating can help people with pain relief, as they activate the same brain network as prescription opioids. Ever wondered about people’s tendency to pass out afterward? The hormone vasopressin, which is a somnolent, or sleep aid, spikes during orgasm. So does oxytocin, which is conventionally known as the bonding hormone. It also decreases cortisol levels, resulting in the stress reduction many people seek from a solo session.

The most important neurochemical for arousal and orgasm is dopamine, which causes feelings of reward, desire, and motivation. A rush of dopamine in the ventral striatum during arousal and orgasm is one reason masturbation and sex have been labeled as addictive. However, just because something causes a surge in dopamine doesn’t mean it’s habit-forming.

“When you masturbate or have sex, the areas of the brain that are active are primary reward [regions],” says Nicole Prause, a neuroscientist and founder of the sexual biotechnology company Liberos. “But for something to be addictive, it has to meet many criteria, and it fails a lot of the other ones. For example, we don’t know that there are any withdrawal patterns with masturbation.”

This is not to say that masturbation or porn can’t be problematic for people, but the experts would call it a compulsive sexual behavior instead of an addiction. In some of those instances, the compulsion is similar to obsessive-compulsive disorder, says Justin Lehmiller, a research fellow at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University. In other cases, he says, “there’s usually some other underlying issue that’s creating the problem, and so the masturbation and porn are a symptom rather than a cause of the issue.”

Mateusz Gola, a research scientist at UC San Diego, says problems can arise when masturbation is used not just to release sexual tension, but to help someone manage their stress, anxiety, or loneliness. “[It] can be a coping strategy to avoid the current difficulties in life. And if this is the primary purpose of masturbation, then it can become a problematic behavior,” he says.

According to Gola, 10% of men and 2% of women report having a problem with masturbating to porn, in some cases doing it 20 to 30 times a week. However, it’s not the frequency that defines the behavior as compulsive. “It’s not a behavior they really want to do. It’s a behavior they have this internal urge to do,” he explains. “For them, it’s usually not a pleasant behavior. They often have a feeling of losing control over their sexual behaviors.”

“There’s no specific frequency of masturbation that you could look at and objectively say that’s too much or not enough,” Lehmiller adds. “It’s not so much about frequency but about how is it affecting you personally. If you’re masturbating so much that it’s interfering with your everyday life and functioning and causing you great distress, that’s something that’s worth talking about.”

SSome people may also be concerned they’ll become dependent on their sex toys and unable to orgasm without them. But Prause says there’s no real cause for worry. While studies on how vibration affects the skin have shown that sensation can be dampened, the effect is immediate and temporary, and there’s no risk of long-term nerve damage.

“When you apply a vibrator, somewhere in the space of an hour, that area becomes more difficult to simulate,” Prause says. “For example, you might find that if you’re using a vibrator, it’s difficult to go back to your hand or back to your partner in that moment… But it’s not permanent.”

In fact, there are no physical risks of masturbating — except in very rare cases of chafing, but that’s more an issue of technique than frequency. And myths from 19th-century scare campaigns about men losing their strength or focus from masturbation have no scientific backing. “The argument… was that losing an ounce of semen was the equivalent of losing a pint of blood. They thought that basically men were losing their life force if they were masturbating,” Lehmiller says. “But the goal was really just trying to discourage masturbation by saying that all of these bad things are going to happen if you do it.”

Similarly, there are no health risks of masturbating too little. Many people don’t masturbate at all, and that can be perfectly healthy for them.

There are, however, some physical and psychological benefits of masturbation. In addition to relieving pain, stress, and insomnia, research suggests that the more frequently men ejaculate, the lower their risk for prostate cancer. Women who masturbate more often tend to have higher self-esteem and a higher sex drive, in part by increasing blood flow to the vagina.

“[Masturbation] certainly improves circulation to those delicate tissues and the tiny little blood vessels in there,” says sex educator Melanie Davis. “Good circulation helps with the function of the erectile tissue, and that type of tissue is in all kinds of bodies. The better our circulation is down there, the better we are able to experience pleasure and the better our orgasms will be.”

Even in relationships, many people still masturbate. In fact, masturbation can be a great solution to differing sex drives within a relationship. And while you may experience an easier, faster orgasm from masturbation, Davis says there is little worry that you won’t be able to become aroused by your partner, because there are many aspects of sex, such as sound, smell, taste, and intimate touch, that you don’t get from masturbation or porn.

This is not to say that masturbation can’t cause relationship problems or become a substitute for partnered sex. However, in those cases, there is often an underlying reason why sex has dropped off and people turn to masturbation instead. “I think we have this tendency to want to blame masturbation and to want to blame porn for our relationship problems,” Lehmiller says. “But in a large number of these cases, if you really looked, you’d find other underlying issues like communication problems and so forth that are the root cause, not masturbation.”

The biggest problem with masturbation today is the same as it was in the 1800s: shame. Adopting a nonjudgmental attitude and encouraging open communication will go a long way toward alleviating anxiety and improving sexual health and satisfaction. Because at the end of the day, masturbation is the safest sex you can have.

Health and science writer • PhD in 🧠 • Words in Scientific American, STAT, The Atlantic, The Guardian • Award-winning Covid-19 coverage for Elemental

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