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Masturbation is such an under-appreciated form of sexual activity. It has been blamed in urban legends for everything from hairy palms to lack of productivity, and has a reputation of being reserved for those who can’t find anyone else to have sex with them. But that’s just not true. Most people masturbate. It feels good. It carries no risk of pregnancy or disease. It can take as much or as little time as you have. And it’s relaxing. So why have media outlets warned readers that they might be doing it too much or the wrong way?
Recently, in a December 15 article titled “We’ve Got Bad News for People Who Love Masturbating,” Maxim’s Ali Drucker tells readers: “If you or someone you love frequently enjoys doing the five-finger shuffle, there’s a study that suggests they might face negative effects over time.” The article actually points to three pieces of “research” that seem to suggest masturbation isn’t as good as other forms of sexual behavior, that one can become addicted to it, and that the “grip of death” can make men incapable of experiencing pleasure any other way.
Well, Rewire has good news—these conclusions are largely based on junk science and misunderstandings.
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The first study Drucker cites, originally published in Biological Psychology, is called, “The post-orgasmic prolactin increase following intercourse is greater than following masturbation and suggests greater satiety.” Prolactin is a hormone that is released by the pituitary gland. Its main function is to stimulate milk production when a woman is lactating, but it also plays a role in the sexual response cycle. According to the study, which was first published about ten years ago, prolactin is released after orgasm as a way to counteract the dopamine released during arousal. Some scientists believe that the more satisfying the experience is, the more prolactin levels will go up afterward.
For this study, Stuart Brody and his colleagues compared data showing prolactin levels after penile-vaginal sex to those after masturbation and found that levels after intercourse were 400 percent higher than after masturbation. They interpreted this to mean that intercourse is more physiologically satisfying than masturbation.
On the surface, this conclusion isn’t surprising. Many people don’t view masturbation as the same as a shared experience with a partner. It doesn’t tend to produce the same physical or psychological feelings. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a fun and satisfying way to spend a few minutes (or hours, if you’re ambitious or bored).
When I read the study, I did not interpret it to say that intercourse was better than masturbation, just that our biological reactions to different sexual behaviors were different. I had never read anything by Professor Brody before and reached out to him, assuming that people were overstating his results and that he did not mean to discourage masturbation. I thought, what sex researcher would ever want to discourage masturbation?
However, he replied, “Instead of any fresh quotes, I attach my review paper on the evidence regarding health differences between different sexual behaviors.” He sent me a different article, a literature review in which he says in no uncertain terms that penile-vaginal intercourse (PVI) is the best kind of sex and that “sexual medicine, sex education, sex therapy, and sex research should disseminate details of the health benefits of specifically PVI.”
As a sex educator, I can’t imagine telling anyone that penile-vaginal sex is inherently better. For one thing, not everyone is in a couple, and not all couples have a penis and a vagina between them. And even for cisgender heterosexual couples, PVI is only one of countless potentially pleasurable behaviors. Moreover, many women find it less satisfying and less likely to end in orgasm than behaviors that incorporate clitoral stimulation.
But Brody not only thinks it’s the best form of sex—he thinks we sometimes do it wrong. He writes that “PVI might have been modified from its pure form, such as condom use or clitoral masturbation during PVI.” He also explains that Czech women who were vaginally orgasmic were more likely than their peers who didn’t have orgasms through PVI to have been taught during childhood that the vagina is “an important zone for inducing female orgasm,” concluding that “sex education should begin to be honest” about sexual behaviors.
I thought we’d moved on from the idea that we should all be having heterosexual, penile-vaginal sex in its “pure form” (missionary position?) and that women who couldn’t orgasm this way were both bad at sex and shit out of luck.
Colleagues in the field told me that many of them ignore Brody’s studies because he makes wild inferences based on soft science and, as implied by his research, is wedded to the idea that for sex to have the most benefits it needs to include PVI.
Nicole Prause, a researcher who has written critiques of Brody’s work, told me via email that, “His work almost exclusively uses data from other researchers, not his own, meaning the design is never really appropriate for the claim he is actually trying to make.” She went on to say that Brody’s studies on orgasm are often based on self-report, which is notoriously unreliable. Although the study Maxim cites was based on blood tests, “He has never once verified the presence of orgasm using a simple physiological measure designed for that purpose: anal EMG. Many women are thought not to be able to reliably distinguish their orgasm, so his purely self-report research is strongly suspect. If this is his area of focus, he should be studying it better than everyone else,” she concluded.
But Brody’s research on prolactin isn’t the only questionable science that Maxim relies on for its cautionary tale on masturbation. The article goes on to discuss the role of oxytocin and dopamine and points out that there’s less oxytocin released during masturbation. This is probably true—oxytocin is known as a bonding hormone and is triggered by contact with other people, so it’s not surprising that it’s not released when you’re orgasming alone. The Maxim article, however, argues that if the brain is flooded with dopamine (a neurochemical) during masturbation without the “warm, complacent, satisfied feeling from oxytocin,” you can build up a dopamine tolerance, or even an addiction, and get into “a vicious cycle of more masturbation.”
David Ley, PhD, a clinical psychologist and sexuality expert, explained in an email that many people describe dopamine as the “brain’s cocaine,” but this is an overly simplistic way of looking at it. It doesn’t mean we’re at risk of desensitizing our brain or getting addicted to jerking off. Ley wrote:
It appears that there are many people whose brains demonstrate lower sensitivity to dopamine and other such neurochemicals. These people tend to be “high sensation-seekers” who are jumping out of airplanes, doing extreme sports, or even engaging in lots of sex or lots of kinky sex. These behaviors aren’t caused by a development of tolerance or desensitizing, but in fact, the other way around—these behavior patterns are a symptom of the way these peoples’ brains work, and were made.
OK, dopamine isn’t cocaine and neither is masturbation: We’re not going to get addicted if we do it “too” much.
But, wait, Maxim throws one more warning at us—beware the “death grip.”
Though the article describes this as “the idea that whacking off too much will damage your dick,” the term, which was coined by sex advice columnist Dan Savage, is more about getting too accustomed to one kind of stimulation and being unable to reach orgasm without it. There is some truth to this—if you always get off using the same method, you can train your body to react to that kind of stimulation and it can be harder (though rarely impossible) to react to others. There are two solutions, neither of which involve giving up on masturbation: Retrain your body by taking some time off from that one behavior and trying some others, either by yourself or with a partner, or incorporate that behavior into whatever else you’re doing to orgasm (like clitoral masturbation during intercourse).
In fairness, the Maxim article ends by acknowledging that masturbation can have benefits, but I still think it did its readers a disservice by reviewing any of this pseudoscience in the first place. As Ley said in his email, “This article, targeted towards men (because we masturbate more), is still clearly pushing an assumption that there is a ‘right kind of sex/orgasm’ and that masturbation is just a cheap (and potentially dangerous) substitute … That’s a very sexist, heteronormative, and outdated belief based on a view of sex as procreative only.”
So for a different take on it all: Sure, there might be more prolactin and oxytocin produced during intercourse than masturbation, but that does not mean that masturbation isn’t enjoyable or worthwhile. You won’t become addicted to it, but you might want to mix up how you get to orgasm or just incorporate your preferred stroke into all other sexual activity.
What you shouldn’t do is view the Maxim article—or any of the research it cites—as reasons not to stick your hands down your own pants.