It’s no secret that masturbation can be an enjoyable way to pass some time and can be an important form of sex education. But masturbation is still so often treated as a taboo subject that it’s easy to feel confused about whether you should masturbate or how much is too much. Is masturbation healthy?
Like many questions about sexual behavior and mental health, the answer to whether masturbation is healthy is a deeply personal one. What is healthy for one individual may not serve another. Still, studies have shown that there are clear health benefits to enjoying a little alone time with your body.
So why, then, do so many still struggle to talk about masturbation without going red in the face? Often, it’s because so much of one’s feelings about masturbation are tied to cultural, historical and religious influences, whether it’s realized it or not.
Is Masturbation Healthy? Some History.
The history of masturbation is rife with words like “sin,” “disease” and even “self-abuse.” So it’s no wonder people sometimes struggle to enjoy self-pleasure without feeling guilt!
In the 18th century, masturbation was considered a disease that could lead to insanity and other serious health conditions. By the early 1800s, this belief was pushed into the spotlight by health reformer Sylvester Graham (you may know him best thanks to his invention of a certain cracker).
Graham was a Presbyterian minister who preached that all pleasurable sensation was satanic temptation in disguise, and that any behavior that was immoral had to be unhealthful, too. Naturally, according to Graham’s teachings, masturbation was out.
Even today, when sexual health researchers have retreated from condemnation of masturbation, it is still a taboo subject for many individuals. Extensive research about masturbation is also lacking, and so the debate about its pros and cons wages on.
The Health Benefits of Masturbation
So, is masturbation healthy? Or can it negatively impact physical and mental health? Can it impact your overall sexual arousal?
Despite the way people may feel about masturbation, studies have shown that it can have real benefits for men or women, both for physical and mental well-being. How is masturbation healthy?
1. Masturbation Produces Mood-Boosting Hormones
Studies have shown that having an orgasm causes the body to release dopamine, endorphins and oxytocin, the love and bonding hormone. Producing more of these feel-good hormones through masturbation can help lower cortisol, a primary stress hormone that can lead to inflammation, insomnia and weight-loss resistance.
Higher levels of oxytocin can also make us feel happier, reduce cravings and improve your overall mood.
2. Boost Self-Confidence and Body Image
Female masturbation, in particular, can also have positive impacts on self-confidence and body image. Studies have shown that masturbation can lead to a sense of autonomy and bodily integrity that can improve an individual’s sense of identity.
On the other hand, feeling guilty about masturbation can inhibit a woman’s comfort with her own body and can even lead to negative attitudes about contraceptives.
3. Improve Sexual Satisfaction
Masturbation can be a powerful way to learn more about your body, build sexual tension, and your preferences. By helping individuals understand how their bodies react to different activities, masturbation can actually make other sexual experiences more pleasurable.
Masturbation is also becoming a more common prescribed treatment in sex therapy, and has even been used to treat various sexual dysfunctions, including premature ejaculation in men.
4. Longer Life Expectancy
A 25-year study found that greater frequency of sex predicted a lower annual death rate for men, while enjoyment of intercourse predicted a lower mortality rate for women. The benefits associated with more sexual activity had the biggest impact on coronary heart disease mortality.
In other words, sex can be good for your heart. While this study primarily focused on actual sexual intercourse, male masturbation and female masturbation can have some of the same benefits, helping to reduce cortisol and stress, reducing inflammation and boosting key hormones.
5. Reduce Prostate Cancer Risk
A Harvard Medical School study found that increased ejaculations, including from sexual intercourse and masturbation, was linked to a decreased risk of some health problems, including prostate cancer, for men.
Compared to men who reported 4-7 ejaculations per month across their lifetimes, men who ejaculated 21 or more times each month saw a 31% lower risk of prostate cancer. Just one more reason to make masturbation part of your sex life.
Is Masturbation Healthy? Understanding Compulsive Masturbation
While masturbation has been shown to have physical and mental health benefits, it is possible for masturbation to have negative health consequences. Masturbation is a very personal thing (literally, and figuratively), and the only person who can evaluate whether you masturbate too much, is you.
There is no black and white answer about what is right or wrong when it comes to masturbation. In reality, excessive masturbation is only a problem if any one person deems it to be for themselves.
Wondering if masturbation is something at which you should take a closer look? Here are a few signs that masturbation could be compulsive and could have negative impacts on your health and self-esteem.
1. You Can’t Stop Masturbating (or at least thinking about it)
One of the most telling indicators that masturbation may be compulsive masturbation is if you’ve tried to stop, slow down, or curtail your process for a designated period of time, and found yourself unable to do so. Too much masturbation may make it difficult to navigate other areas of your life successfully.
You may start forgetting to complete tasks, make less time to be social with friends, family or their partner, or start neglecting other areas of life because most of your waking (and maybe even sleeping) time is spent organizing yourself around masturbation.
2. Masturbation Is No Longer As Pleasurable
When masturbation becomes compulsive, what once felt satisfying in your everyday life, now barely wets your whistle. This can happen in terms of frequency of masturbation, or intensity. What once turned you on easily, may now not register any arousal, prompting you to seek out more intense or taboo fantasies or visual prompts.
3. Your Mood Changes if You Can’t Masturbate
Remember how masturbation helps increase those wonderful mood-boosting hormones? Compulsive masturbation can make it hard to replicate those feelings without self-pleasure.
If you’re irritable, anxious or depressed, or notice difficulty sleeping if you do not masturbate, this could be an indicator you are experiencing withdrawal symptoms or have been using excessive masturbation to cope with underlying stress at the expense of other coping strategies.
4. Masturbation Is Affecting Your Sex Life
If you’re struggling with compulsive masturbation, you may notice a decrease of sexual pleasure or arousal, or increase of sexual anxiety, with real life partners. You may even find that you can’t orgasm with other people. Too much masturbation can impact your partner, too, leaving them feeling alienated, cheated on, or betrayed.
If your relationship to masturbation is causing friction in your relationship, you may decide that the disruption is a negative consequence of too much masturbation.
5. You’re Neglecting Important Responsibilities
There can be negative legal, financial and personal consequences that result from excessive masturbation. In some cases, you may find yourself blurring boundaries in your life when masturbation becomes all-consuming, even if it goes against your own value system.
For example, masturbating at work or accessing pornography on work-issued computers or tablets can violate company policies and lead to termination. You may find yourself spending money on payment-focused porn sites, fantasy play or extortion and find your savings rapidly depleted.
You may even find yourself neglecting your role as a parent. This can occur because too much masturbation is taking up so much of your bandwidth that you no longer make time to engage with your children.
Is Masturbation Healthy? Getting Help for Compulsive Masturbation
If, after reading through this article, you feel like compulsive masturbation could be a problem for you in your overall sexual health, take a deep breath because you are not alone, you are not a bad person, and there is help.
Some people like to test themselves and go without masturbation for 30, 60, or 90 days and to see if they still feel autonomous in their sexual choices. If you choose to do so, organize your thoughts and feelings during this time, and perhaps write down when you have the urge so you can start to recognize patterns.
Create a list of alternative hobbies and practice other activities to reduce the likelihood of using too much masturbation as an exclusive coping strategy and learn new methods of getting your needs met.
Lastly, get support through sex therapy, couples therapy, or other means. Sitting with the fear, guilt or shame around sexuality can be wildly isolating, which is a risk factor for excessive masturbation to continue or get worse.
Getting support could also mean reaching out to a sex therapist, trusted friend, family member, or partner, a member of your religious community or even a support group such as Sex Addicts Anonymous, which offers online and in-person meetings.
Remember, when it comes to answering the question, “Is masturbation healthy?,” only you can know the answer for yourself. It’s important to not feel shame or guilt around self-pleasure and to review your masturbation habits with open eyes and an open mind.
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Kaestle, C. E., & Allen, K. (2011). The Role of Masturbation in Healthy Sexual Development: Perceptions of Young Adults. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 40(5):983-94.
Publishing, H. H. (2019, June 19). Harvard Medical School. Retrieved from Harvard Health Publishing: https://www.health.harvard.edu/mens-health/ejaculation_frequency_and_prostate_cancer
van Anders, S., Brotto, L., Farrell, J., & Yule, M. (2009). Associations among physiological and subjective sexual response, sexual desire, and salivary steroid hormones in healthy premenopausal women. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 6(3):739-51.
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