Is Masturbation Actually Bad For You?
Choking the chicken. Shaking out the curtains. Spanking the monkey. Lone Rangering. Polishing the jewel. Shaking hands with the milkman. Celebrating Palm Sunday. Romancing the stone. These are but a few of the colourful euphemisms for what is perhaps humanity’s oldest pastime: masturbation. For much of human history, the act of piloting the Millennium Falcon with Hand Solo has been mired in controversy and taboo, with religious leaders condemning it as a sin against God and moral guardians and medical experts blaming excessive menage a moi on all manner of personal and societal ills, from impotence and infertility to criminality and madness. But, is any of this actually true? Can taking one too many self-guided tours turn your hard drive into a floppy disk, make hair grow on your palms, or even make you go blind? Well, grab your favorite slippery substance, set your browser to incognito mode, and let’s get right to it, shall we?
In much of the ancient world, dating Rosie Palms and her five daughters was simply a natural part of life, celebrated in art and fertility rituals and prominently featured in creation myths. The ancient Sumerians, for instance, believed that engaging manual override increased sexual potency for both men and women, and that the god Enki created the Tigris and Euphrates rivers by ejaculating into their dry riverbeds. Publicly rocking the casbah, however, was still generally frowned upon. For example, Ancient Greek philosopher and shit-disturber extraordinaire Diogenes was infamous for polishing his amphora on the streets of Athens, declaring:
“If only it were as easy to banish hunger by rubbing my belly.”
With the rise of Judeo-Christian religions, however, auditioning the finger puppets came to be seen in an increasingly negative light. The most commonly-cited biblical source for the prohibition of jizz solos is the story of Onan from Genesis Chapter 38:
“And Er, Judah’s first-born, was wicked in the sight of the LORD, and the LORD slew him.
And Judah said unto Onan: ‘Go unto thy brother’s wife, and perform the duty of a husband’s brother unto her, and raise up seed to thy brother.’
And Onan knew that the seed would not be his; and it came to pass when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest he should give seed to his brother.
And the thing which he did was evil in the sight of the LORD; and He slew him also.”
While Onan’s sinful act does not appear to have been masturbation, but rather most probably that of not impregnating his brother’s wife as was his sacred duty, in this case via the act of coitus interruptus – withdrawing from and ejaculating outside of one’s partner- ultimately some Jewish and Christian scholars interpreted this story as outlawing any act which resulted in the spilling of seed outside of a woman – the logic being that said seed was reserved exclusively for the act of procreation, and wasting it an affront to God’s will. As Fifth-Century bishop Epiphanius of Salamis wrote:
“They soil their bodies, minds and souls with unchastity…and they are physically corrupted because they satisfy their appetite but… by the act of Onan the son of Judah. For as Onan coupled with Tamar and satisfied his appetite but did not complete the act by planting his seed for the God-given procreation and did himself harm instead…Others endeavor to get this same filthy satisfaction not with women but by other means, and pollute themselves with their own hands. They too imitate the son of Judah, soil the ground with their forbidden practices and drops of filthy fluid and rub their emissions into the earth with their feet.
This interpretation would result in the coining of the term onanism to describe the act of polishing the crucifix – but more on that later.
As Christian thought evolved, the prohibition against thumbing one’s rosary became enmeshed in a wider crusade against the very concept of sexual pleasure itself. Early Christians living under the Romans resented the hedonistic lifestyles of their masters, and in response began to value chastity and purity as high virtues to which all Christians should aspire. Saint Paul, for instance, claimed that virgins would be the first to be saved at the Last Judgement. Being something of a realist, however, he also acknowledged that if one could not remain chaste, marriage was the next best thing, arguing: “Better to marry than to burn.”
Saint Jerome, who famously fled into the wilderness to escape earthly temptations, took a more hard-line stance, arguing that virginity was natural and that marriage came only after the fall of man. He also considered husbands and wives to be ritually impure – and thus unfit to engage in prayer and communion – for several days after engaging in sexual intercourse.
The most extreme position on the subject, however, was held by Saint Augustine, who believed that with enough piety and discipline it was possible to engage in the act of procreation without experiencing sexual pleasure. He backed up this assertion with the wonderfully bizarre argument that:
“Some people can make their ears move, either one at a time or both together…there are individuals who can make musical notes issue from the rear of their anatomy, so that you would think they were singing.
In paradise, then, generative seed would have been sown by the husband, and the wife would have conceived…by deliberate and not by uncontrollable lust…human organs, without the excitement of lust, could have obeyed the human will for all the purposes of parenthood.”
As will surprise absolutely none of our viewers, the inability of the vast majority of men to live up to such astronomically high standards of pious discipline was inevitably blamed on those most dangerous and morally corrupting of creatures: women. Scholar Terulian of Carthage was particularly savage in his condemnation of the fairer sex, writing: “A woman is a temple built over a sewer. Woman! You are the devil’s doorway! You lead astray one whom the devil would not dare attack directly!”
The proscription against Keynoting at Cupertino was fanatically embraced by 16th and 17th century Puritans – so much so that in the North American colony of New Haven, Connecticut, the act – along with blasphemy and homosexuality – was punishable by the death penalty. But while Jewish, Christian, and Islamic doctrine has long been adamant in its condemnation of one-handed keyboard recitals, it was not until the Age of Enlightenment that the moral crusade against the practice truly took off. In 1716, an English surgeon named John Marten published a pamphlet with the colourful title of Onania, or the Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution, And All Its Frightful Consequences, in which he laid out a laundry list of medical and social ills supposedly brought about by what he termed onanism, after the biblical spiller of seed:
“It manifestly hinders the growth both in boys and girls, and few of either sex, that in their youth commit this sin to excess for any considerable time, come ever to that robustness or strength which they would have arriv’d to without it. In men as well as boys, the very first attempt of it has often occasion’d a Phymosis… [bringing] on ulcers and other worse symptoms…especially Gonorrhaea’s, more difficult to be cur’d…The ferment in the testes is destroy’d and the seed grown thin and waterish, comes away unelaborated, without any provocation; this distemper often proves fatal, even under the Hands of the most skilful.
In some it has been the cause of fainting fits and epilepsies; in others of consumptions; and many young men who were strong and lusty before they gave themselves over to this vice, have been worn out by it, and by its robbing the body of its balmy and vital moisture… sent to their Graves.
As land becomes poor by being over-till’d; and few of those that have been much accustom’d to this vice in their youth, have ever much reason to boast of the fruits of their Marriage-Bed; for if …they should get any children, they are commonly weakly little ones, that either die soon, or become tender, sickly people, always ailing and complaining; a misery to themselves, a dishonour to humane race, and a scandal to their parents.
In women self-pollution if frequently practis’d, relaxes and spoils the retentive faculty [and] may draw on a whole legion of diseases [that] makes ’em look pale, and those who are not of a good complection, swarthy and hagged. It frequently is the cause of hysterick fits… But what it more often produced than either is barrenness, and at length a total ineptitude to the act of generation itself.”
Conveniently, for the chronic self-polluter Marten offered a wide variety of proprietary remedies, including “Strengthening Tincture” at 10 shillings a little and “Prolific Powder” at 12 shillings a bag. In spite of the transparently self-promoting nature of the pamphlet, Onania proved extraordinarily popular, selling thousands of copies and being printed in 60 editions and several different languages. Marten’s work was followed in 1760 by the book l’Onanisme by Swiss physician Samuel-Auguste Tissot, who believed that semen contained a man’s vital essence, the excessive loss of which led to:
“…a perceptible reduction of strength, of memory and even of reason; blurred vision, all the nervous disorders, all types of gout and rheumatism, weakening of the organs of generation, blood in the urine, disturbance of the appetite, headaches and a great number of other disorders.”
Both Marten’s and Tissot’s works proved highly influential, sparking widespread moral outrage and paranoia over the perceived societal damage inflicted by working from home. Prominent physicians and reformers like Robert James, Benjamin Rush, and James Springer White echoed Marten and Tissot’s assertions, claiming that the taming of the shrew sapped one’s vital energy and led to moral decay and a host of medical afflictions including rheumatism, neuralgia, cancer, weakness, headache, memory loss, and – inevitably – madness. Even philosophers like Voltaire and Immanuel Kant got in on the action, with the latter even arguing that boxing the one-eyed champ was morally worse than suicide because:
“A man gives up his personality … when he uses himself merely as a means for the gratification of an animal drive.”
Hysteria over marching one’s penguin reached a fever pitch in the mid and late 19th Century, with two of the most prominent crusaders being American Presbyterian minister and health reformer Sylvester Graham and doctor and dietician John Harvey Kellogg – yes, that Kellogg. Indeed, both the Graham Cracker and Corn Flakes were originally developed as part of a bland, meatless diet which Graham and Kellogg believed would curb one’s impulse to practice touch typing. For those who persisted in the habit, Kellogg recommended more extreme measures, such as tying or bandaging their hands as they slept, locking their genitals in special cages, applying electric shocks, or sewing shut the foreskin of male patients. The latter practice, known as male infibulation, was developed in the 1870s by Karl August Weinhold, a professor of surgery at the University of Halle in Germany. In Weinhold’s method, several threads were sewn through the foreskin such that even the mildest of erections would be unbearably painful. The threads were then sealed with wax, the breaking of which would reveal any attempts to jack the beanstalk. So enthusiastic was Weinhold about infibulation that he recommended performing the method on all bachelors between the ages of 14 and 30 with dim prospects of marriage. The procedure was widely carried out on patients in lunatic asylums, with a colleague of Weinhold’s writing in 1876:
“The sensation among the patients was extraordinary. I was struck by the conscience-stricken way in which they submitted to the operation on their penises. I mean to try it on a large scale, and go on wiring all masturbators.”
Many asylums resorted to even more extreme methods to prevent its patients from charming their snakes or paddling their pink canoes, including straitjackets, spiked cock rings known as jugum penises, and – in the most extreme cases – the surgical removal of the offending organs themselves. Others, including writer Mark Twain who once gave a comedic speech on the subject, recommended more practical measures such as sewing boys’ trousers so that their genitals could not be touched through their pockets, building special school desks that prevented students from crossing their legs, and preventing girls from riding horses or bicycles.
It is worth noting here that this crusade was also responsible for the wide-scale adoption of non-religious circumcision. The traditional practice of male circumcision is thought to have originated as a type of ritual offering; as fertility was a gift bestowed by the gods, the idea went, one’s foreskin was the minimum possible offering one could make in gratitude. Among early Israelite tribes, circumcision was performed to differentiate individuals as members of the tribe and symbolize their special covenant with God. In 1908, however, British surgeon and pathologist Sir Jonathan Hutchinson published a pamphlet recommending that all boys be circumcised to discourage them from flogging their dolphins, arguing that friction from the foreskin was too stimulating and that its removal would make spanking the monkey too painful and eventually lead to a dulling of sensation. This effectively brought male circumcision in line with the ancient practice of female genital mutilation, which – among other things – was intended to curb female sexual pleasure. Indeed, the Western version of this procedure was pioneered in the 1860s by English doctor Isaac Baker Brown, who performed hundreds of clitoridectomies in an attempt to prevent his female patients from dialling the rotary phone and cure the catchall female-specific illness known as hysteria. The work of Hutchinson and Brown has left a long and controversial legacy. Recent medical studies of circumcision have found almost no medical benefits to the procedure, meaning that outside of religious tradition, the persistence of the practice into the modern world can be traced directly to a turn-of-the-century moral crusade against shuffling one’s iPod.
It would not be until the 1940s and 50s that the tide finally began to turn, as the groundbreaking sexuality studies by researchers Alfred Kinsey, William Masters, and Virginia Johnson revealed just how common both male and female air guitar really was. For example, Kinsey’s 1948 book Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male and 1953 book Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female – known collectively as the “Kinsey Reports,” found that a full 92% of American males and 62% of American females reported regularly revving their own engines. A 2018 study by sexual health and wellness company TENGA upped the latter figure to 76%, though as these figures are based on self-reported data and some are extremely uncomfortable admitting to such, the true numbers are thought to be much, much higher.
On that note, while these pioneering studies did much to destigmatize a perfectly natural practice, the process of societal acceptance has been a slow and difficult one. For example, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or DSM did not stop categorizing regular waxing on, waxing off as a mental illness until 1972, while in 1994, Surgeon General of the United States Dr. Jocelyn Elders was forced to resign after suggesting that communing with nature be taught in school curricula as perfectly healthy and safe.
But what does the modern medical establishment say? Can debugging one’s hard drive really lead to madness, depravity, and a laundry list of health problems as centuries of moral and medical authorities have so adamantly claimed?
In a word: no. The plain truth is, decades of research have failed to find any major negative health effects of exercising one’s right – or left, as the case may be. All the myths about blindness, hairy palms, depleting one’s energy are just that: myths, born out of centuries of religious and conservative fearmongering. In fact, most contemporary health experts recognize a whole host of health benefits to exploring one’s cave of wonders.
For example, regularly giving yourself a low five can help you map your own pleasure centres, discover what does and doesn’t turn you on, and gain mastery over your sexual impulses. This in turn can allow you to better communicate your desires and boundaries to sexual partners and build more trusting and fulfilling relationships. Solo or mutual manual labour can also serve as a convenient form of sexual release when one or both partners are too tired or otherwise unable to engage in regular intercourse and carries an extremely low risk of inducing pregnancy or passing on sexually transmitted diseases.
On a more individual level, tenderizing your steak releases a flood of hormones and neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine, serotonin, oxytocin, vasopressin, nitric oxide, and prolactin, which induce a sense of calm and relaxation and cause blood vessels throughout the body to constrict. This means that rubbing one out can be a convenient and effective treatment for insomnia, menstrual cramps, mild depression, headaches, and even nasal congestion.
There may actually be even greater health benefits to taking the fifth. For example, a 1997 study by the University of Georgia found an inverse correlation between frequent ejaculation and death from coronary heart disease, while 2003 and 2008 studies by the Cancer Council of Australia found that men who frequently hunted the white whale were up to 33% less likely to develop prostate cancer. Previous studies found that frequent sexual activity actually increased the risk of prostate cancer by up to 40%, but once the effects of sexually transmitted infections were controlled for this relationship completely inverted. Though it is not yet known for certain what is responsible for this protective effect, researchers like Dr. Graham Giles of the Cancer Council Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, speculate that frequent ejaculation flushes the prostate gland of various carcinogens which normally accumulate there. A similar correlation has been found in women between frequent lactation and reduced risk of breast cancer, suggesting that the same mechanism may be at play.
Right about now some of you are likely furiously typing into the comments section: what about addiction? Isn’t it possible to get a little too fond of one-handed baseball? Well, here again the news is better than you might think, for while the uncontrollable urge to explore the final frontier is mediated by the same psychological and physiological mechanisms as drug addiction, psychologists hesitate to classify it as an addiction, preferring instead the term compulsive sexual behaviour, which the most recent edition of the International Classification of Diseases, ICD-11, defines as:
“A persistent pattern of failure to control intense, repetitive sexual impulses or urges resulting in repetitive sexual behaviour.”
Thankfully, even this condition is only considered harmful or problematic it interferes with the conduct of your everyday life – for example, if you frequently excuse yourself from social situations to go on dates with Pamela Handerson or do so in public, or if frequent compulsive five knuckle shuffle negatively impacts your relationships with romantic partners. And even then, there is little evidence that making regular cash withdrawals leads to further sexual compulsion.
So, in conclusion: so long as you’re considerate about it and it’s not interfering with your day to day life or relationships, feel free to stroke your bald head when you want, how you want, and as often as you want. For as Woody Allen so wisely said in 1977’s Annie Hall: “Don’t knock masturbation; it’s sex with someone I love.”
If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our new popular podcast, The BrainFood Show (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Feed), as well as:
- Chastity Belts Were Never Actually Used in Medieval Times
- Why Women Fainted So Much in the 19th Century
- Graham Crackers Were Originally Meant to Be Part of a Diet Thought to Curb Sexual Urges
- Mark Twain’s Hilarious “Thoughts on the Science of Onanism”
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If masturbation is bad for you then I guarantee you that 99 percent of Americans are in serious physical trouble because 99 percent of them masturbate and the other ten percent lie about it.