The Great Masturbation Hoax: Is Not Masturbating Unhealthy for You?

While no one ever masturbated fantasizing about reducing the risks of prostate cancer, there is a common myth that masturbation is good for your health. To stop masturbating might increase certain health risks in men.

For instance, Anthony Santella and Spring Cooper, two lecturers on human sexuality at the University of Sydney, claim masturbation is good for men. It reportedly reduces the risk of prostate cancer, increases immune system functioning, and reduces depression.

But when we look at the actual research, we see a different picture.

Myth Not Masturbating Is Unhealthy for You

All Orgasms Are Not Created Equal

When sex educators claim masturbation in men is healthy, they are referring to research about ejaculation. One study from the Journal of the American Medical Association, says, when you look at the various studies on this subject, the results are quite mixed. Some show a positive correlation to reducing prostate cancer risks, some a negative correlation, some no correlation at all.

Conclusions from the research about ejaculation are mixed because researchers often assume all orgasms are created equal. They aren’t. Even the makeup of semen is different when you compare masturbation to vaginal intercourse.

Once researchers started differentiating between masturbation and vaginal intercourse, they noticed more consistent trends regarding health benefits. Compared to sexual intercourse, Dr. Stuart Brody says masturbation is correlated with fewer health benefits—or even increased health risks—for the following conditions in men:

  • Satisfaction with one’s mental health
  • Relationship satisfaction
  • Self-rated happiness
  • Lower depression scores
  • Less likely to have schizophrenia
  • Improved erectile function
  • Faster recovery from stress
  • Fewer prostate abnormalities
  • Less prostate cancer risks

Dr. Brody says masturbation is actually associated with more symptoms of depression and more prostate abnormalities.

In short, there are a few health problems associated with masturbation, and whatever physiological benefits masturbation claims to have, it is only because of its distant relation to its healthier cousin: sexual intercourse.

Masturbation, Lust, and Brain Health

Dr. Norman Doidge, author of The Brain that Changes Itself, says there are two separate pleasure systems in our brains: one for exciting pleasure and another for satisfying pleasure. Masturbating to fantasies and especially pornography activates the exciting system, but leaves the satisfying system starved for “the real thing.”

The exciting system is fueled by the neurochemical dopamine. Dopamine focuses our attention, giving our brain a little feel-good reward, helping us become sexually aroused, gearing up for sex. The satisfying system involves actually having having sex—touching, kissing, caressing, and really connecting with someone—which provides a calming, fulfilling pleasure. The problem with masturbation is that the satisfying system is never activated.

The more one masturbates to porn, the more dopamine is released in the brain. Eventually dopamine receptors and signals fatigue, leaving the viewer wanting more but unable to reach a level of satisfaction. This desensitization in turn impacts the prefrontal cortex—the “executive control” center of the brain—causing what is called hypofrontality. This means a loss of self-control and a propensity to addictive behavior.

Masturbation and Erectile Dysfunction

Masturbation, especially when porn is involved, is also causing erectile dysfunction in some men. The problem isn’t with the organ between your legs but the organ between your ears: the brain.

Sam Black writes in The Porn Circuit,

Drs. Marnia Robinson and Gary Wilson explained in Psychology Today that overstimulation with pornography creates changes in the brain that make a man less responsive to the physical pleasure of a real woman and hyper-responsive to Internet porn. Men become sensitized to Internet porn, but desensitized to sex in general, which requires more and more stimulation to achieve arousal. When preparing for real sex, the pornified brain fails to get its dopamine surge and the signal to the penis is too weak to achieve erection. But turn on an Internet device with unlimited pages of novelty, and boom, the plumbing works.

Related: RecoverED–10 Days on the Road to Healing from Porn-Induced Erectile Dysfunction

Masturbation and Virtue

Physical health aside, when masturbation is accompanied by erotic fantasy, what do men risk by habitually escaping into that fantasy world? Oxford scholar C.S. Lewis offers some hard-hitting thoughts:

For me the real evil of masturbation would be that it takes an appetite which, in lawful use, leads the individual out of himself to complete (and correct) his own personality in that of another (and finally in children and even grandchildren) and turns it back; sends the man back into the prison of himself, there to keep a harem of imaginary brides.

And this harem, once admitted, works against his ever getting out and really uniting with a real woman.

For the harem is always accessible, always subservient, calls for no sacrifices or adjustments, and can be endowed with erotic and psychological attractions which no woman can rival.

Among those shadowy brides he is always adored, always the perfect lover; no demand is made on his unselfishness, no mortification ever imposed on his vanity.

In the end, they become merely the medium through which he increasingly adores himself.…After all, almost the main work of life is to come out of our selves, out of the little dark prison we are all born in. Masturbation is to be avoided as all things are to be avoided which retard this process. The danger is that of coming to love the prison.

The health impact of masturbation, good or bad, may not motivate anyone to start or stop masturbating, but we shouldn’t be duped into thinking quitting masturbation is bad for us. If anything, refusing to retreat into a fantasy world forces men to live in the real world where they can can serve, love, and enjoy a real woman.