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Masturbation: A Brief and Rigorous History

Letting my fingers do the walking…on the keyboard

If my 12-year-old self knew that I would one day write a national blog on the subject of masturbation, she would instantly implode into a white-hot ball of embarrassment and incredulity.

Masturbation is the most common sexual activity. Ironically, it’s also probably the one people talk about the least. Big people, small people, practically all people masturbate. A recent nationally-representative sample of almost 6000 men and women aged 14-94 found that most people have masturbated at some time in their lives, though the frequency depends on a person’s sex, age, health, and sexual habits. Most of the findings aren’t surprising: men are more likely than women to masturbate, and among those who do masturbate, men do so more frequently than women. Teens and college students report the highest frequency of masturbation, averaging two to three times per week. This frequency decreases as we age. It is a fallacy that people only masturbate when they are not involved in a sexual relationship. Some studies even suggest that the frequency of masturbation increases with a person’s frequency of intercourse, especially in women. Makeda Gerressu and colleagues found that women who report more oral and anal sex and more sexual partners were more likely to report masturbating.

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It is ironic that masturbation, arguably the safest sexual act, has for millennia been thought to lead to horrible physical and mental consequences. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, masturbation has generally been condemned as sinful, mostly due to the mandate to “be fruitful and multiply.” In fact, Catholic theologian St. Thomas Aquinas believed that masturbation was a worse sin than rape, incest, and adultery, because in these other sins procreation is a possibility. During the Victorian age, masturbation was thought to lead to impaired morals, depression, social failure, epilepsy, tuberculosis, blindness, insanity, sterility, and early death. Since masturbation was thought to be so dangerous, many “cures” were developed to eliminate its practice. Men of the time were encouraged to wear straightjacket pajamas or erection alerts to discourage handling of the penis. Some would wear a little suit of armor that would fit over the penis and testicles. Others wore a spermatorrhea ring. Available from the Sears catalogue, these rings fit along the base of the penis with spikes on its inner lining to prevent erection. As a last resort, some chronic masturbators had their foreskin stapled shut, or were castrated. In the nineteenth century, John Kellogg invented cornflakes as one part of a diet that he felt would lessen the sex drive and diminish the practice of masturbation, which he called a "crime doubly abominable."

Today’s views aren’t much more enlightened. In 1991, Pee Wee Herman was arrested for allegedly masturbating in an X-rated movie theater. The object of numerous jokes, his show was pulled off the air, and his handprints and star were taken off the sidewalk of Hollywood Boulevard. His career has since had a comeback, although not to his previous level of success. Former U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders stated that since masturbation was safe and healthy, it should be mentioned in school health curricula. People misinterpreted her statements to say that she thought students should be taught how to masturbate. Due to public outcry, President Clinton fired her in 1994.

In reality, not only is masturbation physically and psychologically harmless, but there are a number of therapeutic benefits to self-stimulation. Aside from producing sexual pleasure, masturbation relieves stress and lowers blood pressure, and can be enjoyed by couples or by those not in a relationship. Some feel that masturbation may improve a man’s fertility, as ejaculation flushes out the old, less motile sperm left behind in the urethra. Masturbation may even lower a man’s chance of getting prostate cancer— a study by G.G. Giles and colleagues found that men who ejaculated five times or more a week, especially while in their twenties, were found to be less likely to develop the disease, perhaps by preventing the buildup of carcinogenic substances in the prostate gland. Masturbation allows both men and women to learn about their bodies and their sexual response. In fact, women who masturbate as adolescents are better able to achieve sexual gratification as adults. Finally, masturbation presents no risk of pregnancy or transmission of STIs. It may even lower a woman’s chance of getting an STI, as orgasm increases the acidity of the vagina and protects against infection.

As George Carlin said, “If God had intended us not to masturbate, He would have made our arms shorter.”

This blog entry is part 1—in keeping with the theme, part 2 will focus on vibrators. Somewhere, in an alternate time-line universe—my 12-year-old self is throwing her arms up in dismay.

 

Martha S. Rosenthal, Ph.D. is a Professor of Physiology and Neuroscience at Florida Gulf Coast University.

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