Sex at Dawn

Exploring the evolutionary origins of modern sexuality

Masturbation Paranoia May Cause Cancer

It's true: masturbation causes insanity and blindness.

They say masturbation can cause insanity and blindness. It can, but only in science reporters and others who get too worked up to think straight.

The headline reads: "Masturbation May Increase Risk of Prostate Cancer." But the headline misrepresents the study being reported -- and doesn't even accurately summarize the content of the story.

In fact, all the researchers found was a preliminary suggestion of a correlation between frequency of masturbation among some men in their 20s and higher occurrence of prostate cancer later in life. Correlation, not causation (a more thorough discussion of the study's methodology can be found here).

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Logic would lead one to think that some men might masturbate more than others because they have a higher sex drive, which would likely be related to higher levels of testosterone and related hormones.

The science around the relation between androgens (male sex-related hormones) and prostate cancer is unclear. A number of studies have found no relation at all, while others (like the study cited above) have found that higher levels of these hormones appear to indicate increased risk of developing prostate cancer later in life. A few examples of reports on these contradictory studies can be found here, here, and here.

A team of Australian researchers, for example, found that men who had ejaculated more than five times per week between the ages of 20 and 50 were a third less likely to develop prostate cancer later in life.  Graham Giles, of the Cancer Council Victoria in Melbourne, who led the research team, describes his as “a prostatic stagnation hypothesis.” Along with the fructose, potassium, zinc, and other benign components of semen, trace amounts of carcinogens are often present, such as 3-methylchloranthrene, found in tobacco smoke. Giles believes the reduction in cancer rates may be due to the fact that, “The more you flush the ducts out, the less there is to hang around and damage the cells that line them.”

So the message being sent by the headline, that masturbation could cause cancer, may well be not only wrong, but unhealthy. If Giles and his team are correct that frequently flushing away these accumulated carcinogens has a protective effect, irresponsible headlines like that could lead to higher rates of cancer by scaring young men away from masturbation.

But anti-masturbation paranoia is nothing new. While the anti-masturbation frenzy has roots deep in Western history, these forces found apparent medical support in the work of Simon André Tissot, who published A Treatise on the Disease Produced by Onanism in 1758.  Sexologist John Money tells the sad story: "With the knowledge of hindsight, it is possible to infer that Tissot recognized the symptoms of social vice, namely syphilis and gonorrhea, which in the era before germ theory were considered a single disease. He attributed these symptoms not only to excessive semen depletion secondary to promiscuity and prostitution but, in one of the great biomedical errors of all time, to the secret vice of masturbation, also."

Although certainly not the source of the original opposition to masturbation, this supposed medical confirmation could not have helped matters.

A century later, in 1858, a highly respected British gynecologist named Isaac Baker Brown (president of the Medical Society of London at the time), proposed that most women’s diseases were attributable to over-excitement of the nervous system, with the pudic nerve, which runs to the clitoris, being particularly culpable.  He listed the eight stages of progressive disease triggered by masturbation: first comes hysteria, then spinal irritation, hysterical epilepsy, cataleptic fits, epileptic fits, idiocy, mania and finally, death. Baker Brown performed an unknown number of clitorectomies in his clinic (The London Surgical Home) before finally being disgraced and expelled from the London Obstetrical Society for irregularities in obtaining consent from his victims/patients. Baker Brown subsequently went insane (or, one might argue, his insanity was subsequently recognized) and clitorectomy was promptly discredited in British medical circles. 

Unfortunately, Baker Brown’s writing had already had a significant impact on American medical practice – an impact unmitigated by his fall from grace in Britain.  The procedure continued to be practiced in the United States well into the 20th century as a cure for hysteria, nymphomania, and the scourge of female masturbation. As late as 1936, Holt’s Diseases of Infancy and Childhood, a respected medical-school text, recommended surgical removal or cauterization of the clitoris as a cure for masturbation in girls.

The craziness around masturbation would be amusing if it hadn't led to so much suffering (did you know, for example, that Graham crackers were invented as a way to discourage boys from polishing their rockets? Bland foods were thought to dampen the flames of libido, so Graham and Kellog invented their nearly tasteless foods to help boys control their urges). Check out the book or film: The Road to Wellville for more on this.

Christopher Ryan, Ph.D., is co-author of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality (HarperCollins 2010).

more...

Subscribe to Sex at Dawn

Current Issue

Love & Lust

Who says marriage is where desire goes to die?