No, Abstinence Won't Increase Your Testosterone
Claims that abstinence from masturbation increase T are based on bad science.
Posted Jul 20, 2020
Last year, I had the delightful opportunity to appear on The Daily Show, though alas, I didn't get to meet Trevor Noah. The segment was about various groups who oppose masturbation. The most common question I get about that appearance is in relation to a statement I made disputing alleged connections between testosterone (T) and masturbation.
Some folks online claim that refraining from masturbation makes them feel more manly, more masculine, more assertive, more dominant, and more attractive to females. They allege that this effect emerges from a supposed increase in testosterone when they stopped masturbating.
These claims are often supported by reference to a very small, un-replicated study from China, which involved a very small sample of 10 males. Being interested in this study and how the analysis was conducted, colleagues have attempted to obtain the study data to verify, but have been unable to. But better research finds that testosterone isn't as simple as these claims would have it.
The role of testosterone and sexual activity, including masturbation, is a nuanced and somewhat idiosyncratic dynamic. There are many complicating factors — for instance, men's testosterone decreases when they have a baby, and cuddle the baby. Men's testosterone has a complex effect on both sexual behaviors and male relationship behaviors. In adolescent males, higher T predicts more sex and more masturbation. Higher levels of T predict more infidelity, more open relationships, in men, and lower levels of T predict longer, monogamous relationships. Men who are polyamorous appear to maintain levels of testosterone that are commensurate with the levels of T in single males.
Ultimately, the question about testosterone and sexual behavior is a question of causal direction — typically, testosterone has been assumed to be causal, and to drive behaviors. However, a rival theory suggests that testosterone levels may be influenced by behaviors, or "socially modulated." The theory that masturbatory abstinence influences testosterone levels is an interesting offshoot of this concept. A similar theory is the one that suggests that athletes shouldn't have sex, as it depletes them of competitiveness and perhaps testosterone. However, research examining sports performance and sex has found no effect whatsoever, except when the sex occurred within just a couple of hours of the sporting event.
My good friend Dr. Justin Lehmiller covered this issue here, though he didn't include a very large and significant related study, which I describe below. He does note that in females, two of three studies point to an increase in testosterone from sexual activity. Lehmiller concludes that the evidence for an effect on testosterone from abstinence is inconclusive and largely unsupported.
This study by Van Anders looked at both males and females and found that in females, higher T predicted masturbation frequency. But in males, there was no clear connection between testosterone levels and sexual desire. Men who masturbated more did have higher libidos, but this was predicted by masturbatory frequency, not testosterone levels.
This very large study from the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project found that level of testosterone was actually increased by masturbation in older men, and that the hormone acts differently in males and females. This study involved a longitudinal analysis of a probability sample of US adults aged 57-85 and included 650 women and 620 men.
Results found that in fact, levels of testosterone, relationship quality, frequency of sex, and masturbation remained remarkably stable across the years of this study. Contrary to beliefs, these factors, including testosterone levels, really don't seem to change all that much. When the researchers looked specifically at male masturbation, they found that men level's of T increased with higher levels of masturbation, but, interestingly, found that higher levels of T didn't appear to increase masturbatory frequency. In other words, it appears to be a one-way effect. More masturbation increases testosterone, but more testosterone doesn't increase masturbation.
An important additional element of this study looked at relationship quality, hypothesizing that higher levels of testosterone predict worse relationship outcomes, a finding which past studies have supported. In males, this effect was present in this study, finding that higher levels of T predicted lower relationship quality. This finding explores the complex nuanced trade-off of testosterone — it may increase mating effort, but inhibits long-term relationships. Interestingly, more frequent sex in females appeared to actually lower testosterone in females, which the authors suggest may reflect that this sex occurs within a relationship and that lower testosterone levels improve relationship quality.
Overall, I stand squarely behind my statement on The Daily Show that debunked claims that abstinence from masturbation increases testosterone. These claims are based on a very poor and simplistic understanding of testosterone, sexuality, and science. These guys who claim that they want higher levels of testosterone don't understand that if they did, they'd actually be more likely to have failed and unhappy relationships. They also seem to think that testosterone is a simple hormone with simple, unidirectional effects, when the science shows us that blanket statements about any hormone or neurochemical are foolishly reductive. It's actually possible that testosterone may act differently based on age, though at this point, we don't have much data to support this. However, the idea that our behaviors influence our testosterone levels does appear somewhat likely, though not apparently in the direction hypothesized by these pseudoscientific claims. Instead, it appears that sexual behaviors may increase testosterone levels in some directions, but not others, and work differently in male bodies than in females.