Tag Archives: sexual health

What Do You Wish You Could Have Learned in Sex Ed?

When you were just beginning to be aware of your own sexuality, you probably got very little in the way of reliable information: maybe just a filmstrip acknowledging that you would grow hair in new places and that this has something to do with how babies are made. Most of the important stuff, you had to figure out for…


The Scientific and Personal Benefits of Masturbating

Last year, my colleagues in the UK ran a story extolling the virtues of not masturbating. The virtues were, um, limited—a bit of increased productivity, seemingly brought on by a reduction in guilt. With the help of Jim Pfaus, a Concordia University neuroscientist who studies sexual arousal, that piece basically concluded that if you quit stroking it, it would be an interesting novelty, but you're probably going to fall off the wagon pretty quickly, and that won't be a big deal.

But what about the other side of that coin? I consider myself cuffed in the extreme, and my very fortunate romantic situation means I rarely have the inclination to crank it these days. I feel fine, but the realization made me curious: Am I missing out on something? Is masturbating a healthy habit?

To find out, I got back in touch with Pfaus. He told me there's a dearth of useful masturbation data, and helped me look at the topic through a lens of scientific common sense.

VICE: I'm trying to figure out if masturbating is good for you. Googling around, I see a lot of contradictory information, and some obvious myths. You're a scientist who studies this. What's the actual truth?
Jim Pfaus: You're not gonna get an STI. That's maybe the biggest health benefit that, by definition, comes with solitary sexual activity. 

Why isn't there more scientific information about masturbation?
There's not a hell of a lot of good science. That's the problem. You can't get [institutional review boards] to give you the authorization to watch people masturbate. And you have to rely on people's self-projection when it comes to asking them questions about how many times a week they masturbate, and try to correlate that with health issues. 

"A lot of people masturbate in order to go to sleep—crank it, wank it, splooge, boom, go to sleep." - Jim Pfaus

And what good news is there from that?
What I could find from the last two years [is that] people who masturbate more frequently—[and openly] admit to masturbating—have a more liberal view of sex and sexuality. Women that masturbate more frequently than those who don't also tend to have more sex partners, but also be more confident with their sexual activity. They seem to know their erogenous zones better. Guys don't really, because it's all about our penis, and not so much our nipples, so we don't really go anywhere except our penis. But certainly if we masturbate more frequently, we know our penis better than those who don't.

Is there a way to look at the actual benefits of that self-knowledge? Say by comparing it to the repercussions from a lack of self knowledge? 
We can only surmise what would happen. [If a woman] doesn't touch herself for whatever reason—just [being] raised in a very religious household that tells you touching yourself is bad, and you're gonna go to hell? If you buy that, you don't touch yourself, and the repercussions of that are going to be that you've got a really bad sense of sexual self-esteem.  

OK, so maybe you get improved self-esteem. What about anxiety relief? When you talked to my colleagues in the UK, you mentioned that masturbation helps people relax. Is that backed up by data?
It's utterly anecdotal. It appears in Kinsey. Masters and Johnson talk about it that way. All of that comes from their patients and clients.

Has it been tested at all?
Irv Binik at McGill [University] has an orgasm checklist. It has all these different adjectives, and on a five-point scale you answer "How well does this word relate to your normative sense of orgasm." [To test for relaxation] you would have to scale the orgasms, and say "when the orgasm does this, does that reduce anxiety?"

Has anyone tested for anything even remotely close to anxiety?
Barry Komisaruk [at Rutgers Univeristy] did a study published in 1986, [which found that women's] pain threshold was elevated dramatically after orgasm and not before orgasm. So [when women have orgasms] their pain thresholds go up, because orgasms have an analgesic effect. That's a real thing.

Can we call that a health benefit?
No, but it follows from the activation of the opioids that your pain threshold would be increased.

OK but are there other aspects of that opioid effect that we can surmise might be beneficial?
Opioids and serotonin. So there are things like sleep—a lot of people masturbate to fall asleep. Anecdotal reports from Kinsey, Masters and Johnson, [and others] say a lot of people masturbate in order to go to sleep—crank it, wank it, splooge, boom, go to sleep. But that's due to the increase in serotonin that gets released. Serotonin pulls you into deep sleep. 

"That's where porn use can actually be good. People can see things—whatever it is: anal, oral, throat-fucking, whacking it on somebody's cheek, and they're like 'Oh, you can actually do that!'" - Jim Pfaus

Again, when you spoke to my UK colleagues you touched on the way fantasizing can benefit people's sexual imaginations. How does that work?
If you take porn away, what happens? If you've only had that as your modus of fantasy, it can be kinda hard. You can replay porn in your head, but now what? Are you replaying it with characters you like? Characters from the grocery store you go to? The divorcée two doors down? Who and what are you putting into this? And the situations become kinda cool. You create role-play situations from that. It's not just me taking her to bed. It's me taking her to a bar and fucking her in an alley. Or me taking her to a bar, and then taking her a sleazy hotel that smells of disinfectant... That then is another form of exercise. You're exercising your sexual fantasies.

OK, but how does fantasizing improve our lives?
This is exactly what sex therapists do when bored couples come to them, where the idea would be to increase the arousal. Masters and Johnson did this in the 1960s. You had to go to St. Louis for two weeks [and] be in a room with other people your age who are all talking about their sexual fantasies. [Sex therapy] tries to arouse you by getting you to do something you've never done. So instead of doing it every week on a Friday night in the dark in the missionary position, now the idea is to do it in the bathroom, or the kitchen, [or] in a hammock, or on the swings, or in the kids' bedroom when the kids aren't home. Whatever it is, just explore that.

I see so the fantasy is like a pair of glasses that shows you new and exciting ways to get aroused in the world around you?
Exactly. That's where porn use can actually be good. People can see things—whatever it is: anal, oral, throat-fucking, whacking it on somebody's cheek, and they're like "Oh, you can actually do that!"—[and] when you actually do them, and you have your massive orgasm, riding on that way higher arousal, now you're going to feel like it's safe. Because you know you like something that you didn't know you liked.

Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.