For millennia, high-horse moralists have been dispensing fear and loathing among generations of impressionable young boys by peddling preposterous myths and outright lies about masturbation. You’ve heard them all before: masturbation leads to blindness, hairy palms, insanity and just generally being a bad person.
What’s perhaps most perplexing is that these fairy tales have persisted for such a long time. After all, the majority of boys discover that they are entirely devoid of truth by the time they’re 14. According to Health24's Great South African Sex Surveys for 2008 and 2009, between 71 and 82 percent of South African men confirmed that they masturbate (the figures for women are between 67 and 75 percent) and more than 85 percent say they first started to masturbate before the age of 18. In other words: “everybody” does it!
For children it’s a normal and natural part of growing up and discovering their bodies, sexuality and the joys of having opposable thumbs. For adults it’s a pleasant, safe and healthy sexual activity that, rather than being vilified, should be universally encouraged. Woody Allen’s oft-quoted quip bears repeating: “Don’t knock masturbation - it’s sex with someone I love.”
It may seem superfluous to belabour the fact that it’s good for you - it feels really, really nice, right? - but there are some benefits to masturbation you may not have thought of before:
Unlike sex with a partner, you can’t contract a sexually transmitted disease and nobody falls pregnant.
It’s a great reliever of stress and sexual tension and for many a pleasurable cure for insomnia.
It increases the flow of testosterone through the body which can help to strengthen muscles and bones. Testosterone also helps to transport a hormone called DHEA which is important in the functioning of the immune system.
It helps you to learn how your body and penis respond to various stimuli - what feels good and what doesn’t - a basic requirement for a fulfilling sex life. It also teaches you to recognise that point-of-no-return moment just before orgasm and can teach you to avoid premature ejaculation.
Since the body releases endorphins - natural feel-good chemicals - during masturbation, it can improve your mood and may help to fight depression.
It can help you build stronger pelvic floor muscles which lead to better sex – women have long know about this, of course.
According to a pamphlet aimed at teenagers and distributed by the UK’s National Health Service in 2009: “Health promotion experts advocate five portions of fruit and veg a day and 30 minutes physical activity three times a week. What about sex or masturbation twice a week?” The pamphlet’s punch line says it all: “An orgasm a day keeps the doctor away.”
…and the downs
Of course masturbation can be dangerous, but so can using a toaster:
Overly energetic and frequent masturbation can lead to an irritation of the skin of the penis. Surprise, surprise!
Very, very rarely - when the erect penis is forced downward too far or hit against a hard object - masturbation can result in penile fracture. This involves a painful tear in the tunica albuginae, the tissue around the penis’ spongy layers, and is a medical emergency that requires surgery.
Frequent masturbation while lying face down can lead to “urethral trauma” or “traumatic masturbatory syndrome” in which the urethra is injured, resulting in urine exiting the penis in a haphazard shotgun spray rather than an easily-controlled narrow stream.
Experts warn that men who frequently masturbate in a way that’s very different from sex with a partner may find it difficult to climax during sex with a partner - a type of sexual dysfunction called retarded ejaculation.
Masturbation and prostate health
In 2003, Australian researchers found that frequent ejaculation through sex and masturbation may reduce a man’s risk of contracting prostate cancer, but a 2009 study suggested that the correlation between prostate cancer and ejaculation may, in fact, be age-dependent. Young men who masturbate frequently do so because of an enhanced sex drive as a result of high levels of testosterone. Their high testosterone levels - not their masturbation habits - may actually raise their prostate cancer risk. Among older men, the same study found that frequent masturbators lowered their prostate cancer risk, probably because masturbation drains the prostate of fluids containing carcinogenic toxins.
Books about masturbation
• In Praise of Masturbation by Philippe Brenot
• Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation by Thomas Walter Laqueur
• Sex for One: The Joy of Selfloving by Betty Dodson
• Masturbation: The History of a Great Terror by Jean Stengers and Anne Van Neck
(Andrew Luyt, Health24, January 2010)