Welcome to the Masturbatorium
The summer after my junior year, I attended a national conference for high schoolers on medicine because ... well mostly because it was in Chicago and got me out of my parents' house for a week. I don't remember much about the conference, but I do remember one that afternoon we attended talks on various branches of medicine. I ended up at the talk on psychiatry, not because I have any particular interest in psychiatry, but because it seemed more interesting than any of the other options. And boy was it. It turned out that the psychiatrist that the organizers had booked to talk to a room full of high schoolers specialized in sex therapy. She was, as so many sex therapists seem to be, a tiny old woman who delighted in shocking people much younger than herself with her frankness about a subject so many of us find awkward. She discussed her work helping couples with various sexual issues and demonstrated sexual positions using anatomically correct pipe cleaner dolls, but the part of her talk I remember best was her admonition to us, the young women especially, to masturbate. She pointed out that many women have difficulty achieving orgasm with a partner and made the very reasonable case that you can't expect anyone to do something for you that you don't know how to do yourself. I considered myself to be sexually open and sex positive (though I was still a couple years away from losing my virginity), but the idea that I could take matters into my own hands had honestly never occurred to me. It was only at the age of 17, after someone in a position of authority -- someone with a medical degree -- effectively gave me permission to do so that I started on the road of self love.
Our culture has issues, to say the least, with the idea of masturbation. It's accepted that men will do it, and there's even some adolescent pride taken in it among young boys, but it's still seen as shameful and dirty to an extent. Just ask any guy whose girlfriend has caught him in the act how well it's gone over. For young women, who are often expected to be prim and unsexual, the problem is even worse. Studies show that approximately 80 percent of men and only 45 percent of women masturbate or have masturbated (or at least will admit to it on a survey). Those numbers have only moderately improved since the '80s, and haven't really changed at all since the early '90s, despite increasing openness about sex. Part of the problem, no doubt, is the way we talk about masturbation. Scientists, being as sex obsessed as everyone else, have devoted numerous studies lately to showing the benefits of masturbation. There is some evidence that male masturbation increases sperm fitness, and therefore improves the chances of impregnating a partner and passing on ones genes to the next generation. That's right boys, wanking off may be an evolutionary adaptation. One employed by most mammals, actually, not just humans. As for women, there is the previously mentioned use of masturbation as a tool to improve partner sex. Women who masturbate are more likely to orgasm during piv intercourse than women who don't. Oh, and female primates of other species also masturbate, albeit at a slightly lesser rate than the males. Basically, all the evidence says that masturbation is normal, healthy, and even beneficial.
So why is masturbation still such a fraught issue? Well for one thing, because even when talking about it positively, we tend to frame it terms of its effect on partner sex (and especially reproductive sex). We're much less likely to simply accept masturbation as a means unto itself, something that it's fine to do for no other reason than it feels good. The search for evolutionary reasons for masturbation is, in a way, a symptom of this. Why even start from the assumption that masturbation has to have a purpose, as so many studies do? Maybe it's simply a byproduct of sexual arousal and the fact that sex is pleasurable. It makes sense, from an evolutionary perspective, that our method of reproduction is enjoyable -- it helps the species propagate if procreation is something that individuals engage in enthusiastically. But if we're designed to feel good when our genitals are stimulated in the context of reproductive sex, then it's only to be expected that the byproduct of that is that it will feel good when they're stimulated in other circumstances. Think of it as analogous to drugs: we don't enjoy drinking alcohol or smoking pot because our brains are designed to respond to drugs. We enjoy them because they mimic neurochemicals that our own bodies produce. The ability to be high or stoned or buzzed is an unintended side effect of other evolutionary processes, not something nature intended. But hey, it's there so why not enjoy it (responsibly, of course)?
Look, masturbation shouldn't have to be a means to an end -- be it fitter sperm or better orgasms with a partner. We should be able feel comfortable enough with our bodies to be able to explore them without shame. We should be able to think of ourselves as sexual beings that deserve physical pleasure from stimulation, and self-love is the purest way to express that. It's shouldn't make you feel dirty or embarrassed (well, unless that's what you get off on). It's natural and healthy. Animals do it. Young children, both male and female, do it (at least until their parents catch them and shame them out of it). It's the first step, not to better sex, but to better understanding and acceptance of your own sexuality, and as such it's something that we all really should be doing.
Does writing an internet column on sex count as a position of authority? Because I'm giving you all my permission to masturbate freely and for no other reason than because you enjoy it. (Just don't do it in front of me, please.)
Dr. Pisaster has a doctorate in biophysics, not actually anything sexy. She does however enjoy having sex, reading about sex, and talking about sex. Especially when she's had a little whiskey.