IS MASTURBATION BENEFICIAL?

By: MIGHTY PURSUIT TEAM

As we move along the conversation on sex, we inevitably get to a point where we need to address a hot topic: masturbation. This is a relevant topic for all, but particularly if you’re single. Statistics have been all over the place in terms of how often people masturbate. However, one of the most extensive studies done with 5,800 people in 2010 revealed that 72.7% of single men and 43.6% single women have masturbated in the last 90 days. However accurate these numbers are on a population level remains a mystery. This topic has historically carried shame, and because of the stigma around it, there can be challenges to getting people to answer truthfully about their masturbation habits. Another study done in 2016 on 1,200 people showed that 95% of men and 81% of women have masturbated in their lifetime.  Combine this with the fact that porn sites had 5.81 billion visits a month in 2019, and you’ll discover the reality that most people masturbate, at varying frequency, at some point in their lifetime.  This blog is somewhat of a sequel to the other blogs we’ve published on sex and it’s probably not that helpful to read this blog without first reading those to digest all the data we discussed. Where we arrived is that science has revealed that our ideal sexual environment is one that is a safe space with a committed, loving partner who we can openly communicate and express our feelings with and which we feel secure with. The proper expression of this is marriage, not cohabitation. Brain chemistry, psychology and anthropology have also revealed it is in monogamy, not polyamory or open relationships. This is all confirmed by the spiritual perspective, as the Bible first echoed these same sentiments thousands of years ago.  Of course, this might not hold much weight for you, particularly if you live in the West. We’ve lived through an entire generation that has badly distorted what the Bible has to say about sex, so whatever preconceived notions you have, they likely aren’t good.   But if the God of scripture is the God of science, then it makes sense we’d find a cohesive narrative across the board about sex, with multiple different avenues pointing to the same blueprint around sexuality. Moving along the conversation, this leaves us with an important question. If we are going to press pause on sex until marriage, what does that mean for masturbation? In recent years, the public perception around masturbation has largely changed. In the midst of a new sexual revolution, mainstream media outlets promote masturbation as an important means of self-care. So what’s the truth? Let’s begin.

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SCIENCE ON MASTURBATION

For part of the 20th century, masturbation was actually viewed as a health hazard. People claimed that masturbation causes everything from infertility, changes in penis size and acne to erectile dysfunction, hairy palms and low libido. As Dr. Dana Smith writes, “in the 1950s, people were told that masturbation could cause blindness, fatigue, and disease, sapping a man’s strength and turning him feeble-minded.” Most of these myths have not been confirmed by scientific research, and many scientists attribute their origins to religious dogma and a culture that used to stigmatize self-pleasure. However, this doesn't mean there isn’t any data on the effects of masturbation. In fact, scientific research has picked up significantly on this subject in the last 30 years, with a multitude of studies revealing some key findings. One of the most prominent studies centered around measuring the link between male ejaculation and prostate cancer.  Over the course of 18 years, nearly 32,000 men were tracked based on how often they ejaculated. How they orgasmed didn’t matter, whether it be through sex, wet dreams or masturbation. In 2016, the study revealed that the men who ejaculated the most had a 20% lower chance of getting prostate cancer than those that ejaculated more infrequently or not at all. Big finding, right? Well, there’s a ton of ambiguity around the study, in that all that it revealed is a link between the two things. There’s no proof that ejaculation actually prevents prostate cancer. Scientists also can’t measure the difference between ejaculating through masturbation and sex. This is an important factor, because some research has suggested the semen makeup is different when we orgasm through sex versus masturbation. Additionally, only 44 percent of available studies found the same benefits of ejaculation as this one did. That’s extremely inconclusive. Not to mention this study just measured ejaculation for men, not masturbation and orgasm for women, as women don’t have a prostate. Nonetheless, even with such limited data available, the headlines dictate the narrative. The way this study is used is misleading, many citing it as a direct source that prostate cancer can be prevented with masturbation. Even on WebMD, the headline is “masturbate more, and you might lower your odds of getting prostate cancer. Research suggests that the more often men ejaculate, the less likely they are to have the disease.” But then the article concludes with a critical footnote, citing the wide-range of uncertainties on the subject. Again, naturally misleading.  Some of the more compelling studies propose that masturbation can directly reduce stress, in addition to boosting our immune systems.

Sex researcher Dr. Gloria Broome famously said “an orgasm is the biggest non-drug blast of dopamine available.” Why is that?

When we orgasm, a number of hormones are released including dopamine, oxytocin, endorphins, testosterone and prolactin. Frequently called “happiness hormones”, when oxytocin, endorphins and dopamine are released in the brain, they counteract the stress hormone cortisol. When cortisol spikes in our body, it’s been scientifically proven to lower our immune systems. One study in Germany showed that orgasm increased the number of white blood cells in the body, which confirmed the theory on boosting the immune system. But again, these studies can be somewhat misleading because they present masturbation as a “magic pill” for our self-care routine.  The reality is that many things increase these hormones, including food, smoking weed, drinking alcohol, exercising, reading a book, meditation, looking at our phones, watching TV and cocaine. Some of the things that release these hormones are a net-positive for our well-being and some are a net-negative. The appeal of orgasming through masturbation is that it’s often touted as a natural bodily function. We see all upside, no downside. But as we learn from Stanford doctor Anna Lembke in her book Dopamine Nation, there can be downsides.  When too much dopamine is released on a regular basis, it damages the pain-pleasure balance in our brains.  This frequently becomes the case when masturbation is paired with porn, as Harvard psychiatrist Kevin Majeres explains:  “This is why pornography causes a vicious circle. When someone views pornography, [they] gets overstimulated by dopamine; so [their] brain destroys some dopamine receptors. This makes [them] feel depleted, so [they] go back to pornography, but, having fewer dopamine receptors, this time it requires more to get the same dopamine thrill; but this causes [their] brain to destroy more receptors; so [they] feel an even greater need for pornography to stimulate [them]. So as [people] keep gaming the dopamine system, they start to find that they have to use pornography for longer and longer periods to have the same effect, and they have to visit more and more sites." Since billions of people visit porn sites every month, the data would indicate the above scenario is more often the case than those trying to simply integrate masturbation into their self-care routine periodically.  One of the last scientific findings that is frequently cited is the connection between masturbation and better sleep. This again has to do with hormones.  When we orgasm, we become more relaxed because the hormones vasopressin and norepinephrine are released in our brains. But the same logic with the other hormones applies here. Masturbation is not the only thing that releases these hormones. The presence of these hormones doesn’t automatically make something healthy.  We must weigh the downsides.  Which goes to say, prescribing masturbation as beneficial no matter the context is unwise. We need to go deeper into the nuances to discover how masturbation could be beneficial.  Ultimately what we’ll find is that the conditions under which we orgasm is the most critical piece of this equation.

SCRIPTURE ON MASTURBATION

In the past, masturbation has often been cited as a sin in religious circles. As we mentioned previously, many of the myths that masturbation causes harm came from religious circles. But these are made-up ideas that don't come from scripture. In fact, the Bible is silent on the topic of masturbation. Sex is talked about frequently throughout the Old and New Testament, but in the 31,102 verses of the Bible masturbation isn’t mentioned once. As theologian Gerry Breshears puts it, “the fact that it says nothing about masturbation says something. In my understanding, when scripture is silent, it isn’t that God forgot to say something, [it’s] that he purposely left a silence and openness of freedom to be wise.” In the past, some have erroneously used a story in Genesis 38 about a man pulling out prior to orgasm as evidence that not only condemns masturbation, but all forms of contraception. Throughout history, people have gotten in trouble because they took something out of context, which usually resulted in some form of oppression, religiosity or weirdness. Genesis 38 is just another example of this. People have taken a story that is describing a situation, plucked it out of its cultural context and proceeded to prescribe it for all people at all times in all places. The passage isn’t even about the morality of masturbation or contraception.  It actually doesn't mention masturbation at all. Which goes to say: context matters. When trying to understand what the Bible is trying to communicate, a few things must be considered, including:
    1. Who the passage was written to
    2. What the cultural context was
    3. What the original language was (for accurate translation)
    4. What literary genre each passage fits into.
 Over and over again, what we DO see addressed extensively in the Bible is lust This word has become somewhat stigmatized in our culture, as it is typically associated with religious dogma. For younger generations, as soon as you hear “lust”, you start tuning out. But if we lay aside the baggage associated with the term, its meaning is actually quite simple – to covet, long for or set the heart upon.  The Greek word Jesus uses in Matthew 28 is epithymeō and appears 16 times throughout the Bible. Sometimes it’s used in reference to sexual activity, but not always. However, in all instances it refers to longing for something that is not yours – whether that be someone else’s girlfriend or their money.  Where things have gotten messy throughout history comes back again to the improper reading of scripture. Sadly, some have used the passages on lust to demonize sexual arousal and desire. This is problematic on many levels, as it’s created a sex-negative culture that has caused people to feel a tremendous amount of shame simply for having biological desires. The truth is that scripture teaches that sexual desire is a beautiful gift that comes from God. When considering science in light of scripture, it makes complete sense that orgasms would release all those hormones. As Creator, God designed sex to be the highest form of intimacy possible between two humans. In the right context, it represents the ultimate expression of attachment, security and love. The difference between lust and sexual desire is quite simple.

To see someone attractive and feel a level of sexual desire is natural. You cannot stop the near-automatic process of thoughts popping into your brain and arousal brimming to the surface.

In fact, when we try suppressing thoughts, they only come back stronger. Harvard social psychologist Daniel Wegner is credited as being the founding father of the thought suppression field, conducting his first experiment in 1987.  He told participants to try avoiding thinking of a white bear, only to find the more they avoided it, the stronger the thought became in their minds. His findings have gone on to be certified as scientific fact. Not only do we have no control over our thoughts, but in some regards, we also don’t have any control over our sexual desire As leading sex educator Dr. Emily Nagoski reports in Come As You Are, 75% of men and 15% of women experience spontaneous desire. This is when we feel overcome by sexual arousal, even if there was no obvious prompt or reason for that arousal to happen. Lust, on the other hand, is a choice. It involves an action. It’s what we choose to do with our thoughts and desires. It’s when we see a sexually attractive person at the coffee shop and turn around for a second look. It’s when we can’t stop staring at the girl in the yoga pants. It’s when we stop the scroll on Instagram or TikTok after seeing an attractive person, click their profile and look at all their photos and videos. It’s when we log onto Pornhub and go on a long search to try to find the best scene so we can have the strongest orgasm. It’s when we deliberate and dwell. Or in other words, to set our heart upon. This is why Jesus says in Matthew 5:28, “everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Martin Luther, providing commentary on this passage in the 16th century said, “I cannot keep a bird from flying over my head, but I can certainly keep it from making a nest in my hair or biting it off my nose.” To the outsider, especially in the cultural climate we live in, you might be thinking what's wrong with dwelling or indulging the thoughts? What’s wrong with stopping the scroll?  What’s wrong with watching porn? Maybe you can buy into the idea of pressing pause on sex and waiting for the environment that scripture and science say is the ideal.    Uh… but what am I supposed to do until then? To fully answer these questions, we must explore this conversation from different angles. First, to indulge the thoughts is to objectify other humans, which is innately anti-love and dehumanizing. As we’ve mentioned, we cannot choose what thoughts pop up in our mind or at times, what situations we are presented with, but we can choose what we do with them.  To objectify is to choose. It is to choose to take the biological desire of sexual attraction and turn it into a disordered desire of objectification, which is defined as “the action of degrading someone to the status of a mere object.” How is this anti-love? Well, Jesus defined love primarily as an action that seeks the well-being of another over yourself.  At its base level, objectification is to reduce another human being to a sexual object for our own gratification. It is to seek our own pleasure at the expense of another person. That’s not loving. In some regards, the majority of society would agree that unwanted sexual attention is not good, such as objectification that leads to catcalling, people just trying to get in your pants or all the way down the line, the #MeToo movement. But what if there’s consent involved? What if they’re welcoming the attention, because you’re dating? Or what if they’re posting half-naked photos of themselves of on Instagram or are putting content out as a sex worker on Pornhub or OnlyFans? It is here where the way of Jesus establishes a higher standard.  Consent or not, Jesus would still say that looking upon a person in this way is not loving, as they are not yours. This type of sexual attention is reserved for your present (or future) spouse, when their body becomes yours.  In 1 Corinthians 7:4 we read, “For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” On the grounds of attachment theory, science would agree with the sentiment that it’s not good to objectify someone who is not your spouse.

Let’s say you are a married person, and you continually keep objectifying others – this isn’t going to lead to the advancement of a secure bond with your spouse. 

It will naturally take the focus off of your relationship, and onto your desire to have sex with another person. As Jesus puts it, you’re cheating on your spouse in your mind, which he says is essentially no different than actually cheating.  Entertaining these thoughts will pollute your mind over time, and perhaps, breed dissatisfaction as you contemplate what it would be like to have sex with someone else rather than your spouse.  Sexually speaking, “the field” becomes the focus of your sexual desires, rather than the person you committed your life to. This is precisely what Jesus is getting at by equating “lustful intent” as already cheating on your spouse in your mind. It’s willfully being emotionally unfaithful and it happens everytime we use porn. His call is to not only be physically devoted to our spouses, but emotionally as well. The top relationship expert in the world, Dr. John Gottman, predicts divorce with 90% accuracy and says that “pornography poses a serious threat to couple intimacy and relationship harmony.” If you’re single, the same principle still applies, but it requires seeing your present and future self on a continuum. The problem is that when we see them as two distinct people: who we are now and who are in the future, we live under the illusion there is no overlap. Which means that we think our habits and objectification tendencies today will have no bearing on the future. This is most obvious when it comes to the bachelor party mentality. One report says that 33% of men cheat on their future spouses at their bachelor parties. The mentality is that “I’m just getting it all out of my system” and that you will start becoming a model citizen as soon as you say “I do”. But we can’t create a clean break between who we are now and who we decide to be later. It’s impossible. One bleeds into another.  If we are conditioning ourselves into certain behaviors now, those will be the behaviors we bring into our future relationships. And by the way, statistically 90% of the population will get married by age 50. Lastly, objectification is wrong simply because it’s not part of God’s design. While the desire for sex is a good, God-given biological gift, turning that into a disordered desire of objectification is not his idea and was not his intention.  If you zoom out on a population level, a society full of people that are objectifying others creates chaos, messy relationships and breeds insecure attachment styles It creates an environment where people are biologically desperate for secure bonds, but are unable to find them, because our sexual attention is spread out everywhere and we haven’t done the work to harness and prepare our sexual desires for the right context. In a society where everything goes, as long as consent is involved, we ignore the scientifically proven framework that is needed to make relationships succeed.  All of this context is needed before we proceed with the conversation about masturbation. With the way of Jesus, sexual health involves your body AND mind. Which means that masturbating while we’re objectifying others causes us to develop unhealthy tendencies and habits that we will carry into the future. This is why we said in the last section that the conditions under which we orgasm is the most critical piece of this equation. Science might indicate that the physical act of ejaculating is good for your body, but objectifying is not good for the mind Since science has not been able to measure the differences between orgasm on your own (masturbation) and orgasm with another person (sex), you could actually make the case that the reason ejaculation is good for the body is because God designed it to be a powerful release experienced within an intimate bond. Ultimately sexuality is meant to be experienced with another person, not alone.

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CAN MASTURBATION EVER BE BENEFICIAL?

Still, maybe you find yourself experiencing a ton of sexual tension and spontaneous desire, as you’ve made the choice to press pause on sex until marriage. Maybe it feels virtually impossible to deal with on a day-to-day basis. In this case, what are you supposed to do in the waiting? Can masturbation be beneficial under any set of circumstances? Some people say they can masturbate without thinking about anything and it can be done purely for the purposes of physical release. And in these instances, without objectification, they get benefit out of it. But for many others, they find this to be incredibly difficult and the physical act of masturbating immediately leads them into objectification. To masturbate and not think about anything feels impossible.  In these instances, masturbation is not going to be beneficial in any way and directly leads us into behaviors that Jesus advises we go great lengths to avoid. There are many other ways we can get the physical benefits of ejaculation, without masturbating. Other natural things that release the “happiness hormones” include exercising, going out into nature, getting a massage or even taking a nap on your day off.  That’s why it’s unhelpful to portray masturbation as a “magic pill” for our self-care routine. Ultimately though, you will have to make the decision based on your temperament, and genuinely consider if you can masturbate in a way that doesn’t become unhealthy due to objectification or lust. Some might be concerned that not masturbating is repressive, but all the data suggests the opposite. Harnessing our sexual desire is an opportunity to practice self-control, which is an extremely valuable skill and virtue. As evidenced by extensive scientific research, people who become skilled at self-control experience more success in nearly every aspect of their lives. Famed psychologist Walter Mischel, who is considered the father of scientific research on self-control, says it best in The Marshmallow Test: “Self-control is crucial for the successful pursuit of long-term goals. It is equally essential for developing the self-restraint and empathy needed to build caring and mutually supportive relationships. It is the “master aptitude” underlying emotional intelligence, essential for constructing a fulfilling life.”

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