Despite what you may have learned in Sunday school or on your favorite No Fap website, masturbation is a natural and healthy expression of sexuality. It’s a form of sexual activity that can (and should) be enjoyed by people of all ages and genders. Masturbation is a way to explore your body and sexuality. And in a fast-paced world full of anxiety-inducing happenings, masturbation can be your moment of Zen, time you take to really submerge yourself in pleasure.
Even with all these potential benefits, masturbation remains a dirty word for a lot of people out there. There are whole corners on the internet devoted to masturbation misinformation. As a sexual health expert, I hear misconceptions about masturbation all the time. Everything from how often one should masturbate to how self-pleasure has a negative impact on relationships, sexual function, testosterone, and even athletic performance.
Well, I’m here to set the record straight and to shed some light on the facts about getting off on your own. What follows is an exploration of the scientific evidence on masturbation in an attempt to answer the question of how masturbation impacts various aspects of health and sexuality.
First, let’s define some terms. Masturbation is the act of sexually stimulating oneself to the point of orgasm. This is done alone most of the time, but it doesn’t have to be just you and your hand. Masturbation can involve the use of vibrators, dildos, butt plugs, you name it. Sometimes masturbation can involve genital touch, but it can also involve caressing other erogenous parts of your body. And masturbation can even be done with others. Masturbating with your partner can be more fun than flying solo. It’s also a way for them to see exactly how you like to get off, which they can use to their (and your) advantage next time you’re getting busy.
Masturbation and relationships.
There has been much written about the association between masturbation and relationships. It’s a topic that has fascinated science and medicine for more than 100 years. Some older ways of thinking suggested that people in relationships who masturbate regularly must be somehow dissatisfied or unfulfilled. While admittedly there is a paucity of research on this specific topic, there is no study that I am aware of that demonstrates a link between masturbation by a person in a relationship and sexual dissatisfaction. Despite this, many people still become displeased when they discover their romantic partner is masturbating. They feel that this reflects negatively on them, leaving them feeling like they are not enough. But the available research suggests the very opposite: routine masturbation in a relationship can be incredibly healthy.
In the mid 20th century, Alfred Kinsey uncovered a link between sexual satisfaction in relationships and prior orgasmic experiences. Specifically, his work suggested that women who had not experienced orgasm before marriage were much less likely to be orgasmic with their spouses. In other words, masturbation before marriage is an important means of garnering sexual satisfaction with your potential future partner. Additional research from the 1990s found that married women who masturbate have greater marital and sexual satisfaction than women who avoid masturbation. And like we discussed previously, masturbating with your spouse of partner next to you can teach them how to push your buttons in bed more precisely.
Masturbation and sexual function.
I can’t tell you how many men I see in my practice who believe that masturbation is inherently wrong and somehow the cause of their sexual dysfunction. It is beliefs like this that have led to thousands of Reddit forums on the negative impacts of masturbation and fostered the rise of the No Fap and No Nut November movements. No Fap is an online community built around giving up masturbation altogether as a means of overcoming what their members believe to be an addiction to self-gratification and/or pornography. No Nut November, as you can imagine, is a program that encourages male participants to avoid masturbation during the month of November. In the last decade, it has gained in popularity via social media. These male sexual abstinence movements are not based in science and, in many cases, are vehemently anti-science. They are often also embraced, propagated, and espoused by far-right extremists and religious fundamentalists. Several studies on No Fap communities have found their approach to pornography to be harmful and suggested that their unhealthy commitments to abstinence may actually promote real-world violence and misogyny.
The reality is that there is no evidence that masturbation has a negative impact on sexual function. In fact, some studies have shown that masturbation may actually help to improve sexual function. For example, several studies have suggested men who masturbate more frequently are more likely to report having satisfying sexual experiences. In a study of male and female college students, those who masturbated frequently also engaged in intercourse more frequently and had more sexual partners (Pinkerton).
It’s important to note that studies on masturbation are limited and we definitely need more research. It’s also important to keep in mind that masturbation may have a different impact on different people. This may have to do with how they were brought up and how they feel about sex and masturbation in general. Ideas about masturbation are inherently influenced by religious and sociocultural mores. Some people may find that masturbation helps them to improve their sexual function, while others may find that it has no impact or even a negative impact.
Ultimately, the impact of masturbation on sexual function is likely to vary from person to person. While there is nothing inherently wrong with masturbation, it can sometimes have detrimental effects on a particular individual. For instance, if someone masturbates so frequently that they begin to avoid contact with potential sexual and romantic partners and/or neglect important aspects of everyday life like school work or domestic responsibilities, then there may very well be a problem that needs addressing. If you are worried about the impact masturbation may be having on your sexual function, it is worth voicing your concern to a healthcare provider and/or mental health professional.
Masturbation and testosterone.
The quick takeaway here is that there is no evidence that masturbation and/or ejaculation has any long-term or negative effects on testosterone levels. Let’s step back for a minute and discuss what testosterone is exactly and why it’s important.
Testosterone (T) is a sex-steroid hormone that plays a critical role in male sexual development and health, as well as in the maintenance of muscle mass and bone density. Testosterone is closely linked to your sex drive, or libido. This is true for everyone regardless of their sex. Levels of testosterone are not constant, but change over the course of one’s life and even fluctuate throughout the day. Testosterone tends to be higher during adolescence, peaking in your 20s before beginning a steady decline as you age. Testosterone is also higher in the morning. Testosterone levels naturally rise during masturbation and sex, then fall back to regular levels after orgasm.
Older research suggests that ejaculation from masturbation does not have any significant effect on serum T levels. A 2001 study found that 3 weeks of abstinence among male participants caused a mild increase in testosterone levels (Exton). Keep in mind the latter study was conducted on only a small cohort of 10 men. On the other hand, some studies have shown that masturbation may actually help to increase testosterone levels. In any case, the effects—positive or negative—that masturbation may have on testosterone appear to be transient.
We should pause here to say that while masturbation does not seem to have any long-term impacts on testosterone levels, if you’re experiencing symptoms of low T it’s important to seek help. Low testosterone symptoms include:
- Lack of energy and/or motivation
- Decreased or lack of sex drive
- Difficulty achieving or maintaining an erection
- Decline in ejaculatory volume
- Los of hair on your scalp, face, and/or body
- Loss of muscle and/or bone mass
- Weight gain or increased body fat
- Unexpected changes in mood or anxiety.
Lifestyle choices like smoking and excessive alcohol consumption, not masturbation, may be to blame. Other medical factors like hypertension and diabetes can also negatively impact testosterone levels.
Masturbation and athletic performance.
The impact of masturbation on athletic performance is a topic of great debate, with many conflicting opinions and beliefs. It seems like every time the World Cup or Olympics resurface, we hear stories of athletes abstaining from sex in an attempt to boost their athletic prowess. Because masturbation affects testosterone levels in only minor short-term ways, it shouldn’t negatively affect athletic performance. Avoiding self-gratification before a big meet or competition can help you focus on your craft or sport, but there’s no evidence it has a direct physiological effect on building muscle or athletic ability.
Some believe that masturbation and sexual activity might even enhance athletic performance. The potential benefits or masturbation on the body include reduction of stress and anxiety, improved mood and sleep, and decreased muscle tension. Some studies have found that sexual activity in athletes can lead to improved reaction time and hand-eye coordination. So, it’s not hard to imagine how masturbation could potentially boost your athletic abilities. But the truth is there’s no evidence that masturbation affects athletic performance in any meaningful way.
There is no clear evidence that masturbation has a negative impact on relationships, sexual function, testosterone levels, or athletic performance. In fact, some studies have suggested quite the opposite. Masturbation is a natural and healthy sexual activity that can provide pleasure and create intimacy with your partner, when done right. So, if you enjoy masturbating, there’s no need to feel guilty or worried about the impact it might have on your sexual health or performance. Just do what feels right for you and enjoy the many benefits of self-gratification. And remember: if you’re unsure if your masturbatory habits are having detrimental effects, discuss your concerns with a health care provider or mental health professional before blindly believing what you read on the internet about the potential harms of masturbation.
Joshua R. Gonzalez, MD, is a board-certified and fellowship-trained urologist and sexual medicine specialist who focuses on managing sexual dysfunctions in men and women at his self-named practice, Joshua R. Gonzalez, MD, in the West Hollywood neighborhood of Los Angeles, California.
Pinkerton S, Cecil H, Bogart L, Abramson P. The pleasures of sex: An empirical investigation. Cogn Emot. 2003 Mar;17(2):341-353. doi: 10.1080/02699930302291. PMID: 29715727.
Exton MS, Krüger TH, Bursch N, Haake P, Knapp W, Schedlowski M, Hartmann U. Endocrine response to masturbation-induced orgasm in healthy men following a 3-week sexual abstinence. World J Urol. 2001 Nov;19(5):377-82. doi: 10.1007/s003450100222. PMID: 11760788.