No guilt, no problem?
Recently a young man showed up on my site’s forum asking questions about masturbation. The same day, I read that a region of Spain is publicly promoting masturbation to kids with a "Pleasure is in your own hands" campaign. Not long ago, Britain’s National Health Service came up with a similar campaign sloganned, “an orgasm a day keeps the doctor away.” Although well intentioned, are such efforts sound?
The fact is, orgasmic pleasure isn’t in our hands. It’s largely in our brains—the result of neurochemical bursts. Without them, orgasm would be no more memorable than burping. This has important implications for arriving at the ideal masturbation advice.
In a past post, I related what men have been sharing about how decreasing masturbation frequency can unexpectedly boost confidence, social skills, and even loving feelings. In this post, I’ll consider why heavy, shame-free masturbation can be as much of a ticking bomb as shame-laden masturbation.
Due to the way it affects our brains, masturbation entails two risks that everyone needs to understand from an early age.
1. Escalation Pitfall
Although masturbation is natural, it is also natural for the search for orgasm to escalate fairly easily. This is especially true if the stimulation associated with it is very frequent or intense. Examples of uncommon intensity might be masturbation accompanied by threats or the belief that one is “going to hell,” or masturbation to today’s extreme Internet porn. In contrast, normal intensity would be a child discovering masturbation around puberty without an artificial emotional charge. (This is not to say that masturbation can never become compulsive via guiltless self-discovery.)
Orgasm can produce not just a drug-like high, but also a neurochemical recovery period as the brain returns to homeostasis. The more powerful the blast of neurochemical excitement during orgasm, the lower the lows as the brain recovers. In some of us recovery may take the form of (mild or severe) lethargy, depression, anxiety or, in the sexually repressed, remorse (due to projection of distress onto a harsh deity). The result is often a desire to self-medicate with more masturbation. Many don't perceive the escalation tendency until they are free from orgasm for a period, and then return to it.
Today, “the more you do it the more you want it” is generally mistaken for healthy libido. Yet it’s probably more akin to comfort eating. Labeling it as healthy simply because it’s natural averts investigation of its consequences. We warn parents and kids of the risks of compulsive junk food consumption or compulsive video gaming—but we’re unwilling to suggest moderation in masturbation, even though the same primitive brain mechanism fuels all compulsions.
It’s simpler to tell kids to eat their veggies than explain that masturbation can relieve sexual tension in the immediate term—yet make subsequent sexual frustration worse. Perhaps more family discussions should revolve around the brain’s delicate reward circuitry and how it can bleep misleading “yes” signals. Remember those rats that were wired so they could press a lever to stimulate the reward circuitry (much as an orgasm does)? They hit the lever until they dropped.
Freud pupil, Rudolf von Urban (Sex Perfection and Marriage) advises that if kids are made aware the “escalation snag” (and never shamed about sexuality), they will work out the challenge of finding the ideal amount of masturbation for themselves. After all, we humans possess more gears than “fifth” and “neutral” when it comes to sexual activity. Kids can flex their self-discipline muscles to come up with a masturbation interval that doesn't escalate, or let wet dreams run their course, or get more vigorous exercise, or find a sweetheart. (Holding hands, adoring someone, and hanging out together are very soothing for pair-bonder brains like ours, even when intercourse isn't an option.)
However, without information about how sexual frustration can escalate when one tries to exhaust it each time it arises, kids can be thrown onto a treadmill without controls. If they do slip into compulsion, they have no idea why it happened, how to restore balance, or what recovery will be like. In fact, they may not even know their behavior is compulsive, because frantic, frequent masturbation currently seems the norm. If you are eating Twinkies and chips every meal because your friends are too, you might not think to ask why your cravings for sugar and fat are so intense.
This is not a minor point. Heavy porn users who choose to cut back often experience intensely uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. They don’t understand that such symptoms are normal. They also don’t know that it takes substantial time for the brain to reboot (restore equilibrium).
Surprisingly, even if they were not raised in sexually repressive homes and feel no shame about masturbating, some conclude that withdrawal symptoms like anxiety, emptiness, irritability, brain fog, headaches, intense cravings, and so forth are somehow the wages of sexual repression, rather than a predictable result of its opposite. Ignorance makes cutting back seem like a dangerous course, so escalation seems the only option.
2. Unwanted Learning
An orgasmic blast is a powerful learning experience because our genes want us to remember everything connected with making babies or even practicing. However, our hunter-gatherer brain evolved when sex with a novel partner was a rare genetic bonanza. Today, a kid on the web can vicariously participate in dozens of highly stimulating sex acts in one afternoon without even taxing his own, (previously) more limited, imagination.
The more dopamine released during an orgasm the more value the brain assigns to the event. Obviously, watching sex with goats doesn’t necessarily merit being recorded as a valuable experience, but try telling your limbic brain that!
This same learning/wiring process can produce repercussions more tragic than goat flashbacks. For example, “forbidden” and “sinful” (that is, risky) sex jolt the brain with both dopamine (“gotta get it!”) and adrenaline (fear). This is how sexual repression can infuse otherwise normal sexual activity with a memorable drug-like aura. To gain a sense of just how good "risky" can feel, see Why bathroom sex is hot, in which a man laments being out of the closet because he longs for that altered state.
Today’s Internet porn can swiftly rewire the brain. Extreme porn produces a neurochemical wallop, particularly in young, plastic brains. Moreover, it’s always novel. Research reveals that novelty-on-demand is exceedingly enticing—and habit forming. (It’s also behind the lure of slot machines.) The upshot is that computer users around the world, who are masturbating to shocking (to them), ever-novel explicit sexual acts, are now experiencing the kind of neurochemical supranormal stimulation—and bumpy recovery period—that was formerly reserved for folks from sexually repressive households.
Most users are slow to make the connection between the highs and the lows. However, the problem of acute distress after intense sexual stimulation is attracting new attention. Hundreds of men have recorded debilitating symptoms after orgasm, using a detailed online form available at the Post Orgasmic Illness Syndrome (POIS) forum.( YOUTube video about POIS) They are disheartened and angered by dismissive health care professionals, who barely listen to their reports because textbook lore—inspired decades before today’s flood of highly erotic stimuli—maintains that orgasm can never cause problems (except due to childhood repression). Since the POIS forum’s inception a few years ago, this obscure web discussion has drawn half a million visitors. Its founder also mentioned that a common denominator of most of the sufferers is very frequent masturbation earlier in life. *
As Thomas Paine once observed,
A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom.
Masturbation itself is not wrong, but too shallow an understanding of how it can affect the brain may prove to be no small oversight. This error was understandable when we knew very little about our reward circuitry, when we believed shame was the only means of making masturbation a self-defeating obsession, and when supranormal sexual stimulation was not as ubiquitous—and therefore over-stimulation less commonplace (pre-Internet).
Today, however, “Masturbation is normal, so don’t feel ashamed” may simply not be adequate information for kids seeking answers. Innocently acquired habits can get in the way of forming healthy relationships. Is it time to set aside our codified assumptions and reopen a discussion about masturbation education with an emphasis on the importance of balance?
* Quite apart from the issue of excessive stimulation causing debilitating dysregulation, institutionalized ignorance causes misdiagnoses. One man’s symptoms were exacerbated by a drug called Reglan, which had increased his prolactin levels to ten times normal, thus suppressing dopamine and making recovery after orgasm last for several weeks. He had to uncover the problem himself. His very learned, otherwise competent, academic endocrinologist hadn’t bothered researching his symptoms (beyond checking for prolactin-related tumors), possibly because his patient's symptoms "were no doubt just due to earlier sexual repression."
The patient adds:
The science of endocrinology simply doesn't understand hyperprolactinemia (abnormally high prolactin) in men, only in women. The medical schools give prolactin-in-men no attention at all, typically one very short paragraph in the textbooks. This was confirmed by the endocrinologist's student-in-residence. Endocrinology's approach to abnormally high prolactin in men is to MRI-scan the pituitary gland for tumors. If none found...move on. Thankfully, this physician was secure enough in his practice and teaching-tenure to "partner" with his patient! Very little research was needed to uncover the obvious: Rx drugs, especially Reglan, are usually the culprit." !