If it feels good, do it

Whether it’s to learn about your body, release tension or propagate your species, there are myriad reasons to masturbate

Masturbation can help improve sex with a partner because it allows you to find out what stimulates you sexually.
Masturbation can help improve sex with a partner because it allows you to find out what stimulates you sexually.

In the 1992 Emmy-winning Seinfeld episode, “The Contest,” the four main characters stage a bet to see who can go the longest without masturbating. When Elaine—the only woman—asks to participate, she’s met with opposition from the three men.

Jerry says: “It’s apples and oranges! It’s easier for a woman not to do it then a man. We have to do it. It’s part of our lifestyle. It’s like…shaving!”

“Oh, that is such baloney,” Elaine responds. “I shave my legs.”

Kramer intervenes, “Not every day!”

According to Meredith Chivers, a psychology professor at Queen’s who specializes in the sexual arousal of men and women, the perception that women shouldn’t masturbate or don’t is fading.

“The culture of women suggests that it’s bad for women to masturbate,” Chivers said. “But women aren’t receiving as much negative sexual feedback as they used to.”

Nevertheless, Chivers said, men still masturbate more often than women.

“Men definitely masturbate more frequently than women do,” she said. “There’s a whole potential host of reasons for that. Men just have a higher sex drive then women do and they feel the need to … have a sexual release more often.”

People masturbate mostly as a matter of convenience, Chivers said, adding that the other reasons people do it are pretty self-evident.

“People masturbate because it feels good and it’s a way of experiencing sexual pleasure on your own,” she said. “To reduce anxiety, reduce tension, to feel sleepy … lots of people masturbate before they go to sleep.”

The good news, Chivers said, is that masturbation doesn’t really have any negative effects, either psychologically or physically.

“I can’t see any harm in it—unless you’re doing it way too much to the point of self-injury or in the context where it’s illegal, for example in public.”

Chivers added that people’s urge to masturbate disappears as they get older.

“Sex drive drops with age, so the urge to masturbate would drop as well. Around adolescence, for men, I’d say that’s probably their peak to masturbate,” she said. “I think women experience an age-related decline in their sexual drive just as much as men do.”

Melissa Gibaldi, executive director of the Sexual Health Resource Centre, said in an e-mail to the Journal that masturbation can help improve sex with a partner because it allows people to find out what stimulates them sexually.

“In men, it can extend time [of] ejaculation over time and therefore lead to longer erections during sex with a partner,” she said. “It can lead to more openness and a more positive self-image in some, and for many women who may not have a good knowledge of what their genitals look like, (because they’re not on the outside of our bodies like they are for men) it can help to lessen some of that mystery.”

Gibaldi said there are also benefits to having more and regular orgasms, but she addded that sex can still be healthy and enjoyable without one.

“It is okay not to orgasm and it’s a lot more prevalent than most would think,” she said. “That being said, however, orgasm can help to release some of the pressure that builds up during the stages of arousal.”

Gibaldi added that sex overall has many benefits and orgasms themselves have been linked to prostate health in men.

Queen’s biology professor Adam Chippindale, who teaches the biology of sex, said masturbation serves different purposes in various animal species.

Chippinadale cited the work of Olivia Judson, an evolutionary biologist who studied marine iguanas in the Galapagos Islands. Among the iguanas, larger males dominate the mating scene, so the smaller iguanas masturbate in private and use the “sneak attack” method immediately afterwards in order to copulate and escape as quickly as possible.

“They’re preparing themselves basically by self-stimulation,” Chippindale said. “It’s to accelerate the timing of climax for the male, so he has a better chance to fertilize some eggs.

“There are a whole bunch of males with no action at all because the big males chase them off. Those males try to have brief sexual encounters with females using the sneak strategy.”

Chippindale said other primates in captivity have been observed masturbating, with bonobo monkeys doing so socially.

“Bonobos have a lot of sex for conflict resolution, and there’s a lot of self-stimulation and a lot of sex play which seems to relate to social interactions—sometimes diffusing conflict,” he said. “I think it’s probably true in people too. Tension is released by climax, so it may be a way of regulating social tensions in some other primates.”

Chippindale said self-stimulation also provides a release for subdominant males with no mating opportunities, but a very high sex drive.

“I think it’s probably pretty widespread in sexual organisms. How can it not be?”

Although there are anecdotes of masturbatory behaviour in various species, Chippindale said there hasn’t been much widespread research on the topic.

“We have anecdotes of natural history. I don’t think there’s very much [data] about how widespread it is, how often it happens and whether it serves an adaptive function or not.”

Among humans, Chippindale said, masturbation carries a negative connotation. He said this could be holding back research on the topic.

“I think in humans it’s not something that people talk about a whole lot in general, and we of course colour our view of nature with our own ideas about what is right and wrong.

“It might be an area rife for investigation for the open-minded individual.”

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