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The Scientific Case For Masturbating (But Not All the Time)

Masturbating won't cause prostate cancer or harm your sperm count, studies have shown. But it might not make you happy.

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Most men masturbate. It’s tricky to get solid figures on just how many do so and how frequently they masturbate. But studies put the number of men who self-pleasure at least once per week somewhere north of 85 percent. Is that good? Is there such a thing as too much masturbation? Plenty of religious figures have weighed in on that — most against, some heavily for. But from a health perspective, science provides the only truly satisfying answer. And that answer is (as it often is for things of this nature), yes. Masturbation is good in moderation.

First of all, the physical risks are negligible. Men may injure their penises if they masturbate too vigorously or too often (without lube). But onanism is the only form of sexual expression that carries no risk of STIs. Contrary to popular belief, masturbation also does not increase the risk of prostate cancer or decrease sperm quality, which is very good news for teenage boys. All that said, when it comes to emotional and mental health risks, there may be some cause for concern in the age of pornography. Scientists have uncovered a troubling link between high rates of masturbation and overall unhappiness.

Here’s what men need to know before they give themselves a hand.

Masturbation Does Affect Sperm

A frequently asked question — “what happens is we release sperm daily” — reveals another masturbation myth: thatt an effect of excessive sperm release is reduced sperm count or quality. Although it’s true that semen volume decreases the more often you masturbate, studies suggest that sperm quality is not impacted in any meaningful way by frequent masturbation. To the contrary, long periods of abstinence (that is, no ejaculation whatsoever) have been linked to fertility problems.

The following chart comes from a 2004 study involving a small sample of 16 men. Researchers found that semen volume and sperm concentration increased slightly after eight days of abstinence, but that sperm viability and motility remained roughly unchanged.

a graph showing that abstinence from masturbation has a negligible impact on sperm quality

Masturbation May Decrease Prostate Cancer Risk

Or it may do nothing at all. The safest conclusion is that masturbation has nothing to do with prostate cancer at all. But as long as anti-masturbation advocates keep claiming that it causes prostate cancer, debunking the myth seems worthwhile.

The authors of one 2016 study followed 31,925 men for almost two decades. They found “evidence of a beneficial role of more frequent ejaculation throughout adult life,” when it comes to prostate cancer, whether low-grade or advanced. The chart below shows how masturbation rates correlate to disease severity and risk.

a graph showing that frequent masturbation may reduce the risk of cancer

Masturbation Might Make You Happy, But Not For Long

It is difficult to find data on whether men who masturbate are happy. But one of the only robust studies on the subject, published in 2013, concluded that they’re not. Men who masturbate once per week are far more likely to report being “very unhappy” and to report lower levels of relationship satisfaction. This might be because masturbation makes men sad. But it’s also possible that sad men masturbate more frequently, to relieve their anxiety.

Either way, the results introduce some caution into the discussion. Masturbating is not going to damage your prostate or your sperm, but it may impact your mental health. “In contrast to popular accounts of the health benefits of masturbation, the results herein suggest a more cautious approach to any pronouncements about its benefits,” the study authors write. “This is not to suggest that masturbation causes relational or emotional problems. It may be the reverse.”

“Regardless of directionality, there is little evidence to suggest that recent masturbation corresponds to, or reflects, relational and emotional well-being in American young adults.”

a graph showing that weekly masturbation is not linked to more happiness