Experts talk about whether masturbation is safe, normal, or can lead to sexual dysfunction.
Experts say that just about every man who can masturbate does — and why not? You don’t need an expert to tell you that solo sex feels good, relieves stress, and is a terrific sleep aid. But here are five things you may not know about masturbation:
1. There’s no such thing as “abnormal” masturbation.
Men often wonder if there’s something abnormal about the way they masturbate. But experts are loath to offer specific definitions of “normal” and “abnormal,” pointing out that men show great variations in both frequency and technique. “We humans are too diverse to establish a norm,” says Betty Dodson, PhD, a New York City-based sexologist and the author of Sex for One. Every man masturbates in his own way, says Martha Cornog, the author of The Big Book of Masturbation, whether he “uses his hands, rubs against something, uses a sex toy or household object, wears special clothing, fantasizes, looks at a book or magazine, tries different positions, or looks in a mirror.”
2. Masturbation is very safe — but not entirely safe.
Unlike sex with a partner, masturbation can’t give you a sexually transmitted disease. Nor will it subject you to the muscle strains, pokes in the eye, and awkward moments that can come with partner sex. But masturbation safety isn’t guaranteed. “Masturbation is just about the safest sex there is,” says Cornog. “But the laws of physics and biology don’t stop operating just because someone is masturbating.”
Frequent or overly vigorous masturbation can irritate the skin of the penis, as the average guy knows all too well. Less well known is that habitually masturbating face down — for example, by thrusting against a sheet, pillow, or even a carpeted floor — can injure the urethra in such a way that urine exits the penis not in a stream but in a hard-to-control spray. Barbara Bartlik, MD, a psychiatrist and sex therapist in New York City, says she’s seen facedown masturbators with urethral trauma so severe that they are no longer able to use a urinal and must urinate while seated.
In certain extremely rare instances, masturbation and partner sex alike can cause penile fracture. This painful condition — actually a tear in the tunica albuginea, the whitish tissue surrounding the penis’s spongy layers — occurs when an erect penis strikes a hard object or is forced downward. A medical emergency, it often necessitates surgery.
3. Solo sex can supercharge your sex life — or scuttle it.
For various reasons, solo sex can be a real boon to sex with a partner. It helps teach men about their own sexual response — what feels good to them and what doesn’t — so they will be better able to explain to their partners just how they like to be touched. It helps men learn to recognize the “moment of inevitability” just before orgasm and helps teach them how to avoid premature ejaculation. Perhaps most significant, it’s a great coping mechanism for any man whose partner is temporarily unavailable for sex — because of absence or illness — or has a sex drive that doesn’t quite match his own (something sex therapists call a disparity in frequency preference).
Of course, some men become so obsessed with solo sex that they begin to lose interest in having sex with their partner. The resulting hurt feelings and alienation a partner feels can make it hard to sustain the relationship. But experts are quick to point out that masturbation is perfectly OK even for men in a committed relationship. “We cannot assume that just because a man masturbates that there is a problem with his primary relationship,” says Bartlik.
4. Certain forms of masturbation can lead to sexual dysfunction.
Experts warn that men who frequently stimulate themselves in ways that don’t simulate sex with a partner — for example, stroking very rapidly or with great pressure or friction — can develop retarded ejaculation. That’s a type of sexual dysfunction in which it is difficult or even impossible to climax during partnered sex. “Any man experiencing any sexual dysfunction should ask himself if he’s masturbating in ways that produce sensations that differ from those he gets from his partner’s hand, mouth, or vagina,” says Michael A. Perelman, PhD, clinical associate professor of psychiatry, reproductive medicine, and urology at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City and the president of the Society for Sex Therapy and Research “Then he should consider what he could say to her to make the stimulation more similar — and how he could change the way he masturbates to make it feel more similar to what his partner does.”
5. Masturbation may affect the risk for prostate cancer.
The relationship between masturbation and prostate cancer is a bit hazy.
A 2003 Australian study published in BJU International linked frequent ejaculation early in life with reduced risk for prostate cancer later on. But in a 2004 study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, a researcher reported that “ejaculation frequency is not related to increased risk of prostate cancer.” In both these studies, ejaculation frequency included sexual intercourse and masturbation.
In a study published this past January in BJU International, researchers found that frequent masturbation in young men raised the risk for prostate cancer but that frequent masturbation in older men lowered the risk. Sexual intercourse did not affect prostate cancer risk.
The researchers theorize that it may not be the masturbation itself which is increasing risk of prostate cancer in men who masturbate frequently in their 20s and 30s. Men who masturbate more may do so because they have high levels of male sex hormones — and young men genetically predisposed to have hormone-sensitive prostate cancer will be at higher risk if they have more male hormones. In men over age 50, the researchers theorize, frequent masturbation helps drain the prostate of fluids that may contain cancer-causing substances.