While this may seem like a bit of an odd topic, it’s something I’ve vaguely wondered about for a while. If orgasms get the feel-good chemicals flowing, might that have any sort of benefit for depression? And especially for single folks like myself – could masturbation have any positive effect when it comes to depression? Both depression itself and antidepressant medication can dampen sex drive; however, is it like any other kind of behavioural activation where you try to fake it until you make it?
I was curious about what science had to say about any potential benefits of self-pleasure for depression. When I went searching, I was a bit surprised by the lack of research on the topic. What I did find was a mix of interesting information and some rather dubious scholarship.
Historical views on masturbation
In the Victorian era, masturbation was seen as a potential cause for an array of different medical conditions, including epilepsy, insanity, neurosis, and neurasthenia (a condition characterized by weakness and fatigue).
Thinking began to change in the 20th century, as some sex researchers argued that masturbation was healthy and normal. This became a topic of interest in the field of psychoanalysis, and while Sigmund Freud argued that masturbation caused neurasthenia, he later concluded that it may help to prevent neurosis.
Problematic modern views
Negative views of masturbation still exist, both socially and in academic circles. Socially, there’s a myth floating around out there that masturbation causes depression (it doesn’t). In the academic journal articles I looked at for this post, the various negative views seemed to be most associated with studies that had considerable flaws.
In a 2010 paper, researcher Stuart Brody expressed his opinion that: “It is likely that only unfettered, real [penile-vaginal intercourse] has important mood-enhancing benefits.” When describing the findings of another research study, he appeared to confuse correlation with causation in his attempt to argue that semen-vagina contact is important, and he did a rather odd connect-the-dots with the statement that “more condom use means more depression and more suicide attempts.”
A 2013 paper coauthored by Brody claimed in its title that “immature psychological defense mechanisms are associated with women’s greater desire for and actual engaging in masturbation.” The authors erroneously interpreted the findings of two other research studies, incorrectly stating that masturbation was associated with an increased risk of depression. They also suggested, with no clear basis for their claim, that there are multiple links “between masturbation, character, and risk of depression.” Alrighty, then.
Mixed research findings re. depression
A paper by Das reported that self-rated happiness is inversely correlated with masturbation, i.e. there is greater happiness with less masturbation. He stated that, in a subsection of depressed men, negative mood has been linked to increased masturbation. However, the paper he cited to support this claim actually said no such thing.
Cyranowski and colleagues found that women with a history of depression, particularly recurrent depression, had a higher frequency of masturbation than women who’d never been depressed. This correlation remained constant even when they controlled for a number of other factors, including current depressive symptoms and the use of psychiatric medications. The researchers wondered if this might be related to decreased sexual pleasure from intercourse with a partner, but their data didn’t support this conclusion.
Frohlich and Meston learned that women with higher depression scale scores reported an increased desire for masturbation and were more likely to have masturbated within the past month. These women also reported a decreased desire for partnered sex, as well as difficulties with arousal and pain. The researchers speculated that masturbation may provide a reliable form of pleasure or self-soothing even when depression has decreased interest in other activities.
In contrast to these results, in a study by Kennedy and colleagues, 40% of men and 30.4% of women with depression reported a reduction in masturbation. This finding seems consistent with what one might tend to expect given the nature of depressive illnesses.
The question still remains
None of the literature that I came across definitively answers my question about whether masturbation could be helpful in some way in depression, although Frohlich and Meston gave some supposition in that direction.
It’s interesting how our society is in many ways hyper-sexualized, yet we don’t talk much about real-world sex. Masturbation, in particular, stays pretty hush-hush. It would be nice to see more research and dialogue to address both sexual dysfunction and healthy sexual function in people experiencing mental illness. In the meantime, to borrow a classic saying from Seinfeld, I, for one, will not be master of my domain, and if self-pleasure helps my depression in even a small way, I’ll take it.
- Brody, S. (2010). The relative health benefits of different sexual activities. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 7(4.1), 1336-1361.
- Brody, S., & Nicholson, S. (2013). Immature psychological defense mechanisms are associated with women’s greater desire for and actual engaging in masturbation. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 28(4), 419-430.
- Cyranowski, J.M., Bromberger, J., Youk, A., Matthews, K., Kravitz, H.M., & Powell, L.H. (2004). Lifetime depression history and sexual function in women at midlife. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 33(6), 539-548.
- Das, A. (2007). Masturbation in the United States. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 33(4), 301-317.
- Frohlich, P., and Meston, M. (2002). Sexual functioning and self-reported depressive symptoms among college women. The Journal of Sex Research, 39(4), 321-325.
- Kennedy, S.H., Dickens, S.E., Eisfeld, B.S., & Bagby, R.M. (1999).Sexual dysfunction before antidepressant therapy in major depression. Journal of Affective Disorders, 56(1999), 201-208.
- Patton, M.S. (1996). Twentieth-century attitudes toward masturbation. Journal of Religion and Health, 25(4), 291-302.
Managing the Depression Puzzle takes a holistic look at the different potential pieces that might fit into your unique depression puzzle.
27 thoughts on “Master of My Domain? A Look at Depression and Masturbation”
I’m generally open to the idea, but sensory issues, EDS, probably being somewhere on the lower end of the sexuality scale and trauma all make it a complicated thing to achieve. I’ve frankly never been able to accomplish an orgasm through masturbation, but a lot of those studies feel shaming and based on personal opinions more than accurate science. There is still so much misinformation about female pleasure. I think take stock of any internal triggers it might bring up and work through them, read some consensual, sensitive descriptions of erotica to get a sense of what might appeal and do your own controlled experiment to see if it helps. For science. I think it’s empowering for folks to explore sexuality in healthy ways, though admittedly it’s a “do as I say not as I do” situation.
I think feeling empowered to explore is probably just as important as any exploration that does or does not end up happening.
I love that episode of Seinfeld! I also find this topic really interesting. It’s interesting to me that we used to think of orgasms as cures, and doctors knew how to stimulate a clitoris, but as far as I understand that history, many husbands did not! On a personal note, I struggle with vaginismus, and for me, masturbation is necessary for desensitization.
It’s sad that so little constructive attention paid to the female clitoris – or the female sexual organs in general, really.
hah! i did a double take on the title, thinking it wasn’t you lol …
but freaking interesting topic – & surprisingly, one that i’ve discussed with an old school traditional healer lady – her advice / recommendation was as much sex as you could, if it was available – masturbation, if its not, & her reasoning was exactly your line of reasoning about the feel good chemicals. 🙂
I love it that an old school traditional healer lady is talking about that kind of thing.
haha!! yep, they don’t have the some PC boundaries the ‘new school’ do 😉 & mate … you wanna sit in on one of her teaching weekends ! … they’d make a BDSM mistress blush 😉
Given that depression reduces sexual desire and both depression and antidepressants reduce the ability to reach orgasm, which in theory should affect both masturbation and partnered sex, there must be some other factor involved if masturbation is increased in depression. The one that springs to my mind is that depression would make it more difficult to negotiate the interpersonal aspects of partnered sex for example not feeling the desire for sex at the same time your partner does, and difficulty guiding the other person to do what feels pleasurable for you at any given moment. I mean, when I’m depressed it’s hard enough to decide what to have for breakfast and organise myself to do the dishes afterward, let alone navigate the intricacies of “not that, move your hand there, do it gentler, faster” etc, whereas now that I’ve become more skilful at masturbating it’s quick and easy to achieve orgasm if and when I feel like any sort of sexual activity at all.
There are mood-elevating chemicals including oxytocin in semen which in theory would have a beneficial effect in depression, but that’s making the big assumption that those neural pathways are operating properly in a depressed person, which other evidence suggests not. Not to mention that for some women, there may be be considerable negatives associated with semen exposure – risk of STD’s and pregnancy, and in some cases, the emotional impact of coercive/abusive refusal to use condoms.
Fascinating topic to bring up. I too wish there was more good quality research.
Interesting, I didn’t know there was oxytoxin in semen. I probably shouldn’t be surprised that when I did a quick Google search to learn more, the first hit was a Psychology Today article titled “Attention, Ladies: Semen Is An Antidepressant”. Yup, definitely more quality research needed.
I WAS a master at the self pleasure side of things because I mostly didn’t get off from intercourse. Then hubby died (and yeah I used to masturbate a lot while he was alive…towards the end of his life he couldn’t achieve an erection, and even if he did, it was difficult to get together due to his size). And for a while after he died, masturbation was the only form of sexual release I could stand. I didn’t want to date, I was really turned off by even the men I’d known ‘before’. Then Religion reared up on its hind legs and told me that masturbation was ‘evil and a sin’. Well my version of theology says that. I don’t know about it actually, I think God is okay with it or doesn’t worry/fret about it because it’s not something He has to worry/fret about. A lot of uptight human beings are the ones with the problem with masturbation, not God. BUT. Menopause effectively (mostly) turned off the urge anyway. It’s fun now and again, but it’s rare that I even think about sex at all these days. Maybe that’s another thing ‘they’ (the experts) need to factor in. Menopause for both men and women can dampen the ardor. Personally? It was very stimulating when I used to do it, it made me feel a lot better mostly (it didn’t last but for a while), I was happier and calmer. Those endorphins or chemicals in the orgasm do contain something that is most wondrous. I benefited from doing it rather than suffered more. Sometimes the head doctors aren’t the most educated in what they talk about, don’t you find?
That’s for sure. For this atheist, I’ve always wondered about religion frowning upon masturbation. For one, wouldn’t God have better things to worry about, but really, why was the equipment put there if it wasn’t supposed to be used?
I can say it makes me feel better. I’ve read how it can help if you’re stressed. Religion and Shane are the two things that I can think of that make people feel dirty or wrong about masturbation. Once I got over my hangups about it I found myself buying toys and letting my partner on the fun.
You pose an interesting question. I am sure there is some connection, much like everything else it falls on a spectrum. This is another way to explore the mind-body connection.
I’ve often thought the opposite – My depression has caused my masturbation. I have never been married. Never had luck dating. My social life has (until lately) always sucked. So what did that mean? It meant taking care of myself. You can’t imagine how much money I have wasted on phone sex. Why? for the opportunity to just hear a woman’s voice. Seeing a woman in a bikini at the pool and just jealous and sad because even if I had tried to talk to her, she wouldn’t have been interested. Masturbation has been my release. My depression has also caused me to, lol let’s just say, not be as confident as I wanted to be when I did have a chance to have sex and yes, I was a little faster than I wanted to be. I always blamed my depression because I was too young maybe to have ED? My last gf was a bit better, I think because I had feelings for her and it wasn’t just my trying to hook up. I also used Penthouse Letter magazine for a while. That was until someone I dated very briefly called me when she got home and told me she fantasized about me! That was so sexy! She told me about Redtube, which has become my new thing. I am now fighting my depression and feel more confident about many things. Even though my last relationship ended, I want to date again. I do still masturbate, but it’s because I’m feeling the need. Not out of depression or loneliness. I have just met someone, too. So we’ll see what happens. Not sure why I felt the need to share. But I needed an outlet. I am also trying to share my story of depression so people know they can fight it.
That’s great that things are starting to get better.
I just finished a great book – Come as You Are by Emily Nagoski – talks about sexuality science…
I’ve heard good things about it from a few people. It’s definitely on my list of books to read!
I’m weighing in on this one almost two years *ex post facto* – but I find this statement to be certainly true: “It’s interesting how our society is in many ways hyper-sexualized, yet we don’t talk much about real-world sex, much less masturbation.” It’s also too bad there doesn’t appear to be a greater wealth of objective or quantifiable information on the subject. I think that in one of the more audacious tune-ups, I discussed my own experience with this — however, my conclusions were certainly premature.
It certainly seems like a subject area deserving of study, especially since it’s relevant to so many people.
I wonder WHY it’s not studied more thoroughly.
That’s a good question.