While this may seem like a bit of an odd topic, it’s something I’ve vaguely wondered about for a while. My line of thinking goes, 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? It’s well known that both depression itself and antidepressant medication can dampen sex drive, but is it like any other kind of behavioural activation where you try to fake it until we make it?
I was curious to see what science had to say about this, and was actually a bit surprised to see how little research has been done on the topic. What I did find was a mix of interesting information and rather dubious scholarship.
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.
Negative views of masturbation still exist, both socially and in academic circles. In the academic journal articles I looked at for this post, these negative views seemed to be most associated with studies that had considerable flaws.
In a 2010 paper, researcher Stuart Brody expresses his opinion that: “It is likely that only unfettered, real [penile-vaginal intercourse] has important mood-enhancing benefits.” In describing the findings of another research study, he confuses correlation with causation in his attempt to argue that semen-vagina contact is important, and he does 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 claims 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 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”.
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 cites to support this claim actually says no such thing.
Cyranowski and colleagues found that women with a history of depression, particularly those with recurrent depression, had a higher frequency of masturbation than women who had 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 found that the 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, and 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 illness.
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, much less masturbation. 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.
- 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.
Originally published at mentalhealthathome.org on December 4, 2018.