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Healthism, Masturbation, and Archaic Science: An Article Gets Totally Sidetracked

Ava Mir  |  Nov 19

Healthism, Masturbation, and Archaic Science: An Article Gets Totally Sidetracked

I’ve always been suspicious of promoting sex on the basis of health benefits. Certainly, one’s spiritual, mental, and physical health is intertwined with sexual comfort, safety, and satisfaction. And I think there are endless ‘legitimate’ motivations to be sexual. But deciding to masturbate or have sex purely to burn some calories or reduce menstrual cramps and headaches feels like part of a disturbing trend in healthism (a term coined by Robert Crawford in a 1980 article[1]). When I was growing up, teen magazines were criticized for teaching young girls to focus on their looks and on getting attention from dudes. Now as an adult, there are a slew of women- and lifestyle magazines focused on being ‘healthy’ instead of ‘pretty’, but are the actual demands that much different? This healthism is yet another way to sell products (from yoga mats to supplements to private consultations to fancy vibrators) under the guise of self-care, and venturing too far down the healthism rabbit hole can just lead to paranoia, hypochondria, and a degree of self-policing, deprivation, and discipline that produces more stress and strain than it removes.

Take a single issue of any given women’s health magazine[2]. It would be impossible to follow all the rules (‘advice’) inside without contradicting oneself – somehow consume the daily required amounts of all the ‘superfoods’ while keeping your intake under 2000 calories; workout every day with a mix of cardio, yoga, weight training, pilates, running, but make sure to have some no pressure ‘you’ time; maintain a varied and exciting but absolutely monogamous sex life of 3+ times a week; get yourself some botanical skincare products, or better yet, make them yourself from the finest organic sugar and coconut oil but balance that budget… it all becomes more charting and documenting and scheduling than anyone could happily maintain, leaving us feeling guilty and disappointed at our own lack of willpower, self-care, and body maintenance. Everything we have tried to deprogram about being beautiful in order to land a mate is transformed into an equal amount of self-regulation in order to be ‘good to our self’, to be ‘healthy’. Health is an elusive force, something we can ever be, but which we must always do.

Don’t get me wrong. I finally quit smoking, I try to eat ‘well’, work out, and get a satisfying load of orgasms. I fret sometimes when I eat a bag of chips, and then I fret about my fretting. I try to balance out a lifestyle that makes me feel good and might keep me from getting too sick too early because I’m a freelancing Ph.D. student and don’t have a retirement fund. I know I’m lucky to be generally ‘well’ by the standards of mainstream ableist society, and I make choices with the goal of maintaining that while I can.

In part because the idea of ‘health’ is inherently ableist, and because what ‘health’ means is relative to the person, time, and situation, I question the impact of pressure to seek ‘health’ for its own sake. An orgasm is good because it’s good, and it bugs me when I see content trying to convince me to have more sex because it will burn calories or reduce wrinkles. If I desperately want to come just as a way to calm my menstrual cramps, I am probably less likely to actually get off. That said, part of what makes masturbation in particular so delightful is that you can do it when you want, how you want, and why you want, and it’s no one’s business but yours (unless you are in the menstruation aisle at the pharmacy, de-cramp-masturbate away!)

So why does masturbation help a number of health issues? I’m not a medical doctor or a sexologist, but I do my fair share of masturbating and it seems undeniable that for many people, masturbation and/or orgasms can improve mood and reduce stress. While sharing sex with a partner has its own benefits, many folks find solo masturbation offers more freedom and less stress about how you look, the sounds you make, and the way you want to be touched.

Ever the researcher, I wanted to see what the medical literature had to say, and I was instantly appalled. PubMed is the largest database of English-language medical research, with over 23 million citations in a huge breadth of health disciplines. When I searched for “masturbation health benefits” I got a grand total of 7 results. Seven! And then I was shocked to find a relatively recent article[3] (2010) that resonated with such antiquated bullshit that I couldn’t believe someone had published it. I shouldn’t be so astounded when science is presented to support a sexist, racist, homophobic, misogynist status quo because in many ways it’s what science was originally intended to do. Still, I was shocked to read this, verbatim, in a peer-reviewed medical journal: 

“A wide range of better psychological and physiological health indices are associated specifically with penile-vaginal intercourse. Other sexual activities have weaker, no, or (in the cases of masturbation and anal intercourse) inverse associations with health indices.”

So proper penis/vagina sex is good for you, but masturbation and anal are bad. Got it? Good, moving on to more detail:

“In a large representative sample of the Swedish population, penile-vaginal intercourse (PVI) frequency was a significant predictor of both men’s and women’s greater satisfaction with their mental health. In contrast, masturbation was inversely associated with mental health satisfaction [...]. The same large Swedish survey also revealed that women who had experienced vaginal orgasm (defined quite conservatively as having “had an orgasm solely through the movement of the penis in the vagina”) were more satisfied with their mental health than the minority of women who had only experienced orgasms through direct clitoral manipulation.”

It is well established that a majority of people with vulvas need or prefer some clitoral stimulation to have an orgasm (and that even so-called ‘vaginal orgasms’ through penetration involve clitoral stimulation, both through friction on the exposed part of the clitoris via the clitoral hood and labia, and along the inside of the vagina). Perhaps people enjoy more mental wellness if they have purely penetrative orgasms because incredibly powerful and entrenched social narratives tell us these are the best kind of orgasm, and that anything else is ‘complicated’. 

Back in the early 1900s, famed/infamous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud argued that clitoral orgasms were immature and masculine, and should be renounced by in favour of the more mature and appropriately feminine vaginal orgasm. This continues to inform the public consciousness, with vaginal orgasms seen as the ideal. They are certainly considered more cinematic, as I have yet to see more than a handful of heterosexual Hollywood pseudo-sex scenes where it appears a clitoris is getting any attention. It’s baffling, given how much criticism the vaginal orgasm narrative has received. Susan Lydon’s “The Politics of Orgasm”[4] wrote that constructing ‘normal female pleasure’ as derived from penetration rather than clitoral stimulation serves the heterosexual imperative by pathologizing anyone with a vulva who seeks pleasure outside of the phallus. This guarantees the penis-bearers their penetrative pleasure, and those who want anything different are ‘broken’. Lydon’s piece was published 50 years ago, nevertheless, this recent medical article continues to refer to vaginal orgasms as the ‘real’ kind:

“most of the coital orgasms were most likely not masturbatory clitoral orgasms, but real vaginal orgasms (i.e., female orgasm induced by penile–vaginal stimulation)”

and refers to clitoral orgasms as ‘immature’, as measured by a psychological defense mechanism scale:

“In a sample of healthy Portuguese women, vaginal orgasm (triggered solely by PVI) was associated with less use of immature defenses. Defenses were measured with the Defense Style Questionnaire [...] Orgasm from clitoral stimulation or combined clitoral–intercourse stimulation [...] was associated with more use of some immature defenses.”

The article goes one to suggest that masturbation and depression are associated:

“Higher masturbation frequency (and even the desire for more masturbation) is associated with depression, and masturbation is associated with less happiness. [...] It is likely that only unfettered, real PVI has important mood-enhancing benefits.”

Again with words like ‘real’ and ‘unfettered’. Honestly, I had to stop reading there and skip to the end:

“Clinicians and researchers need to be specific in examining various sexual behaviors, including details of how PVI might have been modified from its pure form, such as condom use or clitoral masturbation during PVI; studies noted herein found these practices to be associated with poorer functioning than undisturbed PVI.”

You see, proper penile-vaginal intercourse must remain ‘pure’ and ‘undisturbed’, which means no sneaky fingers reaching down to your clit, and no condoms! WTF. That such sexually conservative propaganda could sell itself as health research in 2010 is astonishing (the article has been cited 238 times since – hopefully, more often as a point of criticism rather than as supporting material). Whenever science conveniently backs up existing sexual norms that serve existing power structures, it needs to be critically questioned.

Compare this to an older piece from 1993[5]:

“Although masturbation has come to be viewed as an appropriate sexual outlet for women, it is the one form of sexual behavior that has been most harshly treated throughout the centuries by society, religion, and the field of medicine. Thus, despite the increased incidence of masturbation among adult women during the 1970s and 1980s, substantial evidence suggests that guilt feelings associated with the practice may interfere with physiological and psychological sexual satisfaction in general. [...] Those women who reported guilt feelings associated with masturbation were more likely to have negative feelings toward the practice and less likely to indicate positive physiological and psychological reactions after engaging in self-stimulation. Further, they were less likely to report sexual adjustment, physiological sexual satisfaction, and psychological sexual satisfaction.”

No surprise here – doing something that makes you feel good is good for you unless powerful narratives encourage you to feel guilty for doing it! That so much clinical sexology research completely ignores the context of social norms when assessing the drawbacks and benefits of sexual practice should render such research unpublishable, but hey, I don’t run the journals...

I wanted to write about how if available, orgasms are great for you, no matter how you get them (so long as it’s consensual!). I wanted to write that masturbation, no matter the way you do it, why you do it, or what it does or doesn’t result in, is a nice thing to do with yourself. And I wanted to find a few fun facts from reputable medical sources to back me up in case you, dear reader, enjoy SCIENCE. Instead, I spent an afternoon getting really angry at the state of academic sex research. So let me say this: sensual and sexual stimulation, orgasms, and taking time out to be sweet to yourself are good for you. Anything that is good for you is good for your health, mentally, physically, all of it, because wellness is one big interconnected blob. That may not sound scientific, but I don’t need any literature to back this one up.

I am now going to celebrate with a clitoral vibe and a butt plug. Research!

Ava Mir-Ausziehen


[1] Crawford, Robert (1980). Healthism and the medicalization of everyday life, International Journal of Health Services, 10(3): 365–88.

[2] For an in-depth academic discussion of this phenomenon, see Roy, Stephannie C. (2008). ‘Taking charge of your health’: discourses of responsibility in English-Canadian women’s magazines. Sociology of Health & Illness, 30(3):463–477.

[3] Brody, Stuart (2010). The relative health benefits of different sexual activities. Journal of Sex & Medicine, 7: 1336–1361.

[4] Lydon, Susan (1970). “The Politics of Orgasm”. In Robin Morgan (Ed.), Sisterhood is Powerful. (pp. 197-204). New York, NY: Random House.

[5] Davidson, J. Kenneth & Darling, Carol Anderson (1993). Masturbatory guilt and sexual responsiveness among post-college-age women: Sexual satisfaction revisited, Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 19(4): 289-300.

Cover photo by Unsplash


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