In addition to being International Masturbation Month, May is also Mental Health Awareness Month, making it the perfect time to talk about the links between our minds and self-pleasure, including the history of masturbation and the benefits of a regular practice.
Some of the earliest cave drawings depict masturbation and it is believed that many ancient cultures connected human sexuality with abundance in nature and creation, encouraging both solo and partnered exploration. The Ancient Sumerians believed that the Tigris and Euphrates rivers were created from the god Enki after he ejaculated into empty riverbeds. The Ancient Egyptians had a similar mythology about the god Atum, who was believed to have created the universe by masturbating to ejaculation. The Ancient Greeks encouraged masturbation for relieving sexual frustrations and often referred to female masturbation in their writings and art.
Although the Bible does not explicitly categorize masturbation as a sin, that hasn’t stopped many Abrahamic religions from condemning it throughout history. One influential bishop of the early Christian church, Augustine of Hippo promoted the belief that masturbation was a sin greater than fornication, rape, incest, and adultery. These harmful patriarchal views persisted through the Middle Ages and into the Victorian Era.
In the 18th century, theologians began to link masturbation with mental illness. Doctors referred to it as a disorder or even a disease, and spread propaganda of men and women dying from compulsive masturbation. Bland foods like Kelloggs and Graham crackers (created by Dr. John Kellogg and Reverend Sylvester Graham, respectively) were created to curb sexual appetite, alongside more extreme measures like chastity belts and hysterectomies. Neonatal circumcision gained popularity in the United States and the UK as a preventative measure against masturbation. Famed psychotherapist Sigmund Freud likened masturbation to substance addiction.
In 1972, the American Medical Association officially declared masturbation as normal. Since then, attitudes have evolved, but our culture is still very much in the process of healing from the misinformation, shame, and violence that was passed down for centuries through various religious, educational, and health institutions. This makes self-pleasure not just an instinctual act, but a revolutionary one with far-reaching benefits.
Orgasms offer the biggest non-drug release of dopamine possible. When this occurs with a partner, feelings of bonding typically follow, so it makes sense that masturbating to orgasm could increase feelings of self-worth and confidence. For those healing from past trauma and shame, masturbation is often recommended as a way of reclaiming the body on one’s own terms.
The health benefits don’t stop there. Masturbation has been shown to reduce stress, improve sleep, improve body image, enhance relationships and sexual satisfaction, increase the ability to have orgasms, and create an overall sense of well-being. It also alleviates menstrual cramps and strengthens muscle tone in the pelvic and anal areas. Masturbation can prevent or reduce the occurrence of involuntary urine leakage and uterine prolapse amongst women and one recent study suggests that masturbation can flush old bacteria from the cervix and decrease the chances of developing a urinary tract infection. For men, regular masturbation has been linked to a reduced risk of prostate cancer.
We live in a culture that is constantly trying to define us, that profits off of our disconnection from ourselves. Self-pleasure can be used as a tool to defend against societal pressures and uncover knowledge that enables us to align with our purpose. As we discover what excites us sexually, this invites us to explore the role of pleasure in our everyday lives and seek it more boldly. As the Chakrubs’ mission states, “Know thyself, and thou shalt know God.”