Monday, December 6, 2010

The Scientific Case for Masturbation

I came across a very informative article written by Sharon Begley in NEWSWEEK last month. It might not be everyone's topic of interest but I'm sure at one time or another we all had a "hand" in it. But to ignore the latest findings on masturbation would be a mistake: the stakes are simply too high, going all the way up to the very survival of the species. While we all were admonished against toying with the organs of procreation that would somehow undermine baby making, the facts are to the contrary. Evidence from elephants to rodents to humans shows that masturbating is----counter intuitively---an excellent way to make healthy babies and lots of them.

The science is straightforward. Whenever a behavior is common in the animal kingdom, biologists suspect it has an adaptive function. That is, the behavior enabled individual animals to survive better and leave more offspring than animals that did not engage in the behavior. As a result, genes for the behavior spread throughout that population until it became essentially ubiquitous. And so it it is with autoeroticism, which is common...really common.

When you think about it, with "spanking the monkey," "charming the snake," and "freeing willy," you have a remarkable number of slang terms for pleasuring oneself referring to animals. That reflects reality: the practice has been documented in Japanese macaques, gibbons, baboons, chimps, elephants, dogs, cats, horses, lions, donkeys and even walruses that manage to "flog the bishop" with their flippers. (To prove a point, Ms Begley mentions that clicking this blog you'll see an excellent photo of an elephant in flagrante dilecto.)

What then, might be its adaptive function? How can a male's autoeroticism help him triumph in the war of survival of the fittest? Lucky for us scientists have come up with four basic theories, each with some support in one or another animal species. Here they are:
  1. Masturbation removes old, damaged sperm that are passed their Use-by-Date from the reproductive tract. That would increase the fraction of healthy, speedy sperm, improving the male's chance of becoming a father. Notes biologist Jane Waterman (University of Central Florida), in her paper in the journal PLoS One, "In humans masturbating decreased the number of sperm a man delivered the next time he had sex but not the number of sperm that woman retained." She concluded that "masturbation is a male strategy to increase sperm fitness." Result: healthier and possibly more babies.

  2. Masturbation might be a form of advertising. According to this theory, males that engage in autoeroticism signal to possible mates as well as competitors how much they have to offer. Result: more mating, more babies, bigger families.

  3. Masturbation might be a sort of Victory Lap. Some animals masturbate after they mate. Since other members of the group know this, then this act signifies to other females looking for a mate that, "if he was good enough for her...." Result: more mating, more babies.

  4. Masturbation can serve a hygiene function. According to this idea, males engage in autoeroticism because it cleans the reproductive tract and reduces the chance of acquiring a sexually transmitted disease from a female he mated with and who had other recent partners. Result: a lower incidence of STDs, better sexual hygiene, more mating, more babies.

And what about females??? There have been far fewer observations of the females of various species. Instead, primatologists conclude, in the case of females the purpose is simply to produce enjoyable sensations...with or without batteries.

The Way I See It....all in all and across great and small, autoeroticism (at least among males) is a cornerstone of procreation and thus the formation of families. If religious fundamentalist views of the practice were to dominate, it would be a worrisome threat to family values and to our species. It seems that the church is always pushing for pain while males are always pulling for pleasure. Oh well...

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