What Swearing Off Sex Does to Your Brain
Some people claim abstaining from orgasm can enhance productivity, creativity, and peace of mind. Do any doctors agree?
Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz
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"We should be fucking," the David Banner song "Fucking" says. But is it true? Reminders of sex are certainly common in our society, from the advertisements on the subway to the attractive people on the subway who make us think about sex. Sometimes sex—the physical wants, the search for the right partner(s), the fear that everyone else is having more frequent and better choreographed intercourse than you—can feel like an oppressive force in our lives. Beyond this, there's a perception—especially prevalent among men who frequent online forums—that sex (or even self-achieved orgasms) causes the comer to lose energy that could be otherwise put towards building a better life.
For some people, these complications are too much to take. They've gone ahead and forsworn intercourse (and, in some cases, masturbation). Sometimes this is a temporary decision, a realignment of sorts, like a more literal Dry January. For other people, like the voluntary celibates of Reddit, this is a long-term project, with message boards forming an AA-like support group. These "volcels," as they're known (in contrast to involuntary celibates, or "incels"), swear that their white-knuckle lifestyle gives them courage, confidence, calmness, creativity, and other benefits that don't start with c.
Read more: Can You Go Crazy from a Lack of Touch?
I'm generally skeptical of online health advice, and doubly so when lifestyle guru Tim Ferriss backs it. Still, the idea that doing a counterintuitive and unpleasant thing could actually be good is the kind of pseudoscience that makes intuitive sense—hence the appeal of toe shoes and eating paleo. I wasn't, like, about to try it, but the neurological case against sex still seemed plausible. I decided to see if the scientific facts back it up.
I first spoke with Dr. Beverly Whipple, a leading sexologist and the co-author of The Science of Orgasm and numerous other books on sexuality. She told me that she's unaware of any medical benefit to abstaining from orgasm, and she literally co-wrote the book on the subject. "I would know about this if there was something scientifically to it."
Next I spoke with Dr. Nan Wise, a sex therapist and psychotherapist with a PhD in cognitive neuroscience. She said that there really is no physiological benefit to abstaining from orgasm, but things are more complicated than that. "When it comes to sexuality, you always have to look at biological, psychological, and social stuff." The power of the mind shouldn't be discounted. "Here's a place where the power of belief is going to determine what people experience, and their experience is going to confirm their belief. For people who believe that abstinence is going to help them, the belief itself may be driving some of the benefits."
I wasn't, like, about to try it, but the neurological case against sex still seemed plausible.
That said, any physical benefits from celibacy are likely to be short-lived. "There's really no hard evidence in support of the notion that abstaining from sexual activity or from ejaculation has any demonstrative benefits," Wise says. "On the other hand, there's evidence that having fairly frequent ejaculations has health benefits in terms of lower levels of prostate cancer. In general, there's a lot of evidence that engaging in regular sexual behavior is physically and emotionally helpful for both men and women, as long as we're not getting diseases or doing stupid things."
What about the message board belief that not ejaculating allows men to build up more testosterone? "There's an old study that shows testosterone levels increase if men abstain for [more than] seven days, but there hasn't been any continued evidence of that." (The study Wise refers to, conducted by researchers at Zhejiang University in 2002, found that testosterone spiked after seven days of abstinence but went back to normal fluctuations after that.) In other words, the relationship between testosterone and orgasm isn't quite as simple as people think; testosterone isn't something that just increases until it spills out during orgasm. Dr. Wise says the perception is "that people who have lower testosterone have less sex, in particular men. But there's also evidence that engaging in sexual behavior increases testosterone levels. It's not that low T causes people not to have sex; not having sex may actually inhibit testosterone."
To be clear, it's not that abstinence is actively bad for you. It's just that it prevents you from getting all the health benefits that can come from sex. "A lot of the benefits of sex are not just about sex," Wise says. "It's about having connection with another human being. Even masturbation is a pleasurable activity. Orgasm is fantastic for your brain. A lot of different regions are activated, which means they're getting a lot of blood flow. It's kind of a workout for your brain."
Nevertheless, Dr. Wise says that sexuality is shockingly under-studied. "There are major gaps in the literature, in particular with female sexuality," she says. "And unless a drug company can make money, there's very little funding." This lack of hard data allows misconceptions and quackery to take root. "It's so sad. We're so uncomfortable in this culture with dealing with our sexuality in a healthy way."
So this is one of the rare situations where doctors advise: If it feels good, do it. "Pleasure is really important," Wise says. "Sex is great for us, especially if we feel good about sex and about the people we're having sex with—including ourselves."