The pro-life case for masturbation.

Science, technology, and life.
July 8 2009 7:29 AM

Wank Thyself

The pro-life case for masturbation.

Human hand, close up.
The pro-life case for masturbation.

Does God want you to masturbate?

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, masturbation is "intrinsically and gravely disordered." That's because "sexual pleasure is morally disordered when sought for itself, isolated from its procreative and unitive purposes." If you aren't making babies, you can't play with the equipment.

But what if playing with the equipment helps you make babies?

Research made public last week suggests precisely that. In a paper presented to the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology, Dr. David Greening, an Australian infertility expert, reports that 81 percent of the men in his study significantly improved their sperm quality, as measured by DNA fragmentation, through a simple one-week program.

The program was so easy that even the average guy could follow it. According to a summary of the study, "The men were instructed to ejaculate daily."

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Why does frequent ejaculation help? Greening's theory is that it shortens the period during which sperm are exposed to harmful molecules in tubes emerging from the testicles. He concludes that to improve their odds of achieving pregnancy, "[c]ouples with relatively normal semen parameters should have sex daily for up to a week before the ovulation date." But if the exposure theory is correct, he notes, the key isn't sex. It's "ejaculatory frequency."

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

If your wife is available and she's game for sex every night, great. But what if she's tired, sore, or not in the mood? What if you have to work late and she has to go to sleep? What if one of you is out of town? What if your son can't sleep and needs to be with Mommy? Or what if medical advice to have daily sex stresses her out? From a fertility standpoint, says one expert, that kind of pressure "may add even more anxiety and do more harm than good."

Fortunately, you can ejaculate without her. It's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it.

The Catechism defines masturbation as "the deliberate stimulation of the genital organs in order to derive sexual pleasure." But if stimulating your organs promotes fertility and family formation—the "procreative and unitive purposes" of sexual pleasure, as stipulated by the church—is it OK to enjoy it? By my reading, the answer is yes. "Sexuality is a source of joy and pleasure," says the Catechism. Quoting Pope Pius XII, it points out that God "established that in the [generative] function, spouses should experience pleasure and enjoyment of body and spirit. Therefore, the spouses do nothing evil in seeking this pleasure and enjoyment."

This theological defense doesn't extend to everyone. If you're gay, single, or a Catholic priest, sorry: Hands off the equipment. Also, Greening is a long way from assembling the kind of scientific dossier that would move the Vatican. His study was confined to men with DNA fragmentation, and that's just one of many fertility factors. To demonstrate a procreative function, scientists will have to broaden the sample population and show that reduced fragmentation and other ejaculatory benefits, such as improved sperm mobility, outweigh the harmful effect of masturbation on semen volume. Ultimately, they'll have to show that frequent ejaculation improves the bottom line: pregnancy.

So get busy, scientists. We're counting on you.

(Now playing at the Human Nature blog: 1) How to help machines avoid killing people. 2) Saving dogs from diseases we inflicted  on them. 3) Two men, no uterus.)