Tiger King. Dalgona coffee. Zoom calls we actually enjoyed. The early days of the pandemic feel like 100 years ago. Do you remember all the masturbation jokes? My favorite was this viral tweet: "Your quarantine number is the number of times you’ve masturbated minus the number of times you’ve cried." The NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene even tweeted, "Masturbation will not spread COVID-19." For one weird second, there was even a rumor that masturbating could boost your immune system.
Most of the masturbation talk was us just fooling around (with ourselves) because we were stuck inside, bored, and blissfully unaware of the horrors that were yet to come. But the "masturbating might boost your immune system!" truthers were actually serious. They were basing their declarations on a study that came out back in 2004 (remember her?). A group of researchers from Germany asked 11 men to "masturbate until orgasm," then drew their blood to measure their levels of natural killer T cells (a marker of immunity) five and 45 minutes post-O. The results? Levels were higher after the men had masturbated. "These findings demonstrate that components of the innate immune system are activated by sexual arousal and orgasm," the researchers concluded.
Too bad 2020 kept getting more and more depressing, and we all lost our libidos, right? But don't worry — there's no evidence that masturbating more would have actually helped any. First: That study was in literally 11 people (11 men, at that), a number so small as to be meaningless. Even if a larger study confirmed that masturbating increases natural killer T cell levels, that alone doesn't say much. "There hasn’t been a study with specific findings that masturbation boosts the immune system in a way that helps fight off infection," Erica Smith, a sexuality educator, points out.
"However, don’t be deterred!" Smith quickly adds. She says there are more than enough other reasons to masturbate, then lists seven: stress relief, endorphin release, menstrual cramp relief, increased connection to and knowledge of one’s own body, greater sexual self esteem, better sleep, and pleasure — oh yeah, that.
Now, if you're really invested in the idea that you could masturbate away colds, you might have stumbled across this study in the journal Psychological Reports, which showed that people who had sex one to three times a week had higher levels of an antibody (IgA, which plays a crucial role in the immune system) than those who had more or less frequent coitus.
But the partner might be key to the immune benefits, not the orgasm. "Sexually active people may be exposed to many more infectious agents than sexually non-active people," said Clifford Lowell, an immunologist at the University of California at San Francisco who was not involved in the study, according to Eurekalert. "The immune system would respond to these foreign antigens by producing and releasing more IgA."
Interestingly, when asked why people who have sex more often than one to three times per week had lower IgA levels, one of the study authors speculated that they "may be in obsessive or poor relationships that are causing them a lot of anxiety," which in turn suppresses IgA levels. Kind of judgmental, no?
All told, I certainly hope no one stops masturbating just because it's probably not a replacement for vitamin C and zinc. It really is so enjoyable, and healthy, in many ways. Plus, as that NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene tweet pointed out, masturbation doesn't carry the same risk of spreading COVID-19 that sex does, since it's a social distancing-friendly activity. Smith says it best: "You may not be able to 'beat' a virus this way — pun intended — but you sure won’t be hurting anyone if you try."