Interview: Author Eric Sprankle Debunks Masturbation Myths

The late, great advice columnist Ann Landers said it best: “The sex drive is the strongest human drive after hunger. It is nature’s way of perpetuating the human race . . .  there must be an outlet. I am recommending self-gratification or mutual masturbation, whatever it takes to release the sexual energy. This is a sane and safe alternative to intercourse.”

Her words released a surprising stream of controversy when she wrote them in 1993. Regrettably, 30 years later, society still can’t come fully to terms with this harmless, near-universal habit. Politicians trumpet efforts to ban or limit pornography, and internet subcultures celebrate movements like “semen retention” and “no fap.”

Dr. Eric Sprankle is here to set the record straight.

The author and clinical psychologist has penned an illuminating, eminently readable book entitled DIY: The Wonderfully Weird History and Science of Masturbation. In this new Adult Empire Blog interview, released in conjunction with Masturbation Month, Sprankle discusses society’s often baffling attitudes toward masturbation.

Adult Empire: Tell us about your background and how you became a clinical psychologist.

Eric Sprankle: I took a psychology of human sexuality class during my sophomore year in college and got hooked on the topic. It was also the first time I had ever heard, unequivocally, that masturbation is normal and healthy. I then pursued a doctorate in clinical psychology from Xavier University (a Catholic university, mind you), and then spent two years getting specialized training in sexual health at the University of Minnesota Medical School during a postdoctoral fellowship. I got pretty burned out of fulltime clinical work toward the end of my postdoc, so I was fortunate an academic position opened up at Minnesota State University, where I’ve been since 2011 teaching classes on sexual health and being lucky enough to write about masturbation for a living.

Give readers an overview of what they can expect in DIY: The Wonderfully Weird History and Science of Masturbation. How did the book come about?

Basically it’s a humorous exploration of the misinformation that surrounds masturbation and what the scientific research actually says about the behavior. It dives into the ridiculous claims from anti-masturbation crusaders like how it’s believed to cause a loss of testosterone and “discharges from the anus,” but it also deals with more common myths like masturbation addiction and vibrators desensitizing clitorises. The book originated after weirdos left comments on my social media posts accusing me of being unethical for not warning my followers of the dangers of self-pleasure. I wanted to better understand where this misinformation was coming from and why so many people are gullible enough to believe it.

What’s the single most nefarious misconception about masturbation?

Telling people they’ll burn in hell for eternity for touching their own genitals is pretty nefarious, but from a secular perspective it’s probably the belief that masturbation is incompatible with masculinity. It’s viewed by anti-masturbation advocates as something that’s juvenile, a sign of weakness over one’s desires, and something that will physically “feminize” your body. A lot of the no fap nonsense is just a projection of masculine insecurity.

What’s your biggest advice to people who still have anxiety and guilt about masturbation?

Easier said than done, but acceptance. Acceptance that masturbation is just a moment of pleasure that satisfies a normal sexual drive. Knowing it won’t harm your body and is not a sign of deviancy or the coming apocalypse, but simply accepting the brief moment as a moment of joy, nothing more and nothing less.

Who has done the most to advance a healthy, sex-positive attitude toward masturbation?

One of my favorites was Betty Dodson. She was a masturbation pioneer in the 1970s who would hold, essentially, circle jerks for women in her Manhattan apartment, which she turned into a masturbatorium. Through these sessions and her broader advocacy, she really showed the diversity of technique and orgasmic response, gave women permission to express themselves authentically, and was a huge proponent of vibrators. An absolute legend.

This year marks the 130thanniversary of Alfred Kinsey’s birth and the 20th anniversary of his Hollywood biopic. When it comes to masturbation, what is Kinsey’s legacy?

Kinsey was great for providing prevalence data on how common and how much people masturbated. It shocked the world that private, taboo behaviors were being exposed publicly as extremely common and normal. The data freaked people out so much that a member of Congress tried to convince the post office to prohibit Kinsey’s books from being distributed, arguing they were “…the insult of the century against our mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters.”

What was the most ludicrous anti-masturbation concept you encountered in your research?

It was fun to re-read the stories of corn flakes and graham crackers being invented to curb sexual desire, but some of the most ludicrous pseudoscientific claims about masturbation came from Taoist literature. Things like orgasms causing memory loss and light sensitivity, essentially turning masturbators into vampires with Alzheimer’s disease. And unfortunately, it’s the Taoist beliefs surrounding semen that fuels a lot of the misinformation among semen retentionist “wellness influencers” today.

You quote a researcher who describes most porn-related scientific literature as being “basically a dumpster fire.” What are the biggest misunderstandings people have about the science of porn?

That we know anything definitively when it comes to the effects of watching porn. We don’t. The research on the topic has been a mess for almost 50 years, primarily from a lack of specificity when it comes to even defining what porn is. It’s just treated like a monolith without much attempt to examine the specific elements that may or may not have an impact on the viewer.

The book’s chapter on pornography is fascinating. Could you envision yourself writing a book solely on that topic? If so, what porn-related research areas interest you most?

It won’t be next, but I would love to write a book about sexually explicit media in general, that would include porn, but also television and music. The moral panic over porn is what’s most interesting to me and how that fear has influenced so much of the terribly-designed research on the topic.

You write that “the primary motivation to watch porn is to aid in masturbation.” Imagine a world where masturbation has (somehow) been eradicated completely. Would porn still exist? Or is its role almost exclusively as an accessory for solo sex?

Porn is art and entertainment, and our culture needs and benefits from that, regardless if people are touching their own genitals while watching.

Do you think society can ever get to a point where masturbation and/or porn are no longer substantially stigmatized?

I’m sure in the massive timeline of human history still to come, there may be a culture, even a dominant one, where masturbation and porn stigma are gone. But I’m not too optimistic that time is anywhere close to being near. I’m generally a pessimist, though, so I shouldn’t be looked toward for inspiration.

Was there any particularly memorable material that you had to edit out of the final book for length or pace considerations?

A lot was cut from the section on camming in the “Manual Labor” chapter. Early drafts went down a rabbit hole of talking about terms of service on OnlyFans and the horror that is SESTA/FOSTA. It was getting a little too academic and too “in the weeds” as my editor kept saying to me.

Masturbation is a difficult and awkward topic for many people, even those who do not class it as aberrant or harmful. What’s the best way for society to move toward mature, thoughtful conversations about self-love?

One way, and the easiest in many ways, is just to make sure you’re not perpetuating the taboo and stigma to your own children if you are a parent. This requires obviously not scolding your child if you catch them touching themselves, but also normalizing it and redirecting the behavior so they know to do it in private. Something as simple as saying, “If you like doing that, which is totally fine, most people do, just make sure you’re doing it in your bedroom or bathroom and not in the living room when grandma and grandpa are visiting.”

What’s your favorite quotation about self-love?

 Certainly not an inspirational quote, but Dr. Emery Abbey (a urologist from Buffalo in the 1800s) believed masturbation would send someone “…into a premature grave, loaded with violent forms of disease, with debasement of the human soul and the mind filled with obscenity and beastliness.” One must wonder how vigorously Dr. Abbey believed people masturbated.

On Twitter, you mention being a horror fan. Horror movies often have interesting sexual subtexts. What’s your favorite example?

Sexual behavior is often an expression of a character’s autonomy and liberation. A great example of this unfolding in a horrific way is in the movie Black Swan, where Natalie Portman’s character is a professional ballerina whose whole life is rigid and structured around perfection, often at the influence of her critical and overbearing mother. During one scene, she wakes up in the morning and starts masturbating in bed. A rare glimpse of her being able to let go and enjoy herself. But when she briefly opens her eyes, she sees her mother is in her room sleeping in a chair, which causes a shock and a quick cessation of her one opportunity for self-pleasure. That scene really captures so many themes in that whole, disturbing movie. Five stars.

What’s next for Eric Sprankle?

Probably eating a bowl of Corn Flakes and taking a nap.


Eric Sprankle image courtesy author’s official website


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