Is Sex Necessary?
Fans of abstinence had better be sitting
down. "Saving yourself" before the big game, the big business
deal, the big hoedown or the big bakeoff may indeed confer some
moral benefit. But corporeally it does absolutely zip. There's
no evidence it sharpens your competitive edge. The best that
modern science can say for sexual abstinence is that it's harmless
when practiced in moderation. Having regular and enthusiastic
sex, by contrast, confers a host of measurable physiological
advantages, be you male or female. (This assumes that you are
engaging in sex without contracting a sexually transmitted disease.)
In one of the most credible studies
correlating overall health with sexual frequency, Queens University
in Belfast tracked the mortality of about 1,000 middle-aged
men over the course of a decade. The study was designed to compare
persons of comparable circumstances, age and health. Its findings,
published in 1997 in the British Medical Journal, were
that men who reported the highest frequency of orgasm enjoyed
a death rate half that of the laggards. Other studies (some
rigorous, some less so) purport to show that having sex even
a few times a week has an associative or causal relationship
with the following:
- Improved sense of smell: After
sex, production of the hormone prolactin surges. This in turn
causes stem cells in the brain to develop new neurons in the
brain's olfactory bulb, its smell center.
- Reduced risk of heart disease:
In a 2001 follow-on to the Queens University study mentioned
above, researchers focused on cardiovascular health. Their finding?
That by having sex three or more times a week, men reduced their
risk of heart attack or stroke by half. In reporting these results,
the co-author of the study, Shah Ebrahim, Ph.D., displayed
the well-loved British gift for understatement: "The relationship
found between frequency of sexual intercourse and mortality
is of considerable public interest."
- Weight loss, overall fitness:
Sex, if nothing else, is exercise. A vigorous bout burns some
200 calories--about the same as running 15 minutes on a treadmill
or playing a spirited game of squash. The pulse rate, in a person
aroused, rises from about 70 beats per minute to 150, the same
as that of an athlete putting forth maximum effort. British
researchers have determined that the equivalent of six Big Macs
can be worked off by having sex three times a week for a year.
Muscular contractions during intercourse work the pelvis, thighs,
buttocks, arms, neck and thorax. Sex also boosts production
of testosterone, which leads to stronger bones and muscles.
Men's Health magazine has gone so far as to call the
bed the single greatest piece of exercise equipment ever invented.
- Reduced depression: Such was
the implication of a 2002 study of 293 women. American psychologist
Gordon Gallup reported that sexually active participants
whose male partners did not use condoms were less subject to
depression than those whose partners did. One theory of causality:
Prostoglandin, a hormone found only in semen, may be absorbed
in the female genital tract, thus modulating female hormones.
- Pain-relief: Immediately before
orgasm, levels of the hormone oxytocin surge to five times their
normal level. This in turn releases endorphins, which alleviate
the pain of everything from headache to arthritis to even migraine.
In women, sex also prompts production of estrogen, which can
reduce the pain of PMS.
- Less-frequent colds and flu:
Wilkes University in Pennsylvania says individuals who have
sex once or twice a week show 30% higher levels of an antibody
called immunoglobulin A, which is known to boost the immune
- Better bladder control: Heard
of Kegel exercises? You do them, whether you know it or not,
every time you stem your flow of urine. The same set of muscles
is worked during sex.
- Better teeth: Seminal plasma
contains zinc, calcium and other minerals shown to retard tooth
decay. Since this is a family Web site, we will omit discussion
of the mineral delivery system. Suffice it to say that it could
be a far richer, more complex and more satisfying experience
than squeezing a tube of Crest--even Tartar Control Crest. Researchers
have noted, parenthetically, that sexual etiquette usually demands
the brushing of one's teeth before and/or after intimacy, which,
by itself, would help promote better oral hygiene.
- A happier prostate? Some urologists
believe they see a relationship between infrequency of
ejaculation and cancer of the prostate. The causal argument
goes like this: To produce seminal fluid, the prostate and the
seminal vesicles take such substances from the blood as zinc,
citric acid and potassium, then concentrate them up to 600 times.
Any carcinogens present in the blood likewise would be concentrated.
Rather than have concentrated carcinogens hanging around causing
trouble, it's better to evict them. Regular old sex could do
the job. But if the flushing of the prostate were your only
objective, masturbation might be a better way to go, especially
for the non-monogamous male. Having sex with multiple partners
can, all by itself, raise a man's risk of cancer by up to 40%.
That's because he runs an increased risk of contracting sexual
infections. So, if you want the all the purported benefits of
flushing with none of the attendant risk, go digital. A study
recently published by the British Journal of Urology International
asserts that men in their 20s can reduce by a third their chance
of getting prostate cancer by ejaculating more than five times
While possession of a robust appetite
for sex--and the physical ability to gratify it--may not always
be the cynosure of perfect health, a reluctance to engage can
be a sign that something is seriously on the fritz, especially
where the culprit is an infirm erection.
Dr. J. Francois Eid, a urologist
with Weill Medical College of Cornell University and New York
Presbyterian Hospital, observes that erectile dysfunction is
extension of vascular system. A lethargic member may be telling
you that you have diseased blood vessels elsewhere in your body.
"It could be a first sign of hypertension or diabetes or increased
cholesterol levels. It's a red flag that you should see your
doctor." Treatment and exercise, says Dr. Eid, can have things
looking up again: "Men who exercise and have a good heart and
low heart rate, and who are cardio-fit, have firmer erections.
There very definitely is a relationship."
But is there such a thing as too much
The answer, in purely physiological
terms, is this: If you're female, probably not. If you're male?
Dr. Claire Bailey of the University
of Bristol says there is little or no risk of a woman's overdosing
on sex. In fact, she says, regular sessions can not only firm
a woman's tummy and buttocks but also improve her posture.
Dr. George Winch Jr., an obstetrician/gynecologist
in Elko, Nev., concurs. If a woman is pre-menopausal and otherwise
healthy, says Dr. Winch, her having an extraordinary amount
of intercourse ought not to pose a problem. "I don't think women
can have too much intercourse," he says, "so long as no sexually
transmitted disease is introduced and there's not an inadvertent
pregnancy. Sometimes you can have a lubrication problem. If
you have that, there can be vaginal excoriation--vaginal scrape."
Women who abstain from sex run
some risks. In postmenopausal women, these include vaginal atrophy.
Dr. Winch has a middle-aged patient of whom he says: "She hasn't
had intercourse in three years. Just isn't interested. The opening
of her vagina is narrowing from disuse. It's a condition that
can lead to dysparenia, or pain associated with intercourse.
I told her, 'Look, you'd better buy a vibrator or you're going
to lose function there.'"
As for men, urologist Eid says it's
definitely possible to get too much of a good thing, now that
drugs such as Viagra and Levitra have given men far more staying
power than may actually be good for them.
The penis, says Eid, is wonderfully
resilient. But everything has its limits. Penile tissues, if
given too roistering or prolonged a pummeling, can sustain damage.
In cases you'd just as soon not hear about, permanent
"Yes," says Dr. Eid, "It is possible
for a young man who is very forceful and who likes rough sex,
to damage his erectile tissue." The drugs increase rigidity;
moreover, they make it possible for a man to have second and
third orgasms without having to wait out intermission.
"I see it in pro football players,"
says Eid. "They use Viagra because they're so sexually active.
What they demand of their body is unreasonable. It's part of
playing football: you play through the pain." This type
of guy doesn't listen to his body. He takes a shot of cortisone,
and keeps on going. And they have sex in similar fashion."
There's a reason the penis, in its
natural state, undergoes a period of flaccidity: That's when
it takes a breather. The blood within it is replenished with
oxygen. "During an erection," explains Eid, "very little blood
flows to the penis. During thrusting, pressure can go as high
as 200 mil of water. Zero blood flows into penis at that time."
To absorb oxygen, the tissue must become relaxed. "If you do
not allow the penis to rest, then the muscle tissue does not
get enough oxygen. The individual gets prolonged erections,
gets decreased oxygen to tissue, and could potentially suffer
priapism." (We recommend you get a medical encyclopedia and
look it up.) "The muscle becomes so engorged, it's painful.
Pressure inside starts to increase. Cells start dying. More
pressure and less blood flow. Eventually the muscle dies. Then
there's scarring. That's why it's considered an emergency."