This past week, New Scientist reported that Restless Legs Syndrome may be improved by masturbation. But the science NS reports on is neither science nor new. That puts me in the truly bizarre position of having to hold down the anti-masturbation side of this debate — which, if you know me, is pretty freakin’ weird.
In case you’ve never heard of it, Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS), in its most common manifestation, is a jerky motion of the legs while one is in bed. In case you’ve never heard of it, masturbation, also known as wanking, self-abuse, self-help, relaxing with one’s thoughts, visiting with Rosy Palm and her five sisters, plus perhaps their friends the Tit Clamp Twins and Bucky Vibrator — well, you get the idea. If you’re reading Tiny Nibbles, I’m pretty sure you’ve heard of masturbation.
Like a hot mad scientist, masturbation pours a test tube or two of a thing called dopamine into that foamy skull cocktail percolating behind your gorgeous peepers. It does it by means of a curious and fairly well-documented but, I think most of us will agree, far too rare phenomenon known as teh orgasmz. Just for the record, not all masturbation leads to orgasm, but if you’re jonesing for dopamine, go for the O. And that’s why chickpea-choking, depression, technophobia, and me getting my ass kicked at 3 a.m. all coincide here.
Though the exact causes of RLS are unknown, it’s thought to stem from dopamine imbalance. While higher levels of dopamine are associated with sexual novelty and new experiences (There it is!!! There’s my leg-calming dopamine squirt!!), higher levels of serotonin are associated with lowered likelihood of achieving arousal and orgasm. That’s why antidepressants that increase serotonin availability in the brain by inhibiting its “reuptake” — the class of drugs known as SSRIs, which includes Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, Celexa, Lexapro, etc — tend to lower sex drive and make it harder for many patients to climax. Antidepressants like Wellbutrin that affect the norepinephrine-dopamine reuptake system tend to cause less suppression of sex drive and orgasm, though their lack of effect on serotonin also means for many patients they’re not as good at treating depression unless they’re used in concert with an SSRI. Some highly addictive drugs like heroin also have profound effects on dopamine levels. So does orgasm.
Or as New Scientist puts it, “An orgasm provides one of the biggest natural blasts of dopamine available to us. When Gert Holstege at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, and colleagues scanned the brains of ejaculating men, he said the resulting images resembled scans of heroin rushes.”
That Gert Holstege study is here, as a PDF, and it only studied ejaculating men. However, other studies have established the role of dopamine in female arousal and orgasm as well.
Wait, weren’t we talking about Restless Legs Syndrome?
My point exactly!
The case that New Scientist is citing as an example of how dopamine may help ease the symptoms of RLS is reported in the new issue of the journal Sleep Science, the official journal of the Brazilian Association of Sleep and the Federation of Latin American Sleep Societies — which hasn’t seen fit to update its website since March, 2010. The claim is based on a single case of a 41-year-old man who reported that his RLS symptoms were totally alleviated by orgasm.
A single case? Of self-reported symptom abatement? Under uncontrolled conditions? *headdesk* *headdesk* *headdesk*
This is the part in a Thomas Roche post, probably familiar to most of you, where you start to wonder: “Why this guy is so cranky? Does he maybe need a dopamine squirt? Surely no harm is done in this case, right? What’s wrong with telling people to jerk off, whether or not they’ve got Restless Legs Syndrome? My legs are as still as a soft summer’s morn, and I’m jerking off now. What’s the problem, crankypants?”
Masturbating frequently, I have no problem with; in fact, I’m masturbating now, just on principle. But speculation about which brain chemicals do what in bed is a hallmark of boneheaded pop-science sex panics that spread dangerous ideas. When it comes to sex and the mainstream press, “Science says…” often really means “Someone’s social agenda is served by saying…”
And it doesn’t stop with masturbation.
Dopamine, you see, was the culprit in the questionable-brain-science assertions blasted forth from the screaming hysterical technophobia orgy NPR and the New York Times indulged in last summer, when “Your Brain On Computers” writer Matt Richtel told Fresh Air’s Terry Gross that every time you receive a text message — a text message!! — you get a “dopamine squirt.” That creates, Richtel told us, a craving for additional text messages. Richtel traveled into rural Utah with a group of “brain scientists” without mobile devices like cell phones to see what happened — even going so far as to invent a new term for it. “The three-day effect.” What is The Three Day Effect? Says Richtel: “You start to feel more relaxed. Maybe you sleep a little better.”
(Unless, I might observe, your RLS-enhanced bed partner misses his or her dopamine squirt and dropkicks your kidneys north of Salt Lake City.)
Traveling into rural Utah without your cell phone or laptop is something I’m totally down with, almost as much as I’m down with masturbation. Neither harms anyone. The traveling-off-the-grid part was dug by plenty of writers who never had access to cell phones — Thoreau, John Muir, Annie Dillard, etc. The masturbation part has some equivalently bad-ass thinkers behind it, and I don’t need to list their names, I hope. Turning off your f$@*@$!#ing computer now and then is as great an idea as jerking off.
But sticking brain science where it doesn’t belong is ridiculous. In promoting his article series, Richtel argued against being “too connected” using wonky brain science that’s barely science and doesn’t have much to do with anyone‘s brain, least of all Richtel’s. That level of technophobia showed up in numerous mainstream outlets late last summer, in a bizarre explosion of panic over the fact that we’re all texting too much and we may be craving more text messages. Was this “information” used as ammunition when parents, partners, girlfriends, boyfriends wives and husbands argued that the people in their lives should put down the computer and do something healthy, like playing baseball? I don’t know, but that seemed to be the point Richtel was getting at.
Thankfully, I’m sure people would never criticize their loved ones for their sexual behavior or desires, so we’re safe there.
Similarly, just because the New Scientist article is in favor of jerking it and so am I doesn’t mean it’s good science reporting or that it’s reporting good science. Getting overexcited about a leg-calming dopamine squirt is harmless and awesome if you do it in your bed. It’s dangerous if you do it in New Scientist, because it implies — as general-interest magazines almost always do — that “science” can justify or explain — and therefore minimize — human sexual behavior, whether it’s Why won’t men cuddle? or Why does porn make us sex-crazed rape zombies?
“Scientists” can spout any bullshit they want; that doesn’t make it right. Just because an article supports my side of the should-I-or-shouldn’t-I? debate doesn’t mean a damn thing; the New Scientist article reports a single case of anecdotal information. Whoop-dee-doo.
Jerk off because it feels good, and if it calms your RLS, BUCKETS OF WIN!!!
But if you claim your leg-calming dopamine-squirt is what helps your RLS today, don’t be surprised tomorrow when tomorrow some other “scientist” decides it’s a relationship-destroying dopamine squirt. Then again, what are the chances of that?
Humanistic principles, sexual desire, lifestyle choices and, when appropriate, relationship negotiation should be all that’s needed to “justify” what you do in bed, alone or with others — not wacky, questionable brain science.
Now go forth and wank, if you’re into that. I can’t tell you if it’ll help your restless legs syndrome, but I’ll lay odds it won’t hurt.
Image of Dominika experiencing Restless Legs from this explicit gallery.