Sunday, September 24, 2017

Orgasm and its Enemies: Karezza, Daoists, and other anti-orgasm crusaders

Every now and then, I get a barrage of messages from someone claiming that male ejaculation is bad, or that all orgasms are bad. Responding individually is time-consuming and unproductive, so I thought it would be worthwhile creating a general response. Perhaps this will help those of you who have run into these sorts of anti-orgasm fanatics.

Daoists who advocate semen retention
The first line of attack comes from a rabidly anti-ejaculation splinter group within Daoism (or Taoism), a cult that often promotes itself as a kind of Daoist tantra. Often these people charge that I am not promoting "authentic" tantric sex because I teach people to have great orgasms, and lots of them. 

These anti-ejaculation crusaders still hold the primitive belief that semen contains a man's "spiritual essence" and that retaining it will supposedly give him great magical power. "Spilling his seed," on the other hand, means giving away his psychic powers and draining his body of "vital energy."

Like some old-time Catholics, these Daoists also claim that excessive ejaculation will make you sick and drive you insane. Many of them even claim that a man is born with a fixed supply of semen, and that he will die as soon as he has used up his supply. They therefore see semen retention as a means to immortality as well as magic power.

(This seems to work for them about as well as alchemy ever did for alchemists. :)

The reality, of course, is that the human body produces semen on demand, and is capable of producing an essentially unlimited supply in response to use. The energy and other nutritional costs of producing it are trivial. It's no more "precious" than spit, and ejaculation is no more harmful than blowing your nose.

Furthermore, for most men there is no choice. If they do not have a sufficient number of orgasms through masturbation or sex, their bodies will eventually eject the old, stale semen via nocturnal emissions, or "wet dreams." So ejaculation in one form or another is inevitable.

What is weirdest about many of these Daoists is that they are advocates of a particular style of ejaculation control that involves pinching the urethra shut where it emerges from the body at the base of the penis. Pressing hard on this so-called "Million-Dollar Point" prevents the semen from coming out, but it still has to go somewhere. Blocking the urethra just forces the semen to go backward into the bladder instead, where it gets urinated out the next time the guy goes pee.

So creating this kind of "retrograde ejaculation" does not in fact prevent ejaculation or prevent the loss of semen. It just redirects the semen into the bladder and then the toilet bowl. And it does nothing whatever to prevent the loss of a man's "spiritual essence," even if we make the unlikely assumption that a cloudy glob of proteins, sugars, and mucus could contain something so ethereal.

The real origin of this practice is a different, darker kind of magical belief, the idea that men and women were in a war for magical power, and that a woman could "steal" a man's power and weaken him by capturing and absorbing his semen.

So, at least in an age before condoms, the point of forcing retrograde emission was to prevent women from gaining possession of your semen for magical purposes.

This is reminiscent of voodoo, with its concern for not letting enemies get possession of your hair, fingernails, blood, and other bodily fluids. But it also reflects a particular strain in Chinese history in which Daoist monks were taught from an early age to distrust all women as evil seducers.

Karezza fans who think all orgasms are harmful to relationships

I've run into a different kind of opposition from advocates of karezza, which is a kind of prolonged sexual intimacy and arousal with no orgasms. Tantra, by comparison, is prolonged sexual intimacy and arousal with intentionally delayed orgasms that are especially intense and enjoyable. So tantric sex and karezza have something important in common, and something equally important that divides them.

On the one hand, I've spent 24 years studying tantric sex and various other kinds of extended sex, so I have a strong sisterly interest in karezza. I've had a link on this blog from very early days to the website maintained by Marnia Robinson, the author of "Cupid's Poisoned Arrow," probably the top-selling pro-karezza book. I put it there to help people who come to my website looking for something more spiritual and less orgasmic than my practical, physical, and very orgasmic version of tantric sex.

On the other hand, I don't have much patience with the claims Robinson makes about orgasms being bad for you. The benefits she cites for karezza come from ANY activity that greatly increases the time that couples spend naked in each other's arms, touching and caressing and really attending to each other in a loving way.

The combination of physical contact and loving attention is powerful medicine. Babies who get too little of it literally die of neglect, even if they are otherwise well-fed and cared for. 

Spending lots of time in a safe, comfortable place being adored and caressed by the most important person in your life will greatly elevate your production of oxytocin, the pair-bonding hormone. This will greatly reinforce your bond with your partner and improve your mental and physical health. There's been enough research on the subject so we can say this with high confidence.

The problem with an orgasm, especially the male orgasm, is that it often signals a premature stopping point. Karezza gets results just by avoiding that premature ending. It helps couples learn to prolong sex and revel in the extended sensual touching that has been missing in their lives. 

But then Robinson makes the false inference that the success of karezza comes from a complete ban on orgasms, not just a ban on premature endings. And that leads her to go a step further and try to "prove" that all orgasms are inherently destructive.

In doing so, she fudges the data repeatedly, by drawing on rat studies and other research that simply does not say what she says it does. She then buttresses this with anecdotes that center on some seriously atypical personalities.

More generally, karezza fans claim that having orgasms inevitably kills relationships, and there's simply way too much evidence on the other side for that argument to be credible. About 30-35% of marriages in the U.S. end up with couples who are still intensely in love with each other after many decades together. And nearly all of these loving, long-term marriages feature regular orgasms. If the karezza theories were true, that would be impossible.

Karezza advocates do have a valid starting point. It's true that a lot of straight couples get in the habit of having very little foreplay and brief, penis-centric sex that ends with the man’s orgasm – and nothing for the woman. And it's true that that will cripple many relationships. We also know that if a relationship is in serious trouble and one partner has become averse to sex, the couple will often benefit from sharing a lot of loving, sensual touch with no genital contact or sex.

I went through just such a period when I was 30, and we got out of it by doing sensual massage and agreeing to avoid all genital contact for several months and then all penetrative sex for several more. This is the standard prescription for Sensate Focus Therapy (SFT), one of the most successful forms of couple's therapy for a variety of sexual dysfunctions.

So there's a kernal of truth behind the claims of karezza enthusiasts. Avoiding orgasms for a period of time can be beneficial for couples who are in trouble, for the exact same reason that SFT works: it provides lots of prolonged loving touch without the focus on the penis-centric script that focuses "normal" sex on the man's orgasm, and ends when he comes. And the fact that karezza can work as a form of DIY sex therapy guarantees it a certain number of enthusiastic new recruits and endorsements.

But the mistake is trying to explain those successes with some convoluted mishmash of bad science about how orgasms themselves are destructive. And it's just not true that orgasms themselves are harmful. Under some circumstances, it can be helpful to suspend the standard orgasm-driven sexual script for a period of time as therapy. But that has nothing to do with what couples need to do to maintain a good physical and emotional relationship over the long haul.

To sum it up

The karezza advocates are nowhere near as bad as the Daoists. They stretch the truth, but at least their theories have some connection to reality. However, the final conclusion they reach just isn't supported by the available facts. Karezza may be successful in helping some couples get back on track after a slide into a "dead bedroom," but the bottom line is that having lots of orgasms together is a good thing, not a bad thing, for the vast majority of long-term couples.

As for the Daoists' health claims for semen retention, there is zero evidence to support the idea that ejaculation is unhealthy. Quite the contrary, the research on the frequency of masturbation and sexual intercourse suggests that frequent ejaculation reduces the risk of prostate cancer and is necessary for long-term reproductive health.

More importantly, orgasms play a strong role in promoting and sustaining the pair bond that holds every good relationship together. Denying them out of fear and hostility toward women, as the Daoists do, is obviously destructive. But it can also be destructive if the motive is somehow, mistakenly, to strengthen the bond between lovers through denial.

The key to strengthening that bond is not orgasm denial, but delay.

Edging – deliberately prolonging sex by extending the arousal period and delaying orgasm – has many virtues. For starters:
  • It feels good.
  • It prolongs the period of sensual contact and increases the production of oxytocin, the pair-bonding hormone.
  • It demonstrates love and caring, the willingness to postpone gratification in order to increase your partner's pleasure.
  • And it makes the orgasms themselves longer and more intense when they finally happen.
So my earnest advice is to ignore those who campaign against orgasms and enjoy your happy endings ... but take your time getting there.

A digression on sex and human evolution

My father taught human evolution and cultural and physical anthropology, and he shared his passions with his kids, which influenced my own academic interest in neuroscience. Between his influence and my own training I have a decent understanding of how the human brain and body work and how radically our mating patterns and reproductive systems differ from even our closer relatives. And I do occasionally indulge in speculations about "evolutionary psychology" in order to help people understand how human sexuality got so messed up. However, I always acknowledge the uncertainties and the speculative quality of any such discussion of the peculiar origins of human sexuality.

I find the subject irresistible because human sexuality is weird. VERY weird. Most mammals have relatively consistent mating systems. They may have bizarre customs, but all members of a single species do pretty much the same things in roughly the same ways. But human mating systems are mixed up, messed up, and incredibly diverse.

To start with, we have by far the worst reproductive systems of all the mammals:

Maternal death rates: Without modern medicine we have the highest death rates in childbirth of any mammal, rivaled only by the hyena, and far higher than any other.

Menstruation: Other mammals can reabsorb a defective embryo with no fuss, but humans have a chorionic placenta that requires a complex menstrual cycle in order to flush out defective embryos. It is a uniquely debilitating and wasteful system. No other female mammals suffer from anything like it.

Extremely low conception rate: Because of that menstrual cycle, we also have a much lower conception rate than other mammals, around 15% per month for fertile couples having regular sex, and less than 1% for a random act of intercourse. Women who are trying to conceive may require more than a dozen ovulations and hundreds of copulations to get pregnant, even if both partners are fertile and healthy. By contrast, most female mammals will conceive almost every time they ovulate, as long as at least one fertile male is available.

In addition, our bodies seem designed to be confusing:

Cryptic ovulation: To complicate the conception problem, our ancestors evolved what is called "cryptic ovulation." Unlike any of our close primate relatives, there was no way people in prescientific societies could tell when a woman was fertile, so trying to conceive required frequent copulation throughout the cycle.

Full breasts on fertile and infertile females: Unlike any other female mammal, adult women have breasts that remain enlarged and prominent even when they are not pregnant or nursing. This hides yet another possible clue that a female is not fertile.

We also have a combination of rare mating patterns that together make us unique:

Nonreproductive sex: Humans, dolphins, and pigs seek out recreational sex. Bonobos use brief genital rubbing as a way to establish social ties and resolve tension. But most other mammals have zero interest in intercourse without the specific cue of a fertile female.

Sexual frequency: One consequence of these evolutionary adaptations is that humans are incredibly oversexed by mammalian standards. Even in a monogamous marriage, a woman can easily have sex 10,000 times or more if both partners remain in good health, far more sex over a lifetime than other female mammals experience.

Social monogamy: Most mammals, including our closest cousins, are polygamous and opportunistic about sex; humans are in the small fraction, about 15%, of mammals that practice some kind of pair bonding and coparenting. Even in nominally polygamous human societies, the vast majority of marriages involve only two people.

(Note: This is not to say that humans don't cheat on their spouses. As in other pair-bonding species, many do stray if given the chance, and many more practice serial monogamy, changing partners after a period together.)

Extreme variation: Humans have THE most varied, conflicted, and confusing courtship rituals and mating systems in the animal kingdom. We may marvel at the peculiar things some non-human species do, but there is a great deal of consistency within each species. Among humans, different cultures set different rules for nearly every aspect of mate selection. Just the idea of a courtship process that sometimes takes minutes and sometimes takes months or years, would be inconceivable for other mammals.

Speculating about how we got so messed up is fun and can be illuminating, and I sometimes find it irresistible. So I'm no one to throw stones at someone else just because they do some "evo-devo" theorizing or make pop science points based on somewhat speculative neuroscience.

On the other hand, I'm in a good position to judge when people are stretching the research way too far and presenting wild claims and mere guesses as if they were facts. For a really good example of the difference between junk science and the responsible use of the existing research, see Sex at Dawn and Sex at Dusk. (Spoiler: Dawn is dishonest garbage; Dusk is a great read, meticulously honest, informative, and fun.)

Anyway, I hope this digression has piqued your curiosity about evolution and the weirdness of human sexuality. What strange, mixed-up creatures we are!


  1. Hi Shakti

    I'm a 31-year-old male living in Brazil and begining to practive tantra. I'd like to thank you for all your blog posts so far. They helped me a lot. But I'm curious: I couldn't find anything about male prostate orgasms, which are rumored to be the most intense orgasms a man can have. Do you practice with your husband?


    1. We've tried it, and it doesn't do anything for him. He eventually ejaculates, but without feeling any pleasure, so it's a waste of effort for us.

      If you find it enjoyable, then definitely figure out a good way to incorporate it into your tantra sessions. Or, if it just doesn't fit in your routine, save it for a special treat on non-tantra days.

  2. Hello Shatki,

    My observations, as a male in his 30s, is that ejaculation definitively has a "draining" effect on my energy levels. This will be felt in the following hours/day after an ejaculation.

    I work in IT and this draining effect is felt mentally and is quite apparent and affect focus and concentration.

    Not to say that ejaculation/orgasm are bad, but I gotta be honest with my experience, they can have a negative impact. Of course, everybody is wired differently, so other guys may not have this problem.