Ellen White's strong counsel against masturbation has often been cited as evidence that she was guided by the attitudes of her Victorian times rather than inspired by the Holy Spirit. But was she wrong on this topic? One recent scientific study hints at an important verification of her counsel. In A Solemn Appeal, White addressed pre-pubescent masturbation:
The young indulge to quite an extent in this vice before the age of puberty, without experiencing at that time, to any very great degree, the evil results upon the constitution. But at this critical period, while merging into manhood and womanhood, nature then makes them feel the previous violation of her laws. (A Solemn Appeal, Ch. 1 “Appeal to Mothers”)
In this passage, Ellen White is saying that masturbation does not seem to do great harm to pre-pubescent children. But when those children reach puberty—“while merging into manhood and womanhood”--the negative effects of pre-pubescent masturbation are manifested.
The Jordanian Study
A clinical study done in Jordan and published in 2010 in a Saudi medical journal has found that pre-pubescent children who masturbate have significantly lowered levels of estradiol. [Ajlouni, et al, “Infantile and early childhood masturbation: Sex hormones and clinical profile” Ann Saudi Med. 2010 Nov-Dec; 30(6): 471–474] The researchers measured the levels of sex hormones—including testosterone, estradiol, and several others—in thirteen young children who were known to masturbate, and compared their levels to the levels measured in a control group that did not masturbate. “Masturbation in children seems to be associated with reduced estradiol levels, but not with [reductions in] other sex hormones,” wrote the study's authors. “Further studies are needed to confirm our findings.”
Estradiol is a sex hormone and a component of estrogen, the other components being estrone and estriol. Estradiol drives the development of secondary sex characteristics in females during puberty. Estradiol enhances breast development, and is responsible for changes in body shape affecting bones, joints and fat deposition. In other words, estradiol kicks in at puberty and turns a girl's body into the body of a woman. Because estradiol is a “female hormone” produced in ovaries, it is counter-intuitive that males also need it, but they do. Estradiol is bio-synthesized from cholesterol, and is produced not only in ovaries, but also in the testicles and in other tissues. Boys rely on androgens, primarily testosterone, to bring about the development of secondary sex characteristics, yet scientists have found that heightened levels of estrogen are present in, and essential to, male puberty.
Recent research has expanded the relevance of estradiol. Paradoxically, estradiol seems to play a role in masculinizing boys' brains when, in the first weeks of life, testosterone spikes to pubertal levels and is aromatized (by a substance called aromatase) into estradiol, which then crosses the blood-brain barrier and enters the male brain. Estradiol has been found just as effective as testosterone in the masculinization of lab rat behavior. Estradiol has also been found to “upregulate,” which means to enhance the expression of, the “RORA” gene, which is under-expressed in patients with Autism Spectrum Disorder. This connection between an autism-linked gene and a sex hormone may help explain why autism is diagnosed far more often in boys than in girls.
In both sexes, estradiol is needed to drive the physiological changes that take place at puberty. Accordingly, assuming that pre-pubescent masturbation lowers estradiol levels, the deleterious effects of such masturbation will not manifest until puberty. But at puberty, “while merging into manhood and womanhood,” the lowered levels of estradiol will hamper physical maturation and development of secondary sex characteristics. Insufficient estradiol is connected to a number of neurological and physical problems, including unexplained fatigue, difficulty sleeping, depression and severe mood swings. Thus the Jordanian study is a truly remarkable confirmation of Ellen White's inspired counsel.
The Need for Further Research
As the study authors noted, further research is indicated. A single study is seldom adequate evidence upon which to base a strong scientific conclusion, and this study had only 13 “cases” and 13 control children. Moreover, the researchers designed the study with the idea that heightened hormonal levels might cause pre-pubescent masturbation (which the researchers viewed as abnormal, in contrast to adolescent masturbation, which they viewed as normal and prevalent). But the association of masturbation with significantly lowered estradiol suggests that causation flows in the other direction: instead of hormones causing masturbation, masturbation causes changes in hormone levels.
Although the Jordanian researchers have very fine credentials—the principal author, Heitham K. Ajlouni, practices endocrinology in Florida and completed a residency at Seton Hall and a fellowship at Case Western—I would prefer to see this study replicated by Western researchers with a larger number of study subjects. Loma Linda University Health Science Center should conduct a study of pre-pubescent masturbation and hormone levels. In the 1970s, Loma Linda did a study on sugar's role in temporarily compromising the immune system that is still widely cited today, and supported Ellen White's claim about sugar and increased vulnerability to disease. Ellen White has been proven right often enough that no scientist should be embarrassed to use her statements as a guide in forming a hypothesis for clinical research.
Ideally, the study should follow the same test subjects for several years, to measure hormone levels throughout childhood, puberty and young adulthood. Such a study, which is known as a “longitudinal study,” would determine whether estradiol continues to be low during the crucial adolescent years, thus hampering the physical maturation process of puberty. I would urge the Jordanian researchers to track down the children in the original study, interview the mothers, and re-measure hormone levels to see if the study group continues to differ from the control group.
Changing Attitudes about Pre-pubescent Masturbation
Unfortunately, the research program I am urging is unlikely to be undertaken by Western researchers. In the Muslim world, even in its moderate precincts—which include Jordan, under its Western-friendly Hashemite monarchy—there is still a strong stigma attached to masturbation. In the West, there was once a consensus among physicians that pre-pubescent masturbation was not normal or healthy, a consensus indicated by the fact that pre-pubescent masturbation is officially known as “gratification disorder.” Other practitioners referred to it as “paroxysmal disorder,” and it was generally understood to be problematic.
Gratification disorder was, and still is, frequently misdiagnosed as epilepsy. Young children tend to masturbate in front of others. Many a mother, not knowing that children of tender years can masturbate, has feared that her child's rocking, grunting, flushed skin, irregular breathing, sweating, and paroxysm was an epileptic seizure. (The authors of the Jordanian study reported that 5 of the 13 “case” children had been misdiagnosed with epilepsy and had been treated with anti-seizure medication). Just such a parental misdiagnosis was featured on an episode of “House, M.D.,” the television drama about complex medical diagnosis. House tells an anxious mother that her 5-year-old girl is not an epileptic but has merely been “ya-yaing the sisterhood.” “Teach your girl about privacy and she'll be fine,” he curtly advises.
Like their television counterpart, most real doctors consider pre-pubescent masturbation to be an issue of socialization and propriety, not a medical issue. Because so many practitioners no longer consider it a disorder, there is a push to give “gratification disorder” the more politically correct moniker of “precocious masturbation.”
But the Jordanian study suggests that this practice can have significant effects on hormone levels, and hence is a health issue. Before concluding that this practice cannot be harmful, we need to consider two salient facts. First, this behavior begins at a very young age; in the Jordanian study, the median age that the subjects began masturbating was 19.5 months, and ranged from 4 months to 36 months. Second, it is typically a compulsive behavior, as shown by extreme frequency. In the Jordanian study, the median frequency of masturbation was four (4) times per day, and ranged from two (2) to twenty (20) times per day; the infant who was masturbating 20 times per day was just 6 months old. These facts should jolt us out of complacency about infant masturbation.
Science claims to be skeptical and evidence-driven, but sometimes political and social considerations drive scientific attitudes and research programs, such as when gay activists prevailed on the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from the category of “disorder” in the 1974 printing of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. In the face of a culture that promotes polymorphous sexual expression, including pre-pubescent masturbation, we need true scientific skepticism. We need a science that will stand against the culture, that is unbiased and willing to discover and tell unpopular facts and truths.
So masturbation was seen as bad, and now is seen as good. But it appears that attitudes are about to change again. People are recognizing that the ubiquity of free, extremely varied, and variously extreme pornography, readily accessible through multiple Internet-connected devices, is not healthy. I have previously noted how even anti-Christian Hollywood is acknowledging that the new porn saturation is creating serious personal and social problems, as per the films, “Thank you for Sharing” (2012), “Don Jon” (2013), and “Men, Women and Children” (2014). Compulsive adult male masturbators are reporting nervousness, depression, anxiety, social phobia, and social anxiety, symptoms that indicate serious, negative changes in brain chemistry. And if compulsive masturbation can cause these problems in adults, there is reason to believe it can cause similar brain chemistry changes in children.
Changes to Brain Chemistry
Compulsive masturbation produces too much dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is the “pleasure center” neurotransmitter, but it metabolizes into norepinephrine, and then into epinephrine, better known as adrenaline, the stress hormone that produces the body's “fight-or-flight” response. To cope with the perceived stress, the body produces cortisol, which promotes functions essential to survival through fight or flight, and inhibits functions that are not immediately essential. It may be that the chronic excess of adrenaline and cortisol in the system changes brain chemistry in a way that causes the anxiety and depression that compulsive masturbators are reporting.
Studies have shown that stress, both psychological and physical, decreases estradiol in women. A study published last year found a clear correlation between self-reported psychological stress and reduction of estradiol in young women. Several studies have found that female long-distance runners have lowered estradiol and some even stop menstruating as a result, laying the foundation for future osteoporosis. My hypothesis is that pre-pubertal masturbation is stressful, and that children respond to stress the same way as stressed adult females: with lowered estradiol. The child may not appear or act stressed, but the brain chemistry is still registering and responding to extreme stress.
It is assumed that masturbation cannot do permanent damage to a child. But in the developmental stages, when the brain is constantly myelinating and growing new regions needed in later life, any interruption in natural processes may have lasting effects. Masturbation is a stressor that temporarily closes certain biochemical pathways. If a young child's brain is like an automobile being built on a moving assembly line, and certain parts are on back order as the brain passes an assembly station, those parts may never be installed. The parts will be back in stock later, of course, but it is too late to assemble that part of the brain.
Practical Steps Parents may take to Prevent Infant Masturbation
Because Ellen White has so often been right in her health counsels, and what little research we have indicates that there may be health problems associated with infant masturbation, parents should be vigilant to prevent it. The strategy I pursued with my own children was to practice the Four Ds: (1) diaper, (2) distract, (3) discourage, and (4) defer. Diaper means to keep children in snug-fitting diapers until they are toilet-trained, thus limiting their access to their genitals. Distract means that while bathing the child or changing his diaper, you should distract the child with interesting toys or yummy treats, to draw attention away from the genitals. Discourage means that once the child is old enough to understand the instruction, he should be told by both father and mother not to masturbate or play with his genitals, nor allow other children to touch them. Defer means to tell the young child that, beyond urination, his genitals have a special function that he will learn about later, but not now.
There will come a time for a more intelligent conversation about “the birds and the bees,” when age-appropriate materials can be used to explain sexuality. At that time, the parents should explain the faith restrictions that Christianity places upon sexuality, including that a husband and wife should gratify each other sexually, as per 1 Corinthians 7, rather than self-gratify. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.”