Masturbation isn't always easy to talk about. It’s a private activity, and for a lot of people, the topic feels awkward or embarrassing — there’s still a lot of unwarranted stigma attached to it. But masturbation is a normal and healthy part of human sexual expression and sexual health. Planned Parenthood cites research saying that about 70 percent of adult men and more than half of adult women masturbate at least occasionally. It can even be an effective method of self-care! May is National Masturbation Month, so we thought we’d ask some experts about masturbation and bust some myths.
According to James Wilde, a licensed clinician and sex coach with more than 15 years of experience, "Masturbation is an incredibly safe avenue to explore sexuality, experience pleasure, and even increase your overall mental and physical well-being.”
Here are some potential benefits:
Masturbation can have an abundance of benefits including stress relief and even pain relief. It can cause your body to produce chemicals that may improve your sense of well-being, such as:
• Dopamine, commonly known as a “happiness hormone"
• Oxytocin, sometimes called the "love hormone" for the arousal and feelings of bonding that it stimulates
• Prolactin, a chemical that can improve both your mood and your immune system
• Endorphins, which work as mood boosters
According to Rachel Gelman, PT, DPT, "As a pelvic floor specialist, I often ask patients experiencing pain with sex to masturbate alone or with their partner present, to maintain intimacy and/or to slowly reintroduce sexual activity without the pressure of another partner and/or penetration.”
The oxytocin that's released when you masturbate can bring about strong feelings of desire, arousal, and closeness, ultimately making you feel more secure with your partner. Not to mention, spending time appreciating and exploring your body can help you to better understand what you like.
For people who are single by circumstance or by choice, masturbation can be a way to come to understand their own wants and desires, as well as a way to enjoy sex on their own. Plus, solo masturbation is the safest sex possible.
Carol Queen, PhD, Good Vibrations’ staff sexologist, says, “Often, talking about partner play is the ‘spoonful of sugar’ that helps open minds that are closed to a positive view of solo masturbation. But it’s something that is done for pleasure, allows you to connect with yourself, and is a fantastic boon to people who don’t have — and maybe don’t want — a partner.
Because of longtime social stigma, there are a lot of myths around masturbation. We’re here to set the record straight.
No, masturbation does not affect your skin in any way. It has been said that this myth was spread as a scare tactic to prevent people going through puberty from masturbating; however, puberty already causes the release of hormones that may affect the skin. No research has shown any correlation between masturbation and acne.
Some people believe that masturbation will make it harder to reach orgasm — that the use of a vibrator during sex will “desensitize” the clitoris, or that masturbating with too tight of a grip will do the same to the penis. But these beliefs are not based in fact. Studies have shown that vibrators do not have any type of long-term numbing effect. In fact, for many people who have a vagina, masturbation can enhance libido and lead to more lubrication, stronger orgasms, and decreased pain during sex.
Queen says, “I do hear the myth that it ‘ruins you’ for partner sex. Of course, there are people who don't desire partner sex! But even so, having a relatively easy route to pleasure and orgasm doesn't mean you won't be able to respond to a person.”
It's important to have open, honest, and shame-free conversations with your partner about sexuality, and this includes masturbation! It's common for people to continue masturbating solo occasionally, once they have entered into a relationship, and it can actually lead to better intimacy if you and your partner both acknowledge this.
Queen explains that masturbation is one form of sexual expression (and an important part of many people’s sex life) — a different form, but not an “inferior” one. She says, “It can be more likely to result in orgasm than a lot of partner sex, and masturbation is our own source of pleasure. There isn't anything second-best about it! And it may be better-suited to some times in one’s life, or to some people, than others.
Some men have wet dreams less frequently if they ejaculate while awake, either from masturbation or with a partner. Wet dreams are common; they are one way for the body to release semen that it has stored — they’re nothing to be embarrassed about.
Typically, masturbating is a safe activity. However, infections can be spread if sex toys are shared with someone who has an infection. (Using condoms on toys that are used in the vagina or anus can prevent transmission.)
(For more, read “Taking Holistic Care of Your Sexual Health — It’s More Than STI Screenings.”)
According to Planned Parenthood, masturbating while on your period is safe and healthy — some people even report that it eases menstrual cramps. If you're using a tampon, remove it if you're going to put a toy into your vagina to masturbate.
Though most people say they have masturbated, not wanting to masturbate — either for a certain time or for an entire lifetime — isn’t uncommon. Everyone has sexual activities they prefer over others. Many people naturally experience lower levels of sexual desire (or no sexual desire), and a person’s sex drive may wax and wane throughout their life. If you are avoiding masturbation because of unwanted pain (in your genital area or elsewhere) or shame about the activity, talk to your healthcare provider about your concerns.
"Masturbation can become an issue if it begins to interfere with one’s ability to function on a daily basis, and certainly if it begins to violate other individuals and/or social norms such as masturbating in a public place or next to someone who has not consented,” says Wilde.
Watch for the following complications:
• It causes you to miss or be late to obligations like work, school, or social gatherings
• It causes you to act in a way that feels unsafe to yourself or others
• It interrupts your daily functions
• It is negatively affecting your relationships
If you feel that your masturbation has become compulsive and not enjoyable, it may be helpful to get in touch with a licensed therapist who specializes in sexuality, addiction, or compulsive behaviors. For people living in California, Carbon Health offers virtual mental healthcare. Planed Parenthood offers many resources for people who have questions about sex and sexuality. And the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists offers resources for finding help.