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What is masturbation?

Jen on the roof terrace at Natural Cycles headquarters.

Written by Jennifer Gray

Jennifer Gray

Jennifer Gray is an award-winning writer with more than five years’ experience covering reproductive topics ranging from birth control to planning pregnancy. She is passionate about providing women with accurate information grounded in science they can use to take charge of their own health - while also dispelling myths that exist within the field of women’s health. She holds a Master of Science from the University of Edinburgh and currently lives in Ireland.

Medically reviewed by Jack Pearson, Medical Affairs Manager at Natural Cycles

Jack Pearson

Dr. Jack Pearson is a previously HCPC registered Embryologist with a PhD in reproductive medicine. Prior to joining Natural Cycles leading Medical Affairs, he worked for more than 10 years in a clinical setting working at some of the busiest fertility clinics in the UK. Today he spends most of his time working with experts at the world’s leading institutions to carry out important research with the vision to further the field of female health. He earned his PhD from the University of Sheffield specializing in Sperm Metabolism and currently lives in London.

People masturbate in many different ways, it can involve using fingers or toys to penetrate the vagina or anus or rubbing the penis or clitoris. Other people may find it arousing to pinch or touch other places, such as testicles or nipples. Some people masturbate on their own, or with a partner. Other people may masturbate while watching pornography. In this article, we’re going to take a closer look at masturbation, unpack the facts, dispel the myths, and answer the question, ‘Is masturbation good for you?’

This article is also available in Spanish.

Benefits of masturbation

The benefits of masturbation include: 

  • Stress reduction
  • Improved sleep
  • Feeling more relaxed
  • Boosted mood
  • It can reduce pain (such as period cramps)
  • It can enhance your sex life
  • It can help you get to know your body better

Climax causes our bodies to release the hormones oxytocin and dopamine, they have a natural feel-good and pain-relieving quality. 

Female masturbation

When someone who identifies as female masturbates, it can involve touching the vagina, clitoris, or any other part of the body for sexual pleasure. While research shows that male masturbation is more common, it’s a myth that women don’t masturbate. Given the taboo nature of this topic, it’s also possible that many women simply don’t feel comfortable talking about masturbation. 

Since only 18% of women can reach climax through vaginal stimulation, the vast majority of female orgasms happen from stimulating the clitoris, this can be done alone, with a partner, or using a sex toy. 

Regular masturbation can reduce vaginal dryness, and orgasms can also help reduce the pain of period cramps! During pregnancy, masturbation can also help relieve symptoms such as lower back pain 

Male masturbation 

Male masturbation is when someone who identifies as male masturbates. This can be done by stimulating the penis, anus, or another area of the body. As long as it’s done for sexual pleasure, it counts as masturbation. Many people masturbate in order to reach orgasm, but not all masturbation ends in climax.

Typically, male masturbation starts to happen frequently around puberty — although it can be done even earlier. While masturbation is a private thing, it’s important young males know that masturbation is healthy and normal and don’t feel shame around this.

Masturbation has benefits for everyone, regardless of sex or gender. However, there is a growing body of research suggesting that regular ejaculation can decrease the risk of prostate cancer in males. 

Is masturbation healthy?

Yes, masturbation is perfectly healthy, and it’s a normal part of most people’s lives. It’s nothing to be ashamed of or to worry about, and while it’s not often talked about, most of us do it. 

Historically, masturbation has been a highly stigmatized topic. While it’s personal, and we understand that you probably don’t want to shout about your sex life from the rooftops, silence on these types of topics can perpetuate feelings of shame and feed into wider knowledge gaps about reproductive health. 

Masturbation isn’t just reserved for humans — it’s common throughout the animal kingdom, and research into masturbation in male primates shows that it can have added benefits, such as reducing the chances of contracting a sexually transmitted infection and improving fertility.

Myths about masturbation 

There are loads of myths and misconceptions around masturbation, including: 

  • Masturbation can make you go blind: This is a really old myth that has no scientific backup, there’s no link between your eye health and self-pleasure.
  • Masturbation causes erectile dysfunction (ED): Research has shown that there’s no clear link between ED and masturbation. Instead, ED is more clearly linked to other factors such as stress, age, or certain medication or drug use.
  • Masturbation leads to infertility: It’s a myth that masturbating today can stop you from getting pregnant in the future. However, when you do want to conceive, keep in mind that the more males ejaculate, the less sperm there will be in the semen. 
  • People in relationships don’t masturbate: Masturbation is commonplace in many relationships. It can be done together with a partner, or if one partner has a higher sex drive than the other, they may choose to masturbate more frequently alone. 
  • There are no health risks from masturbating: It’s an age-old myth that masturbation is bad for your health and therefore has no benefits. In fact, research shows that masturbation has a number of health benefits, including helping people sleep better, while the dopamine and oxytocin that are released with orgasm can improve mood.

Side effects of masturbation:

Aside from these harmful myths, you may be wondering, are there any real side effects of masturbation? Of course, there are the positive benefits we’ve covered above, such as improved sleep and boosted mood, and there are a small number of things you should be aware of, too, such as:

  • Chafing and discomfort: As with any sexual activity, if you masturbate a lot your genitals might get chafed and sore — using lube can help with this, or consider taking a short break from masturbating.
  • Decreased sexual sensitivity: In the short term, you may experience a reduction in pleasure due to the friction of touching sensitive areas for a prolonged period of time. Taking a break or trying something new can help get this sensitivity back.

Can you masturbate too much?

The short answer is no, frequent masturbation isn’t bad for your health. However, if you find your desire to masturbate is starting to interfere with your everyday life, for example, if it gets in the way of your relationship or stops you from seeing friends, then it may be a sign you’re masturbating too much. 

There is little research done into sexual addiction, as this is an emerging psychiatric disorder. However, if you feel that you have a very strong compulsion to masturbate, and this is stopping you from enjoying your everyday life, it’s a good idea to talk with a healthcare professional. 

Do most people masturbate?

While it’s hard to put exact numbers on the amount of people who masturbate, some research has been done in this area. The 2009 National Survey of Sexual Behaviour reports that 92% of men and 79% of women between the ages of 18 and 59 have masturbated during their lifetime. 

While some people may masturbate every day, other people may do it less frequently, say once a week or once a month. There is no right or wrong amount to masturbate. Some people may not have the desire to masturbate at all, or may do it rarely, and that’s OK too.

Why do I feel guilty when I masturbate? 

Historically, masturbation has been viewed as immoral by many cultures and religions. Masturbation is also considered a taboo topic, and for this reason, it isn’t often talked about. Because of this stigma surrounding masturbation, it's not uncommon to feel guilt or shame when you do it. However, from a scientific standpoint, there is nothing wrong with masturbating, and you shouldn’t feel bad for doing something that can be both pleasurable and beneficial for your health.

If you continue to feel negative thoughts about masturbation, you may find it helpful to talk to a therapist who can help you understand and overcome these feelings. 

Masturbation and sex drive

How much someone masturbates can have a lot to do with their sex drive. Again, this is personal to each individual, and our libidos vary significantly. Typically, the male sex drive tends to peak in the morning, whereas the female sex drive is more specifically linked to the phases of the menstrual cycle and will likely peak around ovulation. Regardless of your gender, sex, or sexual orientation, your sex drive can vary, and there is no ‘normal’ libido.

Don’t get too hung up on how big or small your sex drive is because everyone is different, and sex drive can vary over time depending on factors such as age, diet, and stress levels. However, if you are at all worried about your reproductive health, consult with your healthcare professional for advice. 

Say goodbye to stigma with Natural Cycles 

Natural Cycles is the first FDA Cleared birth control app. It’s 100% hormone-free and works by learning the unique pattern of your cycle to find your fertile days (that’s right, you can’t get pregnant every day of your cycle). Natural Cycles is only available for those aged 18+ and does not protect against sexually transmitted infections. Why not find out if it could work for you today?

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