Masturbation may still be a taboo topic—we've even come up with 519 euphemisms for it, from "petting the kitty" to "wiggling your walrus"—but the majority of us have participated in a solo session at least once.
According to the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior—the largest survey of its kind—more than 94 percent of men ages 25 to 29 reported masturbating at some point in their lives, while more than 84 percent of women in the same age group did. Another study of teens ages 14 to 17 confirmed what you likely already know to be true: Males reported masturbating more than females, and the frequency of masturbation among both sexes increased with age. Prevalence, frequency, and associations of masturbation with partnered sexual behaviors among US adolescents. Robbins CL, Schick V, Reece M. Archives of pediatrics & adolescent medicine, 2011, Aug.;165(12):1538-3628. And while we often think of masturbation as some quality time alone, that's not always the case. According to the NSSHB, nearly 50 percent of both men and women ages 25 to 29 self-pleasured with their partner by their side.
By now, most people know that the myths surrounding masturbation—that it will stunt growth or make hair grow in strange places—aren't true. And while some people may feel guilty or embarrassed about touching themselves, masturbation is a perfectly normal habit that even comes with health benefits.
Masturbation can be really helpful. If you can't tell or don't know where your erogenous zones are... then you can't voice that and explain it to your partner.
"Masturbation can be a really helpful," says Leah Millheiser, M.D., director of female sexual medicine program at Stanford Health Care. It's one of the best ways to learn what turns you on, both for your own enjoyment and to share with your partner. "If you can't tell or don't know where your erogenous zones are—they could be clitoral, vaginal, or anal—then you can't voice that and explain it to your partner," Millheiser says. Gaining that knowledge through experimentation also helps boost confidence in the bedroom. It's no surprise that research shows most women find masturbating sexually empowering.
And healthy strokes serve as a workout for your private parts. For women, masturbation can strengthen muscle tone in the pelvic area, lowering the chance of accidental urine leakage (laughing and peeing, anyone?), according to Planned Parenthood.
Throwing a party for one even helps relieve menstrual cramps. "It causes contractions of the uterus, which seems counterintuitive, but it's an analgesic in a sense," Millheiser says. "[It releases] chemicals that act as pain relievers." In men, masturbation has also been associated with a reduced risk of prostate cancer.
And for both sexes, solo time has been shown to be a great sleep aid since it eases muscle tension and leaves you feeling relaxed and happy. Plus, masturbation is a great option if you've chosen to abstain from sex for any number of reasons.
Too Much of a Good Thing?
Turns out it's tough to go overboard. "There's no downside to masturbation,"Millheiser says. "In general, there are women who masturbate daily and ones who masturbate once a month," she says. "For some, zero times is normal. It doesn't mean anything or that you're more or less sexual."
That said, it can become a problem if it interferes with your ability to function in your everyday life. For example, if you continue to show up to work late because of it or if you have a pattern of avoiding having sex with your partner because you would rather masturbate, says Kat Van Kirk, Ph.D., sex and marriage therapist and author of The Married Sex Solution. "Some people use masturbation as a way to check out of reality and live more in their head, where they can focus on fantasies," she says. And in some cases, that can lead to disconnecting emotionally or sensually when it comes to your partner—or being overly reliant on fantasy.
"It can also be unhealthy if you find that you do it to the point of causing yourself physical harm, such as rawness and extreme genital irritation from too much friction,” she says. If that's the case, it's best to consult a professional therapist to uncover the reason behind chronic, compulsive masturbating.
One potential concern Van Kirk noted from her clinical experience: "If you are masturbating the same way every time, it can condition you to only become aroused or orgasm in one specific way, which can lead to difficulties when having partnered sex." Communication and education is key to this transition, says Alyssa Dweck, M.D., an OB/GYN and assistant clinical professor at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine. And in some cases, a vibrator "holiday" may be advised.
The Bottom Line
In general, masturbation is not only harmless but also healthy. Sure, doing it more than once a day could lead to temporary numbness, but it's unlikely, according to Millheiser. And for the 52 percent of women out there using a vibrator? Prevalence and characteristics of vibrator use by women in the United States: results from a nationally representative study. Herbenick D, Reece M, Sanders S. The journal of sexual medicine, 2009, May.;6(7):1743-6109. You don't have much to worry about either. Millheiser says that despite rumors that vibrators can cause nerve damage, most don't use it long enough to bring on any issues. (The same study mentioned above also found that 71 percent of women had never experienced any potential negative side effects associated with vibrator use.)
"The types of vibrators out there for sexual pleasure aren't really a risk—they're just not strong enough," Millheiser says. "But if you're using one for over an hour nonstop, you might get temporary numbness or desensitization. This isn't going to make you lose feeling all together."
The biggest risk to masturbating? Some chafing brought on by friction, which is easily remedied by lubricant.