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You Really Can Exercise Your Way to Better Sex (Without Doing Kegels)

It doesn’t take much to convince someone masturbation has at least one upside: Experience one orgasm, and most people are likely to want another (and another, and another…). But while pleasure is arguably worth it strictly for its own sake, masturbation has a lot more to offer than toe-curling orgasms. Despite a cultural failure to take self-love seriously, it turns out that regularly getting it on solo can be good for our physical and mental health, our relationships, and our overall happiness.

Masturbation Nation—The Need-to-Know

According to some researchers, up to 95 percent of men and 89 to 92 percent of women across the country report having masturbated (i.e., having touched one’s self for sexual pleasure), and 52 percent of women have used a vibratorPrevalence and characteristics of vibrator use by women in the United States: results from a nationally representative study. Herbenick, D., Reece, M., Sanders, S., et al. Center for Sexual Health Promotion, Indiana University. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 2009 Jul;6(7):1857-66. doi: 10.1111/j.1743-6109.2009.01318.x. But while nearly equal rates of men and women get down with their own selves, it seems men do so much more frequently. Forty-six percent of women report masturbating less than once a month each year, while their male counterparts engage in regular monthly (or more frequent) masturbation sessions at rates nearly three times as high.

Even though nearly all American adults have rubbed one out at some point or another, cultural attitudes toward masturbation remain much less universally accepting. A Google search for “psychological effects of masturbation” turns up 10 pages almost exclusively devoted to sources claiming that masturbation is a terrible sin and promising to help masturbators “cure” themselves. While these sources are hardly the only type of masturbation education out there, they represent a more general cultural failure to take seriously masturbation’s role in sexual health.

Historically, masturbation has been stigmatized as being both a sign and a cause of mental health issues. While modern cultural attitudes make masturbation slightly less taboo, Sexologist and Sexuality Educator Megan Andelloux often sees history repeating itself. “As children, many people were shamed or chastised when caught masturbating,” says Andelloux. “If they don’t get taught that sexuality and masturbation are common and can be healthy, then they can’t have those conversations with their own children down the line.” People may also be uncomfortable talking about masturbation because it’s a private, vulnerable activity, says Sex Therapist and Greatist Expert Ian Kerner.

Cultural discomfort with the topic of masturbation is further exacerbated by some wild myths, among them the (false) ideas that masturbation will stunt growth, cause blindness or deafness, cause stuttering, cause hair to grow on the palms, make a person “promiscuous,” and even kill people (If that were true, the world wouldn’t have a population problem).

In reality, so long as it doesn’t interfere with a person’s relationships or daily life (or cause serious chafing), masturbation is perfectly safe, says Andelloux. More than that—it’s good for us.

Masturbenefits—The Physical and Mental Health Perks

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Masturbation may not help anyone develop hairier palms, but it does boast some legitimate health benefits. On a physical level, taking some “me” time is a great way to relieve sexual tension without any risk of pregnancy or contracting an STI. It can also improve sleep, relieve muscular tension, and reduce stressPleasurable behaviors reduce stress via brain reward pathways. Ulrich-Lai, Y.M., Christiansen, A.M., Ostrander, M.M., et al. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 2010 November 23; 107(47): 20529–20534. Frequent orgasms in general have been shown to lower blood pressure and improve overall health, while vibrator use in particular can boost sexual satisfaction and is associated with practicing healthy behaviors (such as eating well and exercising) even outside the bedroomPrevalence and characteristics of vibrator use by women in the United States: results from a nationally representative study. Herbenick, D., Reece, M., Sanders, S., et al. Center for Sexual Health Promotion, Indiana University. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 2009 Jul;6(7):1857-66. doi: 10.1111/j.1743-6109.2009.01318.x.+Epub+2009+May+7.

Masturbation can also give our relationships a boost. It often proves therapeutic for the sexual health of a relationship by allowing individuals to get in touch with their own pleasure points and needs, which can improve communication between partners and enhance sexual satisfaction.

Solo masturbation also has some big mental health payoffs. It’s even been shown to increase women’s feelings of self-esteem. (Unfortunately, little research exists about the relationship between men’s self-esteem and masturbation habits.) And according to Andelloux, “masturbation can be a self-soothing behavior that calms down our minds […] gets us in touch with our bodies, and gives us time to focus on ourselves instead of worrying about what others think.”

Kerner concurs. “In my experience, healthy, happy people—people in good relationships, people with good sex lives—masturbate. When people don’t, it might be a signal that something else is going on that might be unhealthy [such as stress, past trauma, or leading an unhealthy lifestyle]. In general, I tend to look at masturbation as a sign of health.”

Dancing With Yourself—Your Action Plan

While research on the health benefits of masturbation remains limited, the existing positive findings are a good reason to continue exploring the role it plays in sexual and overall health. In the meantime, take matters into your own hands with the action plan below.

1. Pick the Right Time

Make sure you can take your time and won’t be rushed at any point in the process by a roommate returning home, needing to leave for work or an appointment, etc.

2. Pick the Right Place

Choose a location that is both comfortable and private. Worrying about whether someone’s going to walk in on you will definitely make it harder to enjoy the moment.

3. Set the Mood

Dim the lights, light candles, put on some music—whatever you need to do to help yourself feel relaxed and present. Most importantly, commit to providing a judgment-free atmosphere for yourself.

4. Consume Some Media (optional)

Literary erotica or porn can help you feel aroused, but they’re certainly not a requirement for a satisfying experience—the imagination can prove just as powerful of a stimulant.

5. Start by Simply Being Naked

Take a moment to gaze at and appreciate your naked body, and get comfortable with your own nudity. If you struggle with body image, it can be helpful to draw your attention to the things that you like most about your body.

6. Touch Yourself

Begin to explore your body with your hands (or a toy). Take the time to experiment with what feels good to you—different pressures, strokes, textures, etc. can all yield different sensations.

7. Don’t Fixate on Orgasm

No need to put pressure on yourself to “make it” to orgasm. There’s plenty of enjoyment (and health benefits) to be had just from helping yourself feel good.

Thanks to Megan Andelloux and Greatist Expert Ian Kerner for their help with this article.