Is Masturbation Healthy?

Is masturbation healthy? When it comes to sex—which is already so taboo—talking about masturbation is one of the most uncomfortable of subjects. It’s one thing to admit to being sexual with a partner but quite another to admit to taking pleasure into your own hands—literally and figuratively. Especially for women. But as a certified sex therapist and neuroscientist, I’ve got good news: Masturbation isn’t just pleasurable, it’s good for you.

For years I’ve worked with people with anxiety, depression, or relationship issues, treated people with problems in the bedroom, and taught human sexuality courses (when I’m not busy conducting sex research as a neuroscience Ph.D.), and yet I continue to be amazed about how uncomfortable people are when it comes to discussing sex in general and their own sexual health in particular. It isn’t unusual for me to have to reassure a talk show host who cautions me to be careful about what I say on the air since they don’t really “talk about sex” on their show. I think to myself, What? You’ve had a show for decades that deals with health and lifestyle issues, and you haven’t talked about sex?”

My work with couples and in the lab conducting studies has proved time and time again that pleasure is not just important but necessary—something I explore in my Glamour column Ask. Dr. Nan and in my new book Why Good Sex Matters—based largely on my research of the female orgasm, which can relieve stress, improve mood, reduce pain, boost immunity, and enhance self-esteem.

So when someone asks me if masturbation is healthy, the answer is a resounding yes. Here’s why:

Do most people masturbate?

The short answer? Yes. The longer answer? More men do than women.

Despite the persistent taboo around masturbation, statistics show that in Western cultures, most people do it. In the U.S., roughly 80% of women aged 25 through 40 say they’ve masturbated at some point in their lives, with 50% of women aged 18 through 24 reporting having masturbated during the past year.

Men tend to masturbate more often than women—largely because women are still shamed for being “too sexual.” If you group men and women together, nearly 76% of young adults aged 25 through 29 report self-pleasuring over the past year.

Health benefits of masturbation

I consider masturbation to be one of the best forms of self-care. Not only does it feel good, it’s good for you.

First, there are the physical benefits of masturbation. My research involved having participants masturbate to orgasm in an fMRI scanner to document how the brain responds to genital stimulation leading up to and culminating in the Big O. We found that when you experience sexual pleasure, many areas of the brain receive more oxygen.

Sufficient oxygen is absolutely critical to healthy brain function, so the widespread increase in blood flow to the brain (particularly regions involved in sensation, movement, cognition, reward, and hormone production) make orgasm a great workout for nearly your whole brain. Orgasm triggers the release of a cascade of substances such as natural painkillers, stress relievers, and mood enhancers. Think of your brain enjoying a delicious cocktail of increased dopamine (associated with reward and enthusiasm), endorphins (our own internally produced opioids promoting feelings of well-being), serotonin (for calming), and oxytocin (which facilitates bonding). The result is a health-promoting natural high.

A regular masturbation practice also has other benefits. When women learn to cultivate the pleasures of masturbation, we radically challenge some of the sex-negative notions pervading our culture. Rather than focusing on being a sex object for someone else, masturbation allows us to focus on being intrinsically sexual beings whose bodies are places of pleasure that exist at times just for us. It puts your pleasure first.

Are there side effects of masturbation?

Despite persisting myths, there are no harmful side effects of masturbation. And no, you can’t desensitize yourself from masturbating frequently—in fact, quite the opposite!

That said, any behavior which becomes compulsive can become problematic.

How much masturbation is too much?

I have treated men whose masturbation practices have gotten out of control, causing physical and emotional distress, even interrupting their ability to go to work. These compulsive sexual behaviors appear less frequently in women, although they have been reported. In general, out-of-control sexual behaviors can result when people have trouble regulating their moods and use sex to self-soothe.

The bottom line? By making a commitment to prioritizing your own pleasure though cultivating a regular masturbation practice, you will reap big benefits.

Tips to Learn How to Sex

In the uncharted waters of COVID-19, life has been put on hold. Dating IRL has gone digital—and sex? Let’s just say it’s a great time to learn how to sext. Even if you’ve never sexted in the past, didn’t have an interest in it, or just never had it come up, more people are turning to their devices for intimacy that’s not just possible in person right now.

“We have a lot more time than normal on our hands,” says Megan Stubbs, a sexologist and sex and relationships coach. “While sexting is great for couples who are already established but apart because of COVID-19, it’s also great for new relationships (i.e., meeting on a dating app), because it establishes a connection.” Connecting with someone in an intimate way can help relieve stress while staying house-bound. “The best part is you can edit what you say, and you get to be playful and creative,” Stubbs says.

Sexting can be intimidating, whether you’re messaging someone you’re in a long-term relationship with or a relative stranger. We get it. But if you’ve put off learning how to sext, there’s no time like the present. Here are five experts with your ultimate guide on sexting.

Ask for consent.

“Just because you’re in the head space to start sexting, that doesn’t necessarily mean your sexting pal is,” says Alicia Sinclair, CEO of sex-toy maker Children of the Revolution and certified sex educator. Checking in with your partner is required before you go from zero to 60. “Unless of course, you’ve already pre-negotiated or established you have sexting carte blanche,” she says.

Sexting example: “Hey you! Had you on my mind and wanted to share some NSFW thoughts. Are you into that right now?”

Know your angles.

“If you’re incorporating photo or video into your sexting routine, know your angles,” says Cassandra Corrado, sex educator and brand consultant. “I don’t mean the view that makes your ass look like the best version of itself—I mean the angles that keep you the most digitally safe. We don’t often want to think about sexual and digital safety when it comes to sexting, but you have to.”

Corrado makes a great point. Even if you’re sexting with a partner and you trust them, you still never know where those photos could end up. So when it comes to your face and distinguishing features, like tattoos, do yourself a favor and keep them out of view. Or even add a fake tattoo for fun.

Sexting example: “I’m sending you a photo of my hand down my undies and I want you to know I’m wishing they were your hands instead.”

Tease, tease, tease.

Just like when it comes to sex, there’s no sense in rushing it. “Don’t give it all away with the first sext,” Sinclair says. “Tell them what you want to do to them, or send them a naughty picture. Take your time.”

Sexting example: “Thinking about what I want to do to you has been driving me crazy. I get more and more turned on every time I imagine it.”

Be creative.

“While sexting might, in some people’s minds, mean going straight for the genitals, you can actually talk around it in a creative way,” Stubbs says.

Sexting example: “Tell me what you’d do to me if we were together in a room with just whipped cream, one candle, and no mattress in sight.”

Don’t skip the foreplay.
If you wouldn’t skip the foreplay while you’re with someone in person, you shouldn’t skip it during sexting either. “Foreplay and anticipation in any sexual play (aka the buildup) is what helps make the grand finale so special,” Sinclair says.

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Sexting example: “Let’s take this as far as we can, slowly. Then let ourselves orgasm.”

Have your thirst traps locked and loaded.

“Visuals are important when sexting, and in the age of social distancing, the more you’ve got the better,” says Daniel Saynt, sex educator and founder of the New Society for Wellness (NSFW), a private community of sex-positive workshops and experiences. “Take a lesson from gay culture and consider having a library of naughty pics and videos in your arsenal for when you’re ready to sext.”

Sexting example: “Do you want to see a photo of what I’m wearing right now?”

Do what makes you feel sexy.

As many of these experts have pointed out, nude photos are definitely hot—especially if you’re comfortable with the person and you take the time to edit them for the sake of privacy. But, as Saynt points out, you don’t have to be totally naked in whatever photos you’re sharing. As the saying goes, sometimes less is more. “If you don’t want to go full nude, don’t feel that you have to,” Saynt says. “This is about what makes you feel sexy.”

Sexting example: “I’m sending you a photo that’s going to leave a lot to the imagination.”

Use a memory.

If the person you’re sexting with is someone you’ve been in a relationship with, then Stubbs suggests pulling out a hot memory, one that neither one of you will ever forget, and go from there.

Sexting example: “Remember that time in the elevator when I went down on you a few months ago?”

Share a fantasy.

We all have fantasies. Even if you’ve yet to explore them, they’re there. So if you’re looking to dip your toes in those waters, sexting is a chance to do that. “It’s completely normal for all of us to have fantasies,” says Sinclair. “Sexting is the perfect opportunity to share that you want to be tied up, want to tie your partner up, experiment with role playing, or try double penetration.”

Sexting example: “I feel like you’ve been really naughty lately. So naughty that I’m going to need to tie you up to teach you a lesson!”

Step outside your comfort zone.

One of the best parts about sex is that there’s always room to experiment. “When sexting for the first (or 40th) time, people often feel they have to follow a particular script,” says Corrado. “The thing that makes sexting fun is getting to explore desire and fantasy in a different medium, so don’t feel locked into any one script or persona.”

Sexting example: “I think it’s my turn to tell you what to do.”

Don’t forget to include voice notes.

Voice notes don’t exist only to make life easier when you want to get your point across to someone quickly; they also come in handy when you want to use your voice to entice your partner. “Voice notes allow you to tap into your lover’s audial desires,” says Jess O’Reilly, sexologist, relationship expert, and author of the upcoming book The Ultimate Guide to Seduction & Foreplay: Techniques and Strategies for Mind-Blowing Sex. “For those of us who are auditory learners, the sound of a lover’s voice, even if they are not talking dirty, can be overwhelmingly hot.”

Can You Have Sex During the Coronavirus Pandemic?

Living during an international health crisis brings up unexpected quandaries: Should you Lysol your bean cans? Is air safe? Can you have sex during the coronavirus pandemic?

The unprecedented health crisis has, in a few short weeks, upended life as we know it. For Americans, it started as just a few disturbing headlines, which quickly turned into handwashing guidelines, which escalated into the proliferation of the phrase social distancing. Now 23 states as well as many additional towns and counties—covering about 6 in 10 Americans, the New York Times estimates—have instructed people not to leave their homes, except for solo exercise and absolute necessities. On Thursday, March 27, officials reported that the United States has the highest number of confirmed cases of COVID-19—the disease caused by this coronavirus—of any country.

Naturally, with all the time cooped up indoors, people are wondering, Can we still have sex? Well, let’s look at the facts:

Scientists know—and have told us repeatedly—that the coronavirus is spread mostly person-to-person, mostly through respiratory droplets. That means: The fine mist that surrounds you when a tall person sneezes, the cool spritz of your fellow subway rider’s cough, the tiny drop of your spit that accidentally, horrifically, lands on the chin of the person you’re talking to at a cocktail party, that you both heroically try to ignore. Even if you don’t have a cough—or even if you have one but you’re really good at covering it!—when humans come into contact, we get spit and snot on each other. We have a habit of breathing on each other. And sadly, this is how scientists believe coronavirus is spread.

“You should avoid close contact—including sex—with anyone outside your household,” the New York Health Department wrote in recently released guidelines. “Kissing can easily pass COVID-19.”

Listen. Nothing pains me more than reporting that health officials are warning people off sweaty, spitty, in-person sex—or anything, sexual or otherwise, that brings people within feet of each other. One day, sex gods willing, the number of COVID-19 cases will significantly abate, and people will consensually spit, lick, and sensually cough on each other once again. Face touching will be foreplay. Sloppy kissing will become tinged with a feeling of erotic risk. Until that time, insofar as sex traditionally involves a person being less than six feet away from you, it may have to wait.

But what if the person in question is your partner, who perhaps sleeps in your bed, shares your meals, and sits less than one sneeze-length away from you throughout your eight daily Zoom calls? Or what if they’re a roommate who’s been giving you confusing need-to-pee feelings and hasn’t been sick lately? Or what if you’re planning to break the six-feet rule and just need to know the safest way to do it? The New York Department of Health released an informative—and unintentionally, darkly funny—guideline on this topic.

“You are your safest sex partner. Masturbation will not spread COVID-19, especially if you wash your hands (and any sex toys) with soap and water for at least 20 seconds before and after sex,” the guideline reads.

So can you have sex during the coronavirus pandemic? Yes, the New York government enthusiastically says: with yourself. It’s also a splendid time to (safely!) get into that whole sexting thing the youths have been talking about.

If you do choose to have partnered sex, the Health Department adds, “The next safest partner is someone you live with. Having close contact—including sex—with only a small circle of people helps prevent spreading COVID-19.” (If you are having sex with “a small circle of people” during a pandemic, I don’t know what to tell you except congrats and stay as safe as you can.) The next best guidelines are to use a condom, always a good practice, but the New York Health Department notes that they’re a good extra step to avoid the spread of saliva and feces—and to scrub your hands before and after sex. If your partner is feeling even a little under the weather, take a rain (spit?) check.

Right now the world is divided into those who follow CDC recommendations and those who do not. Maybe it’s a good time to distrust those who do not. Or at least, time to invest in a fantastic vibrator.