Much stigma surrounds masturbation — for both men and women. Yet most doctors regard it as not only safe but a healthy sexual behavior and an important part of overall sexual health. Here are the many health benefits of masturbation.
Health benefits of masturbation
A lot of the evidence for the benefits of masturbation for both men and women is linked more to orgasm than masturbation, says Nicole Prause, a neuroscientist studying sexual behavior and physiology and the founder of the sexual biotechnology company Liberos.
When you orgasm, your body releases a flood of hormones, including:
endorphins, which are known to reduce pain
oxytocin, which helps regulate stress, pain, fear, and well-being
serotonin, which reduces stress and helps balance mood
As a result, masturbation that results in orgasm can come with numerous health benefits, such as:
reduced stress and anxiety
improved partnered sex
increased sexual satisfaction
There's also some evidence to suggest that masturbation may strengthen the immune system.
Masturbation can also be more enjoyable than engaging in sexual acts with a partner because it eases any sort of pressure.
"For a lot of people, when they're masturbating, especially solo, there's a relaxation component to it," says Susan Milstein, a certified sexuality educator and professor of health and kinesiology at Texas A&M University. "They don't feel the need to perform when they are just there for themselves."
If you're trying to abstain from sex or are worried about the risk of pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections (STIs), masturbation is also great.
"It really is one of the safest forms of sex out there, as long as you're not sharing toys and cleaning in between," Milstein says.
Benefits of masturbation for women
Masturbation has several unique advantages for women.
Women generally climax more quickly and easily during masturbation than sex. For example, a 2017 study surveying over 52,000 adults found that only 65% of heterosexual women and 66% of bisexual women usually reached orgasm during sex. On the other hand, 95% of heterosexual men who ejaculated regularly during sex.
The reason women orgasm less frequently during sex could be that they struggle to discover their preferences, Milstein says, let alone communicate them. But masturbation may help with that because it offers the opportunity for women to be more in touch with their bodies, so they know how they feel and what they need.
For a small study published in 2014 in the International Journal of Impotence Research, researchers reported that 35% of women who regularly climaxed during sex also masturbated compared to only 9% of women who climaxed during sex and did not masturbate.
During your period, your uterus contracts to shed its lining, which can cause painful cramps. But an orgasm increases blood flow to the genitals and releases endorphins, which may relieve cramping. It's a similar reason exercise can also help get rid of period cramps.
Alternative to pregnancy sex
Women who are pregnant may enjoy masturbation more so than partnered sex, Milstein says. That's because sex with a partner can be more awkward depending on what stage of pregnancy you're in.
Moreover, some male partners worry about hurting the fetus, so masturbation might be less nerve-racking. But sex while pregnant is perfectly safe for both mother and child.
Benefits of masturbation for men
There are fewer benefits that are unique to masturbation in men but are still worth noting.
Reduced risk of prostate cancer
There's some evidence, including a 10-year study of almost 32,000 men published in 2016 in European Urology, that masturbation may help reduce a man's risk of prostate cancer.
Milstein says most of the research shows ejaculation is what lowers cancer risk, whether that's through "partnered sex, even wet dreams, or masturbation." The theory is that "you're kind of flushing out the system," or getting rid of potentially problematic bacteria or toxins that can be cancer-causing, she says.
Both Milstein and Prause say that the research on prostate cancer has been mixed. A study published in 2016 found some factors, like the age range of study participants, could be complicating a clear verdict on whether ejaculation is linked to lower prostate-cancer risk.
Satisfy a high sex drive
Due to men's higher levels of testosterone — which contributes to libido — sex drive is typically higher in men than in women. Therefore, masturbation may be a great way for men in heterosexual relationships to manage their increased urges. Prause says some men say that they use masturbation as a means of reducing the sexual burden on their partners.
Side effects of masturbation
Of course there are a few potential downsides to masturbation if you're not being careful.
Sexually transmitted diseases and infections
While masturbation is generally safer when it comes to spreading sexually transmitted infection, there is still a risk. When sharing toys, opt for hard nonporous materials to make cleaning easy. If your toy is porous, like a jelly dildo, Milstein says to use a condom, and then after each use throw the condom out and clean the toy.
Masturbation can occasionally have a negative effect on mental health. Sometimes people feel guilty when they masturbate, which can prevent them from fully relaxing and enjoying the experience.
"It's one of those things we need to start normalizing and having conversations about, especially with women," Milstein says. "I think we need to make space for that conversation. If it feels good for you, that's the important part of it, and it's not threatening your relationship."
Some may see self-pleasure as a threat to their romantic relationship. But Milstein says they shouldn't let this be a downside. Rather: "Masturbation is a valuable piece of what people can do to better their relationship with themselves, and enjoy sexual activity on their own, but also with their partners. I think it can help their relationship if there's communication about what you find from it."
Sexual pleasure is highly individualized. What pleasures you may be different from another. Masturbation is a healthy way to explore your unique sexual interests. And along the way, you may feel more relaxed, less stressed, and improve your sex life.
The more we can encourage people to get to know their own bodies, the more they can communicate what feels good to their partners, Milstein says.
If you're having trouble orgasming — whether through masturbation or sex — you may want to consider seeking medical advice. A sex therapist can help you explore the cause.