Is Masturbation Healthy? A Neuroscientist Weighs In


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.

Nan Wise, Ph.D., is an AASECT-certified sex therapist, neuroscientist, certified relationship expert, and author of Why Good Sex Matters: Understanding the Neuroscience of Pleasure for a Smarter, Happier, and More Purpose-Filled Life. Follow her @AskDoctorNan.


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