Masturbation: Common questions and misconceptions

Historically, masturbation — especially female masturbation — has been seen as something dangerous, unhealthy, and taboo. But this is changing. However old you are, and whether you’ve never masturbated before or do it every day, you still might have some questions about masturbation. Can masturbating cause any health problems? Can it make you lose your virginity? Is it okay to masturbate if you are in a relationship? Read on to find out the answers to these questions and more.

Do women masturbate?
Yes, people of all genders masturbate.
Susan Quilliam found in her research, (published in the book Women on Sex) that 4 out of 5 women masturbate regularly (1). In a 2016 US study by Indiana University, 3 out of 4 women aged 25–29, and 1 in 2 girls aged 14–17 said they had masturbated (2). There is a lack of research on masturbation that acknowledges the existence of people who are transgender or non-binary.

Does everyone masturbate the same way?
No, and in the privacy of your own space, there’s no right or wrong way to masturbate.
Generally when we talk about masturbation we mean touching, pressing, rubbing, or massaging a person’s genital area, nipples, or other erogenous zones with the fingers or against an object such as a pillow. It can also include inserting fingers or an object into the vagina or anus; or stimulating the genitals with toys such as an electric vibrator. It’s okay to use toys or stimulate any part of your body that feels good — there are as many different ways to masturbate as there are people. As long as what you are doing is not dangerous to you or others then you can masturbate in any way you like.

Can solo masturbation cause diseases?
No.
Unless you’re using unwashed hands or an unsanitary object, solo masturbation cannot cause disease or infection. And unlike sex with a partner, solo masturbation won’t lead to unintended pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections (provided that the environment and objects are clean). Plus, it’s a safe way to figure out what you are and aren’t comfortable with. If you notice any chafing or skin irritation, you might want to use a suitable personal lubricant — avoid lotion, Vaseline, or oils as they may irritate your vulva and vagina. Irritation or infections can pop up if your body is sensitive to the things you masturbate with, and germs from the anus can cause vaginal and urethral infections. If putting something in your vagina that’s been in your butt, wash it first or cover it with a condom.

If you are masturbating with a partner but only touching your own genitals — and not your partner’s genitals, then there is no risk of STI transmission or pregnancy. Be sure to cover toys with a condom or sanitize them before sharing with a partner, to prevent possible transmission of STIs. If you’re touching your partners genitals, or they are touching yours (fingering, handjobs) then there is a risk of transmitting some STIs (such as HPV, genital warts, chlamydia, herpes simplex virus (HSV) 1 and/or 2, syphilis). Infection risks increase when more fingers or a whole hand are inside the vagina or anus (sometimes called fisting), as this can cause tearing which allows STI transmission via blood and other fluids. There is also a higher risk of infection if someone puts their fingers in their mouths or a partner’s mouth after touching the genitals or anus, or if there is any oral sex also involved (putting a partner’s genitals or anus in their mouth).

Can masturbation help you learn how to orgasm? 
Yes.
Masturbation can be one of the most fulfilling ways to be sexual, and for people of every gender it’s an opportunity to get to know your body and explore your desires. It can be a way to discover new bodily sensations and reactions, like squirting. According to Quilliam, 9 out of 10 women always orgasm when masturbating (1). Compare that to Elisabeth Lloyd’s finding that only 1 in 4 women are consistently orgasmic during “penis in vagina” intercourse. This statistic is not from one study but from an analysis of 33 studies over 80 years (3).

Can you lose your virginity by masturbating?
No. Virginity is not something physical or medical. It’s a cultural idea, which many people have different definitions of and opinions about. Concepts of virginity are sometimes linked with the idea that your vaginal opening is covered by a membrane that is “broken” by vaginal sex.

The vaginal corona (also known as the hymen) consists of thin folds of mucous tissue located 1–2 centimeters just inside the vaginal opening (4). Anna Knöfel Magnusson of the RFSU (the Swedish Association for Sexuality Education) wrote about it in the booklet Vaginal Corona: Myths surrounding virginity, “Every corona looks different, and differs in size, colour and shape. It is slightly pink, almost transparent, and may resemble the petals of a flower, a jigsaw piece or a half-moon. In the vast majority of cases, it is elastic and stretchy. Very rarely, the mucous tissue folds may cover the entire vaginal opening. In that case, it might be necessary to see a gynecologist and have the vaginal corona opened to release menstrual blood, to enable insertion of a tampon or penetrative sex.”

Inserting things (including tampons, menstrual cups, toys, or fingers) into the vagina, as well as basic physical activity can contribute to the gradual diminishing of the vaginal corona. The hormonal changes that occur as people mature through puberty can also change the shape and flexibility of the vaginal corona (5). Regardless of whether you masturbate or not, your vaginal corona (if you had one to begin with) will wear away over time. The anatomy and purpose of the vaginal corona is not very well understood, and more research is needed.

Is it okay to masturbate if you’re in a relationship?
Yes.
Partnered sex and solo masturbation don’t need to be mutually exclusive, they can be complementary sexual experiences. Solo masturbation can be a very good way to learn about your own body, so it can be a path to better sex. A Canadian study done in 2017 found that women who masturbate regularly can more easily recognize and acknowledge their sexual needs (6). Participants in the study who masturbated once a month or more were more confident at naming exactly what brought them pleasure in partnered sex. Mutual masturbation with a partner can help you to learn more about each other’s sexual preferences.

Can masturbation make you infertile, make hair grow on your palms, cause acne or make you blind? In short: is masturbation BAD for you? 
No.
Masturbation cannot make you infertile, cause acne, or make hair grow on your palms. Many of these superstitions can be found in a book anonymously published in 1756, Onania, “or, the heinous sin of self-pollution and all its frightful consequences (in both sexes),” which seems designed to frighten people away from self-pleasure. Hair on the palms can be caused by a rare hereditary condition, while acne is often associated with hormonal changes which are a common sign of puberty (7, 8). There is also a link between shortsightedness and puberty, but masturbation will not damage your eyesight (9).

Masturbation is not bad for you physically, sexually, or emotionally — unless it is something you simply do not want to be doing. In fact, masturbation can actually be good for you.

Arousal and orgasm (from sex or masturbation) can help maintain your circulatory, neural, and muscular systems, and prevent dysmenorrhoea (painful menstruation) (10). Masturbation has even been associated with improved body image (11).

Why are there so many myths about masturbation?

Myths about masturbation being unhealthy or harmful come from fear and ignorance about health and human sexuality. Most people masturbate, and throughout history, most people have always masturbated. Masturbation is not bad or dangerous — it’s a normal and healthy way that many people learn about their sexuality and reach orgasm for the first time.

It’s okay to masturbate frequently, infrequently or not at all — there’s nothing wrong with not masturbating, if you don’t want to. Make whatever choices you do around masturbation based on what feels good and right for you, rather than based on fears of what others may think or myths about what masturbation can do to your body.

When it comes to loving yourself and your body, pleasure isn’t just for fun — it’s a form of self-care. Why not treat yourself?

Download Clue to learn if your sex drive changes throughout your menstrual cycle. You can track masturbation using custom tags.


References

  1. Quilliam S. Women on sex. Barricade Books Inc; 1995.
  2. Herbenick D, Reece M, Schick V, Sanders SA, Dodge B, Fortenberry JD. Sexual behavior in the United States: results from a national probability sample of men and women ages 14–94. The journal of sexual medicine. 2010 Oct 1;7(s5):255–65.
  3. Lloyd EA. The case of the female orgasm: Bias in the science of evolution. Harvard University Press; 2009 Jul 1.
  4. Knöfel Magnusson A. Vaginal corona: Myths surrounding virginity: Your questions answered. Stockholm: RFSU. 2009.
  5. Hornor G. Genitourinary assessment: An integral part of a complete physical examination. Journal of Pediatric Health Care. 2007 Jun 30;21(3):162–70.
  6. Morin V, Levesque S, Lavigne J. Female Masturbatory Practices and Sexual Health: A Qualitative Exploration of Women’s Perspectives. The Journal of Sexual Medicine. 2017 May 1;14(5):e270.
  7. Rapini RP, Bolognia JL, Jorizzo JL. Dermatology: 2-Volume Set. St. Louis: Mosby.
  8. Lucky AW, Biro FM, Huster GA, Leach AD, Morrison JA, Ratterman J. Acne vulgaris in premenarchal girls: An early sign of puberty associated with rising levels of dehydroepiandrosterone. Archives of dermatology. 1994 Mar 1;130(3):308–14.
  9. Chapter 12 Physical Growth And Progression Of Myopia. Acta Ophthalmologica. 2009;69(S200):49–52.
  10. Levin RJ. Sexual activity, health and well-being–the beneficial roles of coitus and masturbation. Sexual and Relationship Therapy. 2007 Feb 1;22(1):135–48.
  11. Shulman JL, Horne SG. The use of self-pleasure: Masturbation and body image among African American and European American women. Psychology of Women Quarterly. 2003 Sep;27(3):262–9.