There are certain taboo topics that aren’t openly talked about, and masturbation — particularly, female masturbation — has certainly been one of them. But experts say that’s starting to change.
“There was a time when it wasn’t open for women to talk about it,” Dr. Leah Millheiser, director of the female sexual medicine program at Stanford University Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life. “Now patients are very open when asked. Women do it.”
While Millheiser acknowledges that “there are religions and cultures where it’s not acceptable because sexual activity is meant to be procreative” and that it’s still “more accepted that males do it even though women do it, too,” she says society has made “massive strides” in talking about masturbation. “We talk about vibrators so openly now,” she says. “Gwyneth Paltrow talks about it. We’ve normalized talking about vibrators and in [doing] that, normalized talking about masturbation, even if we don’t say it.”
Debra Herbenick, the director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University in Bloomington, agrees, telling Yahoo Life that, in recent years, “more of my women college students talk openly about it.” But some women still feel embarrassed, “especially if they were raised in more traditional or conservative homes,” she says. “And some women don’t learn much about their vulva and vagina until adulthood; sexuality in schools rarely addresses masturbation, sexual pleasure, sexual exploration or orgasm.”
So here’s what you need to know about female masturbation.
#1: Masturbating is healthy
While pleasure is the most obvious benefit of masturbation, experts say the practice comes with some health benefits as well, including stress relief and a better night's sleep. That’s because having an orgasm from masturbation releases feel-good hormones called endorphins, which create feelings of relaxation and well-being.
A 2019 study found that having an orgasm through masturbation was associated with better quality sleep and an easier time falling asleep. “It [also] helps them fall asleep if they’re stressed or anxious,” says Millheiser.
The orgasms that come with masturbation also “improve blood flow to the vagina,” says Millheiser, “and that keeps it healthy.”
But that’s not all: Masturbating with a partner is also “a form of safer sex,” says Herbenick. According to Planned Parenthood: “In fact, it’s the safest way to have sexual pleasure there is — there’s no risk of pregnancy or STDs.”
As Alix Agar, associate marriage and family therapist at the SHAPE Center, tells Yahoo Life: “Masturbation to orgasm has all the benefits of genital intercourse to orgasm, without any of the downsides!”
#2: Women masturbate more often than you might think
“The single biggest misconception about female masturbation is that women don't,” says Agar, “and of course, that's simply not true. Women have always touched or rubbed their genitals for pleasure, just as men have. They just talk about it less.”
Herbenick agrees, saying: “Many people don’t realize how common masturbation is among women. However, about 3 in 4 women have ever masturbated.”
A 2017 study found that more than 40% of women had masturbated in the last month the research was conducted, with only about 22% of women reporting that they have never masturbated in their lifetime. The study also found that more than 50% of women had used a vibrator or dildo.
#3: It’s a good way for women (and men) to learn about their bodies
Another benefit to masturbation is that it helps with “getting to know your body” and “getting to know what works for you” in terms of stimulation and pleasure, notes Millheiser.
Agar calls masturbation “an effective tool for women to learn about their orgasmic capabilities — how quickly or slowly, how intensely and how long they can orgasm.” She says that it’s “a huge benefit to sex with a partner as well, because it teaches a woman what types of touch, rhythms, etc., will bring her to orgasm, and she can teach her partner how to do the same.”
She also points out that there’s a “dangerous misconception” that girls and women who masturbate will become “oversexed, or sexualized too young or want too much sex.” Agar says, “These are all outdated, misogynistic myths. They relate to ideas that women's sexuality belongs to her husband or male partner and can only be developed or explored by him. In fact, the more any woman knows about her own body and her own capacity to achieve sexual pleasure, the more she will be able to achieve mutual sexual satisfaction with her partner. Masturbation can be an integral part of any couple's sex life.”
#4: Masturbating “too much” is rare
It’s rare that someone masturbates “too much,” says Herbenick. “When that occurs, a person generally knows because their masturbation is getting in the way of work, school or their family or romantic/sexual relationships,” she says. “In other rare cases, someone may be masturbating so much or in such a difficult way that it hurts their body.”
Herbenick says that “people who are struggling with their approach to masturbation, or their feelings about masturbation, may be helped by connecting with a sex therapist or sex coach.” She suggests visiting AASECT.org or SSTARnet.org to find a therapist in one’s area.
#5: Married women — and older women — do it, too
Masturbating isn’t just for the young and single. Married women and men, as well as older adults, partake as well. “Masturbation is available to people across the lifespan, including people of advanced age,” says Herbenick. “Indeed, many older individuals find it easier to masturbate alone or together rather than have intercourse, given some of the logistics with intercourse positioning and/or issues such as vaginal dryness or erectile function.”
Herbenick adds: “Solo and partnered masturbation are just two parts on a very full menu of ways to explore and connect sexually.”
#6: It can improve your sex life
A 2020 study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found that when women use similar techniques and stimulation that feel good during masturbation and then apply them during sex with their partners, they report a better orgasmic response and less difficulty achieving orgasm during partnered sex.
Masturbation can also be helpful to women entering menopause. “When a woman goes into menopause, she has decreased blood flow,” explains Millheiser. “So women will say, ‘I can’t achieve orgasm anymore’ or ‘It’s really weak in intensity.’ Or, ‘I can’t achieve it without using a vibrator.’ That’s related to a drop in estrogen and nerve conduction. You need more of that stimulation to achieve orgasm.” And that’s where masturbation comes in.
#7: For some, it’s the only way they orgasm
“Women will say, ‘I can’t achieve orgasms,’ and what they're really saying is, ‘I can’t have an orgasm with penile-vaginal or toy-vaginal penetration,” explains Millheiser. “But you can ask them, ‘Can you have orgasms through genital or clitoral stimulation?’ ‘Oh yeah, I can do that.’ It’s more common to have clitoral stimulated orgasms than vaginal penetration orgasms.”
Millheiser says that it’s perfectly OK if the only way you’re able to achieve orgasm is through masturbation. “Don’t be disappointed if it doesn’t happen,” she says. “Enjoy the orgasms that you do have.”
Want lifestyle and wellness news delivered to your inbox? Sign up here for Yahoo Life’s newsletter.