Laurie Mintz Ph.D.

Stress and Sex

Masturbation 101: Letting Go of Guilt

Despite research finding self-pleasure to be healthy, it's still mired in guilt.

Posted May 30, 2018

Masturbation. Even the word conjures up discomfort for many women. As stated by Lonnie Barbach, "The guilt, fear, anxiety…that surrounds masturbation is astounding, especially when one realizes…how pervasive it is among human beings." When I polled my most recent class, 89% of women students said they’d masturbated and almost a third felt guilty about it. Another writer found even more guilt. Seventy percent of the women in her study felt guilty about masturbating.

So, where does all this guilt come from? For some women, it’s due to a lack of information. The majority of the women in my class say that when growing up, no one ever talked to them about self-pleasure. Another author found that 80% of the women who responded to her survey were never talked to about masturbation being a normal aspect of human sexuality. Clearly, for many women, lack of knowledge and silence surrounding self-pleasure contributes to guilt.

However, many women’s guilt comes from something worse than silence. Many have been told by authority figures that masturbation is bad and to be avoided. Many are told it is unhealthy or sinful.

The idea that masturbation is sinful isn’t surprising, since many religions condemn it. A lot of them point to a bible story where a guy named Onan is supposed to have intercourse with his brother’s widow to make a baby. He refuses, "spills his seed,” and is struck dead. But, here’s a twist: Modern bible experts aren’t sure if he’s struck dead for not making a baby with his dead brother’s wife or for masturbating—and some think he didn’t even masturbate at all, but "spilled his seed” when he pulled out so as not to ejaculate inside her.

Modern experts also point out that aside from this one ambiguous story, the bible says little about masturbation in general and almost nothing about female masturbation. That’s why these experts disagree about whether the bible is against masturbation or not. It’s also why a lot of respected religious leaders from diverse faiths actually say masturbation is acceptable. One affirming spiritual masturbation quote from a book that is highly respected among sex educators tell us that “Masturbation is … an inherent gift. The design of the human body gives us free access to our genitals….it's clear this function was granted for our enjoyment.” Clearly, some new-age spiritual writers give self-pleasure a thumbs up.

But religion isn’t the only source of guilt. Sometimes women feel guilty because they’ve been told that masturbation is harmful. This is a relic of what people were told in the olden days. In the 18th century people were warned that if they masturbated, their hands would get covered in warts and hair. Yikes! People were also told that masturbation caused blindness, acne, and infertility. Also, doctors observed patients in mental hospitals masturbating and concluded masturbation was the source of the patient’s mental disorders. The truth is that the patients were just doing what most of us do—although with less privacy and at more frequency since they were cooped up with little else to do. Anyway, the bottom line is that in previous generations, medical experts told people that masturbation was the root of a lot of illnesses.

And, now, we know that just the opposite is true. As Jenny Block, author of “OWow” writes “Have a migraine? Masturbate. Feeling stuck creatively? Masturbate. Feeling blue? Masturbate. Can’t sleep? Masturbate. Mired in stress? Low self-esteem? Sex drive in low gear? Chronic pain? Masturbation is good for what ails you.”

Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock
Source: Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock

All of this is true—indeed, backed up by research. And there’s more. As just two additional examples, pleasuring yourself burns calories and enhances your immune system (so you get sick less often). It also can help relieve menstrual cramps and strengthen the muscle tone in your pelvic region, which in turn will make your orgasms feel more intense. In short, there’s absolutely no doubt that solo sex has enormous psychological and health benefits. But, here’s the important thing. It’s not the masturbation that’s causing all these benefits. It’s the self-induced orgasms!

Let’s talk about self-induced orgasms. First, women are way more likely to orgasm by themselves than with a partner. Many women also say the orgasms they have by themselves are more intense than those they have with a partner. Self-induced orgasms also happen faster (average of about 4 minutes) than the orgasms women have with partners (average of about 20 minutes). This is because during masturbation, the majority of women are able to touch their clitorises exactly the way they like. It’s also because without a partner in the picture, there are fewer pleasure-sucking cognitive distractions (Do I look okay? Am I taking too long?). Obvious, but still aptly stated by Lonnie Barbach, “The reason self-stimulation works so well … is that you are the only one involved.”

This ability to focus completely on oneself is the reason that when therapists work with women who have never had an orgasm, instructing them to engage in self-pleasure is always the first step. It’s also an essential step in all sex therapy aimed at helping women learn to orgasm with partners. Women need to first lean what type of stimulation they like by themselves and then the next step is being able to talk to and teach a partner this.  

And, finally, it’s important to know that women who pleasure themselves have more—not less—sex with partners. That’s because the more sex you have, including with yourself, the more sex you want. And the more orgasms you have by any method, including by giving yourself one, the more sexually responsive you will be. Research shows that women who pleasure themselves have more orgasms with partners as well.

In short, masturbation is an important and essential component of female sexuality and female sexual pleasure—despite it still being mired in confusion, guilt, and controversy. Sex educators are trying to end this taboo, by proclaiming May to be masturbation month. So, enjoy the last two days of May by celebrating yourself. And, then stay tuned in June, for more blogs on the how-to's of women's masturbation.

Much of this post was adopted from the chapter on self-pleasure ("Taking Matters Into Your Own Hands") from my latest book, Becoming Cliterate: Why Orgasm Equality Matters--And How To Get It.

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