It goes without saying that a little self-love helps us relax after a busy day, but it seems women in particular tend to be shyer about indulging in solo sex. While there's still some stigma attached to both male and female masturbation, research shows that for women that sense of shame seems to be heightened.
In fact, a 2021 survey carried out by sex toy brand Womaniser of 14,500 people worldwide, found that not only did men masturbate more than women (by about two and a half times as often), but that nearly a third of people believed female masturbation to be ‘tainted with shame and negativity.’
The health benefits of female self-pleasure are well-known: from improving body image, to toning the pelvic floor, so why are so many of us reticent about solo sex? And why do boys and men – on the whole – not seem to feel the same way?
Many psychologists believe that the messages we received about masturbation as young girls lay the foundations for how we think about it as women.
There is also the fact of our anatomy. “Many healthy males wake up with a morning erection,” says psychosexual therapist from Tavistock Relationships, Marian O’Connor. “Their sexual equipment is literally ‘out there’ so it’s easier for them to explore their sexuality and it’s more socially acceptable for them to do so. For girls however, because their vulvas are hidden they have to do more of a ‘search’. Self-pleasure is more secret and therefore comes with more shame.”
Silva Neves, Psychosexual psychotherapist and author of Sexology: the Basics (£16.99, Taylor and Francis Ltd), adds that, because teen girls are “unable to see what their genitals even look like without a mirror, they don’t connect to their own vulvas, and themselves as sexual beings.”
Girls aren’t even given the right language when they are young and exploring touching themselves. "The word ‘penis’ is used for boys – or ‘stop touching your willy’ but nobody says “stop touching your vulva,’" says O’Connor. “The whole business of female self-pleasure is dealt with as something ‘unnamed’ – even as something ‘disgusting’.”
This attitude follows us into adulthood and into the marriage therapy room. “I often meet couples where the partner is not even aware that their wife or partner masturbates,” says O’Connor. “The man will look at her and say, “Do you? You didn’t tell me that.” And these are people who’ve had an intimate sexual relationship for years.
Read more: Why I'm proud to be sex-positive
So why the shame? Where does this come from?
“There is a lot of misogyny in our society when it comes to female sexuality,” believes Neves. “A woman who enjoys self-pleasuring is frowned upon as going against the patriarchal message that the purpose of women's sexuality is to please their male partner.”
“It’s this assumption that women want to be ‘rescued’ by men,” adds O’Connor. “It's their own sexual desire being responded to by the gaze and desire of the man, rather than by themselves.”
Sex education in schools doesn’t do much to address this either. Whether or not you get a decent one, is a postcode lottery and most sex ed is about preventing pregnancy and STIs. There is no talk of female masturbation or desire.
One thing is certain though: the awkwardness girls feel around the subject as children affects how they view the act in adulthood – and this culture of shame could take a while to change…
Judging by the health benefits detailed by our experts though, there are multiple reasons why masturbation should be a normal part of your self-care routine... and nothing to feel ashamed of. Here's an overview of the benefits, for both body and mind...
1. It improves body image
“Focussing on what our bodies can do rather than just what they look like gives us a greater sense of wellbeing, confidence and love for ourselves,” says PJ Livett, a relationships and sex educator who founded a service called rePHRASE – ‘Providing Healthy Relationship And Sex Education (without the awkwardness)’.
“Our bodies are amazing, complex and beautiful... Remembering this instead of focusing on trying to live up to the current beauty standard is key for nurturing a positive body image.”
Barbara Santini, psychologist and sex advisor at the sex toy website Peaches and Screams says it’s about how masturbation helps us associate our bodies with pleasure: “This thought alone gives complete satisfaction, plus it’s empowering knowing you don't have to rely on another person for sexual fulfilment," she says.
“I've worked with clients who've told me that self-pleasure has helped their recovery from disordered eating, because they realise how many positive sensations they can feel in their body,” adds sexologist Madalaine Munro.
2. It’s a natural pain-reliever
During masturbation and orgasm, the body releases a whole host of feel-good hormones, including the endorphins dopamine and oxytocin.
Endorphins in particular, “enhance the part of the brain that controls the pleasure we experience”, says Livett. “The endorphins react with receptors in the brain during masturbation/orgasm and can alter our perception of pain.”
Dr Sonia Bahlani specialises in pelvic pain, and says that masturbation during your period can really help with menstrual pain itself – as well as feeling extra good (double win!).
“For one, there's increased blood flow to the genitals, perhaps even to the clitoris, leading to increased sensitivity and pleasure,"she says.
"Menstrual blood is also a natural lubricant, which will help if you're using toys.”
The release of our friend oxytocin, too, during orgasm means we could probably skip the Ibuprofen… "It’s a natural pain-reliever that can get rid of some of the worst period cramps,” Dr Bahlani adds.
On orgasms specifically, Munro explains how because “rather than being ‘anaesthetic’ (numbing) orgasms are analgesic (pain-relieving), touch sensitivity remains the same, so we can still feel and enjoy touching ourselves, whilst experiencing less pain".
In fact, internationally renowned sex researcher Dr Beverley Whipple’s study found there was a 40% increase in pain threshold from vaginal self-stimulation.
3. It’s a great pelvic workout
As well as helping with pelvic pain, masturbation gives your pelvic floor a good old workout – vital for your sexual health.
“The pelvic floor muscles play an important role in sexual function,” says Dr Rachel Gelman, a pelvic floor therapist. “Making sure they have optimal range of motion and that a person has good control over these muscles is important for an orgasm to happen.
"People often focus on contracting and strengthening these muscles and don't think about relaxing. But most people have overactive or stiff pelvic floor muscles and need to learn how to relax them,” she explains.
Masturbation is a great way of working the tension out of those muscle groups, leading to better sex and more powerful orgasms.
4. It eases stress and can even help with depression
“Masturbation can help alleviate stress and support mental health in a number of ways,” says Munro. “Firstly, masturbation activates the hypothalamus and thalamus which are responsible for pleasure.
"While doing so, the activity in the orbitofrontal cortex, the area of the brain which is responsible for fear and anxiety, is lessened therefore leading to you feeling happier, whether or not you orgasm.”
And as we’ve said, if you do orgasm, that happy trio of serotonin, oxytocin and dopamine are released which give you that post-coital glow, but without the need for a partner.
5. It may help you sleep better
As well as those feel-good hormones we’ve come to know well, “masturbating to the point of orgasm helps produce a hormone called vasopressin, which can enhance sleep,” says Santini
“You also reduce those annoying trips to the toilet during the night, because vasopressin is an antidiuretic, basically helping you urinate less,” she says.
Munro adds, “The effect of oxytocin can help calm the nervous system which can help the production of melatonin (the hormone that makes us feel sleepy).
"Furthermore, norepinephrine and serotonin are released during orgasm, which can increase your quality of sleep by helping your body enter REM cycles better.”
Hopefully you don’t now feel too sleepy to do the masturbation bit first...
6. It’s good for heart health
Although it’s fair to say that a little self-love session is not quite as good as full-on sex, Santini says.
“It can be a good cardiovascular workout equivalent to a light exercise session, because it can increase your heart rate, positively impacting your heart health," she explains.
One scientific study suggests masturbation burns around three calories every minute.
7. It improves your sex life in general
“I recommend self-pleasure to nearly every client or student, because if we don’t know what we really like in bed, how can we expect someone else to know?” suggests Munro.
You can explore what types of strokes, speeds, pressures feel really good for you and build a deep relationship with pleasure. "The more deeply you journey with yourself, the easier it can feel to journey deeply with others,“ she adds.
And with self-knowledge, comes the ability to protect your boundaries, says Livett. “Identifying red flags 'in the bedroom’ is paramount, in order for those involved to be able to experience happy, safe, and fulfilling sexual experiences.”