Growing up, you may have heard some myths about masturbation. You may have heard it causes blindness and infertility, or that pleasuring yourself causes hair to grow on your palms. We are also taught myths about who has a right to pleasure and who doesn’t. For example, we are told only people with penises masturbate, while people with vulvas are incapable of achieving orgasm without a partner. As it turns out, none of these things are true.
Despite societal and religious messages that tell us masturbation is dirty and wrong, masturbation is actually totally normal and healthy. Still, shame and stigma around sex and pleasure can stay with us through adulthood. As we get older, masturbation is further stigmatized as we are told touching ourselves means we’re desperate and that we just need to get laid, or that masturbating while in a relationship is the same as cheating on a partner.
Is masturbation a sin?
The short answer to this question? No, masturbation is not a sin.
Carol Queen PhD, author of The Sex & Pleasure Book: Good Vibrations Guide to Great Sex for Everyone, tells O.school, “People’s upbringing and beliefs definitely affect their choices about contraception, masturbation, and many other attitudes related to sex and relationships. Do what’s right for you. Religions vary greatly in their doctrines, so you can back up arguments either way.”
When it comes to the religious perspective on masturbation, there are varying viewpoints. Some may be more shaming than others, while others may say masturbation is okay in certain situations, like as a means of sexual self-control if someone is intent on waiting to have other kinds of sex. But ultimately, it is natural and normal to get to know your body through masturbation.
Is masturbation healthy?
Yes, masturbation is healthy, both physically and emotionally. A message we don’t hear nearly often enough is that humans are sexual beings, almost all of whom experience very natural sexual desire. If we really grew hair on our palms after touching ourselves, most of us would be walking around with super hairy palms. In actuality, masturbating is an incredibly common, normal, and healthy practice! Best of all, solo play has no risk of pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections. Dr. Marqui Rennalls, PT, DPT of It’s Private Practice Physical Therapy, confirms a few of the health benefits associated with masturbating:
1. It releases mood-elevating chemicals like endorphins and oxytocin, leading to stress release and better sleep.
2. It increases blood flow which keeps the tissue involved healthy.
3. It could prevent some severe symptoms of menopause.
4. It could keep prostates healthy and lower the risk of prostate cancer.
Queen also writes in her book, The Sex & Pleasure Book, "Masturbating has been linked to better immunological function, release of mood-boosting body chemicals, pelvic floor health, and prevention of vaginal infections."
With all these great benefits, it’s no wonder so many in the world get busy with themselves. The Kinsey Institute at the University of Indiana conducts the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, which showed in 2010, “More than half of women ages 18 to 49 reported masturbating during the previous 90 days” with the highest rates among 25- to 29-year-olds. Due to shame and stigma around the topic, it’s possible that people under report how often they really masturbate, meaning it’s more common than people think.
Despite the health benefits of solo play, some folks are still nervous to touch their genitals. They may just not be into manually stimulating themselves, which is totally okay! Overall, it’s a great way to get better acquainted with your anatomy and sexual desires, and can help someone feel more comfortable communicating their wants and needs with a partner.
What happens if someone walks in on you masturbating?
Some people feel intense shame and guilt in these situations, but sexual desire is a natural physiological need. It’s almost the same as someone walking in on you in a bathroom stall — there’s a brief “Oops, I’m sorry!” and the person leaves as quickly as they can because they likely feel as awkward as you do.
While we may not all have been taught that masturbation is common, we are all sexual beings who deserve privacy when we take care of our very normal physiological needs. If you’re feeling particularly educational and outgoing after being walked in on, maybe by a housemate, you could normalize the situation by saying, “I was just relieving stress — it’s been a rough week. Next time you can knock or just text me!”
The level of awkwardness or discomfort might increase if it’s a family member, or someone who has conservative beliefs and values around masturbation. Depending on your relationship with them, you could ask them to respect your privacy or let them know that you don’t see it as a shameful practice. You may even choose to avoid the conversation altogether if you know it won’t go well.
If you’re a parent who walks in on your child masturbating, you might not know what to say at first. You can always apologize, leave, and have a calm and non-judgemental conversation with your child later where you address privacy, for instance, “It’s okay to touch yourself when no one else is around, like in the bathroom or your bedroom.” Depending on their age, this might even be a good time to talk further about boundaries, for example, “Remember, this is something a lot of people do, but no one should touch you there without your permission.”
Masturbation is a normal and healthy practice, and it’s up to YOU to decide what your personal beliefs are, and weigh those against your own levels of desire and the many health benefits associated with addressing your natural physiological needs as a sexual being.