Multi-colored dildos and vibrators continue to grow in sales, to the surprise of no one. The 21st century’s hypersexual climate has made for innovative sex toys and popularization of erotic novels. Yet somehow female masturbation remains a taboo topic. If society has become so comfortable with sex in popular culture, why is this aspect of female sexuality still repressed? Well, if we actually talked about it, we might discover female masturbation is as beneficial as it is pleasurable.

Childhood Years

From a young age, we’re slapped on the hand whenever we show curiosity about our bodies. While eating and sleeping are innate, sex, specifically masturbation, is perceived as something “forbidden.”

"When a young preschooler is caught with their hands near their genitals, parents and teachers often have a reflexive response 'don't do that,' so the message given to the child is it's naughty, it's shameful, it's forbidden," said Dr. Fran Walfish, Beverly Hills psychotherapist, author of The Self-Aware Parent, and expert panelist on WE TV’s Sex Box. "Kids learn very young to hide and do it under the covers and under the table."

Although Western society fixates on shielding children from sexual knowledge they may pick up in films, for example, the reality is that sexuality is also part of growing up. In fact, masturbation is actually a common childhood habit, where both boys and girls begin to play with their genitals by 5 to 6 years old. By age 15, almost 100 percent of boys and 25 percent of girls have masturbated to the point of orgasm. Moreover, prenatal ultrasounds have shown male fetuses begin masturbation even before birth.

A little girl's leg hopping on a swing. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

As children reach adolescence, social acceptance of masturbation between genders becomes more defined; boys engage in it and talk about it, while girls discuss it far less. The difference has to do with not only with the influence of caregivers, but the granted societal permission for males to be overtly sexual beings.

April Masini, relationship expert and author, acknowledges the need to start a dialogue, since female masturbation just wasn’t discussed in previous generations. “Bringing it out in the open allows everyone to consider what it means to society, relationships, and individuals. Writing and talking about it encourages discussion and airing of viewpoints that might have otherwise been repressed,” she said.

Adult Years

When men and women finally reach adulthood, solo sex becomes increasingly more common, but society’s early influence carries into these years, impacting the frequency of each gender’s alone time. So while the male rate of adult masturbation is about 95 to 99 percent, only 40 to 60 percent of women do it. Those between the ages of 25 to 29 engage in female masturbation at a higher rate per month than all other age groups.

This coincides with the change from high school to college, where there’s now permission and space for sexual honesty. The tone shifts from whether or not you masturbate to how often you masturbate and what you use to climax. This period of experimentation finally gives women the “OK” to go ahead and explore their bodies, or at least that’s how most girls feel.

A 2002 study published in the Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality examined the frequency of masturbation in the past three months and age at initiation of masturbation for undergraduates who completed an anonymous survey. Social norms and lifetime number of sex partners predicted the frequency of masturbation for women, while for men, the frequency was predicted by perceived social norms supporting this behavior. Undergrad women were found to masturbate an average of 4.7 times per month.

Apps like HappyPlayTime, which encourage women to touch themselves more often by giving them anatomy lessons and techniques, can help increase the frequency in which women masturbate. The app helps many women and girls to become more comfortable with their bodies by guiding them how to stimulate themselves without the presence of a sexual partner. It gives women power over their own sexual pleasure, which defies the societal dichotomy of women needing a man to find real fulfillment in life and in sex.

Dildos, vibrators, and apps defy social constructs that men are the only outlets for female sexual pleasure. A woman’s ability to self-pleasure herself within the confines of her own bedroom not only gives her knowledge but power over her body and a means of sexual gratification.

“We live in a culture that frames sex as a tool of pleasure for men and power for women. Female self-pleasure defies this dichotomy,” said Dr. Jess O’Reilly, a sexuality counselor with a Ph.D. in sex education and Astroglide's Resident Sexologist.

Self-Love In A Relationship

Once a woman embraces the act of self-love, it’s easier for her to reap the benefits of it. This includes cultivating a healthy sexual relationship with a partner. Masturbation allows women to take ownership of their bodies, so that instead of depending on a man (or woman) to discover what pleases them, they already know what they like and can help their partner navigate.

The legs of a woman in bed. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

“Most men have a harder time figuring out a woman’s body because it’s more complicated, than they do their own, so now not only does a woman not know a lot about herself, but the guy she’s hoping will give her pleasure, doesn’t either,” Masini said.

Women become their own source of pleasure when they achieve this alone, even if in a relationship. Masturbation is not a replacement for sexual intercourse, but rather an integral behavior for single women and couples who already have satisfying sex lives.

“Often women masturbate in the nude or with less clothing,” Walfish said, “and that adds to the feeling of being sexy and sensual.”                        

A 1991 study published in the Journal of Sex Education & Therapy found masturbation does not threaten a relation, but is rather healthy. Married women in the study who masturbated to orgasm had greater marital and sexual satisfaction than women who did not masturbate.

Dr. Jason James, board certified OB/GYN in private practice in Miami, Fla., and chairman of the department of OB/GYN at Baptist Hospital of Miami, believes it is very important for a woman to develop a degree of comfort with her body, with her anatomy, in order to maximize pleasure during intercourse and other sexual relations.

“Often women complain of inability to orgasm during sex with their partner.” he said. “One of the first questions I will ask is whether they can orgasm during masturbation. I firmly believe that a woman must first know how to please herself before she can truly instruct her partner how to please her.”

Beyond The Bedroom

So if self-love can rev up a woman’s libido and contribute to a healthy relationship, what exactly does it do outside the bedroom?

Masturbation is a mentally and physically healthy activity, since women often orgasm during self stimulation. A survey conducted by author Carol Rinkleib Ellison for the book Women's Sexualities: Generations of Women Share Intimate Secrets of Sexual Self-Acceptance found over 2,000 women, from teens to their 90s, reported masturbating to relax, get sleep, and to even relieve menstrual cramps. This is because masturbation increases oxytocin levels during the height of pleasure.

The physical act of masturbation directly stimulates several areas of the brain, according to Dr. William Kolbe, author of The Rejuvenating Power of Masturbation. These areas include the emotional, visual, and sexual arousal and activity areas.

The “cloud nine” feeling felt during sex or masturbation is linked to the nerves sent to the brain’s pleasure center, or reward circuit. The sexual arousal felt in the body floods the brain with neurochemicals that forge emotions, feelings of attachment, and even love. The level of pleasure and euphoria is based on the release of these chemicals that can be used to measure the intensity of a climax. In other words, orgasm is a way of activating pleasure in the brain, which some women report leads to a boost in self-esteem and positive body image.  

“Mentally and spiritually, masturbation stimulates the production of endorphins involved in feelings of well-being, joie de vivre, and euphoria,” Kolbe said. “Self-love enables people to accept themselves and know themselves sexually, ultimately producing deep and lasting sentiments of contentment, gratification, and joy.”

And shouldn’t self-love be about feeling good?