At Women's Health Network, we’ve long recognized how important a healthy sex life is to a woman’s health and well-being. One of the greatest things we can offer women is straight talk about their health — even on subjects that make some women uncomfortable.
This may include questions like, “How’s your sex life? Is your sex life enjoyable? Are you happy with it? Are you the one who initiates sex? Are you able to orgasm?” We are delighted by how candid women can be when given the opportunity. Many women say they are able to reach orgasm by themselves. Other women are not comfortable with masturbation, let alone talking about it. Our goal is to meet women where they are, and to offer information and insight into as wide a range of health topics as possible.
Masturbation is an important means of knowing ourselves physically and emotionally. Research shows that women who masturbate are more likely to have fulfilling sex lives, better health, better marriages, and an overall increase in self-confidence. Now there’s a sales pitch.
We understand that masturbation is a delicate issue, and the idea of “self-cultivation” may be a difficult one to broach. Shame and guilt have been associated with masturbation for centuries. It often evokes powerful responses. It is worthwhile to explore women’s emotions as well as the information, research, and beliefs we have about healthy sexual practices.
The orgasm demystified
Myths about the female orgasm abound: A woman needs a man to feel sexually fulfilled; The vaginal orgasm is the true orgasm; The perfect orgasm is one in concert with your partner; and Orgasm only happens through intercourse. These myths do not accurately reflect women’s experiences.
Over 70% of women who are sexually active report not having vaginal orgasms during intercourse. This statistic indicates that there may be as many ways to get there as there are women. What is certain, however, is that the vagina and the clitoris are the central physical players. What we tend to overlook is that emotional factors are as important as the physical ones.
The clitoris — a brief anatomy lesson
The clitoris gets a lot of press as the sure way to female orgasm. This thinking is evolving, even though the sole function of the clitoris is pleasure. What many women think of as the “button” of the clitoris, or the glans, is merely the tip of the iceberg. The part of the clitoris that is visible to the eye is but a fraction of the whole organ. The tissue that makes up the clitoris is actually about 3.5 inches long and contains 8000 nerve fibers that extend into the entire pelvic region, including the vaginal walls.
The word “clitoris” comes from the Greek word kleitoris, meaning “little hill,” but as you can see, the clitoris isn’t little at all. Connected to what most of us know as the “button” are two long and large bulbs which encircle the vagina and the urethra. The clitoris becomes stimulated when a woman is aroused, either directly by stimulating the tip of the clitoris or any part of your body, or indirectly by reading a romance novel, thinking about your lover, feeling your partner’s embrace, or even just enjoying an intimate conversation. When aroused, blood surges into the clitoral bulbs, making the entire region around the vagina responsive to sexual pleasure.
Until recently, the only way that scientists were able to see the clitoris was by examining dead clitoral tissue. Using MRI technology, noted Australian urologist Dr. Helen O’Connell has been able to study the clitoris. Her findings reveal that clitoral tissue swells and responds to sexual pleasure when a woman is aroused — more than was previously believed. Because of these findings, Dr. O’Connell relates the roots of the clitoris, and the erectile tissue of the clitoral bulbs, with the urethra and vagina. In other words, she says, “The vaginal wall is, in fact, the clitoris.” Simply stated, stimulating the clitoris increases the sensitivity of the vaginal walls, and stimulating the vaginal walls arouses the clitoris.
Dr. O’Connell’s findings are particularly fascinating because they reveal the connection between vaginal and clitoral stimulation. This explains why so few women report experiencing “vaginal” orgasms, and can help us better define the elusive G-spot.
The vagina and the clitoris — a relationship of 8,000 nerve endings
In her book Woman, Natalie Angier offers a definition of the G-spot. When a woman says she’s experienced a “vaginal” orgasm, says Angier, she might have actually had an orgasm from arousing some nerve endings of the clitoris that reach deeply around the vagina. “In other words,” says Angier, “the G spot may be nothing more than the back end of the clitoris.”
Each woman’s clitoris and pattern of 8000 nerve fibers varies because of physiological individuality. This makes each woman’s clitoris one of a kind, therefore explaining women’s varied experience of orgasm. Other factors are at play here too, including circulation in the pelvic region. Stimulating the vagina, clitoris, or G-spot may very well be stimulation, one and the same.
Perhaps the most wonderful news is that understanding our anatomy gives us reason and opportunity to fulfill our sexual selves both emotionally and physically. Freud argued that clitoral orgasms were “adolescent,” and only “mature” women experienced vaginal orgasms. Women now have the information and power to feel sexually fulfilled independently, if we choose.
The health benefits of masturbation
Generally speaking, women have been socialized to believe our sexual needs and desires are less important than those of our partners. It is in our physical and emotional best interest to give our own needs and desires a seat at the table. Because of cultural taboos, many women feel that the urge to masturbate is somehow wrong, or they feel guilt or shame. There is enormous potential for healing through honoring our sexuality, expressing it, and experiencing it with joy.
The reality is that women who “self-cultivate” experience a wide range of health benefits, and here are just a few:
- Masturbation helps prevent cervical infections and helps relieve urinary tract infections. While it’s general knowledge that regular masturbation can reduce the risk of prostate cancer in men, studies are showing that female masturbation can also provide protection against cervical infections because when women masturbate, the orgasm “tents” or opens the cervix.
In her book Sex: A Natural History, Joann Ellison Rodgers describes how the process of tenting stretches and pulls the mucous within the cervix, allowing for a rise in acidity in the cervical fluid. This increases “friendly” bacteria and allows more fluid to move from the cervix into the vagina. When“old” fluid moves from the tented cervix, it not only lubricates the vagina, but also flushes out unfriendly organisms that can cause infections.
Many women with urinary tract infections report the desire to masturbate when they feel a UTI coming on, and for a good reason: masturbating helps relieve pain and it flushes the old bacteria from the cervix. It’s the body’s way of getting the bacteria out.
- Masturbation is associated with improved cardiovascular health and lower risk of type-2 diabetes. In a number of studies, women who experienced more orgasms, and overall greater frequency and satisfaction with sex — whether with a partner or not — were shown to have greater resistance to coronary heart disease (CHD) and type-2 diabetes.
- Masturbation can help work against insomnia naturally, through hormonal and tension release. Many women masturbate as a means to wind down after a hectic day or to fall asleep at night, but they often don’t know that there’s a hormonal reason why it works. Dopamine, or the “feel-good” hormone, is on the rise during the anticipation of a sexual climax. After the climax, the calming hormones oxytocin and endorphins are released, making us feel the warm afterglow that helps us sleep.
- Orgasm increases pelvic floor strength. There are so many benefits to having a healthy pelvic floor. In the “plateau” stage of orgasm, the pelvic floor gets a real workout. The clitoris surges with increased blood pressure. Muscle tone, heart rate, and respirations increase. The uterus “lifts” off the pelvic floor, increasing pelvic muscle tension. This strengthens the entire region, as well as your sexual satisfaction.
Psychological and emotional benefits of masturbation
Women most often cite fatigue as the reason for a decrease in, or loss of, libido. We haven’t met a tired woman yet who cares a bit about sex. Appropriately so, as a tired body is focused on taking care of itself. The second most common reason women say is that they have decreased interest in sex is their dissatisfaction with their appearance. Given the often unrealistic yet prevailing standards of American beauty, it is challenging for many women to feel attractive. Masturbation is one way to honor our sexuality conveniently and privately.
Because we are in control of our bodies when we masturbate, we can learn a lot about who we are. We can cultivate positive feelings about our miraculous bodies, giving us confidence from the inside out and the potential to heal any past negative sexual experiences.
These are all good reasons to reconsider our views on masturbation, but there are also several other reasons why masturbation can help us feel more confident and connected:
- Improves our mood. Masturbation helps relieve depressive emotions. As we become aroused, the hormone levels of dopamine and epinephrine soar in our bodies. Both of these hormones are mood-boosters. Many studies show that women who report personal satisfaction with their sex lives live a better quality of life overall.
- Relieves stress. In her book For Yourself, noted sex therapist Lonnie Barbach explains that the stress resulting from avoiding sex can create the kind of body imbalances we mentioned earlier. She writes that masturbation can help relieve emotional stress by taking time for ourselves, amidst the demands of home, family, and work.
- Strengthens our relationship with ourselves. When we know, love, and nurture ourselves on emotional and physical levels, we gain confidence and grow through self-awareness. Being able to recognize, articulate, and experience what brings pleasure is a powerful step toward fulfillment.
- Strengthens sexual relationship with partner. Many couples have different sexual drives and needs. Masturbation is one way to meet personal needs not met by a partner. It can be shared with a partner. Witnessing a partner masturbate can teach us what methods our partners use so we can learn what they enjoy. It can also open the lines of communication between partners who otherwise might be assuming that the “routine” is still working.
Many women say they feel as though they’ve somehow failed as a sexual partner if they don’t want to just “jump into intercourse” every night. Often men (thinking that women’s sexual needs and desires match their own) report feeling as though their wives or partners aren’t interested in them if they don’t immediately want to have sex. Understanding the fundamental, hormonal difference between the sexes, and communicating your desires, can lead to a wonderful sex life.
Many of the differences between male and female desire and arousal can be traced to the brain, the most powerful sex organ we have. For men, the hormones testosterone and arginine vasopressin (AVP) encourage sexual desire before sex to a higher degree than they do in women, who have fewer AVP receptors in the brain. It takes time for women’s hormone levels to rise before they become aroused. But after orgasm, our hormones function differently too.
As many women know, men often fall asleep after sex. There are hormonal reasons why this happens. Men release hormones when they ejaculate, including norepinephrine, serotonin, oxytocin, vasopressin, and prolactin — the release of prolactin specifically slows their “recovery time.” Conversely, women’s arousal time is slower but recovery is quick, thus making multiple orgasms possible for some women.
Sharing these differences with our male partners (if you have one) can help foster intimacy. Sharing desire is one of the deepest ways we can communicate and ultimately brings us closer to the ones we love.
At Women's Health Network, we believe healthy self-care is not limited to diet and exercise; it includes sexuality and “self-cultivation.” Masturbation is a way to learn about the connections between our minds and our bodies, and our relationships between ourselves and our partners. If exploring these connections interests you, we suggest planning some romantic time for yourself, whether it be lighting a candle, taking a bath or even reading an erotic book!
If you are not comfortable with masturbation, that is okay. The choice is completely up to you. The important thing is to know as much as you can about the many health benefits of masturbation, and understand that despite prevailing myths and taboos, for many women masturbation is a positive and healthy experience.
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