It’s funny how many people feel awkward talking about masturbation. Because of that awkwardness, there are also a lot of false beliefs concerning the pros and cons of masturbation.

Masturbation is simply the act of self-stimulation for sexual pleasure. There’s nothing mysterious or weird about it. In fact, although virtually nobody talks about it, most people have masturbated.

Masturbation is a completely normal behavior associated with our own sexuality. Whether done with or without the aid of a vibrator or other sex toy, when done in moderation, masturbation is a common, healthy sexual practice. Which people engage in this behavior depends upon their cultural and religious background.

In the U.S., studies show that masturbation is common.

In one study of 1,047 men, over 69 percent had reported masturbating in the past four weeks. Of those men, nearly 32 percent reported masturbating one-three times per week, 22 percent acknowledged doing so less than once per week, ten percent said they did it most days of the week, and five percent acknowledged doing it daily (Reece et al., 2009).

Among women, masturbation is less common, with only about 38 percent of women reporting they masturbated in the past month (ages 18-60), rising to about 63 percent when looking at the past year (ages 18-60; Herbenick et al., 2010). This same research found higher numbers in men ages 18-60 — just over 62 percent in the past month, rising to 79 percent when looking at the past year (Herbenick et al., 2010).

In teens ages 14-17 in the U.S., 74 percent of males and 48 percent of females reported ever having masturbated. When looking at just the past three months, that number drops to 58 percent for teen boys and 36 percent for teen girls (Kott, 2011).

In a British survey sample of 11,161 people from the early 2000s, just under 37 percent of women and 73 percent of men reported masturbating in the past four weeks (Gerressu et al., 2008).

There are virtually no negative consequences from masturbation, and in fact, many sexual health researchers and experts suggest it is a normal part of human sexuality that can have many benefits.

The myths that surround masturbation (or masturbating too frequently) include: automatic addiction, it’ll make regular partnered sex uninteresting, numbing of your sexual organs, causes infertility, or shrinks your genitals.

None of these are true.

Masturbation, however, does have many health benefits.

First and foremost, it is an important stress-reliever, helping to relax a person and take their mind off of other things. It also helps relieve sexual tension and can help strengthen your pelvic muscles. Some research has shown an improvement in a person’s self-image and self-esteem, as well as helping a person get a better night’s sleep.

Humans gain new skills through practice and knowledge. Masturbation helps a person gain positive sexual health skills by learning how your body responds and what you like sexually, without the complications of another person’s feelings or reactions influencing your own feelings and responses. Self-knowledge is important in every aspect of your life, and so naturally this includes your sexuality. If you know what works best for you sexually, there’ll be less confusion and fewer misunderstandings in future sexual encounters with others.

Ultimately, though, people masturbate because it feels good. For those who masturbate to orgasm (not everyone does!), it also provides a release of endorphins, the brain’s “feel good” hormones. And while it’s not uncommon, especially at an earlier age, to feel guilty about masturbating, that’s a feeling that’s often tangled up in the cultural or religious dogma we’ve been taught. Such guilt can be unlearned through practice and a reminder that you’re engaging in a normal, health, human behavior.

Masturbation is also both common and normal when a person is in a long- or short-term relationship — even marriage. There’s nothing wrong with masturbation in a relationship, unless one partner has a problem with this behavior. In that case, it may be helpful to learn why it’s okay and normal to masturbate in a relationship or marriage.

Most importantly, masturbating takes the pressure off of the relationship to meet all of the sexual needs of both partners, since partners — no matter how perfect they are for one another — rarely share the exact same sexual drives. Masturbation allows the more sexually active partner to release his or her own sexual tension without constantly requesting sex from their partner. This is empowering and can result in a healthier overall relationship.

Masturbation, like any human behavior, becomes a drawback in a person’s life when it’s done too frequently, or in an inappropriate manner (such as in public, or in front of non-consenting others). In terms of frequency, there’s no number that’s too often (although some might argue that masturbating multiple times a day, every day, for months on end is “too much”).

Instead, what therapists counsel is that when the behavior starts interfering and negatively impacting other areas of your life — or feels like a compulsion — it’s become a problematic behavior that needs attention. For instance, if you’re missing school or work due to your need to masturbate, that’s likely a problem. If you’re staying home rather than hanging out with friends all the time in order to masturbate, that’s likely a problem.

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Remember, masturbation is a normal, healthy human behavior.

Psychological research has shown for decades that this behavior improves most people’s sexual health and self-knowledge. Masturbation is rarely bad for a person, unless they’re doing it to the point of negatively impacting other areas of their life. And remember — not everyone masturbates. That’s okay too, because we all have different sexual needs and drives. Just remember that if you do choose to masturbate, it’s okay to do so without any long-term negative psychological consequences.