Many experts recommend that adults learn how to masturbate for a whole host of reasons: it helps you learn about your own body, it means you don't have to rely on a partner for sexual stimulation and orgasm, and it has a reputation for being a stress-buster and general health boost. (It's also cool if you don't masturbate, of course; not masturbating is also perfectly normal and healthy, so don't feel as if you're being left behind while everybody else runs around on the Touching Themselves Train.) But what's actually happening in your body and your brain while you're stimulating yourself? And is it substantively different than what goes on when you have sex with a partner?
Masturbation has had a particularly difficult reputation over the years; humans have been warned away from it by threats of hairy palms, madness and going blind. (No, none of this is true.) And the notion that women in particular were sufficiently sexual to want to touch themselves didn't really pop up uniformly in Western history until pretty recently; let's not forget the bizarre period in Victorian medicine where women were vibrated to orgasm by doctors to cure them of "hysteria" and "nervous complaints." So it's perhaps unsurprising that, when it comes to certain parts of the science of female masturbation, we're lacking information; it continues to be a taboo topic for many. But we have enough to put together a very interesting picture of what it does to you, from cervical "flushing" to an over-active prefrontal cortex.
I doubt any of these facts will be running through your mind next time you book a quiet night home with your favorite toy and/or erotic novel; you'll surely have other things to think about. But rest assured that your body's doing some pretty interesting things while you're otherwise occupied.
1. You Get The Classic Signs Of Sexual Arousal
Arousal in the case of masturbation isn't substantively different from arousal in sex with partners; your body reacts in the same way. The most obvious reaction to arousal is the vagina lubricating and clitoris hardening with blood (the phenomenon so memorably described in The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt as "your crotch getting a headache"); but the reactions actually reach from your head to your toes.
Arousal during masturbation will cause everything from muscle tension to a quicker pulse and the rearrangement of the uterus inside the body, retracting slightly in order to help penetration (useful if you're using a toy). And the brain's reward circuit is being bombarded with pleasurable messages, with positive neurochemicals swilling around to prompt some serious mental highs.
2. The Imagination Center Of Your Brain Switches On
Arousal and orgasm light up the brain like a firework: the hippocampus, amygdala, cerebellum and hypothalamus combine to get you to your peak. But that's not all. We're gradually beginning to understand that (in the female brain at least) the mental patterns of arousal and stimulation visible in the brain actually differ between partner sex and solo masturbation. And a lot of it seems to be involved with fantasy and our brain's capacity for imagination.
Back in 2011, New Scientist reported on two competing studies documenting the female brain at the moment of orgasm, which seemed seemed to indicate two very different things. But it turned out that the studies had one crucial difference: in one, the subjects were being aroused by their partners, while in the other they were solely responsible for their good vibes, as it were.
And the brain seemed to react differently to the solo adventure. In masturbation, the female brain's prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain heavily associated with creative thinking (you can actually zap it with electricity to spark some imagination), turns up the volume. In the case of partner sex, it seemed that certain elements of it actually turned off, specifically the part that seems responsible for self-control. If you're on your own, your brain's doing some heavy lifting to make that fantasy of Michael B. Jordan in a fireman's outfit work overtime for you.
3. Your Pain Threshold Rises Significantly
There are significant benefits to masturbation, and you may have heard that the particular chemical cocktail released by an orgasm can help menstrual cramps (though orgasm also involves muscle contraction in the genitals, so it may also make things worse). But it turns out that masturbation specifically does something particularly interesting to your body: you become much less sensitive to pain while you're doing it.
A now-famous 1985 study from Rutgers University found that women who were self-stimulating themselves to orgasm with a specially designed vaginal toy became much more capable of dealing with pain as well as detecting it. While they were masturbating, pain tolerance increased by 74.6 percent and their ability to detect pain increased by 106.7 percent. Whether this applies to masturbation only is unclear (pain thresholds are likely lowered during partner sex, as well), but either way, it's a pretty remarkable side effect.
4. You Flush The Cervix And Prevent Infections
Interestingly, female masturbation also seems to have the benefit of lowering the possibility of vaginal and urinary tract infections through clearing out accumulated bacteria in the vagina through a process called "tenting," a function during arousal wherein the uterus is drawn upwards and the cervix withdraws a bit. The obstetrician Dr. Jacquelyn Paykel explains on her website:
"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."
5. You Strengthen Your Pelvic Floor
Pelvic muscle tone is a big deal; a strong pelvic floor will help your core and help prevent incontinence (it's the pelvic floor muscles that you squeeze when you're preventing yourself from going to the toilet). And it turns out that the contractions involved in arousal and orgasm — whether they're achieved masturbating or with a partner — are an excellent way to keep them in fine fettle.
Marie Stopes, the female healthcare organization, points out that it's a self-fulfilling cycle: masturbation or sex leads to stronger muscles, which leads to more sexual control and better enjoyment, which leads to more sex, and so on and so on. Keeping those muscles strong is also a good way to ensure you're less at risk of uterine or bladder prolapse, where the muscles of the pelvic area fail to be able to support their surrounding organs.
6. It Won't Make You Ill
There's a misconception that masturbation, in particular male masturbation, can increase risk of illness or lower the immune system, because it involves the expulsion of trace minerals essential to immune functioning from the body. This one's a myth, though; the amount of anything contained in semen or vaginal fluid is so small that it's unlikely to cause your body any distress when it's gone, and the exertion of masturbating is unlikely to have any ill effects (unless you're doing it naked outside in sub-zero temperatures or something).
Plus, in the case of dudes at least, masturbation is increasingly being shown to help with immune functioning; a 2004 study found that masturbating young men raised their levels of leukocytes, a key part of the body's immune system. We're not entirely sure whether there are any plus sides to female masturbation in this particular, but research is likely ongoing, so don't be surprised if you see a headline about how paddling your own canoe can add years to your life in the near future.