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; you won’t be left behind while everybody else runs around on the Touching Themselves Train.) But what's actually happening in your body when you masturbate? And is it substantively different than what goes on when you have sex with a partner?
Masturbation has gotten a bad 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.) 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’s going on, from cervical "flushing" to an over-active prefrontal cortex. If you’re wondering what happens when you masturbate or why your vagina hurts after masturbating, this is the guide to all the action.
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. And what happens after you masturbate can be just as interesting as what happens during.
1. You Get The Classic Signs Of Sexual Arousal
Dr. Christine Greves M.D., an OB-GYN at Orlando Health Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies, tells Bustle that giving yourself sexual pleasure has many effects on your body. 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, but the reactions actually reach from your head to your toes.
Arousal during masturbation will cause everything from a quicker pulse to the rearrangement of the cervix 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 provide pleasure, pain relief, and a lasting sense of happiness. When you hit the big O, your brain will feel it: a 2020 study published in All Life found that orgasm can produce an intense collection of neurohormones, including oxytocin, endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine, and Dr. Greves says they’re a key part of that toe-curling pleasure.
2. The Imagination Center Of Your Brain Switches On
Scientists are 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 partnered sex and solo masturbation. And a lot of it seems to be involved with fantasy and your brain's capacity for imagination.
Back in 2011, New Scientist reported on two competing studies documenting the brain at the moment of orgasm, which seemed to show two very different patterns. So far, so confusing. 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.
The brain seemed to react differently to the solo adventure. During masturbation, the female brain's prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with creative thinking, turns up the volume. In the case of partnered sex, it seemed that certain elements of it actually turned off, specifically the part that’s 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.
This intense cocktail of brain activity may lead you feel as if you’ve just come from a day at the spa. “The short release of endorphins may provide stress relief, and positive feelings may come because endorphins are neurotransmitters that do just that,” Dr. Greves says. As well as being extremely distracting, she says, this neurochemical cocktail may make your worries float away.
The whole of your brain gets involved with this feeling. A study published in Journal of Sexual Medicine in 2017 found that self-induced orgasms (done by women on their own) stimulated a whole plethora of brain regions, including the sensory areas, the bits that give you feelings of reward, those related to memory, and even the brain stem.
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 which can 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 1985 study from Rutgers University found that women who were 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% and their ability to detect pain increased by 106.7%. The 2017 Journal of Sexual Medicine study confirmed this, and found that the pain relief of self-induced orgasms likely has to do with all the brain regions it lights up. When you’re orgasming, your brain produces serotonin, which helps with pain. The 1985 researchers thought pain thresholds rose because the female brain ‘went to sleep’ during orgasm, but it turns out it’s actually very awake, working to block off any aches.
4. Your Clitoris Enlarges
When you get aroused, your clitoris — which is actually a pretty sizable organ that stretches away from that tiny visible nubbin at the top of your vulva into two ‘wings’ either side — becomes enlarged. “The enlargement occurs because the clitoris has more blood flowing to it, otherwise known as engorgement,” Dr. Greves says. This is also why it becomes so much more sensitive during sex or masturbation, even if it doesn’t usually respond too much. This is what leads to the phenomenon so memorably described in The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt as "your crotch getting a headache." It’s also why your vagina can hurt after masturbating — because of the after-effects of the swelling and sensitivity.
5. You Might Flush Your Cervix & Prevent Infections
Interestingly, female masturbation also seems to lower the possibility of vaginal and urinary tract infections. It clears out accumulated bacteria in the vagina through a process called "tenting," which is where your cervix withdraws a bit and your uterus retracts. It’s designed to expand the vaginal cavity, and give sperm the chance to mix with your vaginal fluids before heading straight towards an egg — a necessary stop-over if they want to fertilize anything. It also means that the cervix opens and flushes out, potentially getting rid of any nasties that could cause you infections. The cervix actually does this throughout your menstrual cycle, not just during masturbation or sex.
6. 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 good shape.
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.
It’s not just your pelvic floor that will start to tense. “Other muscles may become tense to prepare for the orgasm,” Dr. Greves says. That includes your leg and stomach muscles. Heck of a way to get a six pack.
Dr. Christina Greves M.D.
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