Solo sex still carries a stigma, even though it has real health benefits and is gaining major visibility in pop culture. We reached out to researchers and activists to find out why.

Danielle Friedman
August 16, 2017

After centuries of being treated as the act that shall not be spoken of, female masturbation is finally shaking off some of its cultural baggage.

Broad City’s Ilana Glazer and Insecure’s Issa Rae have casually sought out ménage à moi on screen. Actress-turned-singer Hailee Steinfeld praises solo sex in her breakup ballad “Love Myself.” And in this month’s Bust magazine, Jane the Virgin star Gina Rodriguez publicly laments that she once felt guilty about self-love. The message is clear: Everybody’s doing it. Right? Well, not everybody.

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In a new national survey, roughly one in five women say they have never masturbated in their lifetime. Never ever. Which is notable, given that masturbation is not only the safest kind of sex, but it also promises health benefits from better sleep to less painful menstrual cramps—and it can empower women to better understand their sexuality. So, why aren’t more women lending themselves a hand?

For the survey, titled Sexual Diversity in the United States, researchers at Indiana University polled 2,000 men and women between the ages of 18 and 91 about their interest and participation in more than 50 sexual behaviors, from anal sex to public sex to spanking. The survey was conducted anonymously and confidentially. While about 64% of men and 40.8% of women reported masturbating in the last month, 8.2% of men and 21.8% of women said they’d never done it. And these numbers jibe with previous research.

“The majority of women have done it,” the report’s lead author, Debby Herbenick, PhD, tells Health. But “a lot of women are still raised with the idea that it makes you ‘slutty’ or ‘oversexed’ in some way to be interested in sexual pleasure.”

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The survey didn’t ask participants to qualify their responses, but sexual health professionals have a few theories about why many women have never gone (down) there—and practical advice for women interested in making a maiden voyage.

First, there’s the stigma. Broad City’s Glazer may luxuriate in an evening of solo sex—lighting a candle, shucking an oyster, turning on a slow jam—but pop-culture depictions of women masturbating just because are still relatively new.

Until recently, even acknowledging that some women masturbate as an ordinary self-care ritual akin to, say, going to the gym or treating themselves to a manicure has felt transgressive. In a 2002 study exploring how college students talk with their friends about sex, female students “reported more communication overall than did males on all topics, except for masturbation.”

And as recently as 2013, the writer Ann Friedman suggested in New York’s The Cut that masturbation is the last sex taboo for women, pointing out that in too many popular portrayals (think: this scene in 2005’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin), “It’s something bad girls do, not something every girl does.”

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Women’s perceptions of masturbation vary across the country, too. “Some women think that pretty much every woman masturbates, and others who are in more conservative friend groups would think that far fewer women masturbate,” says Herbenick. “So a lot of it depends on where you live and who you’re friends with.”

Considering these reasons, it’s no surprise some women feel hesitant—or ashamed—to masturbate. Especially older women. After the actress Beth Grant was asked to deliver a joke on The Mindy Project about self-love ("I masturbate all the time," her character, Nurse Beverly, tells her coworkers. "I did during this discussion!"), the then-65-year-old told Cosmopolitan, "I'm from a generation where you don't talk about masturbating. . . . Certainly you don't do it, or if you do, it is a deep, dark secret.” Speaking openly about it, she said, felt liberating.

For many religious women (and men), masturbation isn’t just stigmatized—it’s forbidden. Conservative Christian denominations, Catholicism, some Muslim communities, and other religious groups consider masturbation a sin, teaching that sexual pleasure should only exist between a husband and a wife. “Generally, people who go to religious services more than once a week tend to be less likely to masturbate, less likely to use vibrators,” says Herbenick.

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When devout members of religions that ban masturbation do engage in it, they often suffer from feelings of intense shame, Karen Beale, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Maryville College who studies the relationship between religion, sex, and guilt, tells Health in an email.

Perhaps more than anything, though, women are simply under-educated about masturbation. High school sex ed classes very rarely teach students about the anatomy of the vagina—or clitoris—or even mention pleasure. Parents, too, have a tough time navigating the how-tos of self-love with their daughters. “Most women don’t recall any conversation between themselves and their parents about female masturbation,” says Herbenick.

This lack of dialogue leaves many women feeling clueless. “These really smart, successful, super-accomplished women would come into my office and say, ‘I’ve never really masturbated, and I feel very embarrassed. I should have figured it out, but I haven’t.’ I saw this over and over again in my practice,” said Vanessa Marin, a sex therapist based in Los Angeles. “We need to create more resources for women who are struggling in this area. The main reason women give for not doing it is, I don’t know how.”

Marin stresses that learning how to masturbate can have a real, positive impact on women’s lives. “There are so, so many different benefits of masturbation for women,” she said, from decreased anxiety levels to increased immune response. It helps you learn what you want from a partner—and means you don’t need a partner. “I also think the process of learning how to bring your body pleasure is one of the most empowering experiences you can have,” adds Marin.

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To help women who no longer want to be the “one in five,” Marin created an online course wryly called Finishing School, through which she helps women all over the country learn how to masturbate and orgasm. Bottom line, she says? You’re never too old to try your hand. And don’t worry about whether you’re doing it the “right way”—start by just doing what feels good and adjust from there. (For more guidance, you can check out her free orgasm workshop.)

The dearth of resources also inspired sex-positivity activist and photographer Lydia Daniller to co-create OMGYes, an award-winning interactive site where real women demonstrate—on themselves—various paths to orgasm. Since Daniller and her team of researchers, filmmakers, engineers, designers, educators, and sexologists launched the platform in 2015, it’s been embraced as revolutionary. (Herbenick is one of her collaborators.)

“Female pleasure has carried a stigma for a long time—but what's exciting is that things are shifting,” Daniller said in an email. “People are hungry for more factual and realistic information about sexual pleasure.”

Masturbation isn’t for everybody, and not every woman who tries it will be into it. But it’s worth remembering: Our culture has a long history of struggling to accept the reality that women enjoy sex as much as men do—and that women can satisfy their desire on their own. The more our culture encourages women to enjoy the pleasure of their own company, the more attitudes will change. As Daniller put it, “We think the current taboo around women's sexual pleasure will seem absurd to people in the future.”