Give Yourself A Hand!

Our guest writer is a UNC graduate student in public health who focuses on sexual health and the social factors that influence it.


I was 16, out renting a movie with some friends. Somehow, the topic came up, and before I knew it, the question was pointed directly at me, like a loaded barrel: “Do you masturbate?” Oh, the shock, the embarrassment! But mostly, I was embarrassed because I didn’t really know what masturbation meant – for women, anyway.

As it turns out, I was not alone in my cluelessness. In 2009, a national survey of adolescents found that only 52% of 16-17 year-old girls had ever masturbated, in contrast to 79% of males of the same age. The decision of whether or not to masturbate is a personal one, but it’s a topic young women don’t always have the opportunity to discuss. Thus, I’m here to impart some of the what, why and how of that timeless tradition of self-pleasure. And while I hope these musings are of general interest, I especially dedicate these posts to the female-bodied members of the UNC campus community.


“If prostitution is the world’s oldest profession, then surely masturbation is the world’s oldest avocation,” writes researcher Steven D. Pinkerton from Medical College of Wisconsin. Indeed, evidence of female masturbation dates back to the Stone Age. Ancient Grecian art portrays women masturbating using dildos. Further down the line, however, masturbation was condemned as a behavior with ruinous consequences. In 18th century Europe, a widely-circulated treatise entitled Onania insisted that women who masturbated suffered from imbecility, hysterical fits, and barrenness. The very word “masturbation” is thought to stem from the Latin manstuprare: “to defile oneself by hand.”


While human sexuality research has made leaps and bounds in debunking myths about the harms of masturbation, the topic hasn’t lost its controversial edge. Many religions across the world prohibit or frown upon masturbation, but female masturbation is less often explicitly addressed. And it was only in 1994 that U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders was dismissed after she suggested that masturbation be promoted among adolescents as a means of reducing riskier sexual behaviors.

Dr. Elders had a point. Like intercourse, masturbation is often accompanied by intense physical pleasure that climaxes in sexual orgasm, but it carries no risk of unintended pregnancy or spreading sexually transmitted infections. Furthermore, masturbation has been linked to a number of potential health benefits. Masturbation resulting in orgasm can lead to a flushing of the cervix and vagina, which can reduce the presence of infection-causing organisms. It can aid in relieving painful menstruation. Arousal and orgasm trigger the release of dopamine, endorphins and oxytocin in the body, which can contribute to improved mood, decreased stress, and even boosts in learning and memory. Finally, masturbation strengthens pelvic floor muscles, which improves sexual stamina and can increase pleasure during intercourse.

That’s right! The perks of masturbation extend into your sexual relationships, current or future. Whether you are single or are intimately involved, masturbation can be a healthy part of your sex life. Stay tuned for Part Two of this post, which will explore the physiology of arousal and masturbation, the broad range of masturbatory practices among women, and a few how-to’s from some of my friends around the country who share my conviction that your greatest resource for sexual pleasure is YOU.


Get your sexual health knowledge on by taking part in World AIDS Day on November 30. FREE rapid HIV testing will be offered from 11 AM – 5 PM in the Carolina Student Union. The event is open to UNC students, faculty staff, and the greater community.


Pinkerton SD, Bogart LM, Cecil H et al. “Factors Associated with Masturbation in a College Sample.” 2003.
Herbenick D, Reece M, Schick V et al. “Sexual Behavior in the United States: Results from a National Probability Sample of Men and Women Ages 14-94.” 2010.
Taylor T. The Prehistory of Sex: Four Million Years of Human Sexual Culture. 1997.
MacDonald RH. “The Frightful Consequences of Onanism: Notes on the History of a Delusion.” 1967.
Levin RJ. “Sexual Activity, health and well-being – the beneficial roles of coitus and masturbation.” 2007.

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