Does Masturbation Affect Mental Health?

Masturbation is a term that most commonly refers to a person stimulating their own genitals in order to become sexually aroused, and often, to achieve orgasm.

While the term masturbation is more widely used now than in the past, one study noted that "it is likely that individuals will differ substantially in terms of what behaviors they label as masturbation." Therefore, it's important to keep in mind that what constitutes as masturbation likely varies from person to person.

Perceptions of Masturbation

Despite how common masturbation is, it can still come with a great deal of stigma and shame. In a study of 72 students in a human sexuality class, it was found that how they perceived and felt about masturbation was a result of a variety of factors. These included: learning about masturbation, internalizing the "stigma and taboo" of masturbation, and finally, "coming to terms with this tension between stigma and pleasure."

Your ability to experience pleasure from masturbation may be limited by stigma. For instance, if you are taught that masturbation is a sinful act, those beliefs may inhibit you from engaging in it despite the potential benefit of sexual pleasure.

Sexual Empowerment of Masturbation

While masturbation can come with shame for some, it can also hold possibilities for sexual empowerment. One study reported that most women felt sexually empowered rather than ashamed by masturbation." Masturbation can offer a healthy approach for people to learn more about their bodies and how to enjoy sexual pleasure in a variety of ways.

Further research highlights the impacts of sexism and misogyny on one's ability to enjoy sexual pleasure with others, which is why masturbation may offer a rare opportunity for marginalized genders to meet their own needs.

In a 2016 study, eight women with physical disabilities were interviewed regarding their sexual experiences, sexual abuse, and the benefits of masturbation. Researchers found that "masturbation enabled participants to reconcile themselves to earlier negative experiences (e.g., sexual abuse) and to promote their sexual autonomy."

Especially in the context of physical disabilities and past sexual abuse, masturbation offers a relatively safe option for people to move forward from negative experiences and feel empowered to reclaim their bodies and enjoy sexual pleasure.

As the research demonstrates, masturbation can facilitate an opportunity for sexual empowerment.

How Masturbation Impacts Mental Health

As these studies on masturbation highlight, it can provide a variety of benefits, including sexual pleasure, joy, distraction, and even allowing for some people to reclaim their bodies following negative experiences like sexual abuse. These all reflect positive mental health impacts.

Especially for those who may have been raised to view their sexual pleasure as taboo, masturbation may provide a rare opportunity for them to get to know their bodies in a loving way. Like most things, your perception of an activity can impact your ability to engage in and enjoy it, so it can be helpful to unpack stigma regarding masturbation so that you may enjoy its benefits.

While masturbation is not inherently harmful, any activity should be reassessed if it has a substantial negative impact on your relationships or other areas of your life, as can be the case with any sexual behavior. This may be reflective of a sexual addiction, which may require treatment.

A Word From Verywell

Masturbation may include a variety of sexual acts to different people and can impact mental health in both positive and negative ways. Masturbation can be safely enjoyed individually or with partners.

If you find yourself feeling guilty following masturbation, it can be helpful to remind yourself that this is a healthy activity for sexual expression. If these negative emotions persist, it may be worth talking through with a trusted loved one or a therapist to unpack stigma or shame regarding masturbation.

There may be times when you cannot safely engage in physical activity with others for an extended period of time. Masturbation offers the benefits of sexual pleasure with your own body. Masturbation can be particularly helpful to relieve stress and provide orgasmic pleasure during times of uncertainty.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Kirschbaum A, Peterson Z. Would you say you “had masturbated” if … ?: The influence of situational and individual factors on labeling a behavior as masturbationJ Sex Res. 2017;55(2):263-272. doi:10.1080/00224499.2016.1269307

  2. Kaestle C, Allen K. The role of masturbation in healthy sexual development: Perceptions of young adultsArch Sex Behav. 2011;40(5):983-994. doi:10.1007/s10508-010-9722-0

  3. Bowman C. Women’s masturbation: Experiences of sexual empowerment in a primarily sex-positive samplePsychol Women Q. 2013;38(3):363-378. doi:10.1177/0361684313514855

  4. Fahs B, Frank E. Notes from the back room: Gender, power, and (in)visibility in women's experiences of masturbationJ Sex Res. 2013;51(3):241-252. doi:10.1080/00224499.2012.745474

  5. Morales E, Gauthier V, Edwards G, Courtois F. Women with disabilities’ perceptions of sexuality, sexual abuse and masturbationSex Disabil. 2016;34(3):303-314. doi:10.1007/s11195-016-9440-1

By Krystal Jagoo
 Krystal Kavita Jagoo is a social worker, committed to anti-oppressive practice.