Sexuality & fertility
Health benefits of self cultivation
By Carrie Levine, Certified Nurse Midwife
At Women to Women, we’ve long recognized how important a
healthy sex life is to a woman’s health and well-being. One of the
greatest things we can offer women at our clinic is straight talk about their health
— even on subjects that make some women uncomfortable.
As part of a physical exam, I will often ask questions like, “How’s
your sex life? Is your sex life enjoyable? Are you happy with it? Are you the one
who initiates sex? Are you able to orgasm?” I am delighted by how candid women
can be when given the opportunity. Many women tell me they are able to reach orgasm
by themselves. Other women are not comfortable with masturbation, let alone talking
about it. My goal is to meet women where they are, and to offer information and
insight into as wide a range of health topics as possible.
Recently the Oprah Winfrey show discussed how important
it is that women “self-cultivate” — or masturbate — as a
means of knowing ourselves physically and emotionally. Masturbation is the most
common form of sexuality, despite people’s inhibitions talking about it and
doing it. Research actually reports that women who masturbate are more likely to
have fulfilling sex lives, better health, better marriages, and an overall increase
in self-confidence. Now there’s a sales pitch.
I understand that masturbation is a delicate issue, and the idea of “self-cultivation”
may be a difficult one to broach. Shame and guilt have been associated with masturbation
for centuries. It often evokes powerful responses. It is worthwhile to explore women’s
emotions as well as the information, research, and beliefs we have about healthy
The orgasm demystified
Myths about the female orgasm abound: A woman needs a man to feel sexually fulfilled;
The vaginal orgasm is the true orgasm; The perfect orgasm is one in concert
with your partner; and Orgasm only happens through intercourse.
These myths do not accurately reflect women’s experiences.
Over 70% of women who are sexually active report not having vaginal orgasms during
intercourse. This statistic indicates that there may be as many ways to get there
as there are women. What is certain, however, is that the vagina and the clitoris
are the central physical players. What we tend to overlook is that emotional factors
are as important as the physical ones.
The clitoris — a brief anatomy lesson
The clitoris gets a lot of press as the sure way to female orgasm. This thinking
is evolving, even though the sole function of the clitoris is pleasure. What many
women think of as the “button” of the clitoris, or the glans,
is merely the tip of the iceberg. The part of the clitoris that is visible to the
eye is but a fraction of the whole organ. The tissue that makes up the clitoris
is actually about 3.5 inches long and contains 8000 nerve fibers that extend into
the entire pelvic region, including the vaginal walls.
The word “clitoris” comes from the Greek word kleitoris, meaning
“little hill,” but as you can see, the clitoris isn’t little at
all. Connected to what most of us know as the “button” are two long
and large bulbs which encircle the vagina and the urethra. The clitoris becomes
stimulated when a woman is aroused, either directly by stimulating the tip of the
clitoris or any part of your body, or indirectly by reading a romance novel, thinking
about your lover, feeling your partner’s embrace, or even just enjoying an
intimate conversation. When aroused, blood surges into the clitoral bulbs, making
the entire region around the vagina responsive to sexual pleasure.
Until recently, the only way that scientists were able to see the clitoris was by
examining dead clitoral tissue. Using MRI technology, noted Australian urologist
Dr. Helen O’Connell has been able to study the clitoris. Her findings reveal
that clitoral tissue swells and responds to sexual pleasure when a woman is aroused
— more than was previously believed. Because of these findings, Dr. O’Connell
relates the roots of the clitoris, and the erectile tissue of the clitoral bulbs,
with the urethra and vagina. In other words, she says, “The vaginal wall is,
in fact, the clitoris.” Simply stated, stimulating the clitoris increases
the sensitivity of the vaginal walls, and stimulating the vaginal walls arouses
Dr. O’Connell’s findings are particularly fascinating because they reveal
the connection between vaginal and clitoral stimulation. This explains why so few
women report experiencing “vaginal” orgasms, and can help us better
define the elusive G-spot.
The vagina and the clitoris — a relationship of 8,000 nerve
In her book Woman, Natalie Angier offers a definition
of the G-spot. When a woman says she’s experienced a “vaginal”
orgasm, says Angier, she might have actually had an orgasm from arousing some nerve
endings of the clitoris that reach deeply around the vagina. “In other words,”
says Angier, “the G spot may be nothing more than the back end of the clitoris.”
Each woman’s clitoris and pattern of 8000 nerve fibers varies because of physiological
individuality. This makes each woman’s clitoris one of a kind, therefore explaining
women’s varied experience of orgasm. Other factors are at play here too, including
circulation in the pelvic region. Stimulating the vagina, clitoris, or G-spot may
very well be stimulation, one and the same.
Perhaps the most wonderful news is that understanding our anatomy gives us reason
and opportunity to fulfill our sexual selves both emotionally and physically. Freud
argued that clitoral orgasms were “adolescent,” and only “mature”
women experienced vaginal orgasms. Women now have the information and power to feel
sexually fulfilled independently, if we choose.
The health benefits of masturbation
Generally speaking, women have been socialized to believe our sexual needs and desires
are less important than those of our partners. It is in our physical and emotional
best interest to give our own needs and desires a seat at the table. Because of
cultural taboos, many women feel that the urge to masturbate is somehow wrong, or
they feel guilt or shame. There is enormous potential for healing through honoring
our sexuality, expressing it, and experiencing it with joy.
The reality is that women who “self-cultivate” experience a wide range
of health benefits, and here are just a few:
- Masturbation helps prevent cervical infections and helps relieve urinary
tract infections. While it’s general knowledge that regular
masturbation can reduce the risk of prostate cancer in men, studies are showing
that female masturbation can also provide protection against cervical infections
because when women masturbate, the orgasm “tents” or opens the cervix.
In her book Sex: A Natural History, Joann Ellison
Rodgers describes how 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
Many women with urinary tract infections report the desire to masturbate when they
feel a UTI coming on, and for a good reason: masturbating helps relieve pain and
it flushes the old bacteria from the cervix. It’s the body’s way of
getting the bacteria out.
- Masturbation is associated with improved cardiovascular health and lower
risk of type-2 diabetes. In a number of studies, women who experienced
more orgasms, and overall greater frequency and satisfaction with sex — whether
with a partner or not — were shown to have greater resistance to coronary
heart disease (CHD) and type-2 diabetes.
- Masturbation can help work against insomnia naturally, through hormonal
and tension release. Many women masturbate as a means to wind down
after a hectic day or to fall asleep at night, but they often don’t know that
there’s a hormonal reason why it works. Dopamine, or the “feel-good”
hormone, is on the rise during the anticipation of a sexual climax. After the climax,
the calming hormones oxytocin and endorphins are released, making us feel the warm
afterglow that helps us sleep.
- Orgasm increases pelvic floor strength. There are so many
benefits to having a healthy pelvic
floor. In the “plateau” stage of orgasm, the pelvic floor gets
a real workout. The clitoris surges with increased blood pressure. Muscle tone,
heart rate, and respirations increase. The uterus “lifts” off the pelvic
floor, increasing pelvic muscle tension. This strengthens the entire region, as
well as your sexual satisfaction.
Psychological and emotional benefits of masturbation
Women most often cite fatigue as the reason for a decrease in, or loss of, libido.
I haven’t met a tired woman yet who cares a bit about sex. Appropriately so,
as a tired body is focused on taking care of itself. The second most common reason
women tell me they have decreased interest in sex is their dissatisfaction with
their appearance. Given the often unrealistic yet prevailing standards of American
beauty, it is challenging for many women to feel attractive. Masturbation is one
way to honor our sexuality conveniently and privately.
Because we are in control of our bodies when we masturbate, we can learn a lot about
who we are. We can cultivate positive feelings about our miraculous bodies, giving
us confidence from the inside out and the potential to heal any past negative sexual
These are all good reasons to reconsider our views on masturbation, but there are
also several other reasons why masturbation can help us feel more confident and
- Improves our mood. Masturbation helps relieve depressive
emotions. As we become aroused, the hormone levels of dopamine and epinephrine soar
in our bodies. Both of these hormones are mood-boosters. Many studies show that
women who report personal satisfaction with their sex lives live a better quality
of life overall.
- Relieves stress. In her book For Yourself, noted sex therapist Lonnie
Barbach explains that the stress resulting from avoiding sex can create the kind
of body imbalances we mentioned earlier. She writes that masturbation can help relieve
emotional stress by taking time for ourselves, amidst the demands of home, family,
- Strengthens our relationship with ourselves. When we know,
love, and nurture ourselves on emotional and physical levels, we gain confidence
and grow through self-awareness. Being able to recognize, articulate, and experience
what brings pleasure is a powerful step toward fulfillment.
- Strengthens sexual relationship with partner. Many couples
have different sexual drives and needs. Masturbation is one way to meet personal
needs not met by a partner. It can be shared with a partner. Witnessing a partner
masturbate can teach us what methods our partners use so we can learn what they
enjoy. It can also open the lines of communication between partners who otherwise
might be assuming that the “routine” is still working.
Many women have told me they feel as though they’ve somehow failed as a sexual
partner if they don’t want to just “jump into intercourse” every
night. Often men (thinking that women’s sexual needs and desires match their
own) report feeling as though their wives or partners aren’t interested in
them if they don’t immediately want to have sex. Understanding the fundamental,
hormonal difference between the sexes, and communicating your desires, can lead
to a wonderful sex life.
Many of the differences between male and female desire and arousal can be traced
to the brain, the most powerful sex organ we have. For men, the hormones testosterone
and arginine vasopressin (AVP) encourage sexual desire before sex to a
higher degree than they do in women, who have fewer AVP receptors in the brain.
It takes time for women’s hormone levels to rise before they become aroused.
But after orgasm, our hormones function differently too.
As many women know, men often fall asleep after sex. There are hormonal reasons
why this happens. Men release hormones when they ejaculate, including norepinephrine,
serotonin, oxytocin, vasopressin, and prolactin — the release of prolactin
specifically slows their “recovery time.” Conversely, women’s
arousal time is slower but recovery is quick, thus making multiple orgasms possible
for some women.
Sharing these differences with our male partners (if you have one) can help foster
intimacy. Sharing desire is one of the deepest ways we can communicate and ultimately
brings us closer to the ones we love.
At Women to Women, we believe healthy self-care is not limited to diet and exercise;
it includes sexuality and “self-cultivation.” Masturbation is a way
to learn about the connections between our minds and our bodies, and our relationships
between ourselves and our partners. If exploring these connections interests you,
we suggest planning some romantic time for yourself, whether it be lighting a candle,
taking a bath or even reading an erotic book!
Dr. Dixie Mills once said, “When it comes to your health, your body is the
expert, and you are the ultimate authority.” So if you are not comfortable
with masturbation, that is okay. The choice is completely up to you. The important
thing is to know as much as you can about the many health benefits of masturbation,
and understand that despite prevailing myths and taboos, for many women masturbation
is a positive and healthy experience.
Our Personal Program is a great place to start
The Personal Program promotes natural hormonal balance with nutritional supplements,
our exclusive endocrine support formula, dietary and lifestyle guidance, and optional
phone consultations with our Nurse–Educators. It is a convenient, at-home
version of what we recommend to all our patients at the clinic.
If you have questions, don't hesitate to call us toll-free at
1-800-798-7902. We're here to listen and help.
Related to this article:
References & further
reading on the health benefits of masturbation
Last Modified Date: 04/19/2011
Principal Author: Carrie Levine, Certified Nurse Midwife