Through my classes and more open conversations with female peers, I found out that female masturbation wasn't that uncommon. A 1992 study revealed that by the time they had reached the end of adolescence, most males and three out of four females had masturbated. And many of the men and women I've talked to rave about the greater body awareness and sexual self-confidence they have developed through masturbation. So it's really not that uncommon or dirty after all - something my 10th-grade self never would have believed.
Masturbation isn't something we really like to talk about (outside of the arena of the choir bus or similar venues), nor is it something we really ever imagine others doing. However, I think masturbation needs to be demystified a little. People touch themselves. It's a natural, enjoyable activity. We've been doing it for a long time, and we'll probably keep doing it as long as humans with genitals exist. Although societal attitudes toward masturbation have changed over time, the fact that it feels good has not.
There are many reasons people don't masturbate, and some are very deeply rooted in religion and moral beliefs. If you oppose masturbation for moral or religious reasons, by all means hold on to your beliefs. If masturbation just isn't something you're comfortable with or if it isn't a part of your sexual expression, you should definitely honor that in yourself. (And if you fall into one of the latter groups, please don't be offended by my blatant endorsement of the act. I know it's not for everyone.) But if you feel like you've never been given a chance to talk about masturbation or experience anything other than the "men masturbate all the time because it's manly/women don't masturbate because it's gross" binary, then I encourage you to think outside the box. It's okay to challenge what we've been socialized to think, especially if that means exploring valuable parts of ourselves.
Despite the fact that I'm discussing all this in a public column, masturbation is a very personal act. Although mutual masturbation and touching oneself in the presence of a partner are common sexual acts, most masturbation - also called autoeroticism - can be an integral part of personal growth and personal sexual health. Virtually every reliable text I've read on sexual enhancement and sex therapy has emphasized the importance of self-knowledge and self-awareness. If you're not familiar with pleasing yourself, how can you ever let someone else please you? Masturbation offers a comfortable, low-pressure environment in which one can experiment with his or her sexuality. Although cultural messages can invade our heads, no one can tell us what we can or can't do - what's okay to feel and what's not okay to feel. Masturbation can increase comfort with one's own body and allow for greater sexual autonomy and satisfaction.
Although statistics reveal that most of us have indeed masturbated at this point, don't feel pressure to adhere to what people expect of you. If you think you're supposed to masturbate to relieve tension but don't really enjoy it, then stop. It's obviously not right for you. If you want to take a gander into the world of your own genitals and never have before, by all means do so. In my opinion, it's important to see masturbation as an aspect of your sexual health, and therefore as a part of your general well being. You should treat yourself well in all aspects of your life, and touching yourself may very well be one of the ways you do that.