Many societies have historically frowned upon sexual pleasure and masturbation — particularly by people with clitorises. Although we have made some progress in destigmatizing orgasms and sexual pleasure over time, female masturbation unfortunately still remains a taboo subject.
Since masturbation isn't always commonly discussed with friends or doctors, many misconceptions about it still permeate our society, including the belief that masturbation can impact chances of conception or cause infertility. To be clear, there is zero truth to this rumor — but instead of only saying “masturbation doesn't cause infertility" and calling it a day, we thought we'd dig into some of the science that disproves this idea (because it’s pretty interesting).
Here's a brief overview of what we'll cover:
- People with ovaries can reproduce without having an orgasm and orgasm without ejecting eggs into their fallopian tubes (ovulating) — meaning orgasms aren't directly linked to reproduction.
- If masturbation leads to orgasm, that can increase the production of hormones like oxytocin and prolactin. Neither rises in hormone levels will impact fertility.
- Unlike many female mammals, humans don't need to have sex or be aroused in order to ovulate. This means that masturbation doesn't have any potential effects on ovulation, which is key for conception.
- There's no physiological reason to believe masturbation can impact fertilization and implantation — and any research in this area mainly involves partnered intercourse instead of masturbation.
- Sexual activity in general is touted for helping decrease stress levels, improve self-esteem, and improve cardiovascular health, among many other perks.
Keep reading as we explore the relationships between female sexual pleasure and different aspects of your health and fertility.
How are orgasms connected to reproduction?
For people with testes, orgasm and ejaculation (of sperm) are synonymous. On the other hand, people with ovaries can reproduce without having an orgasm, and they can orgasm without ejecting eggs into their fallopian tubes.
With female sexual pleasure and ovulation uncoupled, many people wonder why human females experience an orgasmic hormone surge at all. Two main theories exist:
- The female orgasm is still linked to reproductive success/wellness, but in more subtle ways (like sperm retention or mate selection).
- The female orgasm (and clitoris) is just a vestigial by-product of the male orgasm (and penis), in the same way that those assigned "male" at birth have nipples. (This theory has grown less popular over the years as more evidence accumulates against it.)
So, if orgasms are only subtly linked to reproduction — if at all — then what effect does autoerotic pleasure (read: pleasure you give yourself) have on fertility? Let’s address that in pieces.
Does masturbation impact hormones?
Masturbation, for some, may induce orgasms — which can then trigger an endocrine surge. The main hormones that increase after orgasm are oxytocin and prolactin.
Here’s how these hormones play (or don't play) into fertility and sexuality:
- Oxytocin induces contractions in the uterus and fallopian tubes. This, as we'll cover a little later, has been theorized to help with sperm movement and retention — but the science we have available right now doesn't support a connection here.
- Prolactin surges after orgasm, and a small study found that orgasm quality might be correlated with how much prolactin goes up. Along with sexual satisfaction, increased prolactin levels also temporarily reduce your libido… so you can relax and focus on other things, like what to eat. While sustained high prolactin levels can also disrupt menstrual cycles, a temporary post-orgasm surge won't have an impact.
Even with these temporary rises in hormone levels, there's no reason to suspect a connection (good or bad) with fertility.
Does masturbation affect ovulation?
Humans are considered spontaneous ovulators, meaning that we ovulate on our own time, independent of our sexual partners or the seasons. If we were induced ovulators like many female mammals (e.g., rabbits, raccoons, and opossums), then masturbation would potentially cause us to ovulate. In these animals, intercourse triggers an ovary-stimulating hormone surge, including some hormones that are also released in female humans during orgasm.
But we’re not. Female humans can have orgasms throughout their menstrual cycle, with or without a partner, without shifting their cycle’s timeline. That said, close analysis of the evolutionary tree suggests that induced ovulation is our ancestral state, but that some branches (including all primates) broke free of this pattern. Interestingly, we might have the clitoris to thank for this freedom: It declared independence from the reproductive tract, moving out of and away from the vaginal canal as we evolved.
Long story short? Orgasms don't help us ovulate, and they also don't make us not ovulate — which would be the only potential ovulation-related impact that would influence fertility.
Does masturbation impact fertilization and implantation?
There's no physiological reason to believe masturbation can impact fertilization and implantation — and any research in this area mainly involves partnered intercourse instead of masturbation.
The only tangentially related data we have is around orgasm (which can result from masturbation) increasing your chances of conceiving. While scientists have theorized that the oxytocin released from orgasms could help better retain sperm and improve conception, these oxytocin levels were 60x higher than they are post-orgasm — meaning we don't know what effect oxytocin could have at post-orgasm levels.
Does masturbation affect sexual health?
There are many myths about masturbation being harmful to your health (like that it could lead to blindness or insanity), but, if anything, masturbation might come with a range of health benefits.
Sexual activity in general is touted for helping reduce stress, improve self-esteem, and improve cardiovascular health, among many other perks. In fact, around menopause, sexual activity (including masturbation) may be recommended to help protect against vaginal atrophy (i.e., the vaginal walls are thinner, dryer, and more inflamed).
Here are some of the benefits to masturbation that studies have revealed over the years:
- In one 2018 systematic review, researchers found that masturbation is “protective” against sexual dysfunction in highly developed countries like the US.
- In a survey of over 2,000 women, those who used vibrators were more likely to stay on top of getting regular gynecological exams, and were also rated higher for sexual function (i.e., desire, lubrication, orgasm).
- Directed masturbation is regularly used to help women with orgasmic disorders learn to achieve orgasm.
Does masturbation impact pregnancy?
The fact that pregnant people can (and often do) orgasm during pregnancy is more evidence of sexual pleasure’s independence from fertility.
It’s commonly thought that orgasms, which induce uterine contractions, can help induce labor. However, when this theory was tested in a group of 210 pregnant women who needed labor induction, those who had sexual intercourse before delivery were no more likely to go into labor than those who didn’t have sex. "Have all the orgasms you want while pregnant — as long as you aren't bleeding or in preterm labor, this is absolutely safe," says OB-GYN and Modern Fertility medical advisor Dr. Jenn Conti, MD, MS, MSc.
Masturbation throughout your pregnancy shouldn't be a problem, but if you have any concerns, it’s best to consult with your doctor before any kind of vaginal penetration.
To sum it all up: Does masturbation cause infertility? No
There is no scientific reason to believe female masturbation could have any negative effect on fertility or cause infertility. Nor does it cause any other detrimental effects you might have heard of before. In fact, there's more reason to believe self-pleasure is good for your long-term overall, sexual, and reproductive health.
Human evolution gifted us with the ability to have a pleasurable (partnered or unpartnered) sex life without reproductive consequences. So why not use it?
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Jennifer Conti, MD, MS, MSc.