Although the mere mention of the word masturbation still makes many people uncomfortable, attitudes toward the activity have become slightly more liberalbecause of its frequent discussion in the fields of psychology, psychiatry, and sociology, among others. However, despite evidence that masturbation is ahealthy, normal part of human sexual development, the act is still regarded as unwholesome and shameful in some quarters. Indeed, the Roman Catholic Church still officially considers masturbation a mortal sin.

Masturbation is the self-stimulation of the genitals, usually with the aim ofsexual pleasure and orgasm. It is generally performed alone and in private,but sometimes it occurs between people as part of a sexual relationship apartfrom sexual intercourse. The practice was taboo in most premodern societies--particularly those that espoused Christianity--and there were frightening myths and superstitions built up around it. These included that self stimulation would cause blindness, insanity, and other illnesses, some that would plainly mark the person as a masturbator. Many of these fears were based on observations of unwell people masturbating in public, but the observers were oftenunaware that such ailments as severe mental retardation, dementia, and schizophrenia can produce this behavior, not vice versa. Such myths still have thepower to produce extreme guilt and fear in people who venture to explore self-pleasure, while others regard masturbation only as a nonemotional release oras a physical pleasure to be enjoyed for its own sake.

According to literature on the topic, as of the late 1990s, more people of all ages and both sexes are practicing masturbation, whether alone or with a partner, perhaps because of the fear of AIDS and the desire to have safe sex. However, the act remains most common among young adults and teenagers (particularly males), while it is also not infrequent among infants and children as aform of self-gratification similar to thumb-sucking. The practice is widelyagreed to be a normal part of the sexual development process.

It is estimated that more than 90% of men and roughly 60% of women masturbateat least once during their lives. The act can bring about relaxation, pleasure, tension release, and physical satisfaction. Some sources indicate that masturbation in older children and teenagers can produce better control over sexual urges. Researchers generally agree that since masturbation does not usually bring the same psychological satisfaction as sexual interaction with another person, the activity declines or ceases altogether (especially in females) once an individual becomes involved in a sexual relationship with a partner.

Most people fantasize during masturbation, although studies have indicated that these scenarios and images many times involve situations or people that the subject would actually avoid if he or she encountered them in real life. Masturbation can much more effectively lead to orgasm than sexual activity witha partner, since there is sole control over what and how stimulation occurs.The practice is frequently recommended in sex therapy.

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