What predicts masturbation practices?

Despite its commonality as a sexual experience, masturbation is often considered taboo, more so than other sex-related topics. As with most taboo subjects, many wonder what’s normal or average in this area. To begin, the vast majority of American men and women report having masturbated at some point, although more men than women say they have masturbated at least once (89 percent and 70 percent respectively). But the frequency with which men and women report masturbating is widely divergent. Nearly twice as many women as men (50 percent vs. 27 percent) report that it has been at least six months since they last masturbated (or that they have never masturbated). Meanwhile, men are far more likely to report recent masturbation. Twice as many men as women report masturbating within the past week (54 percent and 26 percent, respectively) and over three times as many men as women report masturbating either the day of the survey or the day before (28 percent and 9 percent, respectively). So while most men and women have masturbated, men report doing so substantially more often than women.

As people age and health declines, libido also changes. Is there evidence of an age effect on masturbation patterns?

Figure 11.1Date of most recent masturbation

Just over 60 percent of the youngest men in the sample report masturbating in any given week, with this number declining to just under half of men by age 60. So while masturbation decreases slightly as men age, it doesn’t change substantially. For women the drop-off is more evident, despite common assumptions about women’s later elevated sex drive (which should not simply be equated with interest in masturbation). Just under 40 percent of the survey’s youngest women report masturbating in a given week, while by age 60 the proportion falls to well under 20 percent—less than half the rate for the youngest women in the sample. Similarly, as women age many cease masturbating. Among women ages 18-25, 7 percent had masturbated in the past but had not done so within the past year, while 18 percent of women ages 50-60 said the same. Taken together, these results suggest that age corresponds with both a lower number of women self-reporting masturbation as well as a lower frequency of the same.

Although masturbation is more common among those who are not romantically involved with anyone, it is hardly uncommon among those who are in romantic and/or sexual relationships. Among men who have no romantic partner, two in three (66 percent) report masturbating within the past week, compared to half (51 percent) of those who are involved with someone. Among women the differences are much smaller: 29 percent of single women and 25 percent of coupled women report masturbating in the week prior to the survey, a difference that can be accounted for by the differing age distributions of single and coupled women.

Figure 11.2Percent reporting masturbation in past week, by age and gender
Figure 11.3Percentage who report masturbation in the past week, by frequency of sex in the past two weeks

One explanation, consistent with research in this area, is that men use masturbation as a replacement for sex. Apart from the minority of men who report having sex more frequently than every other day, we see a steady decline in the percent who report masturbating within the past week as their self-reported frequency of sex increases, suggesting that masturbation is a substitute for partnered sexual activity. To highlight this trend, 62 percent of men who have had no sex within the past two weeks reported masturbating within the past week, compared to 42 percent of those who had sex 5-7 times and 48 percent of those who had sex eight or more times within the two weeks prior to the survey.

For women the story is quite different. The relationship between self-reported masturbation and sexual frequency for women is not statistically significant, meaning that women who have sex frequently are just as likely to have masturbated as women who have sex infrequently. While men may substitute sex for masturbation, or vice versa, women masturbate at about the same (lower) rates regardless of their rates of partnered sexual activity.

WOMEN MASTURBATE AT ABOUT THE SAME (LOWER) RATES REGARDLESS OF THEIR RATES OF PARTNERED SEXUAL ACTIVITY.

Masturbation may not be an emotionally neutral practice, however. The Relationships in America survey data reveal notable associations between masturbation and current life satisfaction for both men and women. Those who reported masturbating within the past week were less likely to report being “very happy” with their life and more likely to be unhappy than those who did not report masturbation. Even after accounting for basic demographic characteristics such as race/ethnicity, age, level of education, as well as physical health, and whether the respondent is currently on anti-depressant medication, the results still suggest that those who masturbated recently were less likely to be happy with life in general than those who did not. Some suggest that religious guilt is responsible for the difference in happiness. While the respondent’s self-reported importance of religion affects both happiness and masturbation, it only partly explains the happiness gap. Even after accounting for whether someone has a romantic partner or not, and the frequency with which they had sex within the past two weeks, the results still suggest that those who had not masturbated recently were happier than those who had.

The direction of effect is not clear, however. That is, does masturbation cause some to be unhappy, or are unhappier people simply more likely to turn to masturbation as a way of self-medicating? Longitudinal data is required to solve this puzzle, but it’s clear that adults who have masturbated recently are, on average, less happy with their lives than those who have not.


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