We often joke that 90% of people masturbate and 10% are liars. But how true is that? Even in LELO’s own Global Sex Survey, the rate at which people claim to masturbate is often over 90%, or close to 100%. But that’s not really a fair assessment, since the people responding to our sex survey are generally sexual people anyway, and they navigated to the survey from our sex toy site. Surely, then, those numbers are skewed, and don’t represent the wider general population.
To get a truer insight into how common masturbation is, we need to look to independent academic sources who have polled more representative groups. Lucky for us, such research has recently been conducted.
In the study, conducted by sociologists from the University of Chicago, and including 3,116 representative American adults, only 38% of women said they’d masturbated at all in the past year. Many more men, 61%, also said they had masturbated in the last year.
Now, the information was gathered in face-to-face consultations as part of the National Health and Social Life Survey, so it’s possible that some of the responses were muted out of embarrassment or privacy. Such is often the way when it comes to studying things as personal as sex and masturbation.
But those numbers seem startlingly low, don’t they? Only 38% of women and 61% of men regularly masturbate? Even given the reluctance of the study’s participants to admit to regular masturbation, that still seems to underestimate the prevalence of self-pleasure.
But, research is research, and numbers are numbers. Occasionally we have to accept studies even if we’re dubious about them, because in the under-researched field of human sexuality, they’re often all we have to go on. If we take this study to be even close to accurate, then it appears that people aren’t masturbating as much as we all assumed.
After all, there are parts of the study that are demonstrably true. For example, this study concurred with previous studies inasmuch as men begin masturbating earlier and continue through middle age, declining after 50. On the whole, men who masturbate continue to do so into later life.
Another finding from the study that agrees with previous studies showed that young women take a little longer to warm up to masturbation. The most common age for regular masturbation among women was between 20 and 39, with lower rates reported before 20 and after 40.
Another pattern that was reinforced in Chicago’s research was the one between higher education and masturbation. There is a definitive correlation between increased levels of education and the frequency of sexual thoughts and fantasies, as well as sexual experimentation before puberty, and a higher number of sexual partners. This is true across gender identity: the longer and better one’s education, the more satisfying and varied is one’s sex life.
In an interesting discrepancy appeared regarding health. In women, poor health inevitably meant a reduced rate of masturbation, but the same wasn’t true of the men surveyed. Men tend to masturbate regardless of physical health issues.
Previous studies have shown that compared with people raised in families that are religiously liberal or non-observant, those raised in fundamentalist families report less masturbation. This study agreed. It also agreed that Caucasian people were the most enthusiastic self-pleasurers, while non-whites and people of color all reported lower frequencies of masturbation.
Masturbation was perceived by most respondents as being a valid outlet for sexual expression. In fact, despite a prevalent impression in American culture that masturbation is a sexual refuge for single people alone, the truth turned out to be quite the opposite. Across the surveyed genders, sexless relationships seemed to suppress the desire for masturbation, and those who reported the most masturbation tended to be in highly sexual relationships. Partnered sex, it seems, is a driving force behind solo sex.
The conclusion of all this should be clear, if a little surprising. Since this study agreed with so much existing data about masturbation, we should also accept, at least partially, the overriding finding: that masturbation is not quite as common as we all suspected.
In fact, the rate of a society’s masturbation depends heavily on external, socio-economical factors, as well as personal factors like health, age, ethnicity and cultural context.