Volonté is excited to feature the writings of several sex* and relationship experts from Dr. Ian Kerner’s project, Good in Bed. This week we welcome Kristen Mark PhD, recognized sex and relationships researcher, Assistant Professor of health promotion, and Director of the Sexual Health Promotion Lab at University of Kentucky. Below she discusses the ‘masturbation gap’ between men and women, and what can be learned from it.
Recently, I conducted a study in collaboration with Good in Bed on penis perceptions. Though the study covered a wide range of penis-related subjects—including size, self-image, erectile dysfunction, and premature ejaculation—I found particularly interesting the statistics that highlighted a masturbation gap between men and women.
Specifically, 25 percent of male respondents reported masturbating almost every day, compared to 8.7 percent of women. Even when reporting less frequent masturbatory behavior, male respondents reported masturbating at a higher rate than female respondents, with just 24 percent of women masturbating two to three times a week, versus 35 percent of men. These results are consistent with nationally representative findings reported in the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior (NSSHB), conducted by researchers at the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University. According to NSSHB results, men of all ages were more likely than women to report having masturbated alone in the past year, and men 18 and over were more likely than women to report having masturbated with a partner.
What’s behind this gender gap, and what might women learn from men’s greater propensity toward masturbation?
Why Women Seem to Masturbate Less Often Than Men
The truth is, we don’t actually know what’s behind this so-called masturbation gap. There may be a true difference in the masturbation frequencies of men and women, or it just may be that women are less comfortable reporting it. Whichever is true, it’s likely that shame is at the heart of it.
I’m not sure if this has changed at all but, during my adolescence, it seemed boys were always talking about masturbation, even if they were just joking about it. On the other hand, if girls admitted to masturbating, they were ridiculed and shamed. Girls tend to learn swiftly and early on that masturbation is shameful.
And as those boys and girls grew up, that pattern didn’t seem to change. Men still seem able to talk about masturbation with freedom, which automatically gives them a sexual advantage. Women, meanwhile, are for the most part stuck feeling ashamed. Despite amazing initiatives like those from Betty Dodson and Sex for One, Jamye Waxman’s Getting Off, OMGYes, and, of course, the innovations of sex toy companies like LELO that are producing cutting-edge female-friendly vibrators, women still can’t talk about it. Sadly, this silencing does not benefit women. And we’re doing a disservice to women by brushing it under the rug.
Beyond this pattern of shaming that begins at such an early age, women may also masturbate less because they are tasked with so many more daily responsibilities than men, especially if they are married and/or have children. For example, a recently published study of housework trends, based on 2005 time-diary data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, shows that husbands create an extra seven hours of housework a week, which is a load their wives tend to shoulder. With the juggling of work-related work, housework, parenting, and even one’s intimate relationship, it’s unsurprising that solo sex would fall so low on a woman’s list of priorities. Maybe women would masturbate every day if they had the time and energy to do so but, typically, they don’t feel that they do.
When all is said and done, these masturbation rates are just one symptom of how we treat women as lesser sexual beings to men.
Why Women Should Aim to Close That Masturbation Gap Despite All of This
So it seems women may feel too ashamed to touch themselves. Or, if they do touch themselves, they may feel too ashamed to admit to it. Or if they want to masturbate, they may just not have the time and/or the energy. But despite all of the hurdles women must overcome to close this masturbation gap, they need to know that making the effort is well worth it.
The implications for partnered sex alone are important. Masturbation can teach women about their bodies, and about what brings them pleasure, which is information they can then bring into their intimate relationships. Women shouldn’t expect to be comfortable having sex with a partner if they’re not comfortable doing it alone.
It’s also interesting to note that 23.2 percent of Penis Perception study respondents had never masturbated with a partner and, among those who had, it was reported to be an infrequent occurrence. But incorporating mutual masturbation into one’s partnered play can be another effective way of conveying important information about how you experience pleasure. And while you may feel uncomfortable doing something that’s typically a private pleasure in front of your partner, if you allow yourself to relax, you’ll likely reap multiple benefits, including a heightened sense of connection and a greater awareness of how best to get each other off.
Masturbation is a healthy part of sexual expression, and it’s a very low risk form of sexual expression. You can engage in it without the risk of unintended pregnancy or STI transmission. I think we need to normalize it. We need to let people know that masturbation is completely natural and completely normal.
When it comes to sexual behavior, it’s so hard to determine what’s normal, even though that’s what everybody wants. So many questions around people’s sexuality really boil down to: am I normal?
If we could integrate masturbation into people’s vision of what normal and natural sexual development looks like, for both men and women, people would probably have much healthier sex lives and we could begin to shift the sexual script in our culture to one that is more inclusive and sex positive.
*In this article, for ease of reader understanding, we are using the words sex and intercourse as synonymous, as is done in popular culture in general. Similarly, we use the word “foreplay” the way it is used in popular culture (i.e., the sexual acts such as oral sex that come before intercourse). However, as aptly pointed out by our sex expert Laurie Mintz, we would also like to acknowledge that such language exalts men’s most reliable rout to orgasm and linguistically erases women’s most reliable route to orgasm—clitoral stimulation, either alone or coupled with penetration. Indeed, only between 4% and 18% of women reliably orgasm from penetration alone. We look forward to the day when such language is not commonly used in culture.