Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Masturbation Prevalence, Frequency, Reasons, and Associations with Partnered Sex in the Midst of the COVID-19 Pandemic: Findings from a U.S. Nationally Representative Survey

Masturbation Prevalence, Frequency, Reasons, and Associations with Partnered Sex in the Midst of the COVID-19 Pandemic: Findings from a U.S. Nationally Representative Survey. Debby Herbenick, Tsung-chieh Fu, Ruhun Wasata & Eli Coleman. Archives of Sexual Behavior, Dec 27 2022.

Abstract: Despite well-documented individual, relational, and health benefits, masturbation has been stigmatized and is understudied compared to partnered sex. In a US nationally representative survey of adults, we aimed to: (1) assess the prevalence and frequency of participants’ prior-year masturbation, (2) describe reasons people give for not masturbating, (3) describe reasons people give for masturbating, and (4) examine the association between masturbation frequency and actual/desired partnered sex frequency in the prior year. Significantly more men than women reported lifetime masturbation, past month masturbation, and greater masturbation frequency. The most frequently endorsed reasons for masturbating related to pleasure, feeling “horny,” stress relief, and relaxation. The most frequently endorsed reasons for not masturbating were lack of interest, being in a committed relationship, conflict with morals or values, or being against one’s religion. Among women, those who desired partnered sex much more often and a little more often were 3.89 times (95% CI: 2.98, 5.08) and 2.07 times (95% CI: 1.63, 2.62), respectively, more likely to report higher frequencies of past-year masturbation than those who desired no change in their partnered sex frequency. Among men, those who desired partnered sex much more often and a little more often were 4.40 times (95% CI: 3.41, 5.68) and 2.37 times (95% CI: 1.84, 3.06), respectively, more likely to report higher frequencies of past-year masturbation activity than those who reported that they desired no change in their current partnered sex frequency. Findings provide contemporary U.S. population-level data on patterns of adult masturbation.


Our study provides contemporary U.S. population estimates on past-year masturbation prevalence and frequency, given that the last published estimates of masturbation were more than a decade old. We extend the literature by providing U.S. nationally representative data on reasons for, and reasons for not, masturbating, as previous studies that addressed masturbation reasons were limited to convenience samples. Consistent with prior nationally representative surveys in various countries (Das et al., 2009; Gerressu et al., 2008; Herbenick et al., 2010; Richters et al., 2014), significantly more men than women in our study reported ever having masturbated, having masturbated recently (in this case, in the past month), and masturbating more often. Given the variation between studies in terms of ages surveyed and how data are presented, we are unable to make direct comparisons in terms of proportions or rates. However, the overall pattern of men reporting greater prevalence, frequency, and recency of masturbation remains. Researchers have speculated that such gender differences may be explained by differences in sex drive or may be due to gender differences in traditional sexual scripts that normalize masturbation among boys and men while repressing or stigmatizing it among girls and women (Baumeister et al., 2001; Fischer & Traeen, 2022; Haus & Thompson, 2020). Certainly, this study confirms how common masturbation or not masturbating is among men and women despite the differences between the genders. This helps demystify the myths and misinformation about this stigmatized sexual behavior which is so often a source of guilt and shame (Coleman, 2003; Das, 2007).

A unique contribution of our study is that, in a US nationally representative survey, we examined reasons for, and reasons for not, masturbating in the prior year. In terms of reasons for not masturbating, the most common reasons endorsed were that participants were just not interested (significantly more women than men), they were in a committed relationship (significantly more men than women), or that it was against their morals, values, or religion. Another reason selected by more women than men pertained to feeling uncomfortable with one’s body, though even this was selected by relatively few women. Although our study did not examine the specific contributors to discomfort with one’s body, prior research has found that poor body image may interfere with both solo masturbation and partnered sexual expression (Dosch et al., 2016). Conversely, a recent survey of German women found that having masturbated was associated with body acceptance (Burri & Carvalheira, 2019). In the U.S., women—and especially older women, women of size, women of color, and women living with disabling conditions—may be particularly vulnerable to poorer body image due to misogyny, sexual harassment, racism, ableism, ageism as well as the self-objectification, sexual self-monitoring, and self-embarrassment these may contribute to (Gruber & Fineran, 2016; Koch et al., 2005; Leath et al., 2020; Moin et al., 2009; Salcedo, 2022; Taskin Yilmaz et al., 2019; Thompson, 2018; Thorpe et al., 2021). Masturbation can be an important way to learn about one’s body as well as to direct joy, appreciation, and pleasure toward one’s own body, sexuality, and sense of self (Dodson, 1987; Fahs & Frank, 2014; Meiller & Hargons, 2019).

Open-ended responses related to reasons for not masturbating highlighted how erectile difficulties can interfere with men’s masturbation (not just partnered sex), as well as how masturbating may be inhibited by feeling too old or tired. Participants’ comments about erectile function highlight the importance of facilitating access to educational, therapeutic, and pharmaceutical treatments for erectile difficulties, especially given the well-established benefits of masturbation. Participants’ write-in responses also demonstrated that some people simply prefer partnered sex or feel satisfied by sex with their partner and consequently don’t choose solitary forms of sexual stimulation.

In terms of reasons participants selected for having masturbated in the prior year, the reasons most often endorsed were the same for both women and men, with no significant differences. Our findings for women were largely consistent with prior research involving convenience samples of women living in the U.S., Portugal, and Hungary. These studies have found that sexual pleasure has been the most common reason given for masturbating, with fewer women in these studies endorsing reasons such as stress relief, relaxation, or to help them fall asleep (Carvalheira & Leah, 2013; Rowland et al., 2020). However, we also found support for people masturbating due to lack of a partner and having less partnered sex than they want, offering at least some support for the compensatory model of masturbation in relation to partnered sex. Other reasons related to having levels of arousal that interfere with other activities, self-exploration, and viewing masturbation as a part of overall health and well-being.

We also found that far more men than women reported that they desired greater frequency of sex. Few participants indicated wanting less frequent sex (7% women, 1% men). However, more men wanted more frequent sex (71% men, 47% women) and more women reported being generally satisfied with their sexual frequency (45% women, 27% men). In terms of the interplay between masturbation and partnered sex, we found support for the complementary model, at least among women. That is, women’s greater frequency of partner sex was associated with greater frequency of masturbation in the prior year. Yet, we also found some support for the compensatory model of masturbation and partnered sex; both women and men who desired more frequent partnered sex were more likely to masturbate more often. These findings may also simply reflect overall levels of sexual desire. Subsequent research might examine this relationship in light of participants’ sexual desire for both partnered sex and solo masturbation, their enjoyment of each, and/or their overall sexual satisfaction.

The present study was conducted in the USA during spring 2021, a time when SARS-CoV-2 vaccines were available to adults but unevenly taken up (Levenson, 2021; Salomon et al., 2021). Although there has long been a need for greater scientific attention to masturbation, this has been particularly true during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. During this time, public health professionals have recommended that people choose masturbation over sex with people outside their household (Government of the District of Columbia, 2021; The NYC Health Department, 2021) and, globally, people have moved in and out of COVID-related stay-at-home guidance (Huang et al., 2022; Phillips et al., 2021). Masturbation and the COVID-19 pandemic may be related in other ways, other than just risk avoidance; for example, some people (due to working from home and staying at home more often) may have masturbated less often due either to lack of privacy or because they had more opportunities for partnered sex (at least if they had a household partner). Our finding that more young adult men, compared with older men, selected COVID-19 risk reduction as a reason for masturbating aligns with a recent convenience survey of Canadian college students, showing that more than half of students had used masturbation as a risk reduction strategy during the early months of the pandemic (Gilbert et al., 2021). A U.S. national study also found small but significant self-reported increases in masturbation among men during the COVID-19 pandemic (Gleason et al., 2021) whereas a U.S. nationally representative survey conducted during the initial April 2020 lockdown found that conflict between romantic/sexual behaviors was associated with decreases in several sexual behaviors, including masturbation (Luetke et al., 2020).

Strengths and Limitations

The present study used U.S. nationally representative probability sampling which enhances the ability to generalize findings to U.S. non-institutionalized adults able to read and complete surveys in the English language. The study’s survey completion rate was good especially given declining survey completion rates in recent years (Mindell et al., 2015). Where possible, we used items from prior research and from established measures. Prior studies related to reasons for and for not masturbating have often included unique items developed for their own surveys (Bowman, 2014; Carvalheira & Leah, 2013; Rowland et al., 2020), limiting the ability for direct comparisons between studies. However, the items are close enough that the general meanings hold (e.g., related to pleasure, to help fall asleep). We were also limited in our ability to make comparisons for reasons for masturbating (or not masturbating) given that prior research had been limited to college, community, or online convenience samples and the present study collected US nationally representative data from adults ages 18 and over.

Due to budget considerations and to be attentive to participant burden, we could not use as many of the items assessing reasons for, and reasons for not, masturbating as were included in the original 62- item and 72-item scales (Young & Muehlenhard, 2011). However, by including 25 of these 134 reasons we still assessed a greater number of masturbation-related reasons than most prior studies and our study findings can be generalized to U.S. adults. We selected these items by choosing both those that were more commonly addressed in prior convenience samples as well as some reasons that reflected timely issues such as privacy (e.g., due to the COVID19 pandemic and many people moving home or living with others) as well as contemporary interests in the broader sexuality field, such as related to trying to stop watching pornography or feeling unable to stop masturbating.

Further, U.S. nationally representative surveys are limited by the small proportion of participants who identify outside the gender binary, leaving the present study focused largely on people identifying as women and men. We presented descriptive data for gender nonbinary, transgender women, and transgender men participants with the hopes that these data may still be useful to the field. To be attentive to space, we did not present masturbation rates by age, sexual orientation identity, race/ethnicity, relationship type, or other demographic characteristics; in subsequent manuscripts, we hope to examine at least some of these. Finally, our sexual behavior frequency measures were limited to behaviors within the past year. While we acknowledge that sexual behavior frequencies may ebb and flow over the course of a year, we also wanted to capture an overall frequency over a longer period of time in order for a more stable estimate rather than a shorter period time which may be prone to life circumstances (e.g., illness, traveling away from partner, childbirth).