This is the exciting sequel to Masturbation, Fantasy and Captivity. That post began with Leonard Shlain MD's observation that no animals masturbate with the intensity and ejaculation frequency of human males, and concluded with historical support for the suggestion that today's habits might be a function of our modern lifestyles rather than innate human behavior.
Now it appears that Shlain's statement may only apply to the WEIRD. Last year, Cambridge University's Behavioral and Brain Sciences published a review: "The weirdest people in the world?" Its authors pointed out that scientists routinely make broad claims about human behavior—using samples drawn almost entirely from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) societies. Fully 96% of the subjects whose behavior has been reported in top psychological journals were drawn from only 12% of the world's population.
For practical reasons, the subjects most often recruited are Western university students, who are immersed in radically atypical circumstances compared with the rest of the species. So, "It should not be surprising that their psychological world is unusual as well." (pp. 79-80)
Indeed, another academic wryly suggested that a better acronym for many student subjects would be MYOPICS: Materialist, Young, self-Obsessed, Pleasure-seeking, Isolated, Consumerist, and Sedentary. In his view, about all that students can reveal is "what humans might be like if they were utterly REMOVED from most normal selective pressures. [Specifically:] the utter nihilism and lack of restraint when normal constraints on human behaviour and decision making are relaxed."
As members of WEIRD societies are among the least representative populations for generalizing about humans, the review's authors caution that, "We need to be less cavalier in addressing questions of human nature on the basis of data drawn from this particularly thin, and rather unusual, slice of humanity."
With this perspective in mind, let's reconsider what we think we know about our intense and frequent masturbation habits. Anthropologists Hewlett and Hewlett point out that,
The Euro-American human sexuality literature gives the impression that male and female ... masturbation are common if not human universal, in part, due to a reliance on several systematic and detailed studies conducted in [WEIRD] nation states. One human sexuality college textbook states that, "masturbation is a very common practice among adolescents, and that the vast majority of people masturbate at some time in their lives."
However, as the Hewletts document in their 2010 study, Western sexual patterns, including our frequent masturbation, are unusual by cross-cultural standards. The Hewletts arrived at this conclusion in part by studying the sexual behavior of two central African cultures. They were astonished to learn that neither the Aka nor the Ngandu were aware of masturbation:
They laughed as we tried to explain and describe the sexual activities. We thought that maybe they were shy or embarrassed individuals, but this would have been uncharacteristic of the Aka we had known so long. ...
It was difficult to explain self-stimulation to the Aka. They found it unusual and said it may happen far away in Congo, but they did not know it. A specific word did not exist for it. We asked men, in particular, about masturbating before they were married or during the post-partum sex taboo and all indicated this did not occur. ... [emphasis added]
Masturbation also appears to be rare in other forest areas. We asked Robert Bailey ... about his experiences of trying to collect semen for fertility studies from Lese men in the Ituri forest of the Democratic Republic of Congo. He indicated it was very difficult to explain to men how to selfstimulate to obtain semen samples. He said that despite explicit and lengthy instructions three of four semen specimens came to him mixed with vaginal secretions. pp. 113-114
In view of cross-cultural standards, the Hewetts caution that college-textbook representations of human sexuality probably reflect the interests and priorities of middle-class Euro-American [WEIRD] cultural models rather than those of humanity. (Watch a documentary about the easygoing Aka.)
If it's prudent to be cautious in generalizing about the practice of masturbation itself, perhaps we should be even more cautious in insisting that masturbation to any intensity of stimulation and with any ejaculation frequency is normal. It may be common for the subpopulation of the WEIRD to masturbate with increasing frequency under the influence of today's ever novel and hyperstimulating Internet porn. Yet such frequent masturbation appears to be exceptional in the larger context of human behavior.
Interestingly, there is a WEIRD operational definition for "hypersexual desire," but one never hears it. Curious? It's "7 or more orgasms/week for at least 6 consecutive months after the age of 15 years."
It's worth noting that, regardless of where WEIRD sexologists may set the bar for normal masturbation, its frequency is a rapidly moving target. Sexuality counselor Ian Kerner recently estimated that men are masturbating 50 to 500 percent more than they would without Internet porn—with adverse repercussions in the bedroom. We, too, hear from lots of (young) men who can now only sustain an erection while masturbating to Internet porn.
Might it be beneficial to educate ourselves about the rest of the world's masturbation habits? Pointing out the existence of a wider range of solo-sex behavior can be accomplished without shaming anyone. If we saw ourselves against the backdrop of the fuller range of normal human behavior, we might be more likely to recognize the source of any problems arising from excess. Broader knowledge might, in fact, encourage people to experiment with options more beneficial to them—without thinking themselves weird.
Teaser Image: By Peque/Flickr