Sex Life of the American Male

How new technology, new mores, and current events impact male sexuality.

The Impact of Masturbation on Romantic Relationships

Does it have a pernicious or a positive effect?

“If prostitution is the world’s oldest profession, then surely masturbation is the world’s oldest avocation.”[1]

In spite of historical efforts depicting masturbation as a practice perniciously impacting health, current research instead finds it is an important aspect of healthy sexual development.  Alfred Kinsey and his work on male and female sexuality galvanized this shift in perspective; he found that almost all of the men and more than half of the women he interviewed reported having masturbated in the past.  Still, old habits (and beliefs) die hard, and, fifty years later, the topic of masturbation remained taboo as evinced by an acknowledgment by the editors of the Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality that they was unable to accumulate enough articles on masturbation to publish a special issue on the topic.[2]  Studies of masturbation are rare, and few studies to date have gone beyond asking the basic questions of do you masturbate, if yes how often, and to what extent do you experience guilt.  In aggregate though, studies on the subject conclude:

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  • Masturbation is usually initiated during adolescence.
  • Men masturbate more frequently than women (2 to 4 times per month for women and 4 to 9 times per month for men).
  • Many people learn about their bodies and sexual responsiveness via masturbation.
  • It is a safe alternative when there is a risk of a sexually transmitted infection.
  • It can help single people who do not have an available partner to maintain sexual functioning and expression.
  • It provides a sexual outlet for individuals when their partners are disinterested in sex or are unavailable.

In spite of the aforementioned benefits and concomitant lack of untoward consequences, many men and women are still displeased when they discover their romantic partner is masturbating.  They believe their partner must be bored or dissatisfied if he (she) is masturbating.   Available research however does not necessarily support this assertion and instead finds that that masturbation is actually healthy in relationships. Early on Kinsey discerned a link between sexual satisfaction in relationships and prior orgasmic experiences; he found that women who had not experienced orgasm before marriage were much less likely to be orgasmic with their partners in marriage.  More current research finds that married women who masturbated to orgasm had greater marital and sexual satisfaction than women who did not masturbate.[3]

Masturbation is also not a feeble substitute for sex with a partner, a common belief I hear often in treatment. (e.g., “I have a girlfriend.  Why would I masturbate?”)  If this were true, men and women who have active sex lives would be expected to masturbate less frequently than persons without partners.  Yet research finds little correlation between frequency of masturbation and frequency of intercourse.  As one example, a study of college students found those who masturbate frequently also engage in intercourse more frequently and have more sex partners.[4] So while masturbation may indeed be a substitute for single people and those whose partners eschew sexual activity, it is also an integral behavior in the sexual repertoire for many who already have satisfying sex lives.

The primary reason humans masturbate is pleasure, regardless of relationship status.  Does this mean then that masturbation is never a concern in a relationship?  If one's partner primarily meets his or her sexual needs through masturbation to the detriment of the relationship, it might be time to consider seeking help.  Masturbation can support the sexual health of a relationship but should not completely take the place of shared sexual activity, unless this is a pact both partners expressly agree upon.

1 Steven D. Pinkerton, Laura M. Bogart, Heather Cecil and Paul R. Abramson, “Factors Associated with Masturbation in a Collegiate Sample,” Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality 14, no. 2/3 (2002): 104.

2 Walter O. Bockting, “Introduction,” Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality 14, no. 2/3 (2002).

3 David Hurlburt and Karen Whittaker, “The Role of Masturbation in Marital and Sexual Satisfaction: A Comparative Study of Female Masturbators and Nonmasturbators,” Journal of Sex Education and Therapy 17, no. 4 (1991).

4 Pinkerton et al.

Michael Shelton is a writer, therapist, and educator focused on male sex and sexuality issues.

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