Married people do masturbate. Let’s just get that out of the way at the front. The idea that marriage fulfills all sexual needs, and that married people have no need to masturbate, has been pretty thoroughly destroyed by modern society. Married people do, in general, end up having more sex than single people. And numerous studies do show that being single or newly divorced often predicts an increase in both porn-watching and masturbation (mostly in men).
But, being married isn’t a “cure” for masturbation. Historically, masturbation by married people was seen as taking something away from marriage (here, it's called "The secret that ruins great sex"), and often was seen as an indication that something was wrong in the relationship, especially if it involves fantasy about people other than one's partner. Either the wife was not giving her husband what he “needed” or the husband’s desires were out of proportion for the marriage.
People masturbate for a variety of reasons, including desire for sexual pleasure, stress release, and to experience private, self-focused sensations without the distraction of a partner. But when people masturbate within the context of an intimate relationship, it can be valuable to understand the motivations behind it.
Two main theories have been promoted about the relationship between masturbation and partnered sex. The complementary theory proposes that people masturbate within a relationship in order to enhance their partnered sex. So, masturbation might increase and improve the partnered sex. In contrast, the compensatory model suggests that people in relationships masturbate as a means to substitute for sexual desires (whether in quantity, quality or type) that go unmet within the relationship. Alternatively, it has also been suggested that masturbation and partnered sex are two separate, perhaps even parallel behaviors, meeting different needs.
Men and women appear to approach the issue of masturbation and marriage differently, and it has been suggested that men use masturbation in compensatory ways, and women use it in complementary ways. But, as with many things, the reality turns out to be more nuanced.
A recently published study by Regnerus, Price and Gordon examined this issue, with a very large sample of Americans (7648 men and 8090 women). This was a nonclinical sample, and was drawn by probability methods, so these data are the best estimate of how this issue is reflected in the general population, allowing us to generalize these results. The study controlled traits such as age and gender, which correlate with masturbatory frequency, and included an important, highly revealing third factor.
This study, for the first time, also considered the question of how sexually contented/satisfied a person is within their relationship. Though this seems pretty intuitive, this variable had not been considered in the past.
Overall results indicated that the frequency of recent sex within the relationship had little connection to the frequency of masturbation. But, when the variable of sexual contentment was considered, strong relationships started to show up in the results. Notably, People who reported being sexually content within their relationship were thirty percent less likely to report masturbating in the last two weeks. In a probability sample of this size, a thirty percent difference like this is indicative of a large effect.
Gender differences emerged in the results as well, showing that women who were more sexually content with the amount of sex in their relationship were actually more likely to report masturbation. Women who were sexually content, but reported no sex in the last two weeks disclosed masturbation at rates of 21%, compared to other women who were sexually content, reporting sex four or more times, 33% of whom reported masturbation.
In men, these relationships were even stronger. Men who were sexually discontented reported the highest rates of masturbation, and showed the strongest relationship between frequency of partnered sex and masturbation. Sexually discontented men who had no sex recently reported high rates of masturbation (79%), compared to only 60% in men who had had sex four or more times. But, sexual discontentment was less predictive of masturbation in women, with much less relationship to sexual frequency. Women who are sexually unsatisfied, but have an active sex life are more likely to masturbate, compared to unsatisfied women who weren’t having much sex. Interestingly, sexually contented men who had sex once in the last two weeks were more likely to report masturbation, whereas sexually contented men who reported no sex were much less likely to have masturbated.
What these results suggest is that the variable of sexual contentment works as a mediating variable between the frequency of sex and frequency of masturbation, but appears to work differently for men and women.
The authors suggest that the different theories explaining masturbation and marriage fit men and women, based on the issue of sexual contentment. Sexually satisfied women’s masturbation fits a complementary model, suggesting that these women’s masturbation is working to enhance partnered sex, essentially “priming the pump.” But for men, the compensatory model fits, but only for sexually dissatisfied, discontent men. If the man is unhappy with the frequency of sex in the relationship, he’s more likely to masturbate more frequently when he has less frequent sex. But, if the man is sexually content with the frequency of sex, he doesn’t masturbate more often when he has less sex. Interestingly, sexually discontented women masturbate about as frequently as sexually contented men.
An important result emerged, which helps to understand the importance of the sexual contentment variable: 57% of women in this sample reported feeling sexually content, compared to only 42% of men. This means there are a lot more men out there in relationships, feeling unsatisfied, and masturbating to meet their needs. In both men and women, feeling dissatisfied with sex in the relationship predicted more masturbation (64% vs 35%). Masturbatory frequency is often used as an indicator of libido and sexual desire, and so in these results, the level of dissatisfaction and masturbation frequency likely indicates couples with mismatched libido, where one partner wants sex more frequently than the other.
But, masturbation was strongly tied to sexual discontentment, and not as much to sexual frequency. So, the mental state of being sexually dissatisfied is not likely to be met or changed just by increased sexual frequency. Instead, people masturbate more when they are sexually unsatisfied, to meet needs other than just frequency of orgasms. It’s not about the number of orgasms, but more about the mental state and qualitative factors involved.
People who are content having little to no sex masturbate very infrequently. Women who are having lots of sex, and feel sexually content, masturbate more, whereas men who feel sexually dissatisfied and are having less sex masturbate more.
This research is critically important to begin to understand the nuanced, varying relationships between porn use and marriage. Men who watch porn in secret often experience negative relationship outcomes. Why are these men watching porn in secret? Because they are sexually unsatisfied, can’t talk about it or negotiate it within the marriage, and are masturbating to porn to compensate. In men, around 95% of porn use involves masturbation. So, we must begin to consider the question of sexual contentment as we examine the effects of porn use. It’s likely that women who watch porn are more sexually content, and watching it in a complementary manner, whereas male use reflects a level of sexual dissatisfaction. The feelings of sexual contentment are the important issue to examine, and frequency of porn use or masturbation appear to be an indicator that sexual satisfaction. Therapists can best help couples by assisting them to discuss their sexual needs, negotiate around sexual frequency, and develop win-win approaches to sex.