C’mon, Ladies, Masturbation Isn’t Just for Bad Girls

A recent study sparked debate over how often women please themselves—some argued the numbers were much too low. Was the data right, or did stigma win out?

Bernd Eberle/Getty

Women talk about everything when it comes to sex: size, position, duration. Name some aspect of the horizontal polka and it has probably been discussed endlessly among human beings with two X chromosomes. But there is one expression of female sexuality that still remains shrouded in (relative) silence. For women, the love that dares not speak its name is self-love.

Female masturbation remains one of the most stigmatized topics to discuss. Certainly, we are no longer in the days where men and women are warned they will go crazy, blind, or sterile from touching themselves. But there is a discrepancy in the way masturbation is discussed in regards to men and women. In 2002, Pennsylvania State University that found women “reported more communication overall than did males on all topics, except for masturbation.” Specifically, these other topics that women felt more comfortable discussing included: STIs, contraception, abstinence, sexual feelings, menstruation, and rape. None of these are exactly the delicate talking points for a pearl clutchers’ tea party.

So, why is masturbation the one sex-related subject that dudes talk more about than the fairer sex? For men, masturbation is taken for granted as being routine as brushing their teeth (perhaps even more frequent a ritual). It is considered not only healthy, but normal. Meanwhile, as Ann Friedman wrote in New York last year, masturbation is “something bad girls do, not something every girl does.”

The most reliable numbers certainly suggest there is truth to that stigma, or rather, that the stigma has led to its own fulfillment. Last month, FiveThirtyEight sparked a stir over self-pleasure when it analyzed the latest released data from the 2009 National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior that showed just how great the masturbation disparity was between the sexes. Women aren’t just talking about masturbating less than men are; they are doing it less across all age groups.

For starters, more women than men say they’ve never flicked the bean. Ever. 84.6 percent of women ages 25 to 29 say they have masturbated at least once in their lifetime, which is the highest percentage for any age group. (But that means about one out of six women in that demographic have never pet the kitty.) Also, 28.9 percent of women in this age group say they haven’t masturbated in the past year. Among their male counterparts, less than 6 percent say they’ve never masturbated, and 16.5 percent say they haven’t in the past year. These numbers may not seem dramatically different, but this is the age group where men and women come closest to—admitting to—masturbating.

The gap is widest at the youngest demographic. 67.5 percent of males ages 14 to 15 say they’ve ever masturbated, compared to 43.3 percent of females. Even by college, about 30 percent more men have masturbated: 86.1 percent of men ages 18 to 19 versus 66 percent of women.

Except for the 25-to-29 age bracket, the largest percent of respondents in an age group of women say they haven’t masturbated in the past year. Up until men hit their 50s, the largest percentage of respondents say they masturbate a few times a month to once a week. Even at the age bracket where men and women appear closest in frequency, there is nothing remotely close to masturbation parity. Over 40 percent of men say they choke the chicken at least two to three times a week; less than 13 percent of women say they season the fish that often. (And no, I did not make up these euphemisms, and yes, someone should study why there are so many fish-related ones.)

The significant difference between the sexes raises the question: Should we trust the numbers? For sex-positive feminists or, really, anyone who believes women are just as capable as men of enjoying their sexuality, the numbers seem amiss. The male-female disparity is a relic of the days when women were told to close their eyes and think of England to “get through” the “duty” of intercourse.

Although the desire to masturbate is not exactly the same as desire for sex, the numbers seems to suggest that women seem inherently less interested in sexual pleasure. That’s a tough sell for not only anyone raised on “Sex and the City,” but anyone who has read Anne Koedt’s “The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm.” Among the many issues of female sexuality tackled in the landmark 1968 essay, Koedt argued that long-held beliefs about “frigidity” had allowed women to be deemed insufficiently “feminine” and manipulated to fit some paradigm of male sexual pleasure.

Female masturbation became surprisingly political. Thomas Laqueur, a historian at university of California, Berkeley and author of Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation, says that during the feminist movement “[masturbation] became about women owning their bodies.” Evidence of that mentality is still alive today. 84-year-old Betty Dodson, the author of Sex for One, still sees female masturbation as part of a sexual power struggle. “Female masturbation via the clitoris undermines this universal male fantasy,” she said in an email, which “allow[s] men to think we are having orgasms from a penis thrusting inside our vaginas.”

Masturbation may be the ultimate proof that the personal is political, so it’s no wonder the disparity in male and female habits raised some feminist alarm bells.

Kate Dries at Jezebel thought the numbers were so out of whack that she started a poll asking women not only about their masturbation habits, but whether they too were doubtful of the survey results. Dries admitted her poll is “highly unscientific” (to put it mildly), but the responses reflect that a lot of readers, presumably young and feminist-minded, are dubious that women masturbate so relatively little compared to men. Of over 15,000 responses, 81.4 percent thought the amount women say they masturbate in the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior was too low. Clearly, the masturbation disparity rubs some women the wrong way.

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But hunches aren’t science. Is masturbation so stigmatized that women are lying on anonymous questionnaires? Unlikely, says Debby Herbenick, one of the researchers at Indiana University’s School of Public Health and sexual health educator at the famed Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. She also helped conduct the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior from which FiveThirtyEight drew its data.

Herbenick explains that this survey has the advantage of being nationally representative, “tying our population to the U.S. population based on Census data.” So, it shouldn’t be skewed toward any age group, region, or other demographic that could throw off the results. Moreover, although she couldn’t release the latest numbers, Herbenick also said that with “2009 versus 2012 [and] 2013, the numbers just don’t change that much. It’s incredibly consistent.”

Herbenick does believe that men are, in fact, masturbating more frequently than women based on the data. But it’s not as simple as boys will be boys who love to play with themselves. “I think there are real biological differences between men and women in terms of masturbation, but there are certain sociological reasons,” she says.

The 14-17-year-old range—when the masturbation disparity is greatest between the sexes—is a good example of how there aren’t definitive or discreet reasons for the difference. Herbenick notes that the data shows men start masturbating at a younger age, and the percentage of those who have tried masturbating increases each year from 14 to 17 years old. Meanwhile, women are masturbating less overall during this time and “the percentage of women reporting masturbation in each year is far more stable.” There isn’t a single explanation for the major adolescent difference. “Hormonal influence is likely just one of the influences,” she said, but so is the fact that “males may talk more openly about masturbation.” It could be that the less women, especially young women, talk about masturbation, the less comfortable they feel about actually doing it.

Thus, the stigma itself may be reinforcing the disparity.

Dr. Sari van Anders of the University of Michigan found in a 2012 study that women with higher testosterone levels tended to report less desire for sex with a partner, but more for masturbation (men reported masturbating more in this study, too). Yet, despite this hormonal connection, van Anders felt the taboo nature of female masturbation still played into the self-love disparity between the sexes. She told LiveScience, “The idea is that if women don’t feel comfortable with their genitals and masturbating, and if they don’t think it’s okay and refrain from doing it and don’t express their desires, after a while, the desire might change as well.”

Still, there may be a deterrent for women that is far less spoken about, at least in polite circles. It’s the simple physiology that it may be easier for many men to masturbate and orgasm than it is for women. That’s what Claire Cavanah, founder of the feminist-minded sex shop Babeland, believes. “For men, it’s more external. Men get an erection, they touch themselves, and it feels good. It’s just how their body works,” she explains. In contrast, “For girls, you have to work a little bit harder to have an orgasm. A guy has his hands and that’s all he needs to have his first orgasm. For a woman, that’s often not enough.”

In all fairness, Cavanah has made her living since 1993 selling vibrators and the like to women who cannot subsist on hand alone. But, there is also a reason she is still in a business: there’s a market for women who want to masturbate but physically struggle to. “Masturbation would be taught to even the playing field if it were a just world,” she says. And the fact that it can be more difficult for women plays into the stigma, Cavanah argues. “[Since] women have to work a bit harder to have an orgasm, you have to be intending or ‘succumb’ to the urge to masturbate. That’s a step farther than we’re told we should go.”

But it’s not just a matter of women getting the masturbation mechanics down pat. The stigma and lower female masturbation rates are tied to women being taught to consider themselves sexual objects, rather than agents, says Cavanah. “Women are given the message we need to make someone else’s sexuality happen and be desired and looked at rather than connecting to our own sexual desires.” Women need to realize their sexuality is in their own hands—or electronic devices.