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The Complicated Relationship Between Sex and Masturbation

And why you shouldn't feel bad if your partner is into playing solo.

by Justin Lehmiller, PhD
Apr 19 2017, 7:17pm

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Let's say that you're in a long-term relationship and you learn that your partner masturbates regularly. How would that make you feel?

Some people, research shows, would be uncomfortable. When someone in a relationship continues to masturbate, there's a misguided idea that it means they aren't getting quite enough sex. To be fair, sometimes that's true—masturbation can serve as a substitute for the sex that people aren't having.

Other people, meanwhile, wouldn't be bothered in the slightest to learn that their partner rubs one out from time to time. And, once again, studies have suggested that, rather than representing cause for concern, masturbation might actually be a sign that things are going great—a complement to an already active sex life. When people are having more sex, this research suggests, it increases desire for all sexual activities—including what we do on our own.

So what's the deal here? Is masturbation a substitute for a lack of sex, or a sign of an active sex life? Or a bit of both? Thankfully, a new study—yes, another one—offers some insight.

This time, researchers examined data from a national survey of more than 15,000 American adults between the ages of 18 and 60. As part of the survey, the participants were asked if they had masturbated within the past two weeks. They were also asked how many times they had sex during that period and whether they were content with the amount of sex they were having.

Surprisingly, it turned out that people who did and didn't masturbate had pretty similar amounts of sex overall. In other words, there really wasn't much of a link between what people were doing with their partners and what they were doing on their own. However, that's because the link between masturbation and frequency of sex was, as the authors put it, "masked," meaning it depended on something else. Specifically, it depended both on participants' gender, as well as how they felt about the amount of sex they were having.

Among women who were content with their sex lives, frequent sex was linked to greater odds of masturbation. In other words, when women were either meeting or exceeding their desired amount of sex, masturbation took on a complementary role—the more sex these women had, the more they wanted to touch themselves.

What about women who weren't getting as much sex as they wanted? It turned out that they masturbated a pretty similar amount regardless of whether they were having no sex at all or having sex several times per week. So, while sexual frequency and masturbation were linked for happy women, they had nothing to do with one another for women who were unhappy in the bedroom.

Interestingly, the pattern was very different among men. Among guys who were happy with their sex lives, there was no link between the amount of sex they were having and their odds of masturbating. So, happy guys were equally likely to masturbate no matter how often they got laid. For dissatisfied guys, though, the less sex they had, the more likely they were to spank the monkey. This suggests that, for unhappy men, masturbation serves as a substitute for sex.

It's also worth mentioning that, in general, men reported masturbating more than women, and unhappy people reported masturbating more than happy people. But while happy men and unhappy women were about equally likely to masturbate (about half of both groups did so), unhappy men masturbated the most of anyone. Happy women masturbated the least.

So what does all of this tell us? First, it fundamentally changes the way we should think about the link between sex and masturbation. It's much more complex than previously thought, and it's not accurate to say that masturbation is either a substitute for or a complement to sex—instead, masturbation seems as though it can serve both roles, with the specific role it plays depending upon the person.

These findings also tell us that whether we're likely to masturbate depends more on how we feel about our sex lives than it does on how much sex we're actually having. In other words, how sexually active we are doesn't matter as much as whether or not we feel like our sexual needs are being met.

One additional takeaway from this study would be that masturbation seems to serve very different roles for men and women; however, the authors caution against drawing this conclusion. They argue that gender should really be seen as a proxy for level of sexual desire, based on research finding that men tend to have higher sex drives than women.

In light of this, they argue that for people with lower levels of sexual desire—no matter whether they're male or female—masturbation is likely to take on a complementary role whenever one's sexual needs are being met. By contrast, for those who have higher levels of desire (both male and female), masturbation is more likely to be substituted for sex when it's not available. So, the point here is that masturbation doesn't have an inherently different meaning for men and women—instead, it takes on different meaning for people with higher versus lower sex drives.

In sum, the relationship between sex and masturbation is very complicated. Sometimes, masturbation is a sign of an unsatisfying sex life; other times, however, it springs from being perfectly content. 

Justin Lehmiller is the director of the social psychology program at Ball State University, a faculty affiliate of The Kinsey Institute, and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.

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