People masturbate for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the pleasure of arousal and orgasm. The most commonly reported reason is to relieve sexual tension (Michael et al., 1994). Masturbation is also valuable as a means of self-exploration. Sex educator Elea­nor Hamilton recommends masturbation to adolescents as a way to release tension and to become "pleasantly at home with your own sexual organs" (1978, p. 33). Indeed, people can learn a great deal about their sexual responses from masturbation. Self-stimulation is often helpful for women learning to experience orgasms and for men experimenting with their response patterns to increase ejaculatory control. (We discuss masturbation as a tool for increasing sexual satisfaction in Chapter 14.) Finally, some people find that masturba­tion helps them get to sleep at night, because the same generalized feelings of relaxation that often follow a sexual encounter can also accompany self-pleasuring.

At times the satisfaction from an autoerotic session can be more rewarding than an interpersonal sexual encounter, as the following quotation illustrates:

I had always assumed that masturbation was a second-best sexual expression. One time, after reflecting back on the previous day’s activities of a really enjoy­able morning masturbatory experience and an unsatisfying experience that evening with a partner, I realized that first – and second-rate were very relative. (authors’ files)

Some people find that the independent sexual release available through masturba­tion can help them make better decisions about relating sexually with other people and can also be a safe-sex alternative (Shelton, 2010). Furthermore, within a relationship masturbation can help to even out the effects of dissimilar sexual interest. Masturbation can also be a shared experience:

When I am feeling sexual and my partner is not, he holds me and kisses me while I masturbate. Also, sometimes after making love I like to touch myself while he embraces me. It is so much better than sneaking off to the bathroom alone. (authors’ files)

The National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior (NSSHB) found that 48% of teenage girls and 73% of teenage boys between the ages of 14 and 17 had masturbated (Robbins et al., 2011). The difference between the percentages of females and males who masturbate lessens for people in their 20s. Almost 85% of women and over 94% of men between ages 25 and 29 had masturbated (Herbenick et al., 2010b). ■ Table 8.1 shows the range in frequency of masturbation among college students. A current meta-analysis of research found that although males masturbate more frequently, men’s and women’s attitudes toward masturbation are very similar. This same analysis found that in countries with more equality between the sexes, men and women had smaller differences in attitudes and behaviors pertaining to masturbation than in less egalitar­ian countries. This pattern strongly suggests that there is a sociocultural component to gender similarities and differences regarding masturbation (Petersen & Hyde, 2011).

A common concern about masturbation is "doing it too much." Even in writings where masturbation is said to be normal, masturbating "to excess" is often presented as unhealthy. A definition of excess rarely follows. If a person were masturbating so much that it significantly interfered with any aspect of his or her life, there might be cause for concern. However, in that case masturbation would be a symptom or manifestation of some underlying problem rather than the problem itself. For example, someone who is experiencing intense emotional anxiety might use masturbation as a way to relieve anxiety or as a form of self-comforting. The problem in this case is the intense emotional anxiety, not the masturbation.

Masturbation is often considered inappropriate when a person has a sexual part­ner or is married. Some people believe that they should not engage in a sexual activ­ity that excludes their partners or that experiencing sexual pleasure by masturbation deprives their partners of pleasure. Others mistakenly interpret their partner’s desire to masturbate as a sign that something is wrong with their relationship. But unless it interferes with mutually enjoyable sexual intimacy in the relationship, masturbation can be considered a normal part of each partner’s sexual repertoire. It is common for people to continue masturbation after they marry (Reece et al., 2010a; Herbenick et al., 2010a). In fact, individuals who masturbate more often also engage in sexual activity

■ TABLE 8.1 Two Thousand College Students Answer the Question "How Often Do You Masturbate?"

Men (%)

Women (%)

Two or more times a week

50

16

Less than two times a week but more than never

38

44

Never

12

40

SOURCE: Elliott & Brantley (1997).

with their partners more frequently than other individuals who masturbate less often (Laumann et al., 1994). Moreover, one study found that married women who mastur­bated to orgasm had greater marital and sexual satisfaction than women who did not masturbate (Hurlbert & Whittaker, 1991).

Although masturbating is valuable for many people in various situations, not every­one wants to do it. Sometimes, in our attempts to help people who would like to eradi­cate their negative feelings about self-stimulation, it may sound as if the message is that people should masturbate. This is not the case. Masturbation is an option for sexual expression, not a mandate.