Drawing upon a large, recent probability sample of American adults ages 18–60 (7648 men and 8090 women), we explored the association between sexual frequency and masturbation, evaluating the evidence for whether masturbation compensates for unavailable sex, complements (or augments) existing paired sexual activity, or bears little association with it. We found evidence supporting a compensatory relationship between masturbation and sexual frequency for men, and a complementary one among women, but each association was both modest and contingent on how content participants were with their self-reported frequency of sex. Among men and women, both partnered status and their sexual contentment were more obvious predictors of masturbation than was recent frequency of sex. We conclude that both hypotheses as commonly evaluated suffer from failing to account for the pivotal role of subjective sexual contentment in predicting masturbation.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price includes VAT for USA
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.
While masturbation self-reports may be prone to underestimation, due to social desirability bias, and survey questions on masturbation may be subject to greater refusals, there nevertheless seems to be little current evidence of a profound and systematic response bias on such questions.
Note that the main completion survey rate (62 percent) did not take into account the success rate of recruitment into the KnowledgePanel®. The initial construction of the panel exhibited a success rate of 33 percent (Callegaro & DiSogra, 2008). However, the KnowledgePanel® is refreshed with regularity, with new participants cycling on and previous participants cycling off.
Unlike the RIA, the NSSHB asked about both solo and paired masturbation. The ratio of solo to paired masturbation in the past month ranges from 4-to-1 to about 2-to-1.
Since large-scale surveys are complex and typically involve multi-stage sampling, clustering, and stratification, the observations cannot be assumed independent and identically distributed. Rao and Scott (1981, 1984) showed that a chi squared test can still be used if the test statistic accounted for survey design effects—an idea that led to the development of several adjusted chi-squared tests. For these adjusted tests, under the null hypothesis of no association, a Rao-Scott test statistic approximately follows a chi-squared distribution with (rows-1) (columns-1) degrees of freedom. The specific adjustment used in our tests in this study was the Rao–Scott second-order correction, which provided an additional correction to better control Type I error (Thomas & Rao, 1987). Furthermore, since a better approximation can be obtained by transforming the adjusted test statistic to refer to an F distribution instead of a chi-squared distribution, statistical software packages such as R and SAS often report the results of an F test instead, and that is what we reported here.
The predicted probabilities were calculated for each individual case. We took the mean predicted probability for all combinations of partnered, sexual contentment, and frequency of sex, rather than calculate probabilities based on logistic models using specific values for the covariates (i.e., age = mean age, education = some college, race = White, Black, or Hispanic). In other words, it was a two-step process rather than a single step process. .
Abramson, P. R. (1973). The relationship of the frequency of masturbation to several aspects of personality and behavior. Journal of Sex Research, 9, 132–142.
Baumeister, R. F., Cantanese, K. R., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Is there a gender difference in strength of sex drive? Theoretical views, conceptual distinctions, and a review of relevant evidence. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 5, 242–273. doi:10.1207/S15327957PSPR0503_5.
Byers, E. S., Henderson, J., & Hobson, K. M. (2009). University students’ definitions of sexual abstinence and having sex. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38, 665–674. doi:10.1007/s10508-007-9289-6.
Callegaro, M., & DiSogra, C. (2008). Computing response metrics for online panels. Public Opinion Quarterly, 72, 1008–1032. doi:10.1093/poq/nfn065.
Carvalheira, A., & Leal, I. (2012). Masturbation among women: Associated factors and sexual response in a Portuguese community sample. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 39, 347–367. doi:10.1080/0092623X.2011.628440.
Chang, L., & Krosnick, J. A. (2009). National surveys via RDD telephone interviewing versus the Internet: Comparing sample representativeness and response quality. Public Opinion Quarterly, 73, 641–678. doi:10.1093/poq/nfp075.
Das, A. (2007). Masturbation in the United States. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 33, 301–317. doi:10.1080/00926230701385514.
Das, A., Parish, W. L., & Laumann, E. O. (2009). Masturbation in urban China. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38, 108–120. doi:10.1007/s10508-007-9222-z.
Dekker, A., & Schmidt, G. (2003). Patterns of masturbatory behaviour: Changes between the sixties and the nineties. Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality, 14, 35–48. doi:10.1300/J056v14n02_04.
Gerressu, M., Mercer, C. H., Graham, C. A., Wellings, K., & Johnson, A. M. (2008). Prevalence of masturbation and associated factors in a British national probability survey. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 37, 266–278. doi:10.1007/s10508-006-9123-6.
Graham, C. A., Catania, J. A., Brand, R., Duong, T., & Canchola, J. A. (2003). Recalling sexual behavior: A methodological analysis of memory recall bias via interview using the diary as the gold standard. Journal of Sex Research, 40, 325–332. doi:10.1080/00224490209552198.
Hald, G. M. (2006). Gender differences in pornography consumption among young heterosexual Danish adults. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 35, 577–585. doi:10.1007/s10508-006-9064-0.
Herbenick, D., Reece, M., Schick, V., Sanders, S. A., Dodge, B., & Fortenberry, J. D. (2010). Sexual behavior in the United States: results from a national probability sample of men and women ages 14-94. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 7, 255–265. doi:10.1111/j.1743-6109.2010.02012.x.
Hurlburt, D., & Whittaker, K. (1991). The role of masturbation in marital and sexual satisfaction: A comparative study of female masturbators and nonmasturbators. Journal of Sex Education and Therapy, 17, 272–282. doi:10.1080/01614576.1991.11074029.
Jaccard, J. (2001). Interaction effects in logistic regression. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Kontula, O., & Haavio-Mannila, E. (2002). Masturbation in a generational perspective. Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality, 14, 49–83. doi:10.1300/J056v14n02_05.
Laumann, E. O., Gagnon, J. H., Michael, R. T., & Michaels, S. (1994). The social organization of sexuality: Sexual practices in the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Leitenberg, H., Detzer, M. J., & Srebnik, D. (1993). Gender differences in masturbation and the relation of masturbation experience in preadolescence and/or early adolescence to sexual behavior and sexual adjustment in young adulthood. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 22, 87–98. doi:10.1007/BF01542359.
Okazaki, S. (2002). Influences of culture on Asian-Americans’ sexuality. Journal of Sex Research, 39, 34–41. doi:10.1080/00224490209552117.
Oliver, M. B., & Hyde, J. S. (1993). Gender differences in sexuality: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 114, 29–51. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.114.1.29.
Petersen, J. L., & Hyde, J. S. (2010). A meta-analytic review of research on gender differences in sexuality: 1993 to 2007. Psychological Bulletin, 136, 21–38. doi:10.1037/a0017504.
Pinkerton, S. D., Bogart, L. M., Cecil, H., & Abramson, P. R. (2002). Factors associated with masturbation in a collegiate sample. Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality, 14, 103–121. doi:10.1300/J056v14n02_07.
Rao, J. N. K., & Scott, A. (1981). The analysis of categorical data from complex sample surveys: Chi squared tests for goodness of fit and independence in two-way tables. Journal of the American Statistical Association, 76, 221–230. doi:10.2307/2287815.
Rao, J. N. K., & Scott, A. (1984). On chi squared tests for multiway contingency tables with cell proportions estimated from survey data. Annals of Statistics, 12, 46–60.
Reece, M., Herbenick, D., Schick, V., Sanders, S. A., Dodge, B., & Fortenberry, J. D. (2010). Sexual behaviors, relationships, and perceived health status among adult men in the United States: Results from a national probability sample. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 7, 291–304. doi:10.1111/j.1743-6109.2010.02009.x.
Richters, J., Grulich, A., de Vissen, R. O., Smith, A. M. A., & Rissel, C. E. (2003). Sex in Australia: Autoerotic, esoteric and other sexual practices engaged in by a representative sample of adults. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 27, 180–190. doi:10.1111/j.1467-842X.2003.tb00806.x.
Shulman, J. L., & Horne, S. G. (2003). The use of self-pleasure: Masturbation and body image among African American and European American women. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 27, 262–269. doi:10.1111/1471-6402.00106.
Thomas, D., & Rao, J. N. K. (1987). Small-sample comparisons of level and power for simple goodness-of-fit statistics under cluster sampling. Journal of the American Statistical Association, 82, 630–636. doi:10.2307/2289475.
Waite, L. J., Laumann, E. O., Das, A., & Schumm, L. P. (2009). Sexuality: Measures of partnerships, practices, attitudes, and problems in the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Study. Journal of Gerontology, 64B, 56–66. doi:10.1093/geronb/gbp038.
The survey data for this study were funded by a grant from the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture to the University of Texas at Austin.
Conflict of interest
Regnerus and Price are uncompensated fellows of the Austin Institute, and Gordon was formerly a paid research assistant of the Austin Institute. Regnerus was the principal investigator of the Relationships in America survey data collection project.
The Relationships in America survey data collection project was approved by the Institutional Review Board of the University of Texas at Austin and was performed in accordance with the ethical standards as laid down in the 1964 Declaration of Helsinki and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.
About this article
Cite this article
Regnerus, M., Price, J. & Gordon, D. Masturbation and Partnered Sex: Substitutes or Complements?. Arch Sex Behav 46, 2111–2121 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-017-0975-8
- Sexual desire
- Gender differences
- Partnered sexual behavior