Masturbation and Partnered Sex: Substitutes or Complements?


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.

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  1. 1.

    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.

  2. 2.

    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.

  3. 3.

    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.

  4. 4.

    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.

  5. 5.

    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. .


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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.

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Correspondence to Mark Regnerus.

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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.

Ethical Approval

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.

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Regnerus, M., Price, J. & Gordon, D. Masturbation and Partnered Sex: Substitutes or Complements?. Arch Sex Behav 46, 2111–2121 (2017).

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  • Masturbation
  • Sexual desire
  • Gender differences
  • Partnered sexual behavior