Why three out of four young women don’t masturbate

There’s a survey coming out soon. A huge random sample of Australians – about 20,000 people – have been asked quite detailed questions about their sexual behaviour and attitudes. It’s the most comprehensive survey of its kind in the world, and it’s impeccable in both its sampling and its survey technique. 

Two of the questions were about bdsm, but the data for those questions is still being  analysed. I do know that there’s been a slight increase in the number of people who say they’ve taken part in bdsm activity in the last year, and a larger increase in the number of people who taken part in role-playing games like teacher/naughty schoolgirl, which typically involve a bit of mild bondage and spanking.

What really interests me is that for the first time they’ve asked whether people usually take a dominant-top role or a submissive-bottom role, or if they just switch without a favourite. That was my idea. I’m interested in what proportion of doms and subs there are, for both men and women. I’ve heard a ton of guessing and theorising about this, but I’d like to know what the real figures are.  

The previous survey found that there was no difference in health, success and childhood experiences between people who do bdsm and people who don’t. We’re all fine, thanks. But it’s possible that, say, submissives are slightly less healthy than average, while dominants are slightly healthier than average, and that’s how we came out as average in the last survey.

Is it true that there are more submissives than dominants? Are dominants or submissives more healthy and successful in everyday life, or is there no difference? Well, we’ll know in a few months, and you’ll probably be able to read it here first, in this shonky blog that no-one reads.

 Young women, fucking and masturbation

For now I’m puzzling over a different result, which is that although about 76% of young women aged 16 to 20 have had sex, only about 27% of them have ever masturbated. Three times as many young women have had sex than have ever wanked. 

That seems incredible to me, but it’s consistent with other surveys – in fact it’s a slight increase on the similar survey ten years earlier – so it’s bound to be true. 

wanksBut it’s only the young women aged 16 to 20 who don’t masturbate much. By the time they’re over 30 most women do masturbate, and the numbers go up as women get older. Women over 30 are never quite as busy wanking as the men their age, but they’re wanking two or three times as much as their younger selves. 

So – given that masturbation is pleasant, harmless, and sometimes the only thing you can do if you want to get any sleep – why on earth is it that most young women don’t masturbate, even though they’re having sex?

You could argue that it’s because girls are taught that masturbation is shameful, and so they don’t do it, or they do masturbate but they pretend that they don’t. I don’t think that’s likely to be the explanation. Remember that three out of four of them have had sex, and they had no trouble telling that to a researcher. If they’re not wanking because of conservative rules about sex, those rules should also be stopping them from having sex. So that’s not what’s happening. 

My theory is this. Both men’s and women’s sexual responses are partly hard-wired, sure, but a lot of it in both sexes is learned.

Male sexual response is easier to learn. Cocks and their sexual responses are blatantly visible. Young men know when they have an erection, and to some extent there’s a feedback cycle based on that knowledge. “My cock is stiff.” –> “I am turned on.” –> “Whoa! My cock just get harder.” –> “I must be really turned on.” And so on. 

Female sexual response is less obvious, and it’s more difficult for young women to know when they’re aroused.

There are experiments that found that women who are in fact having measurable physiological responses (vaginal wetness, skin tension, etc) in response to sexual images will deny being aroused. I don’t think they’re lying, or shy, or that they disapprove of the sexual images and their response. It’s that the physiological changes in women are less visible, and it’s easier to be unaware of them even while experiencing them.  

So young women can be aroused without knowing it. So there’s less of a “trigger” to relieve the arousal through masturbation.

The other thing is that in our culture we spend more time and money showing images of what a sexually inviting, fuckable woman looks like, naked or not wearing much. We don’t show naked young men, aroused or sexually receptive, nearly as often. In our culture it’s easy to learn what a sexy woman looks like, and learn your own response to that, and somewhat harder to learn what a sexy man looks like, and find out what appeals to you about them. 

By “sexy man” I’m talking about the kind of image, with penises and shadows, and strength or surrender, that makes (some) women say “unff”. I mean images that are actually hot, as opposed to “nice” like George Clooney’s charmingly crinkly eyes. 

So a lot of advertising, for example, looks like a light version of the porn aimed at straight men or lesbians. (There are differences between porn made for het men and porn made for lesbians, but also a fair amount of overlap.) But not many advertising images of men look much like gay porn.

This may be one reason why there are far more women, especially young women, who respond sexually to both men and women, than there are men who respond sexually to other men. Both sexes are taught to desire women. 

That means, in the case of young women, that the erotic images they see have less connection with the person they’re most likely to have their first sexual experiences with, who in most cases is going to be a young man.

So young men find it easier to know when they’re horny, and they are given a menu of things to like about women’s bodies and about sex. Young women don’t have so much information, from their own bodies, or about sex with young men in it.  

wank positionSo young women learn the things that really, personally, get them hot through their own experience, and not so much from the culture. So  young women have sex first, and start masturbating later, while young men are already wanking before they’ve had any sexual experience with another person. 

So that’s my theory. It boils down to: sexual power comes from knowledge. Which is one more way of saying: knowledge is power. 

10 thoughts on “Why three out of four young women don’t masturbate

  1. A really interesting post – thank you! I was another one who starting fucking early (over a year before it was legal in New Zealand), but never even considered masturbating until I was in my twenties. It wasn’t that I felt I shouldn’t – it was that it genuinely never occurred to me as something I could do! I liked to ‘groom’ my pubic hair with my fingers, and found it a soothing action when in bed at night, but wanking simply never occurred to me 🙂

    (These days – and for, frankly, the last decade+ – it’s a different story altogether!)

    xx Dee

    • Thank you right back!
      Yes, I think your anecdote is probably pretty typical. Except for the bit about getting your first fuck in two years early. That’d be 14, then, in New Zealand?
      I hope it was good, and still a good memory.

      My own combination of lustiness and zits – oh, rubbish social skills, to tell the truth – meant that I started wanking at 4, but didn’t get a fuck till I was 16. (That girl knows who she is, and if she’s reading I’d just like to add that it’s still one of my best memories ever, so she did well.)

      But that adds up to 12 years spent wanking in unwilling virginity. I used to wish that my hand was the lovely interior of the yummy Linda Nichols. I never did have the pleasure, but I imagined what the soft wet squishiness of her cunt must be like with all the imaginative fervour that a 15-year old virgin can manage.

      (Linda Nichols isn’t really her name, though. Even at this distance in time I’m not going to embarrass the poor girl. I hope.)

      This has taken a fairly sharp turn from the original, slightly thoughtful, tone of my post. Trust you to drag the tone down, Curvy Dee. By the way, I agree that it’s important to keep your pubic hair “groomed”. No matter how long it takes.

  2. Oh, please, not the “physiological response=arousal” canard AGAIN! This always makes me cross whenever I see it reported, be it opinion-makers, “scientists”, or whoever.

    I mean to say, all those teenaged boys who get erections because of a throbbing diesel engine (e.g. sitting on the bus), are actually thinking “I’m turned on”? Do you honestly believe that? Very few real-life men (as opposed to the fantasy guys in fiction) wake up with a morning wood and think, “wow, I’m horny today!” and it’s certainly not solved by wanking. It’s just a nuisance and generally solved by having a pee (which is also a bit of a logistical issue with a stiffie).

    There’s also a rape culture issue with this: physiological response is far too often construed as consent, “because (s)he was aroused”. So please, can we separate arousal from blood flow and accept that people know that they are aroused because arousal is something in the mind, not turgidity?

    • “Oh please”?

      Off-topic, I know, but I’ve never liked that passive-aggressive little phrase, and I put it in the “cliches to avoid” bag more than ten years ago. Using it to open a conversation with a perfectly polite stranger on the internet is just … odd. Well, you could have added, “rofl”, “eye-roll”, “face-palm” and “zomg, I can’t believe you’re such a moron!” So at least there’s that.

      A couple of points.
      1 I didn’t say that physiological response equals arousal.

      I’d have said, if I had commented on that issue, that arousal includes both psychological and physiological events. That’s pretty standard.

      I mentioned a study that took penile and vaginal responses, in response to erotic images, as indications of arousal. It was reasonable to take physiological responses as indicators in that specific study. The researchers discuss their method. I don’t because it wasn’t my central point, and I’m just writing a blog, not a paper for peer-reviewed publication.

      Look, here’s a standard definition of “sexual arousal”: “arousal of sexual desire, during or in anticipation of sexual activity. A number of physiological responses occur in the body and mind as preparation for sex and continue during it. Genital responses are not the only changes, but noticeable and necessary for consensual and comfortable intercourse. Male arousal will lead to an erection and in female arousal, the body’s response is engorged sexual tissues such as nipples, vulva, clitoris, vaginal walls and vaginal lubrication. Mental stimuli and physical stimuli such as touch, and the internal fluctuation of hormones, can influence sexual arousal.”

      If you want to say that “arousal” is, to use your words, “something in the mind”, and get angry when people also refer to physical aspects and signs of arousal, that’s up to you. But you’re not using the word in its usual meaning.

      “Agreement of Self-Reported and Genital Measures of Sexual Arousal in Men and Women: A Meta-Analysis”, Chivers, Meredict L, Seto, Michael C and others, Archives of sexual Behaviour, Feb 2010, Vol 39, Issue 1, pp 5-56, has more on this.

      2 Boys and men are indeed likely to experience an increase in arousal, on being aware of their own erection. You objected, but it’s such an uncontroversial observation that I didn’t bother looking for studies. If you search databases using keywords like “male sexual arousal”, “self-evaluation”, and “interoception”, you’ll find plenty of discussion of this well-known phenomenon.

      3. Those fictional guys who note that they’re horny when they wake up with an erection, and either try to interest a willing partner in it, or have a wank? We can’t be all that fictional, because I’m one.

      Morning wanking: I endorse and recommend this product.

      4. The reference to rape culture upped the rhetorical ante, didn’t it? If I can return your compliment in a milder form, I’d point out that there’s a long and misogynist history to the denial that women can be aroused by rape. It furthers the misogynist discourse in this area, that if there was arousal, then there can’t have been a rape.

      Rape is about forcing sex on someone without their consent. Whether or not they are aroused during that forced experience has nothing to do with whether or not it was rape, nor does arousal mitigate the guilt of the rapist in any way. Consent is the issue.

      I know, and you probably know, that some women who have been raped have in some cases reported that they came during the rape. That does NOT mean “they enjoyed it”, and it doesn’t mean the attacker is any less a rapist.

      But if you think the important thing is to re-define arousal so radically that even orgasm doesn’t count as arousal, I’ll be inclined to fail to take you seriously. Non-consensual sex is a crime, no matter what.

      • I apologise for the “oh please”. You’re right, it was uncalled-for.

        “I’d have said, if I had commented on that issue, that arousal includes both psychological and physiological events. That’s pretty standard.”

        Okay. But I think my objection holds.

        I’m talking about equating those aspects and signs with the whole deal. Your quoted definition is actually the one I’m using, because the key element that I see is, “arousal of sexual desire, during or in anticipation of sexual activity.” Desire is a mental event, not a physiological one. The rest of the definition is about things that are typically associated with desire. But they are not in themselves desire, and can occur when desire is not present, and can also fail to occur even when desire is present (sometimes distressingly so, sometimes mercifully so).

        The issue here seems to be over which aspect takes primacy: is a person aroused because they feel aroused with “sexual desire” (from the definition you quoted), or because their body shows signs of arousal? If the two disagree, do we listen to the instruments, or to the self-reporting of the individual?

        If a person shows physical signs but reports no arousal, is that arousal?

        If a person reports arousal but there are no physical signs, is that arousal?

        I feel that mental arousal is primary, and physical arousal is incidental. A person’s experience takes precedence. The claim that “young women can be aroused without knowing it” places physiological arousal as primary, or claims that either one is enough to say a person is aroused: you don’t need both. I interpret the same results as showing that physiological arousal is not in itself enough to be aroused. I feel as strongly as I do about the topic, because I hear the subtext of, “I’m an expert, therefore I know better than you do about what you really feel”. This, in turn, seems to take ownership of a person’s sexuality away from them, in a form of alienation from one’s own body and desires. A topic that you touch on from a different angle when talking about social imagery (something Dr. Nerdlove discusses from various angles, e.g. “It can get very confusing very quickly. And if you’re not careful, you can convince yourself that what you want is what other people want. And maybe you’re not really sure what that is in the first place.“)

        • I’ll most likely answer in longer form later, but I’m short on time just now.
          But “desire” and “arousal” are different things. Arousal is largely though not entirely physiological, while desire is largely psychological. That’s pretty much standard usage, and I follow that because I think it’s a good idea to follow standard usage, and to make it very clear if you’re going to use a word in a non-standard sense.
          I think you’re using the word “arousal” in the sense in which most people writing about sex in a vaguely academic way (and I do mean only vaguely; I’m not making any authority grab) use the word “desire”.
          If I’d used the word “desire”, I’d agree with you that I’d used it wrong.

  3. A very interesting read, and I especially love your conclusion: sexual power comes from knowledge. Based on my own experiences, I can very much agree with that. I also think your theories about the reason fewer young girls masturbate than have sex are very relevant and must be at least a large part of the equation.

  4. Caveats in advance: (1) I am obviously atypical. My mother caught me when I was four. I don’t remember how long I had been doing it before then. (2) I’m not going to read the other comments – angry people make me scared.

    I think you are assuming that women are just as interested in sex as men. But I understand that libido increases dramatically for transmen starting hormones, whereas it’s the opposite for transwomen. And whatever our absolute levels of libido, I also think men and women have different responses to deprivation. Dear Raven and Joshua mentions that denial has a tendency to decrease women’s interest in sex. I have noticed this too; after a dry spell I submit HARD but without arousal. And then the next time, well, yes. My ex said it was like having to wake up Sleeping Beauty. Heinlein observed that women never want it so much as when they’ve just had it. I can attest to this also. Yes, of course there is a point of diminishing returns, but within the next hour and within the next few days there is also the opposite.

    My impression is that when men don’t get it, they get hungry. Whereas I don’t think I get hungry without help. But if I think about it, I miss the feeling of hunger, and I try to get it back. I think I figured out how to get that feeling really early on because I was so curious about my body in all kinds of ways (e.g. by age 4 I had also found those tiny holes in the corner of the eyes called the lacrimal puncta). Maybe it takes other women longer to learn to trigger it on purpose?

    The other elephant in the room is that you’re assuming women are having sex because they’re aroused. Coming from a time and place where teenage sex was practically unheard of, I was horrified when I read Why Gender Matters and found out that American teenage girls are primarily having sex for SOCIAL ACCEPTANCE. The objective is not pleasure, so arousal may be beside the point. This breaks my heart into smithereens. But why am I surprised? The main reason I do things I regret is not arousal, but wanting to please the dom.

    By the way, sex IS easier to talk about than – this. The word I have not used. That I don’t even talk about with my girlfriends, and we DO occasionally talk about partnered sex. But even then we don’t talk about our desires. Australian women are probably more liberated, but I bet the same tendency is there.

  5. Forgot to mention, I am afraid I am also doubtful about your theory that the ambient culture does not provide women with things to, er, get excited about. Romance novels are porn for women, yes? Emotion and character arc are crucial elements of all erotica that has made a hit with women of any age. This generation has Twilight and slash. Believe me, that stuff WORKS.

    On the more visual side of things, excellent clothed male bodies doing wonderful things are not really in short supply, and they are MUCH better than nakedness. Think of the kind of photo that makes women block men on dating websites. I actually suspect nudity may be an acquired taste for women.

    Having said that, both of your theories may still be part of the answer, and my beliefs about women’s preferences may be very much constrained by a ridiculously conservative upbringing. Just wanted to add my politically incorrect two cents.

  6. Thank you! As someone always says, long comments are an honour!

    I don’t think this reply will be as good as the comment, but I’ll get on with it anyway.

    1. The comments have all been positive, including the guy who said, “Oh, please…” I was annoyed by that phrase, but what he was arguing was reasonable. And I don’t think I put my case in response anywhere near as well as I should.

    2. I’m not sure that I was assuming that women’s interest in sex is as strong as men’s. I was mainly comparing “women under 20” with “women over 30”, and noting the changes there.

    I didn’t give the weekly or monthly frequencies of masturbation in women and men in that post (and now I’m too idle and disorganised to find the papers again) but it was clear that women never masturbated as often as man did. It’s just that with time they masturbate more often than they do when they’re young.

    Men, on the other hand (oh god, what have I typed), go off into a wanking frenzy as soon as their balls drop, or, as in my case, earlier.

    3. I agree with you that it’s sad and horrible that young women (meaning 16 to 20, in the context of the survey) have sex not because they want to for the pleasure and affection, but for acceptance. I didn’t make that point, and I definitely should have.

    But from the Australian figures, at least, young women do generally report enjoying the sex that they’re having.

    (There’s a problem getting the exact figures by age, because the existing analysis combine two variables. I think we should have figures by age cohort alone, and if we don’t have them yet, I’ll put the case for generating them.)

    What we do know from the analysis so far is that the young women who are enjoying the sex they’re having most are the ones who are emotionally satisfied with their relationship. That is, young women who like their partner and think their partner likes them are most likely to report that they’re enjoying the sex they’re having.

    Most Australian men and women said they were broadly happy with their sex lives (apart from both men and women wanting slightly more sex, interestingly enough), and that included Australians in the 16 to 20 group.

    But I’ll try to get more specific numbers on this.

    4 I think the broader point I made, that women learn to arouse themselves, or get aroused, with time and experience, and that frequency of masturbation goes up when that learning has happened, is a reasonable, not-very-scientific-but-what-can-you-do? generalisation.

    5 As a Dom I get worried about orgasm denial, because of the risk of teaching a submissive not to need to come, or to get aroused. Since I like female orgasms just about to the stage where it could be called a fetish (no, really; women in orgasm are just amazing) I’m pretty wary of doing anything that may make them scarcer.

    IBut while there are women who do start to shut down if you stop them coming for more than a day or a few days, there are other women who seriously get pleasure from being controlled for weeks or a month. And the orgasm that comes when permission is finally given is real wake-the-neighbours-and-make-their-cats-run-away stuff.

    So women react differently to orgasm deprivation. I think, anecdotally, that what you describe is more common: less sex and fewer orgasms reduces arousability. But there are also plenty of exceptions.

    6 As for masturbation, I think you’re right that it isn’t a very strong taboo, or even a taboo at all, in Australia and New Zealand. I’ve known very few women from my part of the world who aren’t inveterate wankers.

    (Though of course, if they’re socially conservative and think masturbation is wrong or shameful, then I’m probably not going to have a cheerful conversation about wanking with them. We all know most about the people who are a bit like us.)

    There are socially conservative communities who do try to discourage their children from masturbating, but my feeling is that most Australians would think it was an odd thing to get worried about. “It’s safe sex, innit?” This is probably a pro-masturbation culture.

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