4. Autoerotic Behaviors and Patterns


* With input from J. Kenneth Davidson, Sr.

A. Research Weaknesses and Challenges

Five weaknesses or shortcomings and three challenges can be identified in the current research on autoerotic attitudes and behavior patterns in the U.S.A. The weaknesses are:

1. the virtual absence of recent data on noncollege men and women, especially married women and men;

2. the small sample sizes in available research;

3. a problem with the representativeness of the samples;

4. very limited or no data on African-Americans, Latinos, and other ethnic/racial groups; and

5. a limited use of theory as a driving force in the development of research questions.

The challenges include:
1. Finding available research funds;

2. overcoming the negative views in academia toward sex research in general, and especially for research on masturbation; and

3. disseminating the findings to the “consumer” to relieve the guilt feelings that many persons experience as a result of their masturbation practices.

B. Children and Adolescents

In 1985, Mary Calderone, M.D., a pioneer of American sexology and co-founder of the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States, documented the presence of a functioning erectile reflex in a seventeen-week-old male fetus. Considering the homologies of the male and female genital systems, it is logical to assume that females also develop the capacity for cyclical vaginal lubrication while still in the womb. In a 1940 study of boys three to twenty weeks old, seven of nine infants had erections from five to forty times a day. Seven-month-old girls have been observed experiencing what to all appearances can only be judged to be a reflexive orgasm induced by rubbing or putting pressure on their genitals.

The natural reflexes that result in fetal and infant erections and vaginal lubrication are very much like the knee jerk and other reflexes, except that they are accompanied by smiles and cooing that clearly suggest the infant is enjoying something quite pleasurable (Martinson 1990, 1995). Sooner or later, most children learn the pleasures of stimulating their genitals. Once that connection is made, the threat of punishment and sin may not be enough to keep a child from masturbating. Generally, American adults are very uncomfortable with masturbation by infants and children. There are exceptions, of course, as for instance, the practice of indigenous Hawaiian adult caregivers masturbating or fellating infants to calm them at night.

Most children seem to forget their early masturbation experiences. Two thirds of the males in Kinsey's study reported hearing about masturbation from other boys in their prepubescent or early adolescent years before they tried it themselves. Fewer than one in three males reported they rediscovered masturbation entirely on their own. Two out of three females in Kinsey's sample learned about masturbation by accident, sometimes not until after they were married. Some women reported they had masturbated for some time before they realized what they were doing.

In the 1940s, Kinsey and his associates reported that close to 90 percent of males and about 50 percent of females masturbated by the midteens. Studies in the 1980s show an increase in these numbers, with a fair estimate that today nearly three quarters of girls masturbate by adolescence and another 10 percent or so wait until their 20s. About 80 percent of adolescent girls and 90 percent of adolescent boys masturbate with frequencies ranging from once a week to about daily (Hass and Hass 1993, 151, 285).

C. Adults

Race and ethnicity, religion, educational level, and sexual education appear to be important variables that affect the incidence of masturbation. African-Americans engage in masturbation less often than whites and are more negative about it. Very little is known about Latino masturbation attitudes and practices. We are not aware of any studies on masturbation among other major groups, such as Asians and Native Americans. Religion is a key variable, especially given the continuing condemnation of masturbation by the Roman Catholic Church. Granted many Catholics engage in masturbation, but on a continuum, they are more likely to experience guilt feelings than Protestants or Jews. Likewise, persons from fundamentalist-Protestant backgrounds are more likely to have negative attitudes toward masturbation than liberal Protestants. Kinsey and many subsequent researchers have found that, as education level increases, especially among women, the acceptance and approval of masturbation as a sexual outlet increases. Finally, experience with sex education is an important variable (Heiby and Becker 1980). Persons who have had sex education appear to hold more-tolerant attitudes.

Data indicate that about 72 percent of young husbands masturbate an average of about twice a month. About 68 percent of young wives do so, with an average frequency of slightly less than once a month (Hunt 1974, 86). According to data reported by Edward Brecher in Love, Sex and Aging (1984), women in their 50s, 60s and 70s reported a consistent masturbation frequency of 0.6 to 0.7 times a week. In their 50s, men reported masturbating 1.2 times a week with a decline to 0.8 times a week in their 60s, and 0.7 times a week over age 70.

The incidence of masturbation has continued to increase in recent years among both college and postcollege women. During the 1980s, between 46 percent and 69 percent of college women in several surveys reported masturbating. In the 1990s, other surveys have found 45 percent to 78 percent. Postcollege women also became more accepting of masturbation as they received psychological permission, instruction, and support in learning about their own bodies. In fact, in self-reports of masturbation, a majority of postcollege-age, college-educated women indicated this was a sexual outlet. In a large-scale sample of college-educated women, without regard to marital status, frequency of masturbation was 7.1 times per month. By contrast, high-school-educated, married women engaged in masturbation only 3.7 times per month (Davidson and Darling 1993).

Not all women feel comfortable with masturbation. Among college women, 30 percent reported “shame” as a major reason for not engaging in this outlet. Other research indicates that only about half of college women believe that masturbation is a “healthy practice.” Even with the apparent increasing incidence of masturbation, considerable data exist that suggest negative feelings toward the practice still deter many college women from choosing this source of sexual fulfillment. And, of those who do engage in masturbation, they do so much less frequently than men, 3.3 times a month for college women compared with 4.8 times for college men (Davidson and Darling 1993).

In general, women are more likely than men to report guilt feelings about their masturbation. Further, substantial evidence suggests that such guilt feelings may interfere with the physiological and/or psychological sexual satisfaction derived from masturbation. In fact, the presence of masturbatory guilt has various implications for female sexuality. Such guilt feelings have been found to inhibit the use of the diaphragm, which necessitates touching the genitals for insertion (Byrne and Fisher 1983). Presumably, this would also affect use of other vaginally inserted contraceptives. Women with high levels of masturbatory guilt experience more emotional trauma after contracting an STD, and exhibit greater fear about telling their sex partner about being infected, than women with low masturbatory guilt. Masturbatory guilt may also inhibit women from experiencing high levels of arousal during foreplay as a prelude to having vaginal intercourse.

One indication of changing attitudes of women toward self-loving is the publication of Sex for One: The Joy of Selfloving, by Betty Dodson (1988), and her subsequent appearance on television talk shows. At the same time, the swift dismissal of the U.S. Surgeon General for daring to suggest that masturbation might be mentioned as part of safer-sex education for children indicates that a prevailing negative societal attitude toward masturbation continues.