Gender, Psychology

Why Do Men Masturbate? Let’s Count the Reasons

May 29, 2023 by Olivia Adams

It’s been a busy month here at Sex and Psychology, but we couldn’t say goodbye to May before taking a deep dive into an important springtime topic: masturbation. 

Over the years, we have explored many different aspects of self-pleasure, from its role as a self-care practice to the reasons why ‘No Nut November’ campaigns may be better at perpetuating myths than promoting healthy sexual habits. 

Just in time for this year’s Masturbation May, sexology researchers have published new findings about motivations for self-pleasure among men in committed relationships. What are the most frequently reported reasons for masturbation within this group? And how do those reasons differ from other research on women’s habits? Let’s explore.    

Why Do Men Masturbate? 

Published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy last month, this study investigated not only men’s reported reasons for engaging in masturbation, but also compared data from two new angles: country of residence and sexual dysfunction status. 

Researchers surveyed 699 men from the U.S. or other English-speaking countries and 3,243 men from Hungary about their masturbation habits. Participants were also sorted into several groups depending on their sexual dysfunction symptoms: those who reported no sexual dysfunction and those who reported erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation, delayed ejaculation, or various combinations of symptoms. 

Three top reasons emerged for engaging in masturbation across all participants, and those reasons largely reflect existing literature on this topic. The numbers below add up to greater than 100% because participants were allowed to choose more than one motivation:

  • To achieve sexual pleasure/satisfaction: 75% 
  • To decrease feelings of sexual tension and drive: 67% 
  • To help relieve stress/anxiety and relax: 60% 

When participants were required to choose their single most important reason for masturbating, 78% of participants selected one of those three items (38%, 26%, and 14%, respectively). 

Do Women Differ in Their Masturbation Motives? 

Previous research tells us that men and women’s masturbation habits differ in several important ways. For example, scientific explorations of women’s masturbation habits in relation to their sex lives with a partner suggest that masturbation frequency and partnered sex frequency are positively correlated for women, but not for men. In other words, among women who were happy with the frequency of sex in their relationships, having more sex was related to masturbating more; those who were unhappy were masturbating less. 

At the same time, researchers in the present study on men’s masturbation habits note that the reasons for masturbation align more than we might expect between men and women. A 2020 study found that women also reported the pursuit of pleasure as a primary or contributing motivator for masturbation, along with stress relief and decreasing sexual tension. 

Does Sexual Dysfunction or Country of Residence Make a Difference? 

Surprisingly, there were very few differences between masturbatory motivators for men with or without sexual dysfunction. When comparing participants’ number one reason for masturbating, men with erectile dysfunction were more likely to report unsatisfying partnered sex as the reason for masturbation. But, overall, unsatisfying partnered sex was not a highly endorsed reason to masturbate—less than 4% of the men across the sample reported it as their number one motivator. 

Men from the U.S. (or another English-speaking country) and men from Hungary also shared many of the same motivations for self-pleasure. Notably, however, Hungarian men reported decreasing sexual tension or drive as a top motivator more often than stress relief. This may be explained by differences in anxiety prevalence rates—based on a 2017 report from the WHO, the U.S. had an overall prevalence of 6.3% whereas Hungary’s prevalence was only 3.9%. 

The Compensatory Model of Masturbation Motivation

Previous work on masturbation, especially its connection to relationship wellbeing, suggests that masturbation may work as a way to control sexual desire, especially when dealing with the absence or lack of regular satisfying sex. This idea is known as the compensatory model. While this model garnered considerable attention in the early 2000s, it has faced many challenges from newer studies. 

The present study found some support for this model. For men who had sex once a week or less, they cited pleasure and the need to decrease sexual tension or desire as motivating factors for masturbation more often. However, the correlation between these two factors was relatively low, suggesting a weak association. 

It’s important to note that these findings speak only to correlation (not causation) between masturbation motivations and related factors. Moreover, investigating masturbation motivations in the context of race, sexual orientation, and gender identity is important as well, but was not addressed in this research. For example, is the compensatory model more or less common among gay men? And how might masturbation motivators change for folks outside of the gender binary? As always, more research will help shed light on the questions raised by this discussion.

Learn more about this research here

What are some other motivations for masturbation? How do stress and pleasure factor into your self-pleasure experiences? Let us know in the comments below.  

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Image Source: 123RF/Александр Марко

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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