Do People in Couples Have the Right to Masturbate?

Over the past few decades, I’ve answered more than 10,000 sex questions sent to a dozen magazines and web sites, including the one I publish, A surprising number come from women who have become distraught after discovering that their men were masturbating. In some cases, the guy volunteered the information. Or she asked and he told her. Or she walked in on him stroking to porn. Or she found lube near his computer. Or he did it into a sock, tossed it into the hamper, and while sorting laundry, she smelled semen.

In every case, the women who wrote me expressed variations on these themes:

Masturbation is fine for single men. But when a man becomes coupled, the woman should meet all of his sexual needs, so masturbation is no longer necessary—or appropriate.

• Masturbation by men who are coupled equals betrayal of the relationship. Once coupled, the only permissible sex is partner sex. Anything else, including solo sex, is duplicity.

• Porn is disgusting. Masturbating while viewing porn is even more disgusting. I don’t know if I can stay with my man knowing he does this.

Whatever these women say, it’s always clear they’re quite upset. So, what about solo sex when coupled? Is it okay?

Why Give Up Apple Pie?

Masturbation is our original sexuality. Infants engage in self-exploration, and when they find their genitals, playing with them feels good, so they keep doing it—usually throughout life, and for many men, frequently. Sure, partner sex can be great fun, but so is solo sex. Why give up apple pie after you’ve tasted blueberry?

Masturbation and partner sex are both “sex,” but they’re also different. In solo sex, you only have yourself to please. With a lover, you must please that person, hope the person pleases you, negotiate your frequency and repertoire, and deal with the many interpersonal issues that inevitably develop.  Masturbation is simpler, easier, and less complicated.

Some people, apparently mostly women, believe that once coupled, the two people should meet all of each other’s sexual needs. A committed relationship may (or may not) meet all needs for partner sex. But having a lover, even one with whom you enjoy fabulous sex, does not meet the need for self-sexing, which is, by definition a solitary pleasure. Most men need some alone time, some time to enjoy themselves. 

Over time, in committed relationships, lovers become each other’s best friends. But usually, each partner also has other friends. Women who object to their men masturbating are, in effect, saying, “Honey, you shouldn’t need friends other than me.”

Compared with Women, Men Masturbate Almost Twice as Much

Solo sex was one subject University of Indiana researchers investigated in a survey of a representative sample of 5,865 Americans age 14 to 94 (2,936 men and 2,924 women). Here’s what they reported about masturbation:


Age      Reported Masturbation,Past Month

14-15.  43%

16-17.  58%

18-19.  61%

20-24.  63%

25-29.  69%

30-39.  66%

40-49.  60%

50-59.  56%

60-69.  42%

70+.     28%

From age 16 to 59, more than half of the men admitted masturbating at least once a month. Actual frequency is probably higher. Solo sex is still stigmatized and many people are reluctant to admit it.

Note that during men’s prime reproductive years, 18 to 49, the time when both couple-hood and intercourse peak, two-thirds of men masturbated at least once a month. Clearly, most men believe that saying, “I do,” doesn’t mean “I won’t.”

Here’s what the women said:


Age      Reported Masturbation, Past Month

14-15.  24%

16-17.  26%

18-19.  26%

20-24.  44%

25-29.  52%

30-39.  39%

40-49.  39%

50-59.  28%

60-69.  22%

70+.     12%

Again, the true prevalence of solo sex among women is quite likely higher. And again, during women’s reproductive years, one-quarter to one-half reported masturbating at least monthly.

These results agree with many other studies showing that throughout life, men masturbate considerably more than women. Male sex hormonestestosterone in men and androgens in women—spur libido in both genders, but men’s hormone mix usually (but not always) produces greater, more insistent libido and more masturbation.

Most men and a considerable proportion of women enjoy solo sex while coupled. Women may object to their men masturbating, but like the tide, there’s no stopping it.

The Masturbation-Porn Connection

Many women who object to their men masturbating link it to porn. They say: He strokes, which is bad enough. But he does it while watching porn, which is much worse.

Indeed, male masturbation and porn are as enmeshed as the Super Bowl and guacamole. Sexual fantasies are fundamental to masturbation, but one’s own erotic daydreams may get stale, which sends men looking for others. Internet porn provides zillions for free.

Whatever you think about porn, there’s no arguing with the fact that it’s men’s prime masturbation aid. That’s the very purpose of porn, to encourage male self-stroking. It’s the reason the Internet contains 2 billion XXX-rated pages, almost one for every man on Earth, and why many men are willing to pay lots of money for fresh porn fantasies—by some estimates, as much annually as moviegoers spend at theaters.

Compared with women, most men derive more pleasure from seeing people being sexual. And not just men having sex with women. Men also love viewing what’s known in the trade as girl-girl scenes. Why would men enjoy watching sex that appears to be lesbian, sex they could not participate in? Because men love watching people being sexual and the details of who or how or where matter a lot less than the bottom line­—S-E-X.  

Meanwhile, every time I write that men use porn as a benign masturbation aid, I get savaged in the Comments by women who say: Porn is disgusting. Anyone who defends it is reprehensible. And my man would never….

How you feel about porn and its defenders is up to you, but viewing it is virtually universal among men. A few years ago, Canadian researchers wanted to compare the sexual attitudes of men who had and hadn’t viewed porn. They advertised for subjects all over the Internet—and couldn’t find a single man who hadn’t seen porn. A man I know, an old friend, spend several years in a monastery with little contact with the outside world. Guess what he and other monks sneaked in? Porn magazines. Whether single or coupled, men’s drive to masturbate is powerful, and today, the fantasies that enhance its pleasure are just a few clicks away.

The Happiest Couples Masturbate

Researchers with the U.S. Army surveyed the sexual satisfaction of 82 military wives. Half admitted masturbating to orgasm, including while married. Half claimed to have never had an orgasm during solo sex. Those who masturbated reported greater self-esteem and significantly more satisfying sex lives: greater libido, easier arousal, more likelihood of orgasm, and greater pleasure from sex. So among married women, masturbation adds to enjoyment of lovemaking. And what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

Finally, a University of Chicago investigator used the National Health and Social Life Survey to discover how 3,400 American adults felt about masturbation. His two main findings: In singles, masturbation compensates for the lack of a partner. In couples, it complements partner sex and adds to erotic satisfaction.

It’s Fine

Based on the correspondence I’ve received, it’s clear that many women object to their men masturbating. Which raises a question: How do men feel about their girlfriends and wives doing it? Over the years, I’ve asked many coupled men about this. Not a single one has registered any objection. Several said, “I’d love to watch her.”

A marriage license does not confer control of everything about your spouse’s sexuality. Many coupled people, particularly men, masturbate. It improves satisfaction with partner sex. It’s fine.


Herbenick, D. et al. “Sexual Behavior in the United States: Results from a National Probability Sample of Men and Women, Ages 14-94,” Journal of Sexual Medicine (2010) 7(Suppl 5): 255.

Hurlbert, D.F. and K.E. Whittaker. “The Role of Masturbation in Marital and Sexual Satisfaction: A Comparative Study of Female Masturbators and Non-Masturbators,” Journal of Sex Research (2009) 46:558.


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