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August 30, 2022

People Engage In Partnered Sex More Than Masturbation, Study Shows

You might think the opposite would be true given that solo sex is easier to access.
Published on
August 30, 2022
Updated on
— What's changed?
Medically Reviewed by
3 minute read

This article is part of a series highlighting findings from The State of Sex — an O.school original 2021 study in partnership with Pilotly. The State of Sex study consisted of a 103-question online survey administered to 1,074 US participants, ages 18-75 with an average age of 44. 

The study was representative of the US population and oversampled Black, Asian, and Latinx respondents to obtain holistic, readable data on ethnicities and sexual orientation. Our findings enable us to better understand sexual habits, behaviors, attitudes, and consumption. 

You may think that solo sex (aka masturbation) would be the most popular sexual activity. After all, it’s a form of sex that almost everyone can participate in — whether or not they have a partner. Our State of Sex survey, though, found some surprising results: people reported engaging in more partnered sex than masturbation. 

Kissing, vaginal sex most common

Among people who responded to the survey, the most popular intimate act was kissing, with 81% of people reporting that they’d kissed someone. Most people (79%) said they’d had vaginal sex, while slightly fewer (71%) had experienced oral sex. Just 69% of total respondents said they’d ever masturbated.

Stigma could help explain why

Masturbation is something most people can do, even if they don’t have access to a partner. So why might it be less popular than partnered sex? 

Sexuality researcher Dr. Shemeka Thorpe thinks that the stigma associated with masturbation could help explain why. “There is more shame and stigma around masturbation because partnered sex is more accepted by society,” Dr. Shemeka tells O.school. Having partnered sex might be seen as evidence that someone is desirable and attractive to others. In other words, people might be less likely to masturbate than to peruse partnered sex because they feel ashamed or embarrassed to explore solo sex. 

Another possible explanation, according to Dr. Shemeka, is that more people are having solo sex, but not reporting it. “[Stigma around masturbation] might change the ways in which people report on it. For example, there could have been more people that participated in masturbation but didn't report it due to shame.”

Social psychologist and sexuality researcher Dr. Pei Hwa Goh agrees that stigma could help explain why more people don’t masturbate (or say they don’t). She also explains that partnered sex might be “perceived as more rewarding overall” since it can meet many needs at once. While masturbation usually just provides sexual release, partnered sex can contribute to “emotional closeness and connection,” keeping a partner satisfied, and helping to maintain a romantic connection. 

People who identify as gay or lesbian report more solo sex

While 69% of the total number of people surveyed said they’d experienced solo sex, the numbers look different when people’s sexuality is taken into account. Among people who identify as straight, 66% reported having masturbated, whereas 95% of people who identify as gay or lesbian said they’d masturbated before. 

What could explain this difference? According to Dr. Shemeka, “Gay men and lesbian women often masturbate at earlier ages.” This could be because they don’t have as many potential sex partners as their straight or bisexual peers, so they’re more likely to explore on their own. Dr. Shemeka also speculates that “openness to self-exploration at earlier ages may remove the stigma associated with masturbation,” making people who identify as gay or lesbian more likely to report solo sex to researchers.

Dr. Goh suggests that people “negotiating their sexual orientation and gender identity” might also be “more likely to be curious about their genitals” and more likely to explore that part of their body through masturbation.

The bottom line 

Masturbation is a totally normal and healthy way to explore pleasure. It can help you learn more about your body and what turns you on, as well as being a valid form of sex in itself. Whether you’re single, hooking up, dating, or partnered, there shouldn’t be any shame around solo sex. In fact, there are plenty of ways to enhance your solo sex even more if you’re open and willing to explore. 

Have a hot take on this State of Sex finding? Subscribe to our newsletter and learn more about our study here. Tell us your thoughts on why people’s sex lives didn’t change much during the pandemic.

Reviewed for Medical Accuracy

Emily A. Klein is a freelance writer with deep interests in science, culture, and health. As a student of cultural anthropology, she researched and wrote about kink, reproductive rights, cross-cultural medicine, and humans’ relationship with technology. She has designed and implemented a sexual health curriculum for adolescent girls, worked with foster youth and people experiencing housing insecurity, and volunteered as an emergency first responder. Her writing has appeared in The Establishment, Edible magazine, The Seattle Lesbian, Slog, and elsewhere.

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