From Encyclopedia of Sex and Sexuality
The drive to experience sexual pleasure is a very powerful one; nearly everyone stimulates their sexual organs from time to time, probably more often than they care to admit. A natural expression of human sexuality, masturbation may begin in childhood and continue into old age—or it may not. It is popularly believed that masturbation is mainly a teenage phenomenon, but while raging teenage hormones may lead to an increase in masturbation, it occurs at all ages, among married and unmarried people, and among the elderly.
Social and medical attitudes toward masturbation have changed considerably over the last fifty years. They have departed from very negative views of it as “self-abuse” with potentially dire physical or psychological consequences for the individual. Sex educators and therapists now agree that masturbation is normal to the sexual development of the young, it is useful as an aid to sexual interaction between two loving persons, and it is a means of relieving sexual tension when one lacks a partner.
The myths of the recent past about the harmfulness of masturbation seem to have been rooted in medical pronouncements about its ill effects and in religious beliefs that it is immoral. It was believed that excessive masturbation could cause blindness or insanity, that women would grow facial hair and that men would grow hair on the palms of their hands because of it. These myths were reinforced by the common belief that each man had a finite amount of semen; if he lost too much of it from masturbation he risked physical deterioration. Absurd as these myths are, many of them were taught in physical education courses as late as the 1940s.
Persons who based their attitudes on religious belief often cited the biblical story of Onan and his sinful “spilling” of seed (Genesis 38:8-9)—hence the term “onanism,” meaning masturbation. However, according to most scholars, the story of Onan’s sin probably refers to coitus interruptus, not masturbation. Onan withdrew before ejaculation, thereby failing to fulfill his social and religious duty to impregnate his brother’s widow.
Today, most people who work professionally in medicine and human sexuality reject these unscientific or pseudoscientific pronouncements about the dangers of masturbation. Contemporary experts caution parents about the potential harm they can cause by too vigorously trying to prevent infants or children from masturbating. They point out that interfering with childhood masturbation—other than communicating proper etiquette (that it should not be done in public)—may actually be interfering with a natural drive that impels children to explore their sexuality. One sex researcher has theorized that masturbation is probably in keeping with the process of growing up. Through it, children learn to respond physiologically, as nature intends them to, in preparation for lives as sexually active adults. Masturbation may help to develop the mechanisms later needed for successful responses and performance in the reproductive cycle.
Studies now report that almost all men and most women have masturbated at some point in their lives and that many masturbate throughout their lives. In The Janus Report, a national survey published in the United States in 1993, 55 percent of adult men and 38 percent of adult women reported that they masturbate on a “regular” basis, ranging from daily to monthly. Furthermore, 66 percent of the men and 67 percent of the women said they agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that “masturbation is a natural part of life and continues on in marriage.” This view was supported by 63 percent of the Catholics and 73 percent of the Jews who responded to the survey.
Leading sex surveys have indicated that differences do exist between the sexes in the incidence of reported masturbation. The survey results published by Alfred Kinsey in the 1950s reported that 92 percent of his male respondents said they had masturbated to orgasm at least once, compared with 58 percent of the females. The Hunt survey carried out in the mid-1970s reported that 63 percent of the women had masturbated to orgasm at least once, a percentage not much higher than Kinsey’s despite the growth of sexual permissiveness during the twenty-year period between the surveys. Both studies observed that women were probably more reluctant than men to admit that they engaged in this sexual behavior, but perhaps more important, that women’s masturbation seems to start later than men’s. Most of Kinsey’s male respondents said they had begun masturbating between the ages of thirteen and fifteen, but many of the women surveyed said they had begun after the age of twenty-five.
In a sex survey sponsored by Consumers Union in the 1980s, 33 percent of the women aged seventy and over reported that they currently masturbated, as did 43 percent of the men. Of these women, 74 percent reported they experienced orgasms every time or nearly every time. Among the men, 73 percent said they experienced orgasms nearly every time. It does seem that masturbation is a lifelong activity in this culture.
 See also
 Masturbation in Infancy, Childhood, and Adolescence
Handling of the genitals is quite common and normal in infancy and childhood. It is pleasurable for babies and is part of normal curiosity and exploration of the body, in the same way that they explore their fingers and toes. Genital self-stimulation is also very common and normal from ages two to five, when children are discovering the physical differences between boys and girls. The desire to touch themselves and, perhaps, other children in “sex play” partly reflects their natural curiosity about these differences. Children should not be made to feel ashamed about this behavior or to feel that these parts of their bodies are “bad” in any way. There is, of course, absolutely no truth to the myths that masturbation can cause homosexuality, blindness, physical deformity, retardation, hair on the palms, or any physical or mental illness. Parents may want to suggest to their children that it is something which, like toileting, is usually done “in private.”
Adolescents have an increased urge to masturbate as a result of the hormonal changes of puberty. Studies indicate that nearly all boys have masturbated to orgasm by eighteen years of age. Masturbation in boys usually consists of rubbing the penis with the hand or against a mattress in an up and down motion until ejaculation occurs. The amount of semen and the distance it can spurt from one’s penis can vary. Mutual masturbation among two males is believed to occur at least once among 25 percent of heterosexual males and 60 percent of gay males by age fourteen, increasing to 90 percent of gay males by age nineteen.
Girls usually masturbate by rubbing their clitoris and the lips of their vulva, and may become aroused by touching erogenous zones such as the breasts. Although girls do not ejaculate the way boys do, when a girl is aroused, a clear liquid lubricant is secreted in the vagina. For girls, masturbation may be a way to defer sexual intercourse. Masturbation seems to be more common among women from lower socioeconomic groups, who also participate more frequently in premarital coitus.
In some instances, the child’s or adolescent’s masturbation may appear to be excessive or compulsive, or it may continue to occur in public. This may be an indication of excessive tension or worry on the part of the child or adolescent. If there are other indications that the child or adolescent is anxious or preoccupied, if he or she appears to be lonely, or to have few friends or interests, it may be prudent to seek advice from a mental health professional.
 See also
 Masturbation in Sex Therapy
Masturbation and other forms of autoeroticism are crucial for sex therapists’ treatment of male and female sexual dysfunctions. Because of traditionally negative Jewish and Christian attitudes toward masturbation, as well as old and erroneous popular and medical beliefs that linked “excessive” masturbation with mental illness, therapy for sexual dysfunctions might never have developed as a profession without radical shifts in attitudes toward autoeroticism. Changes in public and medical attitudes toward masturbation stem from the work of Alfred Kinsey, Masters and Johnson, and Helen Singer Kaplan. Kinsey’s great contribution was in his finding that the vast majority of persons have masturbated—without the terrible consequences some believed would occur. Masters and Johnson reported the significance of masturbation for women, that through manual manipulation of the clitoral area or the use of vibrators they might reach orgasm more reliably than through coitus. Kaplan devised innovative techniques to teach women how to overcome some sexual dysfunctions by becoming orgasmic through self-stimulation.
Since the main reason women seek the advice of sex therapists is orgasmic dysfunction, teaching women how to masturbate and pleasure their own bodies is usually essential before women can fully accept sexual pleasure and stimulation from others. Most sex therapists believe that it is necessary for women with orgasmic dysfunctions to learn to take responsibility for their own orgasms before they can become orgasmic from their partners’ stimulations, whether manual, oral, or penile. As a result of the work of Masters and Johnson, sex therapists often recommend the use of vibrators as the most effective means for women to become orgasmic. This does not mean that they will have to continue with or be dependent upon them, however, because success with vibrators is easily transferred to self-stimulation and then to a partner’s stimulation. For some women it may be helpful to discuss their orgasmic difficulties in all-female group therapy settings. Therapists have reported that group support from others discussing a topic not generally discussed in gatherings of women can be a powerful aid in therapy.
Masturbation is rarely used to teach men how to become orgasmic or to ejaculate. It is, however, used in treating the fairly common male sexual dysfunctions of premature ejaculation and anticipatory anxiety.