I’ve JUST read the most amazing article from the Scientific American Mind. It discusses, in fair detail, the whys and hows of human masturbation, and why we seem the ONLY ones who do it so frequently.
In this column presented by Scientific American Mind magazine, research psychologist Jesse Bering of Queen’s University Belfast ponders some of the more obscure aspects of everyday human behavior.
On the topic of sexual dreams:
…if you really want to know about a person’s hidden sexual desires, then find out what’s on his or her mind’s eye during the deepest throes of masturbation.
This conjuring ability to create fantasy scenes in our heads that literally bring us to orgasm when conveniently paired with our dexterous appendages is an evolutionary magic trick that I suspect is uniquely human.
(for the new few minutes I’m only going to cover male masturbation. I know, I know)
Masturbation was once seen as a self-destructive behavior that depleted a man of his life-giving sperm prematurely (hah!), and continuous self-abuse would surely result in weakened and “overripe” stock. We’ve all seen the torture devices used to deter male masturbation, from spiky cock rings and chastity pieces to bland diets and even beatings. Turns out (surprise, surprise) they were going about it backwards:
masturbation is an evolved strategy for shedding old sperm while making room for new, fitter sperm.
Sperm has a shelf-life. If not used within 5-8 days (and if the body doesn’t expel it somehow) it gets weaker, less potent, and I imagine all crumbly and wobble-headed. This build up of sperm actually lessens the chance of an impregnation, since the healthier, younger sperm have to fight through his half-dead buddies. Oh, and just so you know, an average man produces 3 MILLION sperm a day… that’s a LOT of zombie-sperm.
I’ve always been a huge proponent of masturbation. It feels good, you can do it fairly easily, and it can really take the edge off of a headache or stressful day. I can see where a chronic, vicious, callus-covered ‘masturbation-aholic’ would cause consternation to our fore fathers (and today… I still don’t think it’s acceptable), but that’s a societal problem, not a “you have a finite amount of sperm so keep it in your pants” problem.
Not surprisingly, not only are there less studies on female masturbation, it isn’t even COVERED in this damn article. So I went internetting and found some stats:
- More than half of women ages 18 to 49 reported masturbating during the previous 90 days. Rates were highest among those 25-29 and progressively lesser in older age groups. NSSHB, 2010
- Approximately one-third of women in all relationships in the 60- to 69-year cohort reported recent masturbation. NSSHB, 2010
- Among women in the National Sex Survey older than 70, solo masturbation was reported by more than half who were in a non-cohabitating relationship, compared to 12.2% among married women.NSSHB, 2010
A new study reveals 92% of women [in the UK] regularly take time out to masturbate, a huge jump from the findings of previous studies (74% in 1979 and 62% in 1953).
The Gossard Big M Survey interviewed 1,000 women, ages 18-30, and their answers indicate that not only do 9 out of 10 women play with themselves, two-thirds do it three times a week.
Quick and dirty, and there doesn’t seem to be any sort of consensus for the “evolutionary benefit” of female masturbation. I’m letting my prejudice show, since the last great female sexuality study was Masters and Johnson which ended in 1965.
OK, back to the original article! I’m not used to writing expository essays, so forgive the… roughness of it all.
So, what about other primates? (good question!)
Unfortunately, there have been a paltry handful of studies tracking the masturbatory behaviors of nonhuman primates.
(I see what you did there, Mr. Bering.)
Of these paltry studies (some dating back to the 1920s and a mad-cap zoologist who kept monkeys on his rescue-cum-research land in California), we have the following conclusions:
Concerning witnessed primate manipulation of genitals:
…these diddling episodes so seldom lead to an intentional orgasm.
Well, those that DO must be the weaker males who can’t find a mate, right?
It’s a rarity even among low status male nonhuman primates that frustratingly lack sexual access to females–in fact, the few observed incidents seem to be with dominant males.
But monkeys at the zoo are famous for this!
I have reason to believe that he (male monkey named Jocko) lived under unnatural conditions for many years before I acquired him. In view of this fact that not one of seven sexually mature monkeys masturbated after several weeks of isolation under conditions that favored a fairly healthy mental and physical life (close proximity to other monkeys, large cage, warm climate) I am inclined to believe that masturbation is not of normal occurrence among monkeys.
-1914 Journal of Animal Behavior study by Gilbert Van Tassel Hamilton
The gist of the above quote is that, over and over again, primates in captivity display behavior that is aberrant or unnatural in the wild. In fact, humans (just another kind of primate) could be described as such. Just look at our prisons and institutions.
So! Why are humans so awesome for masturbating ourselves silly?
we alone have the power to conjure up at will erotic, orgasm-inducing scenes in our theater-like heads … internal, salacious fantasies completely disconnected from our immediate external realities.
We fantasize. That is what makes us special, what makes OUR masturbation a conscious decision instead of a motor-response like scratching an itch. We actively create imagery in our heads, scenes of orgies, beautiful, naked women, of ravishment or BDSM. They call them fantasies for a reason!
…Lukianowicz argues that erotic fantasies involve imaginary companions not altogether unlike children’s make-believe friends. But unlike the more long-lived latter, he concedes, the former is conjured up for one very practical purpose: “… as soon as the orgasm is achieved the role of the imaginary sexual partner is completed, and he is quite simply and quickly dismissed from his master’s mind.”
On captive primates:
it’s not an uncommon problem for many caretakers of adolescent and adults with mental impairments, whose charges often enjoy masturbating in public and making onlookers squeal and squirm in discomfort. (Not unlike some captive primates housed in miserable conditions such as laboratories or roadside zoos, where self-stimulation sometimes becomes stereotypical.)
But one thing that clinicians dealing with this problem may wish to consider is that the individual’s cognitive limitations may not allow them to engage in more “appropriate” private masturbation because of difficulties with mental representation. In fact, frequency of erotic fantasies correlates positively with intelligence. The average IQ of Lukianowicz’s sample was 132. So perhaps public masturbation, in which other people are physically present to induce arousal, is the only way that many with developmental disorders can achieve sexual satisfaction.
Did I just read that right? “Frequency of erotic fantasies correlates positively with intelligence”. I guess those sapiosexual people have something… Smart people ARE sexier (in their brains).
Further down in the article, the differences of fantasies along gender lines is discussed. It’s what you might expect, straight women fantasize about being dominated or “doing something wicked,” straight men fantasize about multiple women and graphic and detailed anatomy. What’s interesting is the line they have on gay men and lesbian women:
Gay men’s sexual fantasies often include, among other things, “idyllic sexual encounters with unknown men,” “observing group sexual activity,” and here’s a shocker: images of penises and buttocks. According to one study, the top five lesbian fantasies are “forced sexual encounter,” “idyllic encounter with established partner,” “sexual encounters with men,” “recall of past gratifying sexual encounters,” and—ouch!—“sadistic imagery directed toward genitals of both men and women.”
I won’t comment on the authors’ lack of neutral treatment on the different gender/sexual orientations (the straight men and women did not receive such commentary), but it is interesting none the less.
So, why are humans so awesome? It’s not just that we masturbate (though we do. A lot. All the time), it’s that we masturbate consciously, with intent, and develop (sometimes) intricate fantasies that stretch the bounds of civility, normalcy, practicality, and debauchery. And that is just…. tops.