what 60 years of research says about women’s masturbation

I’ve been drawing graphs again. I find it helpful, as a way to get deep inside an ocean of data.

This time it’s women’s masturbation.

See, the “master narrative” of women’s masturbation has been that women masturbate with vaginal penetration — that’s what most of my students believe (until they take my class) and it’s what I believed until 2000, when I encountered the first research I’d ever read on the subject. It said that about 90% of women masturbate without any penetration at all. From that moment on, I’ve been intrigued… but I lost that original paper.

So I dug in deep.

And look what I found:

I focused on four large studies, published across 60 years, and drew pie charts of what proportion of women reported masturbating with penetration at least “sometimes.” Here’s Kinsey’s (1953) data:

As you can see, he and his team divided women’s masturbatory techniques into seven groups, but I so recommend you read the commentary on pages 158–73 of Kinsey’s female volume because it’s importantly more subtle than just these 7 categories. For example, Kinsey is careful to note that women don’t, in their descriptions of masturbation, distinguish between the poorly innervated vagina itself and the densely innervated introitus — the mouth of the vagina.

Also, these are women reporting AT LEAST SOMETIMES masturbating with a particular technique, not necessarily USUALLY or ALWAYS using that technique.

Table 37, though, is where you’ll find this summary of results:

Clitoral and labial 84%

Thigh pressure 10%

Muscular tension 5%

Breast stimulation 11%

Vaginal insertion 20%

Fantasy alone 2%

Other techniques 11%

(Note that about half of women reported more than one technique, so the percents don’t add up to 100.)

A couple decades later, Shere Hite came along and gave us way more than seven categories of women’s masturbation:

Here is Hite’s taxonomy of masturbation techniques:

TYPE I: Stimulating clitoral/vulval area with your hand while lying on your back 73%

TYPE II: Stimulating clitoral/vulval area with your hand while lying on your stomach 5.5%

TYPE III: Pressing and thrusting your clitoral/vulval area against a soft object. 4%

TYPE IV: Pressing your thighs together rhythmically 3%

TYPE V: Water massage of your clitoral/vulval area 2%

TYPE VI: Vaginal entry 1.5%

More than one of the above ways: 11%

As part of her breakdown of masturbation techniques, Hite notes that among the women who use TYPE I techniques, a small proportion also use vaginal penetration

Women who, during some of the times they masturbate, enter their vaginas 5%

Women who always enter their vaginas during masturbation 5%

Women who enter their vaginas at the moment or orgasm 1%

Women who use one hand for simultaneous clitoral/vulval stimulation and vaginal penetration: keeping the palm on the vlitoral area, while a finger or fingers are inside the vagina 1%

Women who occasionally enter their vaginas to obtain lubrication 1%

A few years after that, de Bruijin published a slightly different taxonomy of women’s masturbation, dividing women into “pelvic passive” and “pelvic active” masturbators:

She too found that, among her sample of 443 women, the “pelvic-passive” masturbators were the ones who used penetration, and of them just 42 — about 10% — “sometimes” or ‘always” would “rhythmically move a vaginal insertion (fingers or object).” (I included in my graph there the 59 pelvic-passive masturbators who reported that they “seldom or never” used penetration, just to make sure I accounted for everyone. de Bruijin didn’t tell us how many pelvic-passive masturbators “seldom” v. “never” used penetration.)

Here’s how her taxonomy looks:

PELVIC-PASSIVE MASTURBATION “Sometimes” “Often” or “Always”…

manual-clitoral 5%

lying on back 16.7%

lying on stomach 8.1%

on side, sitting or standing 10%

water massage 8.4%

rhythmically move a vaginal insertion (fingers or object) 9.5%

PELVIC-ACTIVE MASTURBATION “Sometimes” “Often” or “Always”…

rubbing 3.8%

lying on stomach (e.g., bedsheets)1.6%

other (e..g., rubbing on armchair) 8.1%

crossing legs and pressing thighs 4.3%

rhythmical tension of vaginal muscles 6.6%

Most recently, Carvalheira and Leal found that 21.5% of the women in their sample reported that they “use vibrators or insert objects into the vagina.”

This is an awkward question, since most of the time when women use vibrators, they’re using exclusively external stimulation (PDF*) so this question asks two different things — unless the translation from Portuguese simply doesn’t capture it well. Anyway, here is their taxonomy:

“I touch my clitoris.” 86.8%

“I use vibrators or introduce some objects into the vagina.” 21.4%

“I use a pillow between my legs or similar to pressure my genitals.”16%

“I cross my legs and balance.” 9.3%

“I use the shower jet water.” 22.9%

“Sitting on some surfaces (couch, chair, banister, etc.)” 5.5%

As with Kinsey’s data, women could report more than one technique, so the numbers don’t add up to 100.

Now when I look at all four charts together, the similarity is striking:

Over the last 60 years, remarkably little seems to have changed with the basics of women’s masturbation techniques. We might be using the shower spray and vibrators more (about half of women in the US have used a vibrator now [PDF*]), but ultimately it comes down to pressure against the clitoris and vulva, with occasional forays to the vagina.

In conclusion, there are three really important things I take away from this:

  1. The vast majority of women masturbate. Women of all ages and backgrounds. And rates of masturbation — or at least reporting masturbation — have been going up for as long as science has been asking. 62% of the women Kinsey’s data reported having masturbated at least once in their lives. In Hite’s, it was 82%; and in both de Bruijin’s 1982 sample and in Carvalheira and Leal’s 2013 sample, it was, it was 91%. … This also means nearly 10% of women don’t masturbate, and that’s cool too.

*This paper found that among vibrator users 85% had ever used a vibrator on their clitorises and 64% — 33% of the total sample — had ever used it in their vaginas. This includes both vibrator use during masturbation and during partnered sex.

This post originally appeared at thedirtynormal.com

Emily Nagoski, Ph.D, is the author of Come As You Are, a transformational new book on women’s sexuality, is stirring up a lot of conversation about the myths and lies that we are all inundated with that concern female sexuality. Available now from Simon & Schuster.

Purchase Come As You Are from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or your local independent.

Emily’s currently scheduling her 2016–17 academic year speaking schedule. Check in with her here.

sex educator, author, researcher, and activist. also: nerd. http://go.ted.com/emilynagoski and @emilynagoski

sex educator, author, researcher, and activist. also: nerd. http://go.ted.com/emilynagoski and @emilynagoski