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FiveThirtyEight

Dear Mona,
I masturbate eight times per week. Am I normal?
Brandon, 31, New York

Dear Brandon,

It’s normal to not feel normal about something that’s often regarded as taboo. Look at the indirect language people use to describe masturbation: “a date with Palmela Handerson,” “one gun salute” or simply “free willy” — there are at least 519 ways to say it.

But you know what isn’t euphemistic? Data.

Let’s make sure the data relates to you, though. It needs to have been collected relatively recently, include an age and a gender breakdown, and preferably have been conducted in the United States. The National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior (NSSHB) from Indiana University, the “largest nationally representative study of sexual and sexual-health behaviors ever fielded” should do fine. Between March and May 2009, the NSSHB collected data from 5,865 Americans between 14 and 94 years old.

It sounds like the “Am I normal?” part of your question relates more to “eight times per week” than “I masturbate,” so let’s look at frequency: How often is too often?

Buried in the 137-page report are the masturbation habits of 2,936 men; 396 of them, like you, were in their 30s. Bad news, though: The maximum frequency the researchers asked about for solo masturbation was “four or more times per week” — that doesn’t bode well for your normalcy. Worse still, only 13.5 percent of men your age masturbated that often. If you were a Brenda and not a Brandon, I would be even more surprised by your question: Only 1.5 percent of women ages 30 to 39 masturbated four or more times per week.

chalabi-datalab-masturbation-2

Those low percentages mean you’re a bit less normal. If that bothers you, maybe you can find solace in the possibility that others are fibbing (although the survey was submitted anonymously online, so does reduce the chances of that).

I wondered if there was more to this than “eight times per week,” so I contacted Julia Heiman, a professor of brain sciences and senior research fellow at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute. She said:

Without knowing anything more about you, it is hard to say whether or not this is a problem, because “normal” depends on whether masturbating at that frequency is taking away from other aspects of your life — like your relationships or work. Some people masturbate so often that it is cutting into their work time.

But masturbation itself, regardless of frequency, is very normal. On average, 78 percent of all Americans age 14 and older say they have masturbated at some point in their lives, according to the NSSHB. When men in their 30s were asked whether they had masturbated alone at any point in their life, 93.4 percent said yes. One explanation for the differences among age groups could be that masturbation has become more frequent as the taboos about it weaken; As Joycelyn Elders, a former surgeon general, said in the NSSHB: “We have finally included masturbation in our national conversation and as a result stopped checking our hands for growing hair.”

So, the fact that you have tried your hand at masturbation is very normal — as a man. If you were a woman, you’d be in a smaller majority: 80.3 percent of women in their 30s say they have masturbated alone in their lifetime. In fact, regardless of age, women are less likely to have tried masturbating.

Chalabi Datalab Dear Mona 1

The timing of your question is opportune: Saturday is the ninth annual live Masturbate-a-Thon, and the funds raised will go to the nonprofit Center for Sex and Culture. But if you’re worried about how your, er, endurance, will fare at such an event, I’m afraid the numbers are less useful. In fact, your only reference point would be one 19-year-old who goes by the name “touchingforscience.” For a year, he recorded his “sessions” on a Google spreadsheet, allowing him to calculate that the average time he spent on a single masturbation session was 44 minutes, 29 seconds (one lasted 150 minutes, which would get him through 84 percent of “The Lord of the Rings”). In total, touchingforscience calculated that he spent 3 percent of his waking time masturbating.

Surveys such as the NSSHB might not perfectly represent you, but a sample size of thousands is better than a sample size of one. Taken together, the responses from the 2,936 men and 2,929 women suggest that self-petting is nothing out of the ordinary for a man of your age. Although your masturbation frequency means you’re something of a statistical rarity.

Hope the numbers help,

Mona

Have a question you would like answered here? Send it to datalab@fivethirtyeight.com or @DataLab538

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