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FiveThirtyEight

In last week’s Dear Mona, Brandon, first-time e-mailer, long-time masturbator, wrote to me asking: “I masturbate eight times per week. Am I normal?” In my response, I used data from the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior (NSSHB) that detailed masturbation habits by age and gender.

The conclusion: Brandon’s behavior wasn’t entirely normal. But readers were quick to ask how that verdict would have differed if I had taken his relationship status into account.

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Lucky for us, the NSSHB asked respondents whether they were enjoying the company of anyone else in the bedroom. So let’s answer that all-important data postscript.

As someone who has masturbated in the past 90 days, Brandon is more likely to be single than married. The NSSHB found that about 73 percent of single men had masturbated in the past 90 days; the same was true of only 57 percent of married men. True, all the numbers are self-reported, so though the survey was conducted anonymously, it’s possible that some respondents didn’t tell the whole truth.

But the gap was significant enough that I wondered whether it came down to age; maybe the “single” group was dominated by young respondents who were more likely to masturbate, regardless of their relationship status. So, we recalculated the data to equalize the age distribution in each relationship status but found the results were virtually identical.

The likelihood of “single” men masturbating and “single and dating” men were both about 70 percent. Apparently, the only thing that reduces the chances of a man masturbating is living with or marrying a partner.

If Brandon were a woman, the data would tell a very different story. Single and dating women are more likely than single women to have masturbated in the past 90 days.

Again, I wondered whether age was a factor. Maybe single women were younger and less likely to have been in a sexual relationship with themselves or anyone else. And again, the gap was there when we controlled for age.

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The numbers alone don’t explain the different masturbation habits of single women and single and dating women, but maybe Claire Cavanah can shed some light on why single and dating women are more likely to masturbate; in 1993, she co-founded Babeland, a “woman-friendly sex shop” in Seattle. According to Cavanah:

Sex begets sex. Once the sap starts flowing, you’re going to do it more. … The majority of Babeland customers, about 60 percent, have reported in surveys that they’re in relationships and shopping for sex toys with us to use with their partner. As I said, once you’re saying yes, to pleasure, it’s easier to keep the groove going.

What about Brandon then? After all, the chart doesn’t quite capture his “special” status (statistically speaking). At his current rate of eight times per week, Brandon hasn’t just masturbated in the past 90 days, he’s had 103 sessions of alone time. Does being a frequent masturbator make Brandon more or less likely to be single?

We don’t really know. The NSSHB is based on the responses of 2,936 men and 2,929 women – a great sample size — but once you break those respondents down by gender, age, relationship status and frequency, there aren’t many people left in each group. So, if I said that among single men Brandon’s age, 15.4 percent masturbate four or more times per week, you might be intrigued. But you would also be misled. That’s 15.4 percent of just 91 individuals.

I did catch up with Brandon to ask whether there were any other helping hands in his life. He told me he is single and ready to mingle.

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

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