Masturbation among Young Women and Associations with Sexual Health: An Exploratory Study

Article excerpt

Research into sexual self-exploration and, in particular, masturbation among young people has often been confined to its prevalence, usually comparing young men and women where findings have indicated that a higher percentage of young men masturbate than young women, start earlier, and with more frequency (Gagnon, 1985; Hyde & Jaffee, 2000; Smith, Rosenthal, & Reichler, 1996). However, little is known about the role of masturbation in relation to young people's developing sexuality, especially young women. Ingham (2005) argued that the emphasis in much school-based sex and relationships education is placed on risk avoidance rather than on more positive aspects of sexual experiences. The qualitative data reported in this article have been extracted from a larger study that consisted of a number of in-depth interviews conducted with young women, covering various aspects of their sexual development and experiences, and which included their views on masturbation.

There is more than a lingering historical perception that, in many cultures, masturbation is a shameful and problematic activity (often based on religious doctrines), despite the fact that many modern cultures appear to accept this sexual practice as a normal part of human sexuality (Smith et al., 1996). This may have led to a belief among previous researchers that investigation of this intimate behavior is too difficult and too invasive given the social norms about sexual privacy. It may be argued that this fundamental belief has, in some small way, perpetuated this historical perception. Further, because the relatively recent growth of interest in teenage sexual activity has been largely fuelled by concerns over HIV (and other sexually transmitted infections [STIs]) transmission, as well as early pregnancy, then interest in solo sex may not have been seen as directly relevant.

In 1994, Joycelyn Elders, the American Surgeon General, was forced to resign because of the controversy that erupted around her support for the public discussion of masturbation as an appropriate topic in school sexuality education programs (Roberts, 1994). Elders's acknowledgment of masturbation was part of an effort to prevent the increase of HIV and other STIs, as well as unintended pregnancies. Her enforced resignation was a powerful reminder that the act and discussion of masturbation remain highly controversial and that, historically, social and religious attitudes toward masturbation have been extremely negative.

Where researchers have investigated masturbation, primarily outside the United Kingdom, they have emphasized that masturbation remains the most significant source of orgasmic pleasure for young people (Smith et al., 1996) and becomes an integral component of the sexual repertoire of most adults. Although the promotion of masturbation remains controversial, it remains the safest form of sexual pleasure, as well as having a possible role in the ability to establish mature intimate relationships (Chilman, 1990; Davidson & Moore, 1994; Shulman & Horne, 2003). What is often missing from psychological studies of young people's sexuality is a good understanding of how sexual exploration (other than sexual intercourse) and, particularly, masturbation and orgasmic responsiveness may contribute to perceptions of sexual well-being. Some studies have highlighted that masturbation is part of a normative developmental process of sexuality; moreover, they have emphasized that it has the potential to provide young people with greater self-understanding leading to increased social competence, positive self-development, and well-being, culminating in greater acquisition of the skills necessary for the establishment of intimate and fulfilling long-term relationships (Haffner, 1998; Horne & Zimmer-Gembeck, 2005; Moore & Rosenthal, 1993).

In U.S. studies, it has been found that, in early puberty, girls and boys typically have different experiences of sexual arousal. …