The Most Normal Thing I Have Seen in a Long Time

The Most Normal Thing I Have Seen in a Long Time September 5, 2011

You know the old joke about the masturbation study:  99% do; 1% lie?

Apparently that study was done on contemporary North American university students:

WEIRD masturbation habits.

Brett Salkeld is a doctoral student in theology at Regis College in Toronto. He is a father of two (so far) and husband of one. He is the co-author of How Far Can We Go? A Catholic Guide to Sex and Dating.

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  • Chad

    Thanks for sharing. Very interesting article.

  • muldoont

    This is an important contribution to the literature. I’ve suspected for a long time that our Kinsey-fueled cross-section of an understanding of human sexuality completely bracketed the fact that Westerners are artificially overstimulated, and that “libido” is an incredibly complex term that must be unpacked from consumer behavior. This is the first piece I’ve seen that critically engages that question. I’ll be following up on the studies to learn more–thanks for pointing it out, Brett.

  • Why would anyone believe that interviews with 35 Aka and 21 Ngandu adults would be more representative of the human race than studies based on North American university students, or even call such studies into question? I found a study of masturbation in China among people in the 20-59 age range, and the abstract says, “Prevalence for people in their 20s was higher, and closer to US and European levels, especially for men.”

    • brettsalkeld

      What it calls into question is the idea that North American university students are representative of the human race (something not claimed, but simply unquestioned). I’m not sure anyone is claiming what you suggest.

      • Well, the question might be asked if any group, no matter how large or how small, is “representative of the human race.” I don’t think there is anything at all about humans, aside from purely physiological matters (and probably not even those) that I can think of that is truly universal if cultural and environmental factors are all corrected for. It is not as if the Aka and Ngandu are in some kind of pure state of nature.

        It really would not make any sense to ask what was “natural” for the human race in the absence of any culture and environment.

    • muldoont

      David, I quote from the abstract of the article you cite. Referring to the Chinese under study, the authors write “other factors, such as liberal sexual values and sexual knowledge, further increased the current probability of masturbation.”

      The point, I think, is that it’s hard to understand whether sexual desire is “natural” in the sense of having exclusively biological roots (genes?), or whether in a sense it can be “manufactured” through consumer desire. If the latter– and I read Brett’s cited article as evidence suggesting this– then one task of culture might be to question whether the stimulation of sexual desire is a good thing. I, for one, think that it is too often caught up in the dynamics of consumerism, in a massive bait-and-switch: feel this urge, buy this product (or image, which necessitates these products). In the West we are in thrall to manufactured urges which are anything but “natural.”

      • I guess what we need is a comprehensive history of masturbation in world civilizations! I think it is common in biblical studies (Old Testament) to assume if there is a rule against something, whatever it was was practiced to at least some extent. There is no mention in the Bible of masturbation. (Onan doesn’t count.) But Thomas Aquinas certainly knew about it. And in more innocent times in the United States, medical “scare tactics” (and some pretty creepy devices) seem to have been used to try to dissuade people from masturbation. So I don’t think it is a purely modern “problem.”

  • Really great article!

  • Mark Gordon

    I would like to point out that Brett is a North American university student. Draw what conclusions you will from that fact.

    • brettsalkeld

      Cheeky fellow contributors ducking the moderation.

  • I wonder if the lower rates of masturbation have to do w/ an absence of modern technology and closer connection to nature. That hypothesis would be bolstered (somewhat) by the fact that no animal masturbates as much as human males.

    On a different note a thought some excerpts from the Vendidad might be interesting. These are likely the oldest sacred texts we have on this subject. They might be instructive:

    “O Maker of the material world, thou Holy One! If a man involuntarily emits his seed, what is the penalty that he shall pay? Ahura Mazda answered: ‘Eight hundred stripes with the Aspahê-astra, eight hundred stripes with the Sraoshô-karana [ the obedience maker].’O Maker of the material world, thou Holy One! If a man voluntarily emits his seed, what is the penalty for it? What is the atonement for it? What is the cleansing from it? Ahura Mazda answered: ‘For that deed there is nothing that can pay, nothing that can atone, nothing that can cleanse from it; it is a trespass for which there is no atonement, for ever and ever.’

    “When is it so? ‘It is so, if the sinner be a professor of the law of Mazda, or one who has been taught in it. But if he be not a professor of the law of Mazda, nor one who has been taught in it, then this law of Mazda takes his sin from him, if he confesses it and resolves never to commit again such forbidden deeds.”(Vendidad VIII:26-28)

    More here:

  • brettsalkeld

    What strikes me as important is the recognition that something that many cultures and religions have considered undesirable is not actually, as we are told, inevitable. It is possible to be a normal healthy human being and not masturbate. Now, in our current cultural climate, the person who does not masturbate will be the exception, but it is important to be able to tell such people that they are perfectly normal. Failure to masturbate is not, as we are given to believe, an indication of sexual pathology. And effort directed at avoiding masturbation is not a waste of time and energy.

    Furthermore, it seems to me that if we can start to recognize cultural factors that contribute to less frequent masturbation, then we can learn something about how the human need for intimacy can be met in a more satisfying way. That strikes me as very important work.