By Justin Lehmiller
Masturbation is a behavior that sex researchers, educators, and therapists often talk about; however, they usually don’t specify what they mean by it. For such a commonly used term, it might be tempting to think that you wouldn’t need to define it because everyone probably has the same definition in mind, such as “touching your own genitals for pleasure.” However, this assumption may not be warranted, given that people’s definitions of sexual behaviors in general are all over the map.
Case in point: researchers have found that there’s no universal agreement when it comes to what terms like “sex,” “abstinence,” and “infidelity” mean [1,2,3]. For instance, some people define “sex” strictly as penile-vaginal intercourse, whereas others have broader definitions that include oral and anal stimulation. Likewise, some specify that one or both partners must reach orgasm in order for an activity to count as sex, while others do not.
Given how variable people’s definitions of sex are, it seems reasonable to think that their definitions of masturbation might vary a lot, too—and a new study published in the Journal of Sex Research reveals that this is indeed the case .
In this study, 568 adults aged 18-74 took an online survey in which they were given a list of behaviors and asked to indicate whether they would say they “had masturbated” if they engaged in each activity. They were asked about nine distinct activities, but each one was presented in four ways, depending upon whether an orgasm took place and whether a partner was present.
What they found was that there wasn’t 100% agreement that any given behavior was or wasn’t masturbation. However, there was widespread agreement that certain behaviors “counted,” especially those that occurred alone and when the participant reached orgasm.
For example, if they were alone and had an orgasm, more than 9 in 10 men and women agreed that the following acts counted as masturbation when performed for the purpose of pleasure: touching/stroking your own genitals with your hand, using a vibrator on your genitals, putting pressure on your genitals, using a shower jet on your genitals, rubbing your genitals against a surface, and inserting a vibrator into your vagina or anus.
By contrast, when a partner was present and no orgasm occurred, far fewer (approximately 6 in 10) said that these very same behaviors counted as masturbation.
Interestingly, about 4 in 10 participants said that touching a partner’s genitals in order to give them pleasure counted as masturbation, regardless of whether orgasm occurred. In other words, some people’s definitions of masturbation encompass touching others’ genitals without necessarily touching oneself.
Also, about 1 in 6 participants said that having a sexual fantasy alone without touching yourself or reaching orgasm counts as masturbation.
It’s also worth mentioning that being younger was linked to labeling more behaviors as masturbation. In addition, there were some gender differences—specifically, women were more likely to label behaviors that occurred alone without orgasm as masturbation compared to men.
Together, what these findings tell us is that, like sex, masturbation is a term that seems to mean very different things to different people. Sex researchers, therapists, and educators would do well to keep this in mind when communicating about masturbation because a failure to provide appropriate context and specificity could create misunderstandings and/or affect the quality of data obtained.
 Gute, G., Eshbaugh, E. M., & Wiersma, J. (2008). Sex for you, but not for me: Discontinuity in undergraduate emerging adults’ definitions of “having sex”. Journal of Sex Research, 45(4), 329-337.
 Byers, E. S., Henderson, J., & Hobson, K. M. (2009). University students’ definitions of sexual abstinence and having sex. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38(5), 665-674.
 Thompson, A. E., & O’Sullivan, L. F. (2016). I can but you can’t: Inconsistencies in judgments of and experiences with infidelity. Journal of Relationships Research.
 Kirschbaum, A. L., & Peterson, Z. D. (in press). Would You Say You “Had Masturbated” If…?: The Influence of Situational and Individual Factors on Labeling a Behavior as Masturbation. The Journal of Sex Research.
Dr. Justin Lehmiller is an award winning educator and a prolific researcher and scholar. He has published articles in some of the leading journals on sex and relationships, written two textbooks, and produces the popular blog, Sex & Psychology. Dr. Lehmiller’s research topics include casual sex, sexual fantasy, sexual health, and friends with benefits. His latest book is Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.