Source: McLeon91 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
One might argue that given the context of Sweden’s high degree of gender equality, an open and positive approach to sex education, and sexually liberal attitudes, that anything Swedish adolescents might say about sexual issues will not be applicable to US adolescents. Any differences between Swedish and American youth might be the result of reporting styles—perhaps just as many American youth masturbate and begin doing so at about the same age but they are less likely than Swedish youth to report it given the more conservative sexual attitudes and values of American culture. On the other hand, those same attitudes/values might inhibit not only reporting masturbatory activities but also might actually prevent some adolescents from engaging in masturbation, experiencing orgasms, or having positive feelings about their orgasms (such as guilt as an impediment to masturbating). Whether these findings hold for US adolescents regardless of their ethnicity, social class, sexuality, and subculture is also unknown from Swedish findings.
What did Swedish high school seniors report (Driemeyer et al., 2017)?
Over 3,000 seniors (mean age 18.3 years) from public and private schools completed an anonymous questionnaire regarding various aspects of sexual attitudes and behaviors. Nearly all boys (98.9%) and most girls (85.5%) reported that they had masturbated, usually beginning during early adolescence. Most youth had positive attitudes about masturbation and enjoyed the experience. There were several differences between boys and girls.
1. Began masturbating a year earlier than girls—12.5 versus 13.7 years of age
2. Were more likely to have fantasies during masturbation
3. Were more likely to orgasm during masturbation
1. Were more likely to experience their most pleasant orgasms during masturbation
2. Were more likely to use objects such as sex toys and vibrators during masturbation
Three Clusters of Masturbation Experiences
The authors found three clusters of adolescents.
The first typified the majority of both boys and girls: they had positive attitudes about masturbation and orgasmed during masturbation. However, their preference was to have orgasms during “other activities” (sex). Some of those who preferred their orgasms alone might have felt this way because they “use a certain technique during masturbation that cannot be, or is not intended to be transferred to sex with a partner.”
The second cluster, characteristic of a minority of boys and girls, was generally the inverse of the first.
The third was experienced by about one-quarter of the girls: they had the lowest frequency of orgasms during masturbation, more orgasms during partnered sex, positive attitudes about masturbation, fantasies and object use about average, late onset of masturbation, and large number of sex partners. Though orgasm frequency was low, their attitudes toward masturbation remained positive. The authors speculated that these sexually active and open-minded girls connected sexual pleasure (including orgasms) to romantic relationships rather than to solo sex.
Although it’s difficult to directly compare these Swedish with populations of adolescents from other countries and previous generations, the general patterns were consistent with what we know. It is worth noting that the questionnaire administered would be extremely difficult to give in many US school districts because of our fears about asking youth about their sexuality—at least not without parental approval.
Although there is value in these massive questionnaires given anonymously, I believe that we should supplement them with in-depth discussions/interviews with adolescents about their sexuality, including masturbation. For example, here are questions that I asked young men regarding their first masturbation:
How and when did your first masturbation occur? What happened to provoke it? What were the circumstances?
What did you do?
Did you fantasize? What was their content?
How did you learn how to masturbate? Who taught you?
How did you feel afterwards?
Who did you tell? How did they react? Why did you choose to tell or not tell others?
Did this lead to future masturbations? Why or why not? Please elaborate.
What were the impacts of these activities for you then and now?
I have discovered little information about these issues—for boys or girls. No surprise here.
My hope is that adolescents of all “clusters” will feel, in the words of the authors, “more entitled to experience sexual pleasure just for themselves without feeling selfish, guilty, or dirty.”