Are humans the only species that masturbates? Well, yes and no. We may not be the only species that likes to play with ourselves, but we appear to be the only species that does it for the explicit purpose of cumming. And we do it A LOT.
In a now-classic, pre-Internet-porn study (PDF) by British evolutionary biologists Robin Baker and Mark Bellis, male university students were found to masturbate to ejaculation about every 72 hours, and “on the majority of occasions, their last masturbation is within 48 hours of their next in-pair copulation.” If they’re not having intercourse every day, that is to say, men tend to pleasure themselves to completion no more than two days prior to having actual sex.
Any casual visitor to the zoo has probably seen monkeys pleasuring themselves, though. Right? Well, maybe. But again, not to completion, and this has only reliably been seen with captive individuals, in research labs or zoos for example. Not in the wild:
In a 1983 study from the International Journal of Primatology, the sexual behaviors of several groups of wild gray-cheeked mangabeys were observed for over 22 months in the Kibale Forest of Western Uganda. There was plenty of sex, particularly during the females’ peak swellings. But just two incidents of male masturbation leading to ejaculation were observed. Yes, that’s right. Whereas healthy human males can’t seem to go without masturbating for longer than 72 hours, two measly cases of masturbating mangabeys were observed over a nearly two-year period.
University College London anthropologist E.D. Starin didn’t have much luck spying incidents of masturbation in red colobus monkeys in Gambia, either. In a brief 2004 article published in Folia Primatologica, Starin reports that over a 5.5-year period of accumulated observations totaling more than 9,500 hours, she saw only 5–count ‘em, five, incidents of her population of five male colobus monkeys masturbating to ejaculation, and these rare incidents occurred only when nearby sexually receptive females were exhibiting loud courtship displays and copulations with other males.
So why don’t other species get themselves off like we do?
Bering thinks it has to do with the fact that we can imagine. That’s right. We can conjure up wild, steamy, erotic, orgasm-inducing scenarios full of friends, lovers, acquaintances, Marisa Miller, AV Flox, Dick Feynman, the toaster (hey, people have strange fantasies and we support it), or people we’ve never even met. We can visualize them in our mind and we can imagine how they would feel and taste.
Go home tonight and just TRY to masturbate successfully without having some sort of mental imagery playing out in your mind’s eye. Think only of pure whiteness. If you come back and tell me you can do it, well, you’re lying. In fact, the ability to dream up those delicious fantasies may be the thing that allows for masturbation in the first place.
And so I’m left wondering … in a world where sexual fantasy in the form of mental representation has become obsolete, where hallucinatory images of dancing genitalia, lusty lesbians and sadomasochistic strangers have been replaced by a veritable online smorgasbord of real people doing things our grandparents couldn’t have dreamt up even in their wettest of dreams, where randy teenagers no longer close their eyes and lose themselves to the oblivion and bliss but instead crack open their thousand-dollar laptops and conjure up a real live porn actress, what, in a general sense, are the consequences of liquidating our erotic mental representational skills for our species’ sexuality? Is the next generation going to be so intellectually lazy in their sexual fantasies that their creativity in other domains is also affected? Will their marriages be more likely to end because they lack the representational experience and masturbatory fantasy training to picture their husbands and wives during intercourse as the person or thing they really desire?
We here at Sex and the 405 certainly hope not. That would suck. And not in a good way. Mmmmmmm. Sucking. You’ll have to excuse us while we, er, address our own mental imagery.
Information from Scientific American Blogs.