What do women masturbate to?
For many, the answer is no different than what you might expect of any gender — porn, replays of previous sexual escapades and fantasies yet to happen. But for some women, inherently sexual things just don’t cut it. Instead, they partake in a different phenomenon; one that’s heavily documented in tweets, old Onion headlines and anecdotes among friends — getting off to memories of feeling loved, cherished and appreciated.
“Women jack off to shit like remembering the time they got asked to the prom 10 years ago,” @ginzoh tweeted last week, amassing over 16,000 likes. Hitting a similar vein, @latkedelrey tweeted, “Just masturbated to the idea of being loved and cherished.” At face value, both of these tweets could be interpreted literally — a woman could certainly have an erotic memory associated with being asked to prom, or with the concept of being cared for or seen. But particularly with the former example, it’s much more about what this event represents. It’s not really about the prom, or even the conditions of being asked. Rather, it’s an example of a time when the woman felt desired, attractive and special.
Despite not associating anything remotely sensual with my recollection of prom, I can relate to these tweets. On many occasions, what I’ve found most erotic is being the object of someone else’s desires, as opposed to focusing on what desires I might have myself. This works on both a superficial and emotional level, too. There are times that I enjoy just feeling sexy and hot, but often, that sense of being attractive is intertwined with emotions of interconnectedness, safety and belonging with another person.
A friend of mine, Kristy, tells me she feels the same when she masturbates. “I think of particular times former partners or friends I’m sleeping with were romantic or I felt intense intimacy,” she says. “I don’t watch porn; it’s never been a thing for me — the only erotic material that does it for me at all is erotica novels. It’s an intimacy thing — I think of moments where I felt very comfortable and seen and cared for and valued by someone.”
Though this is a rather sweeping generalization about men and women, tweets and other conversations that reflect such a dichotomy can be distilled to a singular, stereotyped point: Most men get off on thinking about themselves as subjects in action, while most women get off thinking about themselves as objects being acted upon. For the most part, surveys of sexual fantasies among men and women seem to support this — per the Journal of Sexual Medicine, women are more likely than men to fantasize about relinquishing control to a partner sexually, and were similarly more likely to fantasize about having sex in locations deemed “romantic,” like a secluded beach. Meanwhile, men’s two most common fantasies are threesomes with two women and public sex.
Obviously, there’s nothing inherent to gender that would make this the case. Plenty of research has shown that women’s sexualities are more “complicated” than men, but it’s unclear whether anything biological is responsible, or what “complicated” means — it may just be that women tend to have more ever-changing, diverse interests. If anything, the difference appears to be cultural, and if we’re going to prescribe a binary to this situation, it might be better to understand it as dominant vs. submissive. Even for those who don’t subscribe to the labels of dominant and submissive, particularly as they relate to kink, there’s still often an unspoken dynamic among heterosexual couples that places the man in the position of authority, and the woman in the position of the one who receives said authority. Women are conditioned to want this, as the virality of the tweets indicates.
The humor behind the tweets suggests that there’s still something surprising about that, yet neither of them tell us anything new. The belief that women yearn more for intimacy has been an eternal dating trope, as has the idea that men are more interested in sex. More than that, wanting to feel desired — either physically or emotionally — is pretty universal, even if it isn’t as socially acceptable for men to admit it. This is actually a contested field of study — while 2018 research from Bucknell University supported the idea that women want intimacy more than men, a 2020 report from the New York Times cited several other studies, psychologists and therapists who refuted this, as did a 2021 study which found that 95 percent of men say feeling desired by their partner is central to their sexual experiences. Plenty of men have spoken out about their attraction to intimacy, too. In fact, it’s a major talking point on subreddits like r/MensLib, r/SexOver30 and r/psychology.
“I’ve lost count of the times I’ve explained to people that it isn’t just wanting to have sex, though admittedly it’s been awhile so there is that, but it’s a desire to feel wanted,” one guy wrote on r/MensLib. “I don’t want to pressure someone into sleeping with me, I want to feel like I can get a willing partner’s motor running.” Elementally, there’s not much difference between this desire and getting off to your decades-old prom proposal — it’s just that the latter centers “getting someone’s motor running” within a memorable life event. It’s still spank-bank material, it’s just been contextualized.
Nevertheless, the concept of a mental spank bank is more culturally understood as it relates to men. It’s usually known as a collection of concrete memories a guy has of the sexual highlights of his past, which he reflects upon while masturbating or having sex. Of course, like all memories, those of the spank bank aren’t entirely reliable. We might swap little details like what color the sheets were, what song was playing, what sequence of sex acts occurred and what felt good, with the truth of how the situation actually played out getting blurrier and blurrier as the years go by.
Presumably, one’s own desires dictate how these memories are reformed. It seems reasonable that, while masturbating, the mind tweaks a memory to be slightly hotter or slightly more attuned with our wants than the original situation. To that end, we’re all just masturbating to a projection. Whether it’s a projection of the sex we had on vacation or a projection of the love and attraction we imagine someone felt for us in those moments, we’re still relying upon our own desires to shape how we perceive them. The fact that so many women agree that they masturbate to fond, non-sexual memories or feeling cherished only solidifies this further. When women say they get off on these seemingly innocent memories, they’re really saying that they, too, rely upon such fragmented recollections and the dreams they’ve placed upon them to get off.
That, or their 11th grade boyfriends just really nailed that prom proposal.