Evelyn Sanchez ’14 was not always sure whether her friends visited her room to see her — or her vibrator.
A member of the Sexual Health Awareness Group at Brown, Sanchez won the group’s title of “Sexpert of the Month” earlier this year for excellence in responding to anonymous student texts to SHAG’s help line.
Her reward? A vibrator, “the most expensive prize,” she said.
Sanchez did not open the packaging, leaving the sex toy untouched on her desk. But her friends soon noticed, asking, “Can we look at it? Can we open it?” she recalled. “They passed it around the room, thinking it was the coolest thing.”
While sex and masturbation are popular topics of discussion on campus, a recent Herald poll revealed that about a fifth of students never masturbate.
In the poll, about 26 percent of students reported masturbating once or twice a week, 17 percent three to five times a week and 15 percent once or twice a month. Around 8 percent of students responded masturbating once a day, with about 1 percent reporting masturbating more than once a day. Close to 14 percent of students reported masturbating less than once a month, while 19 percent reported never having masturbated.
Students interviewed expressed little surprise with the results, with a few exceptions.
“The only thing I reacted to was the 8 percent” figure referring to students who masturbate once daily, said April, a sophomore whose name has been changed to maintain confidentiality. “How does anyone have time for that?”
“But good for them,” she added with a laugh. “For blocking out that much of their day.”
Brown Health Educator Naomi Ninneman said these percentages and trends seem consistent with national averages among college students, noting that a person’s twenties mark a “masturbation peak,” a period in which individuals are most likely to masturbate.
“We’ve moved from a dialectic about masturbation that shames it,” Ninneman said. “While those messages remain, they don’t dominate.”
Ann, a sophomore whose name has been changed to maintain confidentiality, said she has never masturbated and does not feel comfortable speaking to her friends about the issue.
But she said she considers Brown a “very, very sex-positive” environment. “It’s a combination of institutions that Brown has in place and the kind of people it attracts who continue to form that environment,” she said.
Sanchez noted events and institutions such as Nudity in the Upspace, FemSex, sex week and SHAG’s masturbation workshops as examples of how Brown students spread knowledge of sex-related issues.
Of the students who completed the poll, about 10 percent left the masturbation question blank.
“It’s a shocking thing to throw at someone, more so in the context of the other questions” on the poll, Ann said.
Some community members could not identify a reason for the poll results that found about a fifth of students do not masturbate.
“I was hoping Brown students would be more open about it,” said Frances Aquino ’16, a member of SHAG.
“It says a lot about how sex is perceived by men versus women and the connotation of men enjoying sex versus women enjoying sex,” April said.
Diego Arene-Morley ’16 was surprised masturbation was not discussed more on campus.
“It’s definitely more taboo than you would think for Brown,” he said. “Maybe that’s just because there’s nothing to address and no controversy.” He added that if it came up as a gender or sexuality issue, the campus dialogue might open up.
“The way I see people interacting with the topic has a lot to do with their upbringing and their values on sexual behavior,” Ninneman said. “Which may not play out in whether they masturbate or not but shapes their values on it.”
Though she said she started masturbating in ninth grade, April said she did not become truly comfortable with sex and her body until she came to Brown.
“I’d like to think I was a sex-positive person in high school, but it was still such a foreign concept to me. I didn’t feel like I had the resources to be comfortable with it at the time, but now I do,” she said.
Tom, a sophomore whose name has been changed to maintain confidentiality, has masturbated since high school but never talked to anybody on campus about it and is “completely blind” to what his peers’ habits are.
“There’s never been a reason for me to bring it up around my friends,” he said. “But I feel Brown has resources if I had questions.”
Ninneman said she frequently meets one-on-one with students who have issues or questions regarding their sexual health, including masturbation. She said the question of whether a student’s individual masturbation habits are normal often comes up during these conferences, adding that she helps students understand there is “a wide range of what is normal.”
Aquino said she used to view masturbation as solely meant for sexual pleasure. “But when I joined SHAG, I realized you can use masturbation as a tool to understand yourself. To figure out what kind of lubes, condoms and positions you like.”
Donna, a sophomore whose name has been changed to maintain confidentiality, started masturbating at 9 years old, though she did not realize it at the time. Donna described her high school as conservative and heavily Catholic, saying she did not actively explore masturbation until the end of high school when she was in a relationship. But she still did not feel comfortable speaking about these issues — masturbation or her sexual activity — at the time.
“For the longest time, I’ve wanted to be open about my sexuality,” Donna said. “Here, I wasn’t going to be judged. I’m actually praised for it.”
Distinct variations between gender and frequency of masturbation surfaced in the poll, with 30 percent of females responding that they never have masturbated, as opposed to 6 percent of males. Similarly, 3 percent of females reported that they masturbate at least once daily, compared to 17 percent of males.
Arene-Morley said he thought the subject was more easily discussed by men because it comes up as part of “guy talk,” which he said often centers around sexual experiences. Masturbation can be brought into the conversation, he said.
“I’m in a frat, so I hear it in the context of that,” he said. “Being in an environment like that makes it more acceptable or more comfortable.”
Though he said he has never spoken to his female friends about it, Tom said he believed masturbation “was just easier for (men).” He added that “things like that maybe would cause men to experiment earlier.”
Poll results also showed a correlation between probability of having masturbated and class year, with 27 percent of first-years having never masturbated, compared to 13 percent of juniors and seniors.
Because he started masturbating before coming to Brown, Arene-Morley said he did not think being on campus impacted his habits. But he added that “just being on your own for the first time” might make people more willing to experiment.
Others said they were encouraged to experiment with masturbation through sexual education from groups on campus.
During her sophomore year, Leslie, whose name has been changed to maintain confidentiality, was the only student of 20 in her FemSex section who admitted to never having masturbated. “It was almost shameful to admit that I hadn’t,” she said.
Though Leslie was curious about experimenting with masturbation, she said she had no idea where to start.
“I could point at a diagram and probably teach a sex-ed class,” Leslie said, “but I didn’t know my own body.”
Leslie, who has been in a relationship for over two years now, said she now masturbates both with and without her partner. “It’s a power to give yourself pleasure.”