Earlier this week, an article on masturbation began circulating among my faith community. As a student of religion and sexual ethics, I try to pay attention to how matters of faith and sex are discussed publicly. I was curious what my friends would have to say, so I posted a link to the article via social media.
The response was overwhelming – especially from my female friends. People began posting responses, sending me private messages, text messages, and requesting to meet for coffee “so we can talk. I feel like I can talk to you about this without [you] judging.”
Masturbation is one of those hush-hush topics that many faith communities would rather not talk about. I don’t think this is because they are afraid to talk about sex-in-general. In fact, American pulpits are full of pastors who want to overshare about their “smokin’ hot wives”, “babymakin’ music” and what women can do to “flame the fire in the bedroom.” Alternatively, sex can be seen as a sin, a “fleshly act” that needs to be overcome for some higher degree of glory. Both understandings are in abundance, so it’s not sex per se that we’re quiet about. I respect, commend and celebrate those who pursue modesty for moral and spiritual reasons even if we may disagree on how to interpret scripture. But when it comes to masturbation, there is a negative space of silence. No one wants to talk about it – guys, girls, anyone. At least in public where, even when we drop the euphemisms, things can be misunderstood – things like “I enjoy touching myself” or “It’s comforting to me/ helps me sleep” can be misheard as “I am immature and never want to be in a serious relationship.” Rather, when faith communities do talk about self-stimulation, the euphemisms are so overwhelming that it is hardly surprising no one quite understands each other. Rather than present a clear idea, or a clear reading scripture, mores, ethics, or even social values, we compound confusion upon misunderstanding. The two most readily available choices are misunderstandings & judgment, or misunderstanding & confusion. Case in point: After posting the article in question, someone commented that he “didn’t want to go blind” and so he refrained from masturbating. Before I could respond and ask whether he was joking, or whether he was announcing this publicly to affirm his self-control (or present himself as an eligible and “pure” Christian male) another person posted about how the Bible condemned “it” because God didn’t like “it.”
Entirely sidestepping this myth about masturbation leading to blindness, I’ve read the Hebrew and Christian scriptures many times over the last three decades for personal and professional reasons, and I have taken a great degree of comfort in the Bible as well as texts of other faiths over the years. To my knowledge, many ancient texts strongly support proactive autoeroticism. The Kama Sutra among them. Still, in others masturbation – including the Hebrew and Christian scriptures – either do not talk about it directly (arguably, leaving it as a matter of personal conscience) or, if you’re willing to read Song of Songs as a poetic depiction of sexuality between two partners (who are not married, it should be pointed out), then it’s talked about in very positive terms. I’m not sure where this fellow got off saying “it” was frowned on by God.
What is the “it” anyway? The act of masturbation? Touching one’s genitals, or touching them with the intention of arousal (even orgasm)? More, what is it about the “secret sin” of masturbation that instills such much shame? Why do we feel compelled to police one another’s private sexual practices, especially when most of us have a difficult time with our own?
A friend of mine sent me the following message, which I am sharing with her permission. I will be following up with another article sharing my own views tomorrow.
The view of masturbation I’ve been given up to now(-ish) is that it is an illicit expression of sexuality for men and women, in marriage and in singleness. But I’m becoming more convinced everyday that my body matters. My body is essentially good and inescapably sexual. My sexuality is already here, it’s not a flip that gets switched on when I say “I do”. THAT flip got switched a long time ago. And what I can’t reconcile is this: If the sexuality is present, and marriage may never come, what then? (And this isn’t a despairing question, it’s a pragmatic one; and not just for me, for the many women I know who are single and will likely continue to be.) Am I just supposed to deny this dimension that I’m told makes up a huge part of what it means to be human? Am I supposed to just ignore what my body was made to long for?
I really like the acknowledgment that this, too, as an area that is anything but simple. The attempts to draw a clear and definitive line in the sand do not protect us from the complexity, but rather throw us into it head first without any ropes or friends to help us get right side up again and begin wading through. I think that masturbation can be pursued in ways (pornography and all the other lustful avenues that fall short of pornography) and to ends (coping, defeat, selfishness) and with results (shame, hiding, isolation, addiction, distorted views of sexuality) that are destructive, that disrupt the shalom of God and that do not honor His intentions for life. I think that masturbation can also be a release or expression of sexuality without much more accompanying it. It strikes me that it’s like a big piece of cake, which I can eat as a part of celebration and in connection with people or which I can eat, in secret, as a way to numb pain and cope with anxiety and squash other unfulfilled desires by satiating my stomach. And the truth is, I do both. The truth is, that what starts as one thing can sometimes turn into the other. All of this is complicated and messy.
I think we moralize masturbation out of fear of the destructive things we do see it attached to-like porn and addiction. I think it is more comfortable to moralize masturbation because it gives a greater sense of control– if there is an ideal, even if I never achieve it, there’s comfort knowing what it is and there’s a sense that control is at least in my grasp. How much more scary to struggle through my sexuality with God and others, to risk failing even when I don’t know I’m failing, to remain open to possibility and hope and conviction and discipline constantly because there is not a simple imperative to keep.
I think it’s probably more like alcohol or cake than idolatry.
I was talking about this article with my friend who’s in college ministry and she was wondering how/if to share this with her students. “I’m afraid they’ll see it as a license to do it” she said. And I said, “Maybe that’s not the end of the world. Maybe they’ll see it as license for a while, and maybe they’ll sin magnificently for a while, and then maybe, they’ll end up learning a lot more if you continue to walk with them through it and they’ll find out on their own that there are aspects of this that they do not want.”
Maybe when we spend all our time trying to get people to be moral, we short-circuit the work of the Holy Spirit in convicting us of sin we’ve actually committed and loving us through it, and in the process shaping our hearts to long for something higher and better.
I loved the woman who said that basically we’re asking the wrong question when we ask, “Is it okay or not?” Most people masturbate, so given that they do, what is a Christian response?
I guess I had a lot to say! Whew. Now I’m really tired. Thanks for reading through this long message and I’m really glad I could point you to the article I’m sure TONS of people are clicking the link you shared.