by Randall Frederick
Note: Rather than write up an “argument” with thesis and defense, I’m going to break this article up into collected thoughts. I readily admit it is in some sense an exercise in “mental masturbation” to write about my own experience, so please feel free, as always, to comment below and share your experience and thoughts – whether you agree or disagree with anything here – and share your own views, even if they are scattered. Best, Randall
What my friend wrote about growing up in a culture of shame resonates with my experience (see pt. I). The churches I grew up in and worked for had a funny way of talking about things. Jesus wanted to “fill a hole” in my life and I was encouraged to “have a deep and intimate relationship” with God – I even had a pastor ask me if Jesus “had touched me in an intimate way yet.” I was never sure if they were in on the joke, but I always wanted to blurt out – That’s what she said! When it came to talking about sex and sexual expression though, masturbation was “taboo and sinful.” So we never talked about it, and questions were quickly shot down with Ask your parents! lest we say something honest and have a lawsuit on our hands. God forbid, right?
I find it ironic that while my parents were open and frank about sex when I was a child, masturbation was never really discussed until much later in life. I suppose this is very much like the Church’s dilemma. It’s easy to speak in clinical ways, naming things by their anatomical parts, educating Should intercourse prove successful, the male ejaculates into the vagina. Should the female be fertile at that time, this begins a gestation period we call “pregnancy” which culminates in the birth of another human. But where it concerns messy, intimate details? The passion and drive, the thrusting and buildup of excitement, the taste of your lover on your lips and the little sounds she makes when you run your hand over the swell of her hips, down to her thighs… Well. The Church cannot safely say anything about that, now can it? But neither can anyone else. Even our poets speak in coded ways. Perhaps this isn’t so much a handicap of religion or some puritanical idea as much as it is the transcendence of what an orgasm feels like – either with oneself or with another person. Another point: I was very young when my parents explained the anatomy and sex to me (my mother says I was “very young, maybe from three to five [your father and I] were very intentional”) and good parenting often requires us to treat children with age-appropriate information.
But this is also the problem we have with religious systems, isn’t it? That religious institutions do not trust their congregants enough to discuss things openly and honestly when it is appropriate to discuss those things. Rather, they grow silent, hoping we’ll learn but not actually checking on us. Worse, when we get it wrong, they criticize us for learning “too much, too quickly, from all the wrong sources.”
Just today, I told someone “It’s like the Church creates this negative space of silence. You’re judged if you say anything, and you’re judged for not knowing what you shouldn’t talk about. Even asking for clarification, you’re shamed.”
It feels in a way as if our religious communities slut-shame us before we even know the difference. More, it seems our religious institutions cannot speak of any fulfilled desire without some degree of awkwardness or withholding. If you love your job and are looking forward to the future? Well, clearly you’ve made an idol out of work. If your speech quickens when you talk about your upcoming vacation? That’s all well and good as long as you return to your duty. As long as you are a productive, contributing member to our economic system. As long as you “do your part” and “pitch in” like a faithful worker bee, your vacation is permitted. Perhaps even blessed by God.
But again, this is conditional. You must return to your life of restraint and mediation at the prescribed time. Especially if you are unmarried, for indeed the unmarried are ignorant and robbing us – as a religious community – of future productivity. Singles have a mandate to multiply and repopulate our kind against invaders like Culture and Scientific Reason.
Masturbation poses a threat on the axis of such a system. You are committing the sin of Onan – satisfying yourself instead of being a productive, contributing member of the tribe.
But is that all there is to sex? Reproduction? Hardly. Sex with someone we care about is an important and meaningful experience. Even primates and other mammals seem to get something out of sex more than the cerebral satisfaction that they have done some duty to their species. And when they masturbate (as primates and mammals do on a very frequent basis) they seem to get something very similar out of the experience. After all, if sexual satisfaction can be found with someone we care for… who do we care about more than ourselves?
In part, we must villify masturbation because we rely on economic theories and in some ways, we as a society are dependent on a communist system of relation. While the way I am expressing this may cause my fellow religionists to balk, That’s not how we would say it! Sex isn’t about economics!, it is in fact the undergirding of qualified reasoning that holds their condemnation of sex, sexuality, and masturbation in particular together. When you “go rogue” and leave the breeding pool to have sex with yourself, you have become the sheep without a shepherd, one step away from a humanist – or worse, an atheist. Humans commonly believe that no one is an island of belief and practice unto themselves. We are interdependent. Relying on yourself is something we should condemn and shame until you come back to your senses.
I suppose this is why so many of my fellow ethicists speak so generously of “kingdom ethics” and “community” and “tribes” for the guiding principles of our respective faiths – we have baptized our interdependence in religious language. Masturbation is not something evil unto itself, but a sin against the community. If we are married, it is a sin against our spouse. But ultimately, it is a sin against the social contract we have with each other to replicate, and it is a sin against God who has dictated that we be fruitful and multiply (see Gen. 1:22; 1:28; 8:17; 9:1; 28:3; Ex. 1:7; Psalm 107:34; Jer. 23:3; Ezek. 36:11). This is not an accusation against conservative values that want to celebrate human life, “family values” and traditionalism. Nor am I trying to incite anger and frustration by calling these values communist and pointing out their economic (not spiritual) underpinnings. Rather, I point them out to locate the reasoning within a broader sociological construct. Indeed, while many feel I do not support traditional social values, I find them endearing and in many ways subscribe to them for we must live together or we will die alone.
Sidenote: I suppose this is not the flash and dazzle you have come to see, is it? Rather, you want me to make a declaration that masturbation is pronounced Good! by God and list out the scriptures to prove it. Well, yes. I would wish for that too except that we must first understand our history and context before we can proceed. Two books which have been very helpful to my thoughts on masturbation are A History of Celibacy by Elizabeth Abbott and Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation by Thomas W. Laquer. If you want to better understand how we understand singleness and exclusive sexuality in the terms I have been speaking of, these resources are very helpful. Beyond this, please feel free to contact me via Contributors column and I would be glad to send you a full resource list.
My parents were unusually candid about sex when I was little. When I have described my childhood, it often sounds like I lived on a commune or my parents were perhaps nudists. Neither would be correct. They were, however, very open about the human body. I do not recall feeling any shame about my body until middle school when I began to gain weight and my body began changing into a hairy and amorphous shape.
But as free as they were, I do not recall them ever talking about masturbation. It was an absence that I have always found curious given a few incidents before grade school.
With the knowledge of what made boys and girls different, I once gave an “anatomy lesson” to my kindergarten class. When my parents were called to the school to discuss this with the preschool director, their only concern was whether I “got the names right.”
My mother believed that gender was a choice, and when I asked for a Barbie doll for my 5th birthday, she gladly gave me one. Many friends have commented that this was the origin of my lifelong fascination with female fashion, but I digress. I was always a sexually curious child, and it was not long before Barbie joined me… err… “in bed.” One Sunday, my mother came into my bedroom to wake me up so we could go to church. I asked her to leave my room, pretending that I “just needed a few more minutes.” She refused, insisting that we were running late already, and when she pulled back the blanket to reveal my naked body with Barbie on top of me… and my penis between Barbie’s splayed legs… she pulled the blanket back up to my chin, laughed, and told my father he “needed to talk to [me] about some things.”
Later, sometime during first grade, I came home from school and went to my room to play. For whatever reason, it seemed like a “fun” idea to close my door, lock it, and get naked. There was only one catch – I didn’t lock the door. And so it was that my mother walked in roughly ten to fifteen minutes later to find me naked on top of a pillow. When she asked me what I was doing, I told her bluntly – “Having sex with the pillow.”
It was probably after that last incident that my parents changed tracks. As open and free as they were about sex, nudity, and calling things by their right names, it seemed that things came to a halt after that. I remember thinking when I was twelve (and had sexual feelings towards a classmate) that I hadn’t done anything with a pillow since that time and that I had forgotten any of those original sensations. This memory is so indelible because the next day, I tried to talk to my friends Jay and Chris about it and they laughed at me. Jay asked me point-blank if I “jerked off” and it was the first time I had heard the expression. I asked for clarification and Jay called over two of our other friends to make fun of me – “He doesn’t know what jerking off is!”
So, again, I asked for clarification, and he began to tell me about “peeing white stuff.”
Well. Granted, I had never heard about jerking off, but I knew “peeing white stuff” was a medical condition. In fact, having learned about red and white blood cells, I knew with certainty that something wasn’t right here. To help you understand just how naive I was, I had no clue what adults were talking about when they said I shouldn’t “play with myself.” Once, in a 5ht grade religion class , I raised my hand and asked what was wrong with “playing with myself. I’m an only child.”
So there I was, standing on the sidewalk with my friends laughing at me and, concerned for their health, I asked, “Do all of you do this? This is serious! You guys need to see a doctor immediately! Something is seriously wrong with you if you have thick, white pee coming out of you!”
Thankfully, Chris took me aside later that day and explained how to masturbate. I didn’t entirely believe him. That is, I was skeptical. Chris and Jay had serious medical conditions, peeing white stuff. Maybe their condition affected their brains as well? Maybe they were going to die? But I began trying it out at night, per Chris’ instructions, to see if what he told me was correct. It was probably about a year later that I finally “peed white stuff” for the first time. Curiously, though I never told anyone about what I was doing, I knew it was wrong. I was ashamed. Somehow, attending a religious school where no one talked about such things, I was cognizant of how “debased” and “sinful” I was. I would later have the vocabulary to express that time and call it “a culture of guilt, fear, and shame.” There, I was a “sinner saved by the mercy and grace of a God who knew all of my secret sins and knew how sinful I was in my heart.”
By 8th grade, masturbation – which had begun as this exciting thing I did in private, and which felt wonderful on occasion – had become a chore. I felt like I was right all along – something was really wrong with us. With our bodies and brains. I desired it all the time, and somehow knew I could never talk about it with anyone. Naturally, you think there would be a father-son conversation. But that never happened. My dad, looking back, I think was probably dealing with issues in his own sexuality that had to do with aging, prostate problems, and a mid-life crisis. I lived four hours away, and he admits he “didn’t really want [me]” because he “didn’t know what to do with [me].” We weren’t very close, and I felt that when I visited for holidays, he endured me rather than enjoyed me as his son. Our conversations usually were concerned with movies, and whether I had enough to eat/knew how to cook when he went to work and I stayed at the house. Talking about these… feelings and what I was doing when I was alone wasn’t just unthinkable, it wasn’t thought about at all. It would have been equitable to talking to a stranger.
By college, I became active in church and somehow found the moral courage to “withstand my desires,” and to pray fervently for God to take those desires away when they occurred. And it is here that I want to stop because I feel until this point many of us have a similar experience – an awareness of desire separates us and we think we are alone, we are initiated into this new world of fantasy, and we have mixed feelings for many years that we feel we can’t share with others… until we do.
We get into a relationship, and our partner sometimes “takes the place” of those desires, giving us a new outlet to express our sexual longings, or we are unsatisfied with our partner and pleasure ourselves with much guilt and ambivalent questions – why is this person not enough for me? what’s wrong with me. Or we find ourselves, for the most part, single. Whether by choice or circumstance, we come to terms with things as they are. And so we either celebrate those desires – “toy parties” or bros encouraging other bros to make deposits in the spank bank, or we put them in the closet of our mind.
But, there is one final moment that I think is worth sharing.
In 2005, I found myself driving a van full of teenage boys back from a retreat. We had gone to the Ozarks to talk about spiritual gifts, calling, and where they felt their lives were going after high school. Teenage boys can be a bit rowdy, and given my firm constitution, I was given the worst of them. But as we drove across state lines back home, the conversation shifted to girls and at some point a hush came over them as they tried to determine whether I was “cool” and “safe” enough to talk about jerking off. I was. And I found myself trying to normalize their conversation. No, they weren’t going to hell for masturbating. Yes, it was normal and age appropriate behavior. No, they weren’t alone or weird or sick. Yes, they needed to be able to work this out for their own lives – to come to terms with their desires and, if they felt convicted, to come to a place in the spiritual lives where they could accept themselves.
It was a teaching moment that was later expanded in 2011 when I taught a sexual education series. It turns out, many of us – whatever our age – are still trying to come to terms with our own sexual expression. Do we want it too much? How much is too much? For that matter, how much is not enough? Am I normal down there? I fantasize about things I feel I shouldn’t – is that okay, since it’s just a fantasy or am I a sick person?
For many of these questions, there is no one, single answer. Sexuality is nuanced. And messy. And confusing. And deeply tied into who we are – as intimately as our spiritual life.
If you are struggling, or confused, or feeling guilty… You are not alone. People your age are thinking these same things. People older than you are thinking these same things. Chances are, you’re a healthy person.
And no. I don’t think you’re going to Hell.