Note: I began noticing that these articles were picking up a significant amount of attention over a month ago, especially in Europe. The series is reprinted here, in its entirety – though I certainly do not feel the discussion is over. Much more should be said, and I welcome both contributors and ideas.
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.
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 thingsopenly 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 Celibacyby 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.
By the end of my second Masters degree, I realized my views had changed considerably. Throughout my time first as a congregant in, then as a leader of, and later as a professional consultant to churches, I was always progressive. If you were unkind, you might have called me a “liberal” as though this were a curse.
In no small part to my parents insistence on educating myself, trying to see things from “the other person’s perspective” and their rather broad outlook on life, I have often found myself at odds with the more conservative teachings of the Church, wondering when we stepped back from the frontier. We were bold once. Inventive. Adaptive. When did we become such wimps?
Alain de Botton, in his book Religion for Atheists, writes that one of the reasons he is so disappointed in the Christian church is because of the “relatively recent decision” to abandon progress and become entrenched.
He points out that Jews and Christians have historically adopted practices of the cultures they find themselves in, transforming and taking them further. But “recently” they have ceased from this entirely, instead exporting a prepackaged (and antiquated) collection of doctrines which present “the world” as evil and unsalvageable. Though de Botton and I may disagree on opinions of theism, I believe in and appreciate his reading of Christian history. In fact, I agree with him entirely in this regard. But rather than refer to some timeless point of transition, or even at the cultural shifts taking place after World War I, I date the change with St. Augustine (b. 354 – d. 430 C.E.). While Augustine himself may not have seen the changes he sought to affirm, protect, and implement, his teachings in subsequent generations trickled down, becoming ever-more insular.
By the time of the Reformation, John Calvin took Ausgustine’s methodology ever farther, affirming that same model of exegesis – believing that the “truth” of scripture needed to be protected. Protected from what? From who? From humans – both believers (who Calvin sought to correct) and unbelievers (who he sought to condemn). And while Calvin was an important figure in the history of Christianity, his values were based not on scripture but on a way of reading scripture that Augustine began. Namely, to avoid humanity for some higher ideal.
Augustine of Hippo has a rather sordid past. This screenshot sums it up:
Held up as a “Father” of the Early Church, Augustine’s teachings come from a very personal place. He rejects everything in life that he once celebrated, forgetting and at times rewriting his personal narrative. His Confessions are overwhelmingly guilty and where it concerns human sexuality in general and masturbation in particular, I cannot think of anyone who screwed us up so much. His rather sordid past should have led him to different conclusions. Augustine was a prolific writer on Church polity and doctrine. In matters of sex and sexuality, he is the primary reason sex became sinful. From his writings, here are a few statements. If the language sounds familiar, then I’ve proven my point – his views have dominated the Church’s understanding on matters of sex & sexuality.
To a large extent what held me captive and tormented me was the habit of satisfying with vehement intensity an insatiable sexual desire (Confessions, 6.12.22).
I have decided that there is nothing I should avoid so much as marriage. I know nothing which brings the manly mind down from the heights more than a woman’s caresses and that joining of bodies without which one cannot have a wife. (Confessions, 1.10.17)
Although your eyes may chance to rest upon some woman or other, you must not fix your gaze upon any woman… you cannot say that your hearts are pure if there is immodesty of the eye, because the unchaste eye carries the message of an impure heart. And when such hearts disclose their unchaste desires in a mutual gaze, even without saying a word, then it is that chastity suddenly goes out of their life. (The Rule of St. Augustine, 3).
If you are interested in further reading but don’t want the challenge of digesting Augustine’s voluminous writing, I would point you to three articles:
- What Would Augustine Say? by W. Jay Wood
- Sex, Sin, And Salvation: What Augustine Really Said by Dr. David G. Hunter
- The Sex Animal Named Augustine by Jeffrey Anderson
Of course, Augustine was not the only voice. There have been many others who have led subsequent generations to conservative ideals, and I think there is validity in some of what they say. However, no one can match Augustine’s influence on making matters of sex into a legal issue rather than a moral, or even emotional one.
Trained in Greek thought, Augustine would have (and did) rejected emotional appeals. It is my opinion, and that of thousands of my colleagues, that this was a poor decision. To cut the heart away from the head is to ignore intuition, creativity, grace, mercy, and love- charitable attributes. But because of the influence Augustine had as both a scholar and prolific writer, his voice drowned out many others (who he condemned as radicals and “heretics” – a wonderful word to employ when you’re tired of discussing and thinking things through, wanting those who oppose you to simply die).
When I taught a sex-ed course for one of the churches I worked for, I pointed to Augustine as the genesis of our modern-conservative-religious opinions. His unification of the Christian faith with Greek philosophical models is what “legitimized” Christianity and made faith a cultural as well as private issue for Gentiles. And while, in many ways, I appreciate Augustine for this, since I cannot stand Christians who misquote scripture, have crazy ideas they ascribe to “The Spirit” and begin their arguments with “Well, Pastor says…”, I also know that his work was not entirely a good thing. When you transplant your faith into a new context, some things get lost and other things morph in ways you never anticipated. For Augustine, this meant rewriting his personal narrative. Though he had a mistress, an illegitimate child, and some say a curious relationship with his mother, he was not entirely honest in his treatment of sex and sexual matters. His remorse and personal conviction did not (and does not) apply universally. While none of these things disqualify him (sex before marriage, a child out of wedlock, etc) they somehow should – not because he did them, but because he can’t seem to see the incongruency between his personal life and convictions.
That is, if I eat a pie and thoroughly enjoy it, I can’t go around telling everyone, “Pie is evil and I can’t think of anything worse in the world.” Saying this simply doesn’t make sense in light of the way that I downed the pastry. Even we were to say I had repented and/or had a change of heart, you should expect me to be sensitive to those who are similarly afflicted with pie-itis, given my experience. Yet Augustine had none of this. Because of the life he had lived, such a life was wrong for everyone else.
Further, it is a sad statement that most Christians do not realize their reading of scripture is Greek, their models of understanding are Greek, and that the shame-culture in so many houses of worship is also Greek. Not Hebrew. Not “divinely inspired.” And not “Biblical.” Augustine’s models of morality and ethical behavior are all built on Greek thought, not scriptural thought. Most claims to biblical authority and precedent when it comes to sex and sexuality stem from Augustine – not the confusing and contradictory statements made in scripture. We have look no further than the issue of premarital sex – which is permitted by the torah and celebrated in both Ruth and Esther even as it is embodied, demonized, and executed in Jezebel. Again, an incongruency exists when we discuss sexuality and scripture because we are more frequently relying on the teachings of Augustine than scripture itself.
When it comes to masturbation and self-pleasure, Augustine’s shame theology still applies. By disassociating the body from the spirit, you begin to see your life in binary terms like “fleshly and spiritual” or “good and evil.” This is dishonest. Each of us surely knows the ways that life is a combination of both – sometimes, we do good things and regret them. Sometimes we do bad things, and it all works out. We’re not inherently good or evil, we’re just… human. Masturbation is not inherently good or evil. By now, you would have anticipated a decisive statement, right? The seven reasons why I think one way or the other? Except that it’s not like that. It’s not that easy. When it comes to human sexuality, we all have desires and insecurities that we wouldn’t want to become public knowledge. Like most things, sex is a mixture of both and not inherently one or another.
The most frequently cited scriptural passage used to discuss masturbation are:
You have heard it said that you shouldn’t commit adultery. Well, I say if a guy looks at a woman with lustful thoughts, he’s already done it. Matt. 5:27-30
And… Well… That’s kind of it, isn’t it? I mean, we can do all kinds of scriptural gymnastics to prove our point. We can break things down in English and rebuild them in the Greek. We can reconstruct entire cities of meaning. But this is the closest it really comes to discussing masturbation… and you’ll notice that it doesn’t. Masturbation isn’t being discussed here. Rather, illicit thoughts are. The brain is far stronger than a penis or a vagina when it comes to desire, and I tend to believe Jesus is talking about a cultural issue – that men feel they can take whatever they want, even exploit women if need be – rather than a private one governing your bedtime habits.
So, instead I say to you
There is no one innocent, no not one. (Romans 3:10)
Finally, I’m no radical, but… Is it possible that Jesus ever masturbated? Biologically and physiologically, we know that if he never masturbated, then he would have had a nocturnal emission. And, if we think this idea too offensive, then we have to agree he would have gotten an erection at some point. The fact is, if you believe Jesus had a penis, then he would have had an erection. There’s no way around that. And if he had an erection, chances are, he probably touched himself at some point. After all, if you believe God designed the human body, isn’t it plausible that he would have… “test driven” the model?
That may seem a bit shocking to some of you – this idea that Jesus might have masturbated. So I want to offer a few final thoughts to think about. Ultimately, I can’t convince you that masturbation is or is not a sin. I can only offer ideas and let you decide for yourself.
While reviewing some things for this short series, I came across this note in my journal from 2012:
Last week, there was an incident with a classmate which revealed how far we have to go in discussing sex and sexuality. Discussing masturbation, she posited that self-love was “an act of worship to God” and that a person of faith should “reflect on God” during the act to better “welcome God into your sex life.”
When I asked this classmate to clarify, they repeated themselves in no uncertain terms. A person of faith should think about God while masturbating and make this a time of worship.
Is it possible for us to see (big picture) sex as a good thing? To celebrate God’s creativity and the unique wiring of the human body to enjoy sexual pleasure? Further, (smaller picture) is it possible that we see masturbation in this same way? Put another way, why do we celebrate the one and demonize the other? Many religionists make a moral argument. Marriage makes all things legitimate and pure. Last year, Mark Driscoll said that anal sex was okay for Christians – a new idea, and one which seems wildly incongruent with previous statements, but hey. Let’s sidestep all of that since Driscoll says outlandish stuff all the time. Marriage makes things okay. It makes them “right.” It baptizes them in spirituality and sacred space, so while marriage makes sex okay, our desires and longings are always evil until we say, “I do.”
Total bollocks, if you ask me. But then again, I’m an unmarried man so you’re free to discredit me as a fool or a liar. I’ve already been called both.
There’s just one of two hiccups with that thought though about marriage making everything better, and making it “alright” and washing the sinfulness away. Namely, that it doesn’t. Given how open I am about these topics with those who interact with me on a regular basis, friends and coworkers sometimes confess things to me. A recurring confession? Married men who look at porn, or who feel unsatisfied with their wives, or who simply “rub one out” in the garage because they are bored. But it goes farther than that.
In one example, a close friend of mine told me that his father was sexually abusive to him as a child. It has affected his marriage, and he wonders sometimes if the “good” things he’s told to do from the pulpit are really “good.” He readily admits that his questions come from the abuse he experienced as a child, but masturbation has become this comfortable space for him where he doesn’t have to do “dirty” things with his wife. Ironic? Of course. But perfectly understandable when you understand his context.
Or what about those who are disabled? Told that they are stupid and dumb and enduring all sorts of insult, they live with the cloud of shame for being different. For not being “normal” and bringing grief to their family. And then when they express age-appropriate sexual feelings, they are told they are “bad.” So naturally we should tell them they are also “sinful.”
My little brother is such an example. He has Autism, and lives in a group home. As his brother, I want him to be able to enjoy masturbation. Is this some sick perversion of mine? Hardly. It’s a recognition of his sexuality, an acceptance, and a blessing on the fact that he may never have a sexual partner… but he can still have (and at on) sexual feelings.
When I say that we need a better understanding of sex and sexuality, sometimes people ask me why, and I tell them “For personal reasons.”
This usually gets a laugh, as people assume all kinds of things about me.
But this is the reason why I believe we need to develop our ideas on masturbation more, for “personal reasons” that have nothing to do with me, and have everything to do with valuing the people around me who have been shamed.
To be perfectly blunt, I want my brother to masturbate. I want him to enjoy his sexuality and his sexual desires in a healthy way. It is likely that he will never have a sexual partner, and rather than continue in a culture and a theology that shames him for being alive, for being disabled, for being different, and then calling him a sinner for touching himself, I see things differently and want to promote those feelings. In him. For him. In others. For others. And yet I say again, this is entirely “personal” because I have heard by now dozens of stories of friends and family members who feel shame and guilt simply because they are alive. And feel things.
We have a way of desexualizing the disabled, and as his brother, I *want* him to masturbate and feel *some* kind of happiness/joy/release/satisfaction. Which is weird/uncomfortable to say (or read?) maybe, but it’s true.
You are okay. You’re not weird. You’re normal.
In Cheryl Cohen-Greene’s autobiography (the woman Helen Hunt plays in The Sessions), she writes about helping a disabled man learn about his body, how his body is responding, and discuss what helps him orgasm. She notes the same thing I am saying here – we tend to make the disabled (who may *never* have the enjoyment of sex with another person) feel even MORE “dirty” and “wrong” and “less-than” by shaming them and their bodies b/c of masturbation.
But it doesn’t end there. Discussing the sexuality of the disabled isn’t some moral ground that we claim a “free pass” on, or even say “well… okay… just in this instance…” We must continue discussing these things among the abled as well, to discontinue the shaming and disgracing for a spiritual narrative that values people. Yes, I’m all for keeping sin in the table. I believe in sin. I believe that I sin, and that I need grace from others as well as God. But I believe our fascination with making things that are good into sin (like Augustine did so long ago) is misguided and comes from the dark caverns of our own souls rather than “the evil people” around us. We have a way of making everything a sin, and of course I am reacting to that in part. And in part, I am reacting so that I can excuse my own behavior, I suppose. But, far and away, my thoughts on masturbation are truly about “redeeming” something for my brother and my friends, wanting him as much as them to feel validated as human beings – of which sexuality is part. An important part.
For me, the litmus test in my head for anything comes back to the way my parents treated me, and now how I want my brother treated (sound familiar? What we do to the least of these? And the Golden Rule?) I’ll think, “Is this something that would cause my parents to feel shame, or stop loving me?”
Fill in the blank with your vice of choice. If I smoked pot, would my parents be ashamed of me? (no, but they wouldn’t be happy) Okay, pot isn’t a “sin” but where it is illegal, they would be more concerned with the legal ramifications than my smoking. So, pot is more of an ethical/legal concern than a spiritual one in my book.
Sidenote: I’ve smoked pot. Wasn’t impressed. But mazel tov to those who think it’s the bees knees.
In like kind, I may not want to see my brother masturbating, but I wouldn’t be ashamed of him – quite the contrary. I want him to desire, to be desired, to feel – if only in his own fantasy – desirable. I want him to experience some kind of satisfaction in that part of life. But how do you say that in a Christian environment? How do you ask, “Maybe there are instances where we shouldn’t just be silent or turn a blind eye, but we shouldencourage this kind of sin?”
Maybe we should help people be okay with their sexuality, sexual preferences, desires, and stop trying to police everyone’s thought life and trust the Spirit enough to help guide them – even, yes, in matters like these.
As strange as it sounds, with topics like these, I think about how important it is that we move from masturbation+ (plus other issues like porn and adulterous thinking, etc) into a new understanding. Granted, that may be my “liberal sensibilities” but I don’t think it’s *that* foreign in translation.
In short, masturbation may come with many “well what about”s, but being human and having desires isn’t something to be ashamed about. It’s something we need to celebrate.