Oh my gosh! You said the “M” word!

I’m going to deal with some sensitive issues in this post and the two following. If you are uncomfortable talking about sex, self-pleasure, lust, pornography or all of the above, you may not want to read what I have to say. If you’re okay with my subject matter (or are very curious, even if you don’t want to admit it), read on.

There is no true “adult” content on these pages.  I don’t describe body parts, bodily functions, or sex acts in any kind of graphic detail.  There are no photos or videos.  Even the links I provide are not anywhere near as graphic as what can be found with a simple Google search.  It’s probably more innocent than some of what our youth read in school, including assigned reading in Language Arts class and Health.  I will not be talking about sexual abuse or assault, but some people who are survivors might find some of what I write to be triggering.  Only you know if that describes you.

For everyone else, dive in.  I refuse to shy away from these issues just because a few people might not like it.  There’s stuff that has to be said, and it’s high time we talked about it instead of pretending we don’t know what’s going on.  People of faith have a duty to confront the things facing us head-on.  If we don’t, we risk lying to ourselves by pretending that we are unaware of what happens around us.  If we really want to impact our world, then we have to understand it—and ourselves—much better.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s proceed!

I’m tired of dancing around this topic like the Israelites and the Golden Calf, so here goes:  Today, we’re going to discuss masturbation. Why yes, I did just use that word. I’m now imagining that you’re blushing, giggling, or clenching your fists, if not all three.

The reason for such strong reactions is that it’s taboo.  Self-pleasure is not something we Christians are supposed to talk about, let alone engage in.  Yet here we are.
You may have decided that I’m not qualified to give advice in this area.  Let me help you understand.  I’ve been a Christian for almost 25 years; I’m a mom of two; I’m a registered nurse with experience working with families; I have a degree in health education; and I’m a human, not a robot.  So yes, I’m qualified.  Let’s move on.

I view sex as a good thing, including solo sex, but I didn’t always feel that way.  Anything to do with sex was surrounded by fear, shame, embarrassment, and a sense that any and all sexual feelings were a betrayal by my own body.  These were absolutely, unquestionably ideas encouraged by the church, as my parents never had any such negative attitudes (although my parents didn’t provide much guidance either).  I hope to raise my own kids in a sex-positive environment where they don’t fear love, intimacy, pleasure, or their own bodies.

First, let’s get one thing straight: The Bible says not one word about masturbation.  It talks about how to clean up semen (Leviticus 15:16), the sinfulness of not impregnating your dead brother’s wife (Genesis 38:6-10), and lust (Matthew 5:28).  Nothing about self-gratification.  It’s my impression that most people use Matthew 5:28 in this context.  However, that is not what the text says.

Second, some people object to masturbation on the grounds that it is giving in to “fleshly temptation” and is an utterly selfish pursuit.  Why is sex any different from hunger, thirst, or exhaustion?  Is it because it involves body parts we usually cover up?  Is it because the pleasure is more intense?  I’m going to be direct here.  Sex, like food, water, clothing, and shelter, is a basic human need.  There are people who naturally have no need for sexual pleasure, but it’s important that we understand that to be some people’s natural state of existence, not something for us to strive for.  That includes people who are not partnered.  You don’t go from zero to sixty the minute you’re in a relationship or there’s a ring on your finger.  We don’t tell single folks to eat nothing but peanut butter sandwiches until marriage because nicer meals are only for families.  We don’t tell people to sleep on the floor until marriage because beds are for couples.  We don’t tell people not to bathe, read, or pursue hobbies until they can share those activities with someone else.  Eating, drinking, sleeping, and personal hobbies are all solo activities, too—they serve no purpose other than nurturing our own bodies.  Sex definitely shouldn’t be any different.  (Side note: For those of you who say that food/water/sleep are necessary and sex is not, I have a question.  How long have you personally gone without any kind of sexual gratification?  Unless your answer is “all my life,” you need to just be quiet.)

Now that we’ve established that, let me dispense with some other myths. Masturbation won’t make you go blind, grow hair or warts, or lead you down a path of porn addiction.  I mean, seriously, people.  Humans have been touching their private parts for pleasure since long before Internet porn and Playboy.  What we have done is trade the old standby scare tactics for new ones.  We’ve told people that any form of sexual gratification is naughty and should be avoided until marriage.  Instead of frightening people (bodily dysfunction), we’ve shamed them (sex addiction)  into silence.  (Pssst…it’s not working.  People are doing it anyway.)  All this does is create the “forbidden fruit” syndrome.  Healthy exploration of our bodies is a very different kind of thing.

We’ve also shamed married people into thinking that all their sexual needs must be fulfilled by penis-in-vagina sex (or possibly some relatively vanilla variation on that theme).  The thing is, though, that isn’t necessarily true.  And that’s without getting into couples who may or may not have the “correct” (read: conservative evangelical Christian) combination of body parts.  Self-gratification and partnered sex are not the same; they feel different and serve different purposes.

One of the big problems we have today is that the human body matures physically about 10-15 years before we marry. That’s 10-15 years of pent-up sexual frustration, especially given the fact that many conservative Christians also believe that sex before marriage is also wrong (yeah, I have thoughts on that too–I’ll save them for another day). Yikes! There has to be a better way than just telling everyone not to think about sex and stay hands-off (for at least 10 years, may I remind you).  It’s like telling someone not to think of an elephant–the more we try not to think about it, the more we fixate.  I believe that it is entirely acceptable, normal, and good for people (especially hormone-overloaded ones) to release that tension themselves through masturbation.  We don’t necessarily need to make a big production of sharing this with them, they’ll figure it out on their own for the most part (and will probably thank us not to embarrass them).  But we do need to stop shaming them, directly or indirectly.  Make a distinction—a very clear one—between lust and self-exploration.

It is also not wrong for partnered people to find sexual satisfaction alone.  There are many reasons why people might do so.  Sometimes one partner has a higher sex drive.  Sometimes couples are apart from each other due to circumstances.  Sometimes people just like touching themselves.  Unless it is directly causing problems in the relationship, it’s really not something to write home about.

In the next two posts on this topic, I will examine some of the factors that influence our tendency to layer on guilt and shame, as well as some of the positive aspects of self-exploration.

11 thoughts on “Oh my gosh! You said the “M” word!

  1. I found your blog through Slacktivist, though I think I’ve “seen you around” on RHE as well. I’ve spent a couple of days poking around your blog and I love it! Yours is such a refreshing voice!
    And this is such a great post! Usually, the only people that are willing to talk about masturbation are against it and even if they aren’t, no one seems to think girls do it!

    • Yes, or it gets framed in the context of the “mommy porn” Fifty Shades-type books. There are a few good sites out there that do talk about it, but they frame the discussion in terms of “how can we justify it and make it sound less sinful.” It would be nice to just be able to talk about it without the baggage attached.

  2. Pingback: The revolution will be blogged: Evangelical women challenging purity culture

  3. When you brought up hunger and other appetites, I was reminded of Diogenes the Cynic, who gave this reply to people who saw him masturbating in public: “I wish it were as easy to banish hunger by rubbing the belly.”

    Many in his audience would have been reminded of Odysseus’s grumbling about his “shameless belly” and what it drives men to do, including a prize fight with another beggar over a sausage. If it were as easy to satisfy avarice by rubbing a wallet, the world would probably be a better place.

    • Ha! I had to look that up, because I have limited knowledge of Diogenes. I believe the site I landed on referred to it politely as “behaving indecently in public.” Anyway, I have long thought that if evangelicals really wanted to keep everyone “pure” until marriage, they really ought to just tell people to just get themselves off.

  4. The masturbation-shaming is just as bad among conservative Catholics, too, only they cite Thomas Aquinas. I remember reading about how masturbation was “an intrinsically disordered act,” and feeling like there was something wrong with me that I had done it.

    I was also female, and the (ridiculously uninformative) “sex education” I got implied the whole way through that males want sex and females don’t, which only reinforced my feeling that I was a freak.

    It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized how normal I actually was.

    • Sex Ed at my public school was also pretty limited. No one ever talked about anything except the awful diseases one might get. They showed us childbirth videos to discourage us from doing anything that would result in pregnancy, too. But nothing on masturbation, so everything I knew from school was mostly guys telling crude jokes about it. At church, masturbation was, other than homosexuality and sex with another person, the Big No-No–but everything I learned was aimed at boys and I had to try to apply it to myself as a girl. Any time I did it, I would pray fervently for God to take away my sin. As an adult, I learned that I was completely normal, but by that point, so much damage had been done that I still didn’t feel whole.

  5. What I don’t understand about your argument is that you separate masturbation from lust, when really (while it may be possible for one without the other) for a single person outside of marriage, I’ve not heard of masturbation that didn’t involve lustful thoughts. What does one think about to be aroused without lusting over something they don’t have?

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