Breaking the rules

This is a continuation of my previous post.  I’m dealing with some sensitive issues, including lust, pornography, and addiction. If you are uncomfortable talking about these things, 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.

Before we can talk about the ways in which self-pleasure can be a positive, healthy thing, we need to have a conversation about lust, pornography, and addiction.  We need to break the rules that those are all interchangeable terms and are all inherently bad.

When it comes to lust, I think we simply have no real way to discuss what it is and what it means without devolving into some variation on thought-policing.  I have some rage about that, actually.  I am truly sick and tired of the way lust gets thrown around as a way to tell people what they should or should not find sexy or what fantasies are acceptable when one is wanking.  I simply cannot buy into the idea of a God who wastes time fretting about what gives His people orgasms rather than, say, caring what happens to starving children.

I think we need to understand the context of Jesus’ remarks about lust, because otherwise, all sexual fantasy is reduced to lust.  I have read numerous articles on the subject, and the problem with all of the Christian versions is exactly the same.  Most people seem to think that before Jesus, the line was drawn at “Don’t screw your neighbor’s wife.”  After Jesus, there was a new line, but no one seems to be able to define it.  It could be anything from “Don’t think sexy thoughts at all” to “Don’t fantasize about the person you just saw in the park.”  All we do is keep moving the line, which does nothing to lead to actual freedom.  It’s just more about monitoring and controlling other people.  I don’t view Jesus’ words about lust that way at all.  When Jesus was speaking about lust and adultery, he was making commentary on legalism–saying, “You want legalism?  Here you go.  Have some more.”  (I suggest you read everything in Matthew 5 after the Beatitudes while picturing Condescending Wonka.)  Every time we move the line and try to define lust in terms of what people view, read, or think about when they get off, we end up with more red tape.

There are two problems with that.  First, if thinking about another person while pleasuring oneself is wrong, then it also applies to partnered couples.  Well, shoot.  That is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.  I mean, I consider it damn hot to imagine my husband bringing himself off in the shower while thinking about me!  I really want him to “lust” after me.  I don’t consider it some attempt to possess me or reduce my humanity in any way if he were to think about my hands on his body.  (You are all blushing right now, aren’t you?  That’s so cute.)

Second, it makes people terrified of their own thoughts.  I can remember watching movies with my husband–my husband!–and if there was any sex, I would immediately tense up.  I would think, I can’t find this sexy.  I’m not supposed to find this sexy.  I would worry that he was embarrassed.  I would fear being turned on by it because oh my god that’s porn! even if there wasn’t much being shown.  And for real, folks, that was incredibly damaging.  By shutting off any natural reaction because I was afraid that it was veering into Lust Land, I also shut off any ability to respond to actual sex.  Thought-policing on the lust front is a recipe for repression and depression.  Instead, we need to reframe the conversation so that it’s about how we show respect to others’ humanity rather than about punishing ourselves for naughty thoughts.

So let’s talk about porn, then.  Well, what about it?  My problem with porn is not holy shit naked people humping.  Human beings have sex, and we’ve been creating visual representations of it for thousands of years.  The exaggerations in porn?  Not new.  There is some ancient Japanese art in which men have schlongs the size of their heads.  My problem with porn is largely the abuses in the industry and the ways in which rather than being a reflection of humanity, it has become a standard for humanity.  I could–and probably should–write an entire post about the relationships between porn and sex trafficking, child abuse, drug addiction, and the degradation of women.  I could also include frank discussion of the ways in which use of pornography can cause problems within intimate relationships, often due to differing standards as well as the aforementioned shame attached to it.  I could spend a long time hashing out the difference between a person who simply enjoys porn and a person who has become so wrapped up in it that he or she can’t enjoy sex of any kind without it.  As I said, those are all important issues, but a discussion about self-gratification is not the place to go into detail.  Suffice it to say, watching people get it on is really not the big problem here, but neither do I feel comfortable endorsing it as just another art form.

So now that we’ve gotten lust and porn out of the way, what about sex addiction?  Well, first of all, we have to be clear on what we’re talking about.  There is good evidence that the rate of sex addiction is greatly inflated because people who enjoy daily sexual release are lumped into this category, as are people who regularly view porn. This is more a function of a sexually repressed society than any actual disorders (not that those don’t exist too, but the church has definitely defined “addiction” in pretty broad terms).

In order to qualify as a genuine addiction or as a problem, there are several things that need to be true.  First and foremost, it needs to be a problem for the person, and not just because the person feels embarrassed or ashamed or guilty.  It needs to actually have real-life consequences:  It needs to interfere with activities of daily living or be truly harmful to oneself or others.  Folks, it’s not going to kill you.  This is not the same thing as being an alcohol or drug addict.  I believe (and sex-positive experts agree) that this is just another lie spread by very conservative religious types.  You can fondle yourself multiple times a day and unless you are doing it at inappropriate times or in inappropriate places, you’re pretty much okay.  I have seen a number of people claiming that they were “addicted” because they believed themselves to be using masturbation as a way to fill an unnamed emotional hole, and I understand that perspective.  But even using sexual release as  means of self-soothing is not wrong.  Heck, it’s better than getting drunk or binge-eating or self-harm, and it’s a hell of a lot safer than escaping through sky diving or bungee jumping.  I think the “filling an emotional need” thing is a distractor  anyway.  Would you have the same concerns if I were feeling lonely and soothed myself by spending the night watching my favorite movie for the thirtieth time?  Probably not.

Please don’t think I’m dismissing the harm that can come from lust, porn, and addiction; I’m not.  It’s just very important that we remove the layers of shame and guilt before we can deal with the things underneath that really are harmful.  If something feels like a problem for you personally, then by all means do something about it.  But make sure that your reasons aren’t stemming from the negative messages from the church or culture.

Next time, we get to the good stuff: what makes masturbation a potentially really awesome thing?

6 thoughts on “Breaking the rules

  1. “My problem with porn is largely the abuses in the industry and the ways in which rather than being a reflection of humanity, it has become a standard for humanity.”

    I learned from reading interviews with executives of porn companies and the “stars” themselves that porn has evolved and now uses market research like any business. They basically give people what they want. Couples porn (to be viewed by a heterosexual couple) and instructional porn (couples in the video explaining to the viewer how to perform various acts) seem to be in vogue, today. And there are certain types of porn for which there was a market several years ago, but are no longer popular. Also with the computer, there is interactive porn sites where the viewer can request the porn “stars” to perform in a certain way. I’m not saying any of this is good, bad, ugly or indifferent, just saying that the evangelical churches take a very narrow view and cast porn as some kind of extremely vile satanic tool used to trap young men. It’s really not about the industry trying to shape the morals of society. It’s all about making money.

    • I agree that lumping it all in together isn’t good. But far too much of what’s available is produced unethically. I’m not entirely buying what’s being sold by the highly biased filmmakers and “stars,” either. Also, part of the problem is, in fact, the content–not merely unrealistic bodies, but the way in which there are expectations placed on women in particular to look like those women and “perform” like them. That’s not to say it can be made in a better way, just that most of what’s available isn’t in that category.

  2. Greetings Amy. I just discovered your excellent blog a few days ago, and am glad to see a Christian woman calling out fellow believers who conflate healthy fantasy, libido and masturbation with “lust.” Even when I came to Christ 27 years ago — in my limited understanding of the Bible back then — I could already see through the mistaken notions that equated masturbation and natural horniness with lust. I recognized that it was totally non biblical, and, in fact, prone to making Christians deeply neurotic about their bodies and sexual nature.

    The other thing that is always a problem in these discussions is the definition of “porn.” Ask different Christians (or non-Christians) to tell you what they think porn is, and you’ll likely get a variety of very different answers. A Webster’s dictionary definition isn’t helpful, because the word “porn” usually has a negative connotation, and carries different freight for different people. In fact, I know a lot of Christians who feel ANY depiction of nudity is porn. This fear of our bodies and desires is not just a Christian thing, but, as you know, a deeply ingrained (especially American) puritanical problem. I don’t like the word porn. And my own personal definition of it is anything that is crass, exploitive, or immoral. To use an extreme example (sorry if I’ll make your readers blush), but imagine a close-up photograph of a vulva or erect penis. Are you imagining this? Don’t worry, I won’t call the Thought Police. :D Anyhow, the difference between porn and art can be a thin line — it can come down to how this hypothetical cock/pussy photograph is composed, lit, and artistically presented. Two different photographs of the same thing can each tell a totally different story with something as simple as the lighting. One can either be beautiful, the other ugly and demeaning.

    And when it comes down to it, it’s all in the eye of the beholder. For me some “porn” is good, and some is bad. It’s a highly subjective call. And it gets at the thing you’ve railed against quite effectively: thought-policing. I really chafe at Christians who try to get inside the minds of other people with their pharisaical short-circuiting of healthy libido by confusing libido and lust.

    I’m off on a rant. But I have to say, it’s such a relief to see this conversation happening here. This is a topic that is criminally ignored or shouted down in the church today. As I’ve gotten older and wiser, I see where a lot of this received conformity and dogma springs from, but, regardless, it still makes me angry at times how people don’t scripturally think these issues through; and destroy their peace of mind by trying to get rid of masturbation and all sexual thoughts. They go a step too far in commendable holiness and purity by trying to throw the baby out with the bathwater — trying to get rid of ALL of their totally integrated sexual desires. It doesn’t work and just messes people up in my opinion.

    • Hi, Mark! I’m glad you found my blog.

      Good thoughts. I’m always pleased to hear from men on issues of purity/sexuality because so often, I hear from women about how so many of us have been shamed about our sexuality. We don’t always talk about the ways in which boys are also harmed by a lot of conservative religious culture.

      Great points on what is or isn’t porn, too, and the difference between good and bad being subjective. For me, I don’t care for visual porn because it’s often overdone, unrealistic, and degrading to one or both of the partners. But someone else likely feels very differently about it. I don’t know if this is a new thing, but many churches teach that women should also not read romance or erotica novels because they’re “written porn.” As an editor for a service, I read whatever they send me–including erotica. In written form, I draw the line between “good art” and “bad art,” and the only thing I put in the “bad” category is glorification of rape, abuse, or incest (all of which, admittedly, can cover a pretty broad range).

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