Off the blog, I have gotten requests for certain topics, and masturbation was one of them. Is it okay? For singles? For married couples? Why or why not?
Luckily, Rachel Held Evans decided to get seven different perspectives from Christians– men and women- so I don’t even have to bother.
Abigail Rine teaches literature and gender studies at George Fox University. She writes for The Atlantic Sexes and is the author of the forthcoming book Irigaray, Incarnation and Contemporary Women’s Fiction. Find her at Mama Unabridged or on Twitter.
I am sure others are better equipped to speak to the biblical/theological dimension of this conversation, so I’ll just say that I do not see the Bible as giving any sort of indictment against masturbation, although a puritanical narrative of sexuality is often imposed upon the Bible to make it seem that way. I think that masturbation can absolutely be a healthy part of both married and unmarried sexuality. (Of course, any sexual behavior can be distorted and used in unhealthy ways, but I’m not going to go into detail about that either, because that is often where the conversation begins and ends.) Instead, I’m going to give some specific examples of how I see masturbation as a healthy part of sexuality:
1) For those who plan to wait until marriage to have sex, masturbation can be a healthy way of dealing with natural sexual desire while single. The expectation that young men and women should go ten or fifteen years or more beyond puberty without expressing their sexuality in any way – and then suddenly “turn it on” when married – is, I believe, completely unrealistic and potentially harmful. How can we expect people to embrace the sexual dimension of embodiment in marriage while pushing the message that touching certain parts of one’s own body is inherently dirty and shameful?
2) Speaking about female sexuality in particular: we have this naïve idea that all women can reach orgasm through vaginal intercourse alone, which is just not physiologically true for the majority of women. I think masturbation can be an excellent way for individual women to learn the uniqueness of their bodies and how they experience pleasure, which can then be communicated to a spouse.
3) To get a little more personal: I had a baby six months ago, and in the wake of the physical trauma of childbirth, I felt like my body had been totally rewired. For the first time, I began to dread and fear having sex with my husband, which was incredibly disconcerting. Exploring my own body has been very helpful in making me feel physically normal and like a sexual being again – and this had fed directly into rebooting my sex life with my husband. I am also glad that my husband was able to use masturbation to get sexual release while I was physically unable to have sex with him – this took the pressure off of me while I was coping with the intense physical and emotional demands of caring for a newborn and recovering from pregnancy/birth.
Anna Broadway is a writer, avid knitter, and modestly ambitious cook living near San Francisco. The author of Sexless in the City: A Memoir of Reluctant Chastity, she holds an M.A. in religious studies from Arizona State University and has written for The Atlantic website, Books and Culture, Paste, The Journal of the History of Sexuality, Christianity Today, Beliefnet and other publications. Find her at sexlessinthecity.net or on Twitter.
Whether or not masturbation can be part of healthy sexuality depends on how we define the second part of the question:
healthy sexuality. Based on my reading of the Bible, I believe sex is one of the many ways God created humans to bear the image of our maker in the world.
Who is that maker? According to the historic, creedal understanding, a triune God: one being, three persons. That paradox is very difficult to understand, but I think that’s one reason God created both man and woman — the multiple persons in the trinity couldn’t be represented in human form without different types of persons. How then are we to understand the profound unity possible between the different persons of the Trinity? I would argue the best picture God gave us was marriage — and in particular the sexual union between man and wife.
If that’s true, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the primary purpose of sex is profoundly relational: it’s meant to tightly unify husband and wife in a profound, material metaphor of the self-giving love shared within the Trinity. So when it comes to masturbation, I have had to conclude that it falls short of God’s intention for human sexuality. In my randiest, loneliest moments, I can certainly wish for a different conviction, but even then, what I most desire is not the freedom to masturbate with a clear conscience, but to be married and near enough to that spouse to once again fumble our way through the best earthly picture we have of the Trinity’s penultimate love.
In addition to being one of my favorite bloggers, Richard Beck is Professor and Department Chair of Psychology at Abilene Christian University. He is the author of Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality and The Authenticity of Faith: The Varieties and Illusions of Religious Experience. Richard is married to Jana and they have two sons, Brenden and Aidan. He blogs at Experimental Theology.
First, I’d like to bring up the issue of Internet pornography and its relationship to masturbation. With the rise of Internet porn, the consumption of pornography has reached unprecedented levels. And it’s difficult, to say the least, to reconcile that consumption and the support it gives to the adult entertainment industry with the Christian commitments of justice and love. To be sure, many will battle with pornography all their lives, like an alcoholic fights daily for sobriety. There must be grace for our failures, but this is a battle that must be fought.
And beyond issues related to justice, psychologists are only just beginning to grasp the full impact of pornography upon our brains and how those effects are creating sexual and relational dysfunction. For an introduction to the issues psychologists are beginning to examine see Gary Wilson’s widely-viewed TED Talk.
That issue duly noted, let me get to my main points:
I think it is important to recognize how masturbation functions in the life of those who are single. And even for those who eventually get married, we need to note how marriage has become increasingly delayed in Western cultures. A 2011 Pew Report found that the median age of (first) marriages was 29 for men and 27 for women. In the 1960s the median averages for both genders was in the early 20s, and in ancient cultures we married as teenagers. Given this delay, how are we to manage our sex drive from the onset of puberty to wedding night? To say nothing of the sexual challenges involved in lifelong singleness.
All that to say, masturbation may be a vital aspect in how single persons cultivate and achieve sexual chastity. That is, masturbation may be a critical part in how a single person achieves emotional and sexual well-being if they hold to an ideal that sexual relations should only take place within a covenanted, life-long, monogamous relationship.
In short, I don’t think the physical act of masturbation should be moralized. The real issue in this conversation, the big elephant in the room, is Jesus’ prohibition against lust (cf. Matt. 5.27-28). Masturbation per se might not be a sin but what about the attendant lust? Can you masturbate to the point of orgasm without lust being a part of that experience?
And yet, I think this observation shifts the topic away from masturbation toward a theology of lust. What does it mean to lust? Should transitory erotic feelings be considered lust? Or is lust something more obsessive, persistent, greedy, covetous, acquisitive, and possessive in nature?
Because if transient erotic feelings are not lust then let me make a somewhat counterintuitive point: masturbation might be a great tool to combat lust.
Sexual arousal can be come psychically consuming, and debilitating, if not given a quick physiological outlet. We’ve all experienced this. When sexually aroused, it’s hard to concentrate on anything else. Our mind is fixated on the object of arousal. And trying to repress these feelings often exacerbates them. How, then, to get past these feelings and impulses? Physiological release can help here. Masturbate, clear your head, and move on with your day. When masturbation is treated in this almost perfunctory manner, as a physiological catharsis, it can be a very healthy means of quickly ridding yourself of unwanted sexual feelings and distractions.
To be sure, if masturbation isn’t being used in this perfunctory manner and is being accompanied by regular and possessive fantasies toward someone who isn’t, say, your spouse, then more might need to be said, (along with what I said above about pornography). But again, the issue then is less with masturbation than lust and how that lust might be symptomatic of relational issues that need attention.
Read the whole thing here, and check out the interesting comments below.