Not so long ago I sat in a room with a group of young Christians, no longer teenagers but rather young adults. We where talking about the bible and Jesus. Was it possible that Jesus could have sinned and what does it mean that Jesus felt every human emotion, did he then lust? Masturbate?
The disgust that went through the room at this point was palpable and when I put my foot down and said “Masturbation is not a sin”, I was met with “Well then we may as well go of and masturbate and sleep with anyone we want!”
This immediate jump to the slippery slope argument (which in it self is a fallacy whenever used) prompted a further discussion that in turn prompted this post.
In Christian circles today it seems that masturbation, while both natural and a part of the teenagers discovery of his or her own body, is even more stigmatised than sex. It is somehow even more shameful to touch yourself than to have someone else do it. Why is this? Where does it come from? What does the bible say about masturbation and how does that sync with the churches traditional teaching on the subject? What does science and society say?
Let’s consider a few different voices on this issue.
It is beyond contestation that both psychology, anthropology and medical science say that masturbation is a healthy way for young persons to discover their bodies and come to terms with their sexuality. Furthermore, sex-councellors worldwide would advice men with longevity issues to learn control by practicing on their own.
Science also tells us that the resulting orgasm is beneficial for our health in many ways. Consider the following scientific findings as presented in the book Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan:
men who had ejaculated more than five times per week between the ages of twenty and fifty were one-third less likely to develop prostate cancer later in life.
daily ejaculation dramatically reduced DNA damage to men’s sperm cells, thereby increasing male fertility—quite the opposite of the conventional wisdom.
Frequent orgasm is associated with better cardiac health as well. A study conducted at the University of Bristol and Queen’s University of Belfast found that men who have three or more orgasms per week are 50 percent less likely to die from coronary heart disease.
These are just a tidbit of information on what ejaculation and orgasm does for a man. For women there are a lot less research available (go figure) but here is one slightly off topic remark from the same book:
women who do not use condoms are less likely to suffer from depression than either women who do use condoms or who are not sexually active
So women who are sexually active are less likely to suffer from depression. On this note it is also interesting to recognise that one of the oldest documented pathologies is said to be female hysteria and the medical treatment was massage of the vulva, that is masturbation and orgasm. What may be even more shocking for some is that doctors around the world administered this treatment to women with an increased libido well into the 20th century and women lined up for the cure!
On a slightly less scholarly note, the book the 4 hour body has the following to say:
Nina emphasized, a woman has to be comfortable masturbating. “If she doesn’t masturbate regularly, she’ll be more trouble, baggage-wise, than it’s worth, unless you get off on being the fixer.”
While this sounds a bit of the cuff and misogynistic, science does tell us that body pleasure lowers aggression.
“deprivation of body pleasure throughout life—but particularly during the formative periods of infancy, childhood, and adolescence—is very closely related to the amount of warfare and interpersonal violence.” (also from Sex at Dawn)
Therefore we are told by the scientific corner to just chill out and not to be so uptight when it comes to these issues.
A reasonable relaxation of moralistic social codes making sexual satisfaction more easily available would also make it less problematic. (also from Sex at Dawn)
Hang on what about the Bible doesn’t the bible forbid masturbation? Well, thank you for asking, the short answer is no. The bible actually has no teaching on masturbation. The most cited passages are the story of Onan and a few remarks of Paul.
Let’s start with Onan. He married his dead brothers wife Tamar as the law instructed him but when the time came to consummate the marriage he practiced coitus interrupts (he pulled it out and spilled his seed on the ground) so that he would not give a child to his dead brothers wife that would not be considered his own, again according to Jewish law). Onan was then killed by god for not adhering to the Mosaic law. This story has nothing to do with masturbation and the fact that Onan’s name has become synonymous with masturbation in many languages in an attempt of controlling peoples sexuality is a serious abuse of scripture and power.
In Pauls first letter to Corinth there is a passage where Paul condemns a whole row of sexual deviations. Non of which are easily understood or translated the words used are porneo, malokos, and arsenokoites non of these words have anything to do with masturbation. Feel free to read my other commentary on these words here.
And even if Paul’s words had included masturbation, which they do not, I have to echo the sentiment of Marcus Borg in his fantastic novel “Putting Away Childish Things“: What if Paul was wrong? It sounds heretical, I know, but consider the fact that misinformation has been the norm on sexuality related facts throughout our known history. It was common to believe for example that masturbation caused both seizures, blindness and madness. Why is it that we assume that Paul to be an authority on every issue on the planet?
What we have left to consider is Jesus strong words on adultery: A man who looks upon a woman with lust in his heart has already committed adultery with her. If we assume that these are indeed the words of Jesus and that he recommends putting out our eyes to avoid it then every man I know should go blind immediately. For some men (I talk less about women simply because I have no experience in being one and do not presume to have an inkling on how female sexuality works) it may be that the act of masturbation preserves their fidelity and therefore their marriage.
It is interesting to note that hip youth ministers within the free churches will often be heard stating that masturbating together with your spouse can be a beautiful thing and part of a couples normal sex life. While this is a nice softening of the stigmatising view of masturbation it still leaves the ones in need of liberation, that is teenagers, sorely bound by shame and guilt.
Now let’s for a second consider how the bible supports and encourages sexuality and then maybe using the same inferring as the negative case is built on propose a more positive approach to sexuality and the topic at hand, masturbation.
First let’s again look at Adam and Eve or mythical hunter gatherer ancestors who lived in Eden, Naked and not ashamed. Right there is the first clue that sexuality understood correctly should not be a source of shame but rather a source of joy.
Moving on rapidly then to the song of songs (there are other more obvious examples in other OT narratives but it quickly gets oh so provocative and complicated to get into those) where unmarried sexuality is if not celebrated then simply a fact. The poetry in the Song is simply “not concerned” with the marital status of the young lovers.
From the song we can find a positive body image in regard to the young lovers genitalia and an exuberant celebration of their passionate sexuality. The following verses are from the CEB.
I have come to my garden, my sister, my bride!
I have gathered my myrrh and my spices.
I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey;
I have drunk my wine and my milk.
Eat, dear friends!
Drink and get drunk on love!
Here the lover has come to his garden, this garden was of course earlier the womans garden dripping with myrrh and spices sweeter than honey. We must understand that every word in the song is dripping with double entendre and the metaphors switch quickly as to leave you dizzy, the Song is probably more to be inhaled and experienced than read and understood.
Keeping the images of a garden dripping with myrrh lets move to the young womans bed room a few verses later.
“I have taken off my tunic—
why should I put it on again?
I have bathed my feet—
why should I get them dirty?”
My love put his hand in through the latch hole,
and my body ached for him.
I rose; I went to open for my love,
and my hands dripped myrrh,
my fingers, liquid myrrh,
over the handles of the lock.
Why is she naked in bed? Why is her hands dripping with myrrh? And let’s not even try to decipher the image of the hand through the latch hole ….
It seems to me that the bible is as capable of creating a positive and healthy image of both sexuality and the exploring of the same as it is in creating a misogynistic damaging and controlling one.
Fr. Richard Rohr makes an interesting comment about women being saved through childbirth, where he states that in childbirth women get the upper hand on the men as they are forced into body knowledge and self discovery through childbirth he also suggests that this is why male initiation rites often include arduous challenges and painful quests that will force the young man to get to know his body.
There is a certain composure and authority to a human being that is completely comfortable in his or her own body. There is a self awareness and confidence that only comes to those who know the ins and outs and limits of their own bodies. I suggest that a healthy exploration of ones sexuality, where masturbation is a part of that exploration, may help grant such body knowledge.
In conclusion I must also add that the gnostic notion of separating spirit and body, where the spirit is good and the body evil is one of those unspoken meta-narratives that derive from greek (Plato) philosophy hat stand in our way of a more holistic and healthy view of our own bodies. Those who desperately cling to it may benefit from stepping out of the spiritual and getting their hands dirty or as the case may be oily.