Guest Post: Is Forsaking Masturbation Really God’s Law?
As a student majoring in Child Development, I remember wondering and discussing, if masturbation is a part of normal sexual development, at what point does it become a sin? In light of recent dialogue surrounding the petition to protect LDS children, and how many of the stories relate the shame of masturbation, I have reflected again what it means if the church (whose only official stance I can find is in the For Strength of Youth pamphlet) is truly saying that masturbation – across the board – is a sin.
What does it mean for the children of parents and leaders unversed in human development and sexuality that find this behavior inappropriate and want to stop it before it becomes habitual? What does it mean for my friend with extreme menstrual cramps, who won’t masturbate, even though she’s found orgasm is the best way to relieve the pain? What does it mean for the relative who has been divorced for twenty years and included complete sexual repression on her list when making that decision? What does it mean for my friends who struggle with orgasm, but are tentative to masturbate because they feel guilty every time they do? What does it mean for my gay brother who has little hope for sexual expression if he decides to remain in the church?
Is God really asking for no form of sexuality outside of marriage, or has masturbation been interpreted by man to be wrong and is an unjust law?
There are many professionals writing on this topic, such as Natasha Helfer Parker, but the voices that are heard in the church are those of the authorities. Those of men. Voices such as Elder Tad R. Callister, whose BYU-I devotional was reprinted in the Ensign: “The Lord condemns self-abuse. Self-abuse is the act of stimulating the procreative power of one’s own body.” If someone decides for themselves that masturbation is not what God wants them to do, that is fine. But to condemn and judge others who have decided it is beneficial in their lives is very harmful. To shame children for a normal behavior borders on child abuse. I believe people need to know how the church’s opinion has evolved and changed on this issue and be given accurate resources so they can determine for themselves what is appropriate behavior.
I think “Be ye therefore perfect” is one of our favorite passages in the church. We love to apply it to ourselves and we love to apply it to others. We, and many other denominations, often use the verse on lust and adultery from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, as an argument against masturbation. In my search to understand masturbation, I read an article by two Catholic psychologists, who point to the Sermon on the Mount as “part of the overall plot of the Gospel to draw attention to the futility of a Christian’s moral efforts and, thus, the need for continual dependence on God’s grace… Through his unequivocal moral directives, Jesus is effectively raising the bar so high as to make God’s ethical standard humanly impossible to attain. His purpose was to remove the unforgiving yoke of religious law from the people by offering himself as the ultimate source of grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation with God.” I have been pondering that interpretation a lot lately, grateful for additional scripture and insights from leaders. I was deeply touched by Elder Holland’s beautiful talk at Conference on perfectionism and grace and loved how he also tied in the parable of the unforgiving debtor. Like Elder Holland, the psychologists are not suggesting we use this passage to justify sin. Their goal is to help Christians “resist emotional arguments based on false facts and the misuse of Scripture, and to approach masturbation with a critical and discursive mindset to arrive at a well-reasoned personal viewpoint on the matter.”
Is an absolutist approach to masturbation what God wants? Is it possible to separate masturbation and pornography? And make a distinction between lust and arousal? I think it is. I think it is also important to dispel myths that masturbation will inevitably lead to pornography use.
In the process of searching for answers – Why masturbation? Why did God design things this way? – I have found many answers from the medical community, sex-ed experts and even theologians. But I’ve come to recognize that ultimately any external information I found would be filtered with a lens of limited knowledge. What I have focused on is the purpose of religion to lead us to Christ and become one with Him, so anything that falsely separates us from His love must be discarded. We should not say masturbation is a sin if it is not. We must correct our mistakes if they are leaving people feeling hopeless or drowning them in shame. What Christ warned of in Matthew 5 was the sin of lust, which sex-educator Al Vernacchio describes as “just a physical and sexual attraction. We don’t often think about them as whole people – that can even ruin the lust.” A reduction to parts is in my mind one of the biggest dangers of pornography. But not seeing a whole person can easily happen to any of us and I believe Christ is not saying in Matthew 5 that we have to be perfect to access Him. He is saying we are only whole through Him.
It is scary to challenge our assumptions. It can leave us wondering if one thing isn’t true can I trust any of it? We don’t have all the answers – and perhaps that’s not the point. In their book, The Crucible of Doubt, Terryl and Fiona Givens point out, “’There is no pain so awful as the pain of suspense,’ said Joseph Smith. That is why we will do almost anything to escape this suspense. We feel unmoored if our religion fails to answer all our questions, if it does not resolve our anxious fears, if it does not tie up all loose ends. We want a script, and we find we stand before a blank canvas. We expect a road map, and we find we have only a compass.” There is value in the process of laying on the table what we thought with a surety to be true and asking to see with God’s eyes.
I believe that as members we are capable of embracing goodness and using sexuality wisely. I hope we can rely on wisdom greater than ours and ask God if this shame is necessary.