Guest Post: Is Forsaking Masturbation Really God’s Law?

by Mahlah.

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.

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10 Responses

  1. SC says:

    I am still deciding how I feel about this. But regardless of where members of the church stand on this particular issue, one thing the church has made abundantly clear about confession of sins in recent weeks is that our confessions to LDS leaders are NOT private. McKenna Denson’s confessions to church leaders, her private ecclesiastical records, and her LDS social services records (which should be sacrosanct!) were leaked to the media by church authorities and her persecutors as part of a very public smear campaign against her. Going to LDS social services counselors for help dealing with addictions and the consequences of sexual sin is no longer an option now for millions of members thanks to that very public snafu. I strongly recommend that those wanting to confess sexual sin or seeking addiction recovery of ANY sort contact a *licensed* professional, because professionals with licenses (even pastoral counselors/therapists with doctoral degrees in divinity) are required to keep all such divulgences confidential or else face revocation of their license. Bishops, stake presidents, and apparently now LDS social services employees are under no such obligation, which is why they turned McKenna Denson’s private confessions over to church leaders to use against her in the media like that. As long as God sees us confessing & forsaking (D&C 58:43), we are forgiven, so by all means, choose to confess to someone who will keep that confession private!

  2. Caroline says:

    These are great points, Mahlah. I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot recently since I have a soon to be 12 year old boy, and I don’t want him shamed in bishop’s interviews for completely developmentally normal self-exploration. Like you, I have serious doubts about whether masturbation is a sin, and I hate the idea of my children living with self-loathing because of this.

    I actually hope my daughter does at some point engage in self-exploration and does figure out what feels good and what her body is capable of before she is married. I think she’ll have a much much better sex life if she goes into her marriage with some understanding of this.

  3. Pamela says:

    Great article. This is definitely something to think about. It’s been on my mind. Having children that have confessed this to the bishop and then had to sit out from passing the sacrament for some time. (Bless the bishop’s heart because he’s only doing what he knows and has been told to do). How humiliating and shaming for them. For years I’ve never questioned things about the church’s policies on certain topics because “That is God’s word” has been ingrained in my mind and in the minds of the members. In the last couple of years I’ve started to think for myself and think from my heart on different controversial subjects within the church. I’m learning to trust my gut and what my heart is telling me because I am a daughter of a God. This is why we are here is to develop ourselves so we don’t have to depend on others to tell us how to think and what to do. Some things just don’t make sense to me. And the negativity and sin of masturbation is one of those things. We are sexual beings and that is not “bad”. God created this feature in us and it’s not just for procreation. I believe as long as you’re not hurting another person, as in adultery, then what in the world is wrong in having that sexual side of us?? Thank you for sharing on this sometimes taboo subject.

  4. alice says:

    I also told my girls that no one gets pregnant from masturbating and no one ever gets an STD. I also told them that if they took care of their own hormones they could think with their brains when they were with guys.

  5. Just a Male says:

    I can only speak from a male perspective. I’m not quite sure if the church, as a whole, considers masturbation a sin as much as it does a practice to avoid. The question is: where’s the harm? When most males masturbate, while it is a physical thing, it also involves the mind and imagination. And the more one thinks about sexual things, the more one tends to do things that bring about an opportunity to have sex. In one study I read, there is a definite correlation between masturbation and partnered sexual activity among young adults. Meaning (especially for guys) the more one masturbated the more likely he was going to engage in petting to full blown intercourse. I consider masturbation a gateway activity. Within normal sexual development, it’s not a big deal. Church leaders know it’s happening. Since no church courts are held with respect to masturbation, that implies the church doesn’t consider it a “sin” but something to be careful about. Bishops handle this stuff differently, which is why there was more clear guidance from headquarters. I would never have considered telling an AP holder to not administer the sacrament for normal masturbation. I’m not sure where to draw the line, but if we precluded all males from serving if they had masturbated within the last month, the pews and seats at the pulpit would be empty.

  6. B says:

    I feel like the attitude among many (even pretty liberal) members is that masturbation is normal and maybe inevitable, but that if we ever let youth think it’s even a little bit okay, they’ll masturbate constantly and shamelessly and then become porn addicts/fornicators/teen parents, etc. So we have to continue to tell them not to do it and then blindly hope that they do it just enough to be “healthy” while somehow avoiding any long-lasting side effects of guilt and shame they will feel for engaging in a forbidden behavior.

    I think this isn’t fair to LDS youth. It’s not so hard to draw lines between private masturbation and unhealthy sexual behaviors, or sexual interactions with a partner. It just requires being frank and direct in discussions about sex. Many non-LDS or non-religious people grow up without being taught to avoid masturbation, and most are not promiscuous or addicted to porn. A lot of my non-LDS friends have had just one or a few sexual partners (for whom they truly cared), did not start having sex until their twenties, and have always been thoughtful and careful about sex. Unhealthy sexual obsession or risky behavior is likely a symptom of other underlying mental health issues and is not the natural endpoint for any child that is not properly warned against sexual self-exploration. On the contrary, shame may fuel or compound obsession.

  7. Katie says:

    “Self-abuse is the act of stimulating the procreative power of one’s own body.”

    For females, orgasm has little or no connection to procreation, so I guess women are ok!

  8. Steve LHJ says:

    I think masturbation is very similar to lying – in most cases it’s a sin, in most cases it’s not a very significant sin, most people do it as part of a natural human developmental process to maturity, and in some cases it’s not a sin but actually the right thing to do.

    The underlying higher law of honesty/lying is integrity – most times lying is a break of internal integrity, but in some cases lying and not exposing certain things that ought not to be exposed actually comes from a place of integrity and is therefore the right thing to do.

    The underlying higher law of masturbation is sexual purity – most times masturbating is a break of sexual purity, but in some cases masturbating could be an outgrowth of sexual purity as in the case of a young wife struggling to understand the physical aspect of her sexuality in marriage and desiring to explore to improve that in the context of an overall marriage relationship.

    Overall our over-anxiety around sexuality I believe has caused us to take masturbation too seriously and to cause issues of shame where the shouldn’t be shame. At the same time, done properly I think teaching it context of overall sexual health and purity is a good thing to do. Ultimately we want to be proud and thankful for the sexual aspect of our natures, and to honor and respect that part of ourselves.

  9. Naomi says:

    I’ve never given much thought to this topic, though I definitely don’t disagree and am simply relieved to hear such a rational conversation on a potentially hot button issue. A friend of mine just introduced me to this site and I feel immediately as if I am among friends and a weight has been lifted. To be honest, I didn’t expect to find wisdom this powerful in a post about masturbation, but all of your arguments here can be expanded to apply to so many other issues that relate to “worthiness” or shaming in the church. Ultimately, what so many in the LDS church don’t understand is the power that they have for personal revelation on any issue. Only we can truly discern and know our own standing with God, we don’t require a Bishop or Stake President to do that for us.

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