Let’s Talk About Masturbation

Masturbation is one of those things Christians don’t like talking about. Because if there’s one thing that Christians are really good at not talking about, it’s sex and anything related to sexual pleasure. So, for decades, I’m sure, masturbation has been the secret struggle whispered in silence (especially for girls), but we really need to talk about this, because people have questions.

Is masturbation wrong if I am not lusting?

Is it an “all things in moderation” thing?

What else is a single girl supposed to do?

I would rather my daughter masturbate than go sleep around. What’s wrong with that?

I am a widow; is it wrong if I am thinking about my former husband while doing it?

Help! My three year old is masturbating! What do I do?

Those questions reflect many I receive regarding masturbation. Whether it’s an e-mail from a reader or a Q & A after an event, questions about masturbation come up. Pornography and masturbation are pretty closely related, so it’s no surprise.

I am always careful when I address this subject because it is so intensely personal and there is always more to the story than just the act of masturbating. And yet, the unwillingness to talk about it is what has led to some of the deepest feelings I’ve shame I’ve seen.

We have a history of associating sexual pleasure with shame, and that’s not ok.

Now, I understand that different religious groups have different “rules” about whether or not masturbation is ok. For some it is absolutely not, under any circumstances, while, for others it’s an “all things in moderation” thing.

So, here’s the thing: I’m not going to address the specific act of masturbation and declare it right or wrong.

Why? Because I don’t think you actually can. I’ll tell you why I have come to the conclusion that I don’t encourage it, but I also don’t call down God’s judgement when women struggle with it. It’s a struggle I had long before pornography (for reasons I don’t fully understand nor do I know if I want to, honestly) and it has continued to creep up after pornography.

Masturbation is not listed in the Bible.

If it were, this would be less of a discussion. Some people point to the story of Onan, who was struck dead after he used the withdrawal method to avoid impregnating his widowed sister-in-law (true story: Genesis 38). They say that this is proof masturbation is downright evil.

First off, Onan didn’t masturbate. Masturbation, at least in the context we’re discussing here, is a form of self-pleasure. It’s solo sex. Onan wasn’t solo. He was just being a brat and didn’t feel like fulfilling his literal duty of providing an heir for his dead brother. There are too many things happening in this passage to be able to effectively use it as a proof-text against masturbation, in my opinion.

Second, if masturbation was a sexual sin worthy of death, it should then be included in the lists of other sexual sins worth death, like incest and sex with animals (Leviticus 20).

Note to self: skip Leviticus 20 while reading Bible bedtime stories to children.

On that note, if we’re operating on the idea that the act of masturbating itself is inherently sinful, then what are we supposed to do when little children start “masturbating?”

What tends to happen is parents become very concerned that their child is some sort of sexual freak. They don’t want to rob their child’s innocence by explaining what is happening, so they react in the opposite extreme. They use fear and shame to try to stop the behavior, but the behavior feels good, which just confuses the kid.

Parents will use words like, “dirty, gross, icky” to get their little girls to stop touching themselves. And for some of those girls, that is the only message they will ever hear about their sexuality- it’s dirty, gross, and icky.

I can’t help but believe that those little girls grow up to be young women, completely wracked by shame and guilt over their sexual desire and sexual pleasure. They never hear a sex-positive message from Christians because we’re afraid that if we tell girls they can enjoy sex, that they will fall into sin. So, they get their sex positive messages from secular culture, and then we get frustrated when they didn’t listen to us.

Sex-positive messages then are somehow evil, and only sex-negative ones are holy. This isn’t right.

This leads to a sexuality so shaped by shame that women e-mail me distraught over the fact that some days they wake up aroused. This is a totally normal and acceptable fact for men, but women aren’t taught that our bodies go through a similar arousal cycle in our sleep. (Perhaps I need to write a blog post on this some time.)

So, yes, women can wake up completely turned on for no reason. In fact, like men, women can even orgasm in their sleep. That doesn’t make a woman evil, dirty, or promiscuous. It is quite literally a fact of life.

Yet, unlike men, women aren’t going to be told that.

When we focus solely on a behavior, we miss the opportunity to address far more significant issues.

We have an opportunity to discuss female sexuality, female sexual pleasure, and even female anatomy. Not a single one of those things is evil, wicked, or sinful.

Masturbation is an easy segue into those topics. Instead, we’ve so surrounded it with shame that we close off any ability to have a healthy, God-honoring, sex-positive conversation. And that conversation is honestly the best argument I have for not masturbating.

Why I don’t encourage masturbation, a summary:

(keep in mind please that I am a Christian who believes in saving sex for marriage, so if you don’t come from that same baseline, I’m not going to expect you to agree with everything I say)

I believe our sexual desires are the only desires we have that were designed to be met by someone else. Yes, we can elicit the same physical response on our own and many women do so as a means of feeling sexual pleasure, relieving stress, releasing neurochemicals, etc. Still, when we satisfy that desire on our own, we are, in my opinion, robbing our future spouse of the ability to give us that gift. The physical response may be the same, but the aspect of connection is completely gone. I wouldn’t call it selfish, simply lacking.

It is known, even among non-faith sex therapists, that a woman can essentially train her body to respond to certain stimuli. Even among therapists who encourage masturbation as healthy sexual exploration, they warn of this and warn a woman of so conditioning herself that she cannot respond to a man. Personally, I don’t want to get to that place where my husband is unable to give me pleasure.

In addition, I’ve found that some women masturbate out of frustration. They are still single and take it upon themselves to bring themselves pleasure. Obviously, the issue here is one of faith, not of function. It is a deep belief of entitlement and “rights” which is an attitude that can also carry into a marriage. Yet there is an element of sex that is meant to be self-sacrificing and vulnerable.

If you’re masturbating because you’re frustrated about being single, that’s a heart issue, not a body one.

In marriage, this frustration can also be because the husband isn’t concerned about his wife’s pleasure, so she feels she has to do it herself. That reveals a deeper issue in the marriage bed, not necessarily a sin on behalf of the wife.

Other women masturbate to relieve tension and negative emotions. It becomes a drug, of sorts, where she may, as one reader wrote in, do it so often that her “arm is sore.” If masturbating has become compulsory and obsessive, there is, again, a deeper issue. It’s being used as an escape for something. An escape from what?

Still others will masturbate as a way of practicing before marriage. They are afraid. Afraid that when they get into marriage, they aren’t going to know how anything works, so they explore beforehand. And I agree that women need to know their anatomy. They need to know that they can have sexual pleasure. They should have an understanding of at least how that happens. That knowledge doesn’t have to come through practice though, because, as stated before, that practice could actually make the feared outcome a reality.

And then there are times where it is honestly innocent. There’s the little girl who found out certain touch feels good. There’s a hormonal teen with pent up sexual tension. There’s the woman who woke up turned on. Some women have medical conditions that almost mandate they orgasm multiple times a day. Is it wrong when there’s no lust, pornography, sexual fantasy? I don’t have an answer. My only fall back is the first thought- that this is pleasure meant for my husband, and I don’t want to take that from him, but I don’t feel dirty, gross, or wicked.

Do you see where I am going with this? To me, it’s not about the actual act of masturbation. It’s about what that act represents, what it provides for the woman, what is driving her toward it. It’s more about the discussion we have about masturbation and female sexuality.

Sexual pleasure is natural, and the desire for it is a perfectly normal part of who we are. Shaming women about it doesn’t accomplish any purpose other than behavior modification and issues that could carry over into marriage.

If we want women to have healthy views of sex and their own sexuality, we have to be willing to talk about it.

Recommended Read: “Sex, Jesus, and the Conversations the Church Forgot” by Mo Isom