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The “Mormon war on masturbation” video

Maybe the BYU-Idaho video and the inaccurate reportage about it will prompt Mormons to have a much-needed conversation about the ethics of masturbation -- and the ways we discuss it with youth.

A "war on masturbation" video that isn't actually about masturbation.

A “war on masturbation” video that isn’t actually about masturbation.

The Progressive Secular Humanist blog at Patheos is making this claim:

A recently released video by Brigham Young University–Idaho compares masturbators to wounded soldiers, and encourages students to identify to religious officials friends they think are masturbating.

Here is the four-minute video. What do you see?

Having watched it twice, I agree the video is flat-out weird. The quality is also grainy enough that it’s hard to believe it was officially produced by BYU-Idaho and not some student’s pet project, but the tag at the end attributes its creation to the student housing office.

The voiceover talk by the university president is over the top by itself (“He stops going to church and there is darkness in his eyes”), but the militarism of the video’s footage takes it to a whole new level: Sexual sin is war, and there will be casualties.

But this video is about porn addiction, not masturbation, which is not even mentioned. The video does not “compare masturbators to wounded soldiers,” though it does refer to porn addicts in that  way. So why is the piece going viral as a “war on masturbation”?

And why is something that was created for students at one notably conservative Mormon-owned university being regarded as representing the religion as a whole?

There are many problems with the messages in this video, including these three:

  1. Students should turn roommates in to their bishops if they  so much as suspect someone they’re living with has a problem with porn. That’s hardly the main point of the president’s message, which is about helping friends who have a porn addiction, but it’s a disturbing undercurrent.
  2. “Addiction” seems to be defined here as “any guy who looked at porn EVER while in college.” Conflating experimentation with addiction is hardly helpful to people who actually do suffer from addiction.
  3. There’s no indication that women might ever have problems with porn—that’s all manly guy soldier stuff, of course.

A final observation. Noting that this particular video is not actually about masturbation, or that Mormonism is being treated unfairly, doesn’t mean the LDS Church has developed a healthy approach to the topic. Masturbation has gone from being something that was expressly forbidden by the LDS hierarchy to something that is now largely ignored, its censure having dropped out of the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet and the bishop’s handbook.

But as family therapist Natasha Helfer Parker points out in this 2012 post — the best thing I have ever read on the subject of Mormonism and masturbation — that omission doesn’t go far enough in removing the culture of shame. After having several teenage Mormon clients tell her that they felt their exploratory masturbation was a sin on the same level as murder (!), Parker has called for a stop to what she considers an abusive practice of bishops asking teenagers about self-touching.

If there’s any positive fallout from the BYU-Idaho video and the inaccurate reportage about it, maybe it will be that Mormons have a much-needed conversation about the ethics of masturbation — and the ways we discuss it with youth.