I am a girl, aged 23, currently employed and unmarried. I have never had sex but I have engaged in breast and genital massage with my ex-boyfriend. There was a time I used to masturbate after which I would feel guilty because as a Christian I feel masturbation is a sin. So I do not masturbate anymore, but I still do have strong sexual fantasies every now and then. At times I feel like masturbating but I still believe it’s a sin.
This past August’s column, in which I reassured a reader that masturbation isn’t a sin, has generated as many and as lively responses as anything that I’ve written for SpokaneFAVs. I stand by what I said back then: “Your masturbation isn’t troubling God. It doesn’t need to trouble you either.” Let’s talk a little bit more about why that is. And because a lot of the responses to that column leaned heavily on Bible verses, let’s do that by spending some time reflecting on scripture.
To begin, a quick quiz. How many times does the Bible mention masturbation? If you’re not sure, I’ll give you a hint: the answer starts with the letter “Z.”
Masturbation is mentioned zero times in the Bible.
For a while, it was popular to identify masturbation with Judah’s son, Onan (in high school, I remember a gaggle of tittering schoolboys whispering to one another about “Onanism”). But Onan’s “sin” – if you want to even call it that – is his refusal to meet the ancient and now-abandoned cultural expectation that he would impregnate his late elder brother’s wife and, thereby, give his dead brother an heir. Onan’s story, in other words, may be about familial deceit and disobedience. But it isn’t about masturbation.
Similarly, some folks argue that Paul speaks against masturbation in his Epistles to the Corinthians. In these letters, Paul refers to what the NRSV and NIV translate as “sexual immorality” and the KJV renders “fornication” (e.g., 1 Cor. 5:1, 7:2, 10:8). However, linking these passages to masturbation is an improbable interpretation of Paul. There are two reasons for that. First, Paul specifically tells us what he means by sexual immorality when he first speaks of it: “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you… for a man is living with his father’s wife.” (1 Corinthians 5:1 NRSV). Paul, in other words, is using this term to refer to a reported case of incest.
Second, Paul is not a writer who is afraid or embarrassed by giving name to bawdy or to unseemly things. He directly refers to prostitution (1 Cor. 6:15), to adultery (1 Rom 2:22), and, as we have just discovered, to incest. There is no reason, therefore, to think that he would have been reluctant to speak of masturbation. To put that another way, if Paul wanted his readers to understand masturbation as a sin, it is highly probable that he would have said so explicitly and in plain language.
Reviewing the Gospels is an even quicker task. Jesus spends very little time talking about sexual ethics. And no time at all talking about masturbation.
The notion that masturbation is a sin may be a lot of things, Lisa. But what that notion is not is biblical.
As L. William Countryman argues in his classic, “Dirt, Greed, and Sex,” (by coincidence, that’s also the name of my autobiography), what the Bible does reject is sexual expression that is, “without regard for one’s place in and duty to one’s family… or that which prey[s] on the sexual property of others.” That’s more or less what I said back in August: if you are masturbating instead of going to work or washing the dishes or paying the bills, if your masturbation is causing harm or alienation, then that’s a problem and we may appropriately use the language of sin to speak of it. But if you are masturbating as a way of being kind and gentle with yourself, as a way of learning about your sexuality, as a way of releasing tension, as a way of making sure that your sexuality doesn’t surface in destructive or exploitative ways – well, Lisa, that’s a good and a joyful thing.
God wants us to be sexual. God made us to be sexual. It is possible for us to be sexual (solo or otherwise) in the context of exploitation, shame, ungratefulness, and obsession. And it is possible for us to be sexual (solo or otherwise) in the context of generosity, love, delight, and gratitude. What we do with the gift of our sexuality can turn us into misers or it can turn us into lovers.
You don’t need to be ashamed about masturbating, you don’t need feel guilty about it, you don’t need to worry that it’s a sin. Indeed, Lisa, I hope that you will consider the possibility that masturbation might be a way of celebrating the gift from God that is having a body and being alive, that it might be a way of becoming a lover, that it might be a way of saying thanks.