Just last week, I was waxing eloquent on the theological meaning of our human bodies, the impact of physicality on spirituality and vice versa, the importance of listening to our bodies and giving them what they need. . .
And then it came up.
By “it,” I mean a question about masturbation.
She raised her hand and asked, “If we’re supposed to listen to our bodies and the rhythm of our cycles, what about when we want to have sex? Is it good to masturbate because we’re giving our bodies what they want?”
Suddenly, the class was in rapt attention.
And I was surprised. I’d spoken about masturbation before, but never in this context—that of listening to your body.
I recently came across a 2012 Her.Meneutics post about female masturbation that encourages authentic relationship to solve the problem of disordered attachment to which addiction to masturbation points.
Is it really that complex?
I know Her.Meneutics ran another more recent post on Christian masturbation that emphasized the relational nature of sexual intercourse (“proper” orgasm) and the self-gratifying nature of solo masturbation. The author herself categorizes her habitual solo masturbation as sin.
Is it really all bad?
And I’ll soon review Dr. Juli Slattery’s 25 Questions You’re Afraid to Ask about Love, Sex, and Intimacy. She doesn’t think masturbation is categorically wrong and recommends analyzing one’s thoughts and motives with regard to masturbation—are they pure before God? While she sees benefit to masturbation in some circumstances, she’s also concerned that it not master the person.
In theology class, though, when faced with the question, I just started talking, not quite sure where it would take us. I mentioned that often our motives are mixed—that we seldom masturbate just because we want to have sex and are listening to our bodies. Are we just looking for a release, or do we need that release because we’re lusting after someone (real or fictional) who is not our spouse? It’s usually mixture of these and other options.
And let’s face it, when we’re married, it’s not like we always just get to say, “I want to have sex, so come here, baby!” Schedules, sickness, kids, travel, and more get “in the way” of this type of listening to our body. If we begin to expect physical gratification whenever we want it, we aren’t preparing to be in real relationship when we don’t get what we want all the time.
And what if you’re so good at it for yourself, you have a hard time achieving orgasm with your spouse?
Some masturbate because they want to have sex, some when they’re lonely, some when they’re stressed, some for other reasons. It’s good to look at the underlying reasons and see if masturbation actually helps. If we masturbate when lonely, we may achieve a momentary release, but feel even lonelier afterward. In that case it may be better to sit in one’s loneliness and wait for God to call our name (I write about this in The Book of Womanhood—there’s a preview for the chapter here).
In masturbation, the point is orgasm.
In marital sex, the point isn’t orgasm; it’s union with another human being.
If we orgasm but are disunified, it’s dissatisfying; if our understanding of sexual intercourse is solely based on orgasm, it is lacking.
But then there’s this story in Lisa Graham McMinn’s Sexuality and Holy Longing: Embracing Intimacy in this Broken World. She writes of her male student’s shame about habitual masturbation. He had never struggled until his girlfriend was out of the country (though they weren’t sexually active). Rather than adding to his shame about possibly objectifying his girlfriend, they conversed about how to invite God into the longing. She also writes of another who made appointment—perhaps Thursdays at 9pm–when he would masturbate; this stopped him from thinking about it or doing it all the time, but would still give him a place for release. I have no conclusion about this, but I think we need to think and talk about it.
My answer to the student’s question was that basically, masturbation is more than just listening to one’s bodily desire for sexual intercourse. And I left the class to think and come to their own conclusions.
But one thought that came to me after class has to do with inhabiting our bodies well and understanding a need for physical release. Yes, sometimes our bodies are calling for sexual intercourse, or maybe the job stress, emotional stress, or spiritual stress is simply calling for some type of physical release.
This connects to the theology lecture on being in a human body. Since what happens in the non-physical parts of us (stresses listed above) affects our physical body, sometimes a physical release helps the non-physical stresses. For me, running has always been a physical release that transforms overwhelming anger, stress, emotions, etc. into something manageable. When I used to kickbox, going to that gym and being surrounded by pounding music while punching and kicking a bag was also major release for me.
While the release of masturbation may provide a physical release that helps in other areas, it’s by no means the only physical release available. It would help us to learn to inhabit our bodies well, to not put the spiritual above the physical, but to realize how intertwined they are.
And it’s good to talk about masturbation in theology class.
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