“Theological Endorsements of Masturbation”

As an adolescent boy in a Catholic High School staffed by priests, where daily Mass was on offer and regular confession a clear expectation, a continuing source of anguish was having to deal with confessing the “sins of impurity” which (we believed) were the particular bane of teenaged boys. The difficulties included the challenge of finding suitable words that could make my meaning plain, without actually spitting out precise wording, and also that of getting over my embarrassment (shame?) at patently having failed in my earnest promises at the last confession, to do my best to avoid that particular sin in future. In my innocence, I fondly believed that the curtain separating me from one of my teacher – priests protected my anonymity. In fact, in a particularly small school, and with a distinctive accent, it’s likely that any one of the priests would have instantly recognized and identified me. – but thoughtfully avoided addressing me by name. Invariably, these encounters ended with variations on a familiar penance – and an exhortation to pray to the Virgin Mary for the “gift of purity”. This coupling of Mary with sexual repression, I suspect, is partly responsible for my continuing ambivalence to Marian devotion. Later in life, growing wary of the continuing need to deal endlessly with the difficulties of the confessional led me first to abandon its trials altogether, and then (necessarily, in Catholic logic), to stop taking communion, and eventually to cease Mass attendance or any other practice of the faith.

Masturbation, along with any other genital activity not open to procreation, remains firmly prohibited in the Church documents (in the Catechism, for example). But as I have grown older, I have gained an impression that at the level of pastoral practice, at least, priests are far more sensible (and sensitive) on the subject that when I was at school or than the Catechism would suggest. I have also learned that far from being a vice especially affecting adolescent boys, it is widely practiced by people of all ages, men and women,  alone or with others, and is an entirely natural impulse. Even in the animal kingdom, non – primate species lacking hands for manual stimulation can get remarkably inventive in finding alternative means of self – stimulation. But still, the documents are explicit: this is a practice that is not just frowned on, but is described as a “grave evil”. Really?

I’ve been reading two college text books on theology and sexuality, by Susannah Cornwall and by Elizabeth Stuart and Adrian Thatcher. Reading in parallel their chapters on masturbation, it’s refreshing to find that both books present verdicts of respected Catholic theologians that differ sharply from the orthodox presentation of the CDF. Cornwall, always scrupulously even – handed and neutral in her presentation, first presents the orthodox Catholic view, and then goes on to present the contrasting view of other theologians:

…some people argue that masturbation, even if it is not the fullest expression of sexuality possible, is still preferable either to extramarital sex (if the masturbator is unmarried) or to adultery (if the masturbator does not have his sexual desires met within their marriage). Masturbation has been figured either as a harmless, pleasurable form of self-exploration, or as “the lesser of two evils”. Masturbation may provide a safe way for people to satiate their sexual urges without engaging in a sexual relationship for which they are not emotionally ready and which exposed them to the risks of sexually transmitted infection and unwanted pregnancies. Masturbation may promote the integration of self-esteem and body – esteem, re-inforcing confidence in one’s personal identity, “which in the long run can enhance the quality of one’s attachments and commitments. (Louw 2011). Masturbation may also be a healthy way for young people to learn what feels pleasurable to them so that they are later able to  communicate this better to a sexual partner – and may be an important way for girls, in particular, to explore their bodies and their sexual anatomies as sites of joy, not shame (Jung 2000).

Patricia Beattie Jung, a Roman Catholic ethicist, suggests that masturbation should not be figured as inherently selfish or self-indulgent. Rather, she says, “Arousal draws us toward others, and ignites their attraction to us; sexual desire sustains relationships. Even the delights of solitary sex can enliven in us our sense of connection to life. Sexual pleasure inclines those who enjoy it not toward a sense of selfish isolation but toward the world”. Along similar lines, Margaret Farley notes that although masturbation might seem contrary to a central tenet of just sexual activity, namely that it promote relationality, in actual fact many women, in particular, may through masturbation learn things about their own bodies’ capacity for pleasure which then enrich their sexual relationships with their partners (Farley 2006 ),  In other words, masturbation does not inherently or inevitably make people selfish or inward – focused. Rather, sexual pleasure in itself, even outside a relational context, disposes people to relationality.

Stuart and Thatcher do not attempt to retain the same degree of neutrality. They too first present the orthodox view, quoting some choice extracts, but respond with undisguised incredulity:

“Does one assume that clerical embarrassment precludes any acknowledgement of it?”

These conclusions must be considered amazing, whether considered theologically or pastorally.

Does anyone believe them? Other approaches to ethics do not arrive at this extreme position. Biblical ethics, for instance, is noncommittal on the subject, since masturbation is not mentioned in the Bible. The Church of England makes no mention of the subject in their influential “Issues in Human Sexuality”. The strong influence of natural law, the strong imposition of authority, a strong fear of the body and sexual pleasure, a strong feeling of guilt all combine here with bad biology to produce pastoral chaos.

They then continue by describing alternative Catholic approaches which are more useful and pastorally sensitive.

 Another Roman Catholic approach to masturbation, unofficial yet deeply devout, acknowledges the goodness and value of what is called “self – pleasuring”, whether for women discovering the mysteries of their own bodies and the pleasure available to them; for adolescents anticipating full sexual experience; for married couples whose “mutual caresses” sometimes “lead to orgasm without intercourse”; for married people whose partners are temporarily unavailable; for lonely people acknowledging their sexual needs; even women who have been abused, and who “re-learn the loveliness of their bodies, the goodness of sexual pleasure” with a loving female partner. Only when a positive account of self-pleasuring has been given is there then a very proper warning given about “the possibility of disorder in the solitary exercise of sexual arousal”.  The contrast between these two evaluations in striking, and the pastoral sensitivity of the second is only one of the grounds for preferring it.

It’s important to recognise here, that warning about “the possibility of disorder”. The rigidity and complete lack of understanding of human sexuality displayed by the orthodox Catholic teaching makes it gravely flawed, as widely recognized by a substantial proportion of Catholic ethicists – especially by those who are themselves married and so with some real – world experience of loving sexual relationships. But to dismiss the gravely disordered and destructive orthodox view should not lead to an embrace of “anything goes” sexual licence. The challenge for all Catholics is to steer a sound and healthy middle course between the twin dangers of a rigid sexual repression, and complete lack of self  discipline. The really important question should be not, “Is self – pleasuring good or bad?”, but “When, under what circumstances, is it healthy and good – and when is it harmful and bad?”

The sources quoted above are all those of eminent, respected academic theologians, mostly from the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, in senior academic posts at top universities. Sister Margaret Farley is a Mercy Sister, and (now retired) professor of Christian Ethics at Yale University. Professor Adrian Thatcher is a Professorial Research Fellow in Applied Theology at Exeter University. Professor Elizabeth Stuart is Deputy Vice-Chancellor and  Professor of Christian Theology at the University of Winchester. Dr Susannah Cornwall is a post-doctoral research associate at the Lincoln Theological Institute, University of Manchester.

But it can be helpful to listen not only to the voices of learned academics, but also to reflections on simple human experience. Here’s the openly Catholic, openly gay journalist, and educated layman, Andrew Sullivan:

It’s worth recalling that the formal, theological case against masturbation is identical to that against contraception and gay marriage. It is sodomy, as defined in the early modern period, i.e. ejaculation outside the vagina of a married female. So, as I argued at length a decade ago, we are all sodomites now. Men, anyway. Has any priest now living not masturbated?

For the record, I could never grasp why this was so wrong. My instinctual reaction to my first teenage orgasm was total wonderment. Of course, I had been taught nothing about this strange liquid coming out of my dick. It happened while I was reading – of all things – one of the Don Camillo short stories by Giovannino Guareschi. Not the most predictable erotic trigger – but when you’re fourteen, it could be the ceiling and you’d hit yourself in the eye if you weren’t careful.

To me, having this amazing thing suddenly come alive in my body was so obviously marvelous, so instantly ecstatic, it never occurred to me that God forbade me to forsake it. Why give me this 24-hour, unlosable instrument of blind, transcendent pleasure – and then bid me not to touch it? I had never experienced anything so simply pleasurable in my whole life until then. If we’re talking natural law, all I can say is that masturbation was the single most natural thing I had ever done at the moment in my life. More natural than watching television or riding a bus. If I felt guilt, it required some excruciating effort – until I realized that the most effective thing to trigger the constantly loaded rifle was thinking of another man. Usually naked. I had no porn or access to it. So I drew the men I wanted (and they all looked scarily like my husband). It was only then that the culture began to bear down on my nature.

But as I’ve grown older, and mercifully less driven by my dick, I can see the point of self-denial. In your teens, you have a constant unstoppable production of more sperm than could ever merely reproduce (another natural refutation of natural law). By your forties (unless I’ve just had my testosterone shot), not so much. So a little self-restraint definitely increases the pleasure and intensity of the orgasm you eventually get. And no, I feel no guilt about it whatever. It’s so psychically natural, so obviously intuitive, it was the first step for me toward dismantling the strange doctrines of natural law on human sexuality, devised in the early middle ages by men who knew a lot at the time – but tiny shards of truth compared to what we know now.

Wank on, my brothers and sisters. Wank on.

-Andrew Sullivan, the Dish

Cornwall, Susannah SCM Core Text: Theology and Sexuality

Stuart, Elizabeth and Adrian ThatcherPeople of Passion: What the Churches Teach About Sex

Church of England House of Bishops, “Issues in Human Sexuality: A Statement by the House of Bishops

Farley, MargaretJust Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics

Jung, Patricia Beattie, “Sexual Pleasure: A Roman Catholic Women’s Perspective on Women’s Delight“, in Theology and Sexuality 12, pp 26 – 27.

Louw, Daniel J, The Beauty of Human Sexuality Within the HIV and AIDS Discourse: The Quest for Human Dignity Within the Realm of Promiscuity”

Whitehead, Evelyn Eaton and James D. WhiteheadA Sense Of Sexuality: Christian Love & Intimacy


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