This article continues the discussion I began yesterday on the topic of self-centered sex. Because sex is created by God and to be used for His glory, it is not purely a physical or sexual or emotional issue, a theological issue. Thus in yesterday’s article we built a brief framework in which to understand sex from a biblical perspective. We saw that sex is: a Gift From God; intended only for marriage; for giving and receiving pleasure; a means of building intimacy; intended for procreation. Today we will continue this discussion to encompass autoeroticism, the act of providing sexual pleasure to oneself.
Before I continue, I would like to address one concern that was raised in the comment section yesterday. One commenter wrote “A happily married man’s advice to lonely, sex-starved, Christian singles may be theologically right on the money but nevertheless leaves the reader cold, unmoved, even resentful. It’s easy to dispense advice on how to diet while stuffing your face at the buffet table, after all.” I would suggest, though, and despite what this commenter says, that this is an issue that applies to married men as well as single. Men or women who masturbate when they are unmarried may not find that having regular sex with a marriage relationship will necessarily or immediately remove the desire to masturbate. Sex and masturbation, while similar in some ways, are also dissimilar. One is pure, the other is sinful. One is selfless, the other is selfish. One requires effort, the other is quick and easy. When a person has many years of selfish sex in his background, he may not find the transition away from that to be simple. Sin cannot always be removed as easily as simply replacing it with something else. More often it requires dedicated effort and many pleas for the aid of the Holy Spirit for sin to be eradicated.
Blindness, Baldness and Hairy Palms
I suspect my childhood is typical in that I heard many rumors about the physical effects of autoeroticism. I was told that people who did it went blind, lost their hair, grew hair on their palms or went crazy. But as James Dobson says, “If it did [cause such afflictions], the entire male population and about half of females would be blind, weak, simpleminded and sick. Between 95 and 98 percent of all boys engage in this practice — and the rest have been known to lie.” My parents certainly never told me such lies and neither did any of my teachers or youth leaders. Yet these rumors were passed from boy-to-boy on the playground, usually long before any of us had ever given serious consideration to sexuality. We did not know what the act was, but we did know the supposed repercussions.
While these rumors are clearly unfounded, they continue to be told simply because autoeroticism is a topic that breeds guilt and shame. It encourages worry that a person will be found out. Yet there is no physical reason to deny oneself this sexual pleasure. As Josh Harris writes in Sex Is Not The Problem (Lust Is) (the book from whence I stole the title for this series of articles) “masturbation isn’t a filthy habit that makes people dirty. It only reveals the dirt that’s already in our hearts.” The physical act of masturbation simply points to a deeper problem within. So while autoeroticism is not filthy and does not make a person filthy, there can, however, still be a mental and spiritual toll as many people struggle with feelings of guilt, remorse and shame because of their habits. This may be a convincing reason for some people to avoid participating, but for many it is not. Sadly, guilt is not enough of a motive for many of us to curb our sinful behavior.
Purity of Mind
The most common reason given why people should not engage in autoeroticism is that it pollutes the mind. Sexual gratification is not merely a physical act, but one that engages the mind. In speaking with men who struggle with this sin, one will find that the act brings far less guilt than the accompanying fantasies. These fantasies run rampant during acts of autoeroticism. This type of fantasy can be dangerous in at least two ways.
First, as most adults have learned the hard way, reality is rarely as wonderful as fantasy. Many people create expectations for sex in their minds that the reality cannot meet. I dare say that rarely has a teenage boy created a fantasy in which his partner gently and lovingly rebuffs his advances because she is too tired. Neither has he concocted a fantasy in which she declines participation in a particular act because she finds it uncomfortable or distasteful. The fact is that fantasy can create unhealthy and unrealistic expectations of sex.
Second, fantasy will rarely involve legitimate sexual partners. A teenage girl has no legitimate reason to pursue sexual fantasy, for she has no God-given partner with whom she can consummate such desire. While it is perfectly legitimate for a husband to dream of a sexual encounter with his wife, autoeroticism may encourage him to fill his mind with thoughts of other women, or even to gaze at pornographic material to fuel his mind.
Fantasy is dangerous when left unchecked. Autoeroticism is wrong when it violates the Lord’s teaching about moral purity. “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). Fantasy can also be dangerous when it creates unrealistic expectation.
Some will protest that when they engage in autoeroticism it is merely a physical act and one they do to relieve stress or boredom. They will insist that they do not succumb to thinking inappropriate thoughts. In his book When Good Men Are Tempted, Bill Perkins writes, “It appears to me that masturbation is amoral. Under some circumstances it’s acceptable behavior. On other occasions it’s clearly wrong” (page 122). He goes on to provide three tests which will gauge whether a particular instance is right or wrong: the thought test (whether the act is accompanied by inappropriate fantasies), the self-control test (whether the act becomes obsessive) and the love test (whether autoeroticism leads to a person failing to fulfill the needs of his or her spouse). I found it interesting that in a book about sexual purity this topic was covered in only two pages and that the pages were at the very end of the book, almost as if this topic was an afterthought. Millions of men and women will tell you that it is far more than an afterthought.
James Dobson teaches a similar view of autoeroticism being amoral. When I was young my parents gave me his book Preparing for Adolescence and I remember this teaching well. He believes that every boy (and most girls) try it and that the guilt brought about by the act destroys many children. Thus he believes parents should rarely speak to their children about it, and if they do, to reassure their children that such practices are normal. Here is what he says on his web site (and thanks to a commenter for digging this up):
It is my opinion that masturbation is not much of an issue with God. It is a normal part of adolescence that involves no one else. It does not cause disease. It does not produce babies, and Jesus did not mention it in the Bible. I’m not telling you to masturbate, and I hope you won’t feel the need for it. But if you do, it is my opinion that you should not struggle with guilt over it. Why do I tell you this? Because I deal with so many Christian young people who are torn apart with guilt over masturbation; they want to stop and just can’t. I would like to help you avoid that agony.
This response is shockingly humanistic. The way to avoid the agony of guilt is not to ignore sin, but to focus on the gospel. Dobson feels that this is an issue young people should not be expected to agonize over. Speak honestly and open to young people, though, and they will tell you that they do want to talk about it and that they do want to be reassured that it is wrong and that they can and should overcome it. The guilt they feel is not irrational but is good guilt, guilt brought about by sin and intended to help correct it.
Like Perkins, Dobson does not engage in a biblical examination of this particular topic. Like Perkins he concludes that autoeroticism is amoral because there is no specific bible passage that allows or condemns the practice. Steve Hays, who writes at Triablogue also wrote recently about the potential amorality of masturbation. “If masturbation is a sin, then it’s a little odd that Scripture would leave the believer guessing about its moral status.”
Yet, as we will see, the Bible is not silent and does not leave us guessing. While Scripture may not mention masturbation explicitly, I would suggest that this simply points to the fact that it speaks so much and so thoroughly about sexuality that there is no need to speak about masturbation (just as Scripture speaks so thoroughly about murder and the value of human life that there is no need to speak explicitly about abortion). I believe the Bible’s teaching on sexuality proves that masturbation is sinful whether it is an act accompanied by sinful fantasy or an act that is purely physical.
God’s Purpose in Sexuality
Yesterday we learned that the purpose of sex is to provide ultimate intimacy between a husband and wife. There is no greater expression of vulnerable intimacy between human beings. A close examination of the Scripture’s teaching on sexuality will uncover no reason to believe that God ever intended sex to be a private pursuit. The heart and soul of sexuality is the giving and receiving of sexual pleasure. Sex is intended to be a means of mutual fulfillment where a husband thinks foremost of his wife, and the wife things foremost of her husband. As they fulfill each other’s needs, they have their own fulfilled. It is a beautiful picture of intimacy! As any married couple can testify, the more selfless the sex, the better sex becomes. The more each spouse seeks to please the other, the more fulfilling and gratifying the act becomes. It is beautiful in that regard. As we might expect the opposite is also true. Sex that is completely selfish is sex that is demeaning and unfulfilling (rape, an act of utter selfishness, may be the ultimate expression of selfish sex).
Sex is so important to a marriage that the Bible forbids us from neglecting it. “Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control” (1 Corinthians 7:5). This deprivation can refer not only to time but to activity. A man should no more deprive his wife over a period of time than he should deprive her by private sexual activity. As married couples can attest to the importance of sex, I’m sure most can also look to times when they neglected this activity and can testify to the difficulties in caused in their marriage. God intends for husbands and wives to have sex with each other and to do so regularly.
And this, the mutual giving and receiving which lies at the heart of God’s purpose for sexuality, is exactly what autoeroticism cannot provide. It strips sexuality of its divine purpose of mutual fulfillment. It takes an act God intends to build relationship and makes it an act of selfish isolation. Masturbation and fantasy attempt to create a false intimacy rather than the true intimacy between a husband and wife that God has built into the marriage relationship.
I remind you again of the passage we looked at yesterday. “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does” (1 Corinthians 7:3-4). A man’s body does not belong to himself, but to his present or future wife, and ultimately to God. A wife’s body belongs to her husband (and to God). Likewise, a single woman’s body belongs to her future spouse and is to be kept pure for him. Neither spouse has the right to express sexuality apart from the other. When the Bible tells a man that he is to express his sexuality exclusively with his wife, why do so many interpret this to mean that he can express his sexuality with his wife or by himself?
By now I think it should be clear that masturbation is a sin—one that ought to be repented of and one that Christians need to fight against. Sadly, though, for many young Christians, it becomes an issue that begins to define their spiritual state. Some people feel such guilt for this act that they begin to question their salvation and begin to see themselves only through the lens of this sin. There is no doubt that this is a serious sin, but it should not be given so much prominence that people can see nothing past it. Josh Harris writes wisely, “When we inflate the importance of this act, we’ll either overlook the many evidences of God’s work in us or we’ll ignore other more serious expressions of lust that God wants us to address.”
I want to add a brief word here about pornography. I feel this is relevant to the discussion simply because pornography and masturbation are so closely allied. Despite this connection many discussions of pornography shy away from also discussing masturbation. Yet the whole point of looking at pornography is to fuel sexual fantasy and to culminate in masturbation or another selfish form of sexual expression. Few Christians would argue that pornography is acceptable and yet countless numbers are attracted to it or ensnared by it. Like masturbation, pornography is inherently self-centered. It creates a false intimacy between an anonymous person in a magazine or on a screen and the viewer. It provides escapism and release, but requires no effort and no self-denial. It creates a selfish, self-centered, self-focused perversion of the true, sacred act.
Not A Selfish Pursuit
Do you see, then, how autoeroticism denies the very purpose for which God created sex? Sex was not meant to be a selfish pursuit. It was not intended to focus a person’s thoughts on himself and his own needs. Rather, sex was designed as a means of fulfilling the Lord’s command to esteem another higher than oneself. The pleasure of sex is not meant to be enjoyed in isolation, but to be enjoyed while providing that same pleasure to another. Autoeroticism cannot fulfill God’s design for sexuality, and thus has no place in the life of one who calls himself a Christian.
For those who struggle with this sin, take heart, for there is hope. The blood of Jesus was shed for sins like this one and the power of the Holy Spirit has been given to us so that we can overcome sins like this one. This is not a sin that is beyond the power of God to overcome. You can be set free from it.