In yesterday’s article we built a 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.
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. There can, however, 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.
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 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 consumate 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 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.
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.
Yet, as we will see, the Bible is not silent.
God’s Purpose in Sexuality
Yesterday we learned that the ultimate 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!
“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.
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.
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). 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?
Tithing to Oneself
Perhaps it would be helpful to interrupt for a moment to provide an analogy.
Imagine, if you will, that you are sitting in church on a Sunday morning. One of the deacons (the one who always seems to have bits of breakfast caught in his moustache) has just prayed to thank the Lord for His gracious gifts. The offering baskets are being passed up-and-down the rows of seats. You have just stuffed your check into the little offering envelope that is too small to fit the check without folding it, but far too large for a folded check, when you glance over at the gentleman sitting beside you. He has just completed writing a check and now proceeds to tear it from his checkbook, fold it and place it in an envelope. You are surprised to see that he proceeds to place the envelope in his pocket, close his eyes and whisper a short prayer. Intruiged, you lean toward him and ask why he has put the check in his pocket. Not at all annoyed he replies, “I tithe to myself.” “What,” you say, “Why would you do that?” “I need the money as much as anyone,” he replies.
It is a ridiculous scenario, is it not? But I believe the principle can be extended to our discussion of autoeroticism. If a man were to earn a living and tithe his ten percent to himself, we could consider him selfish, for he is missing the very purpose for which God tells us to give our gifts to the church. Similarly, if a man engages in autoeroticism he is perverting God’s design for sexuality, taking something that is supposed to bring blessing to another and making it selfish so it serves only himself.
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.