Last week Rachel Held Evans invited a few bloggers to respond to a question as part of her year long series on sexuality. In her email to our group she shared “Interestingly, when I surveyed my readers the #1 question they had as it relates to sexuality is this:
Is masturbation an acceptable component to healthy sexuality?”
Rachel has received thoughtful and faithful responses from most of the group but I messed around and didn’t get in a response in time for her post that went live yesterday. I started on the question from a myriad of different angles and couldn’t quite hone in on the one thing I most wanted to say. Here though are some of my thoughts – I would really love to hear from you as well.
First thought – I guess first and foremost I am troubled by the word “acceptable” in this question. It worries me on a few layers
a. Why oh why are we so hyper focused on sexual behavior in the church? Really, aren’t there bigger things to worry about (such as poverty, hunger, war, human trafficking, domestic violence, creation care, immigration reform and about a dozen other justice issues)?
b. The whole question just sounds as ridiculous to me as if I were to ask my pastor if brushing my teeth is an acceptable part of oral health or eating vegetables an acceptable part of a healthy diet.
c. A sad and slightly hilarious image flashed in my mind of Christians furtively wanking off then weeping tearful prayers of forgiveness. Achieving relief through physical then the mental masturbation.
In fact it really worries me that the church spends so much time fretting over sex that they may create the very dysfunction they hope to avoid. Jenell Williams Paris wrote in her post for RHE “When we ignore it, trying to be more angel than human, what is repressed often returns in distorted and harmful forms.”
Then after I was done being perturbed by the weirdness of the question I began to answer it. Yes. Then I asked L what she thought, and with a look of confusion and tone of duh she said. “well yeah.” There are so many reasons why yes is our answer. We are created, as best we understand, to not only enjoy orgasms but to need them. It’s an essential aspect of many people’s health, right up there with brushing your teeth. Even WebMD has plenty to say on the topic and it’s role in our physical and mental health.
“It relieves stress and keeps everything about your body—your heart rate, blood pressure, reproductive system, brain chemistry—in very good shape. It’s appropriate, and a valid option in a relationship, when one’s partner is unavailable due to physical separation, fatigue, recovery from childbirth, or illness. It also helps balance discrepancies in frequency desires. Since there is no formula bestowed during a marriage ceremony that magically aligns two people to have the same level of sexual interest, masturbation is a good thread to weave through a relationship’s tapestry.
Many couples have a “higher frequency partner” and a “lower frequency partner.” This desire discrepancy puzzles many couples. They struggle with having sex when they don’t really want to. Some wrestle with deeply held feelings that they should be everything their partner desires sexually. Masturbation helps with an imbalance and helps couples avoid being coerced up or down in frequency by their partner. It’s an aid to a relationship over the long haul.”
As a woman who’s intimate partner is a woman I can not say enough about the health of knowing thyself. By knowing my own body and what brings me pleasure I not only can communicate with my partner what feels good but I also understand her body all the better. Much of the conversations I encounter about masturbation seem to focus on either men or singles. Masturbation can be a healthy and even erotic component to a loving and committed relationship. Rather than feeling as if there is something I am not fulfilling for my partner I find it arousing and encouraging to know how healthy her appetite is even when I may not be on the same page (and with two women, there are likely a few weeks each year when we are not going to be on the same page). Sexual needs indeed vary. Many factors can affect our sexual appetite, from stress, illness and aging to family, career and social commitments. Whatever the cause, differences in sexual desire between partners can sometimes lead to feelings of isolation or resentment. A little “alone-time” can actually make us a stronger couple.
Another important issue percolated up in my mind as I considered how I would respond. I particularly agree with some of RHE’s respondents who lifted up the necessity to discuss the issue of pornography and human sex trafficking when we talk about masturbation. These practices are explicitly counter to compassionate living in relationship with other humans. If our masturbation depends on the porn industry that treats human bodies as objects to be used rather than fully actualized humans then it is unacceptable and outside God’s intentions for us.
Which leads me to the reason why this is a religious question after all. I believe that God cares deeply how we do what we do in the world. I believe God cares less about what we do and far more about how we do it. What I believe determines if an act is acceptable or not depends on what is in our hearts, our intentions as we do what we do. I believe that God cares how we eat food (in ways that extend compassion and justice to others and the planet). I believe God cares little what we purchase and a great deal how we purchase (with intentionality that considers economics justice, living wages and sustainable care for creation). And I believe God cares less what words we use but how we use our words (are the words used to harm or heal). So too must I acknowledge that I believe that God cares about how we engage our sexuality – with respect for ourselves and others, in ways that do not pull us away from relationship, in ways that open our hearts and give of our selves in loving and whole ways. Sex is part of our humanity. Sex is a gift from our Creator who built in us millions of exceptionally well placed nerve endings. Sex can be good, real good. And yes, sex can be bad, even down right evil when it robs anyone of their basic humanity.
My final realization as I worked on this question is that I’ve never really blogged about sex. Sure I’ve written about sexuality at a very high level as we work through what it means to be gay and Christian. But like many gay Christian writers, it seems that we sometimes paint a nearly platonic picture of our lives as gay Christians to help the straights get over their issues with “the yuck factor”. See I know all too well that society has trained folks to try and picture two women in the act of sex together and to avoid with a deep aversion picturing two men together. I really don’t want my bedroom behavior to be what flashes in your mind when you first realize I am gay any more than you want me running porn clips of your and your husband, wife, boyfriend or girlfriend (I promise that gives me a case of yuck-factor willies if I linger too long). It is true that being a lesbian is about more than sex. My orientation is about love to be sure. But avoiding the reality that my relationship is in fact a sexual relationship reduces me and my lover to asexual cuddle buddies – and that is as inaccurate for me as it is for you and your partner. So consider this an invitation to have an honest conversation about sex. This might be a good time to review the comment covenant for all of us, but let’s talk about sex baby…
PS thanks for the great writing prompt Rachel!