To Wank or Not To Wank

To Wank or Not To Wank August 6, 2019

Bob considers himself to be a compulsive masturbator. His daily routine once he gets out of bed is to immediately go to confession. He lives in terror that one of these days he will get run over by a streetcar or suffer a heart-attack in between getting up and getting to church. He sincerely fears that if this should happen, God will send him to hell.

Bob is not the name of a particular person. He’s an extreme case, but I encountered him more than once in the course of my life as a Catholic. I also encountered a great many men and women whose difficulties were not so life-consuming but who still suffered in their personal, spiritual and relational lives because they believed that masturbation was a mortal sin and that their inability to avoid it wounds the Body of Christ.

Materia Levis

Masturbation is an interesting test case because of all the sexual acts which are condemned by the Catholic church, it is the most demonstrably harmless. Substantive arguments can be made for moderating desires that could cause harm to another person, spread disease, or lead to the conception of a child. There is a genuine gravitas to sex simply because of its relational and procreative capacities.

But wanking has none of this gravitas. There is nothing inherent in the act that makes it weighty, or indeed that provides it with a significant moral dimension of any kind. There’s no clear sense in which it violates any of the most basic principles of the natural law (principles which, for the record, I basically consider to be sound and universal with minor modifications.)

1. Wanking does not threaten individual life. Unless something truly bizarre happens, you cannot die or become ill by spanking your monkey.

2. It doesn’t threaten the continuity of the species. While there is some evidence that compulsive and routine use of pornography is correlated with poor interpersonal and relationship skills, which can lead to intimacy problems, it’s extremely unclear whether this relationship is causal (i.e. does porn lead to problems with intimacy, or do people with intimacy problems gravitate towards greater use of pornography?) However, in spite of the fact that almost all males and most females masturbate fairly regularly, most people seem to manage to maintain relationships and even have children.

3. This is the sticky one, because the claim that the church has to fall back on is that masturbation somehow wounds the nature of sexuality and therefore offends against the building of a common life and against God. Because the issues here are a little more complex, we’ll give this a longer treatment.

Adultery in the Heart

There is perhaps an argument to be made that masturbation wounds our common life in-so-far as it involves the use of other people as objects of imaginary appropriation — the “you have already committed adultery with her in your heart” argument presented by Christ.

When masturbation involves imagining another person performing acts that that person would not actually perform in real life, it can cause a change in how someone behaves towards the object of their fantasies. Some women, especially, are sensitive to these changes and feel used or violated by people who do this.

It’s also just disrespectful: there’s a reason why we object strongly to having people take nude or semi-nude photographs without our permission. Even if they never publicize the picture, they’ve established that they have a sense of entitlement to our bodies, to use our image for their own purposes regardless of our consent or knowledge. Taking a mental snapshot and using the imagination to photoshop someone out of their clothes and into your arms is disrespectful in the same way, it’s just harder to detect.

However, masturbation doesn’t have to involve the appropriation of unwilling bodies. It can be consensual (as in phone sex or sexting). It can involve purely imaginary persons (fictional characters, artistic representations). It can involve picturing archetypal imagery without any overt human representation of any kind (Georgia O’Keefe’s erotic flower paintings…) And if you really want to be scrupulous and establish that you’re a badass master of your own internal thoughts and passions, you can train yourself to blank your mind and think of nothing at all (yes, there are people who have adopted this solution in order to be able to jerk off without lust.)

None of these things violate the dignity of others or wound social life. A blanket condemnation of masturbation must, therefore, rest on the claim that it somehow wounds our relationship to truth and to God.

Doth God Abhor a Wanker?

The best argument in favour of this is JPII’s Theology of the Body. TOB situates sex as a kind of trinitarian icon: two become one and out of their loving union a third proceeds. Sex, according to this account, reveals something of the inner life of God — and when it is used simply for personal pleasure or for the satisfaction of animal instincts this is a sort of desecration. Something like drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa.

The difficulty with this account is that it attempts to turn all sex into sacrament. We don’t do this with any of the other normal, quotidian activities that represent the nature of God in liturgical settings. We acknowledge one baptism, but that doesn’t mean we condemn bubble baths. We find the full meaning of food and nourishment in the Eucharist — but we don’t therefore conclude that it’s an affront to God if you scarf a bag of Doritos while watching the game.

In these other cases we recognize that the sacralization of ordinary human activities elevates them and leads us towards God via the everyday. But we still recognize that human beings are bodily creatures and that it’s legitimate for us to meet our creaturely needs in mundane ways.

Similar problem arise with natural law arguments. Yes, it’s certainly true that sex is necessary for the perpetuation of the species and that it is, by nature, ordered to that end. But in other cases we don’t have a problem with non-harmful uses of our faculties for frivolous purposes.

Chewing gum involves stimulating the taste buds while providing no nutritive value. But nobody suggests that it’s an “unnatural” use of our superficial digestive parts for debased pleasure and that it is morally repugnant.

Nor, for that matter, does anybody have a problem with humans using our most elevated faculty, our reason, to do random irrelevant things. By nature the rational faculty is ordered towards truth and wisdom. But it’s not therefore disordered to use it to solve cheesy logic puzzles or read pulp sci-fi. The recreational use of our rational faculty is not merely permitted; it’s widely recognized that this sort of intellectual leisure is necessary to our psychological and mental well-being.

When it comes to sex, though, a completely different standard is in place.

Sexual Anorexia

We know, from sexological study, that the vast majority of people experience some form of sexual release (whether with a partner or through solitary masturbation) on a regular basis. Self-reports suggest that many people start to experience various types of discomfort, stress, difficulty concentrating, loneliness, sleep disruptions, depression, etc. if they try to abstain completely.

Nor is this necessarily correlated to worldliness, loose sexual ethics, or a lack of desire to do the will of God. If we look to ancient sources, it’s not uncommon to find mystics and saints literally beating themselves, isolating themselves, and starving themselves in the hopes that this will bring an end to their desire for sexual release. Some seem to have experienced actual hallucinations, often in the form of beautiful women who represented their unspent desire.

In the contemporary world, I’ve been in enough groups where people are attempting complete abstinence to know that very few achieve it, and that for most it seems to involve cycles of what, frankly, I think should be considered psychological self-torture.

The need to avoid sexual release sometimes literally becomes the focus of a person’s life, often to the point where it interferes with their ability to function or form relationships. In the case of heterosexual males, this often leads to intense misogyny; in homosexual males it drives homophobia, both external and internalized; in women it mostly seems to manifest as intense loneliness, anxiety, depression and self-loathing.

Many of the most misogynistic writings of the Church fathers often seem to come from men who literally tortured themselves in an attempt to avoid their own sexuality. St. Jerome’s views, for example, give a fairly clear illustration of a man tormented simultaneously by desire and by intense erotophobia. Unsurprisingly, some in the intensely misogynistic “redpill” community see his views as a template for their own hatred of sexuality and of women.

There does seem to be a small minority of people who report being able to completely abstain from any kind of sexual release, and some of those people report that this produces various benefits in terms of energy levels, productivity, feelings of well-being and so forth.

The biggest difficulty here is that we don’t really know what causes this effect. It could be the euphoria stage of a cycle of self-destructive behaviour. If the “sexual anorexia” thesis is correct, then sexual self-denial would produce up-front benefits in terms of feelings of control, powerfulness, invulnerability and distance from the stresses in life.

Certainly, this is my own experience of experimentation in ascetic practice: there is an intensely positive emotional state that comes with the feeling that you’ve succeeded in “self-mastery.” The fact that you can force your body to do things that it does not want to do, and prevent if from doing things it does want to do, makes you feel like you’re a badass.

The same sense of superiority and strength that is associated with the conquest of external enemies or the performance of difficult tasks is twisted around: the body and the “irrational” parts of the psyche are systemically alienated from the self and then dominated through various interior arts. When these prove insufficient, there is a strong impetus to escalate to literal violence against the self — the rock against the breast, the wrestling with thorn bushes, the application of whips and chains.

None of this behaviour serves a positive moral purpose. The emotions that it provokes are those of pride, callousness and the will to dominate. The emotions that motivate it are fear, shame, and a deep sense of personal inadequacy.

As a psychological coping mechanism, it offers short-term gains but at a cost. Emotional health involves confronting and dealing with the problems that face you, gaining control over your external situation or healing the emotional wounds that make you feel out-of-control. Extreme forms of asceticism, including sexual repression, allow a person to temporarily regain feelings of well-being basically by preying on the body instead of dealing with their problems.

Over time this can take a serious toll on a person’s physical and mental health. Indeed, some saints, like Catherine of Sienna and Kateri Tekakwitha, seem to have literally killed themselves due to excessive ascetic compulsions that their spiritual directors were unable to restrain, or that they tried to curb when it was already too late.

Of course, “nobody ever died of a lack of sex.” But the same unhealthy psychological themes that animate the more obviously destructive forms of asceticism are also often present in sexual ascesis.

The same cycle is easily observable if you join a support group for Christians who are, in one way or another, trying to bring their sexuality under control through complete abstinence. There are the same feelings of euphoria and interior freedom when abstinence is going well, the same increasing sense of powerlessness and fear as the monumental task of self-domination begins to crumble, the eventual inevitable loss of control, and then intense guilt and self-hatred.

Followed by Confession.

Followed by feelings of euphoria and self-mastery….

Or, if you’re like Bob, just an endless cycle of sin, shame, confession, sin. Day after day after day.

The question, then, is why has this become the teaching? Why does the church make the frankly bizarre claim that “the moral sense of the faithful [has] been in no doubt and [has] firmly maintained that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action”? How did something as utterly anodyne as masturbation come to be invested with such disproportionate moral weight — and who benefits from maintaining that God gives a literal damn about how you manipulate your genitals?

(Stay tuned)

Image credit: Jan Sanders van Hemessen. St Jerome (1543), photographed by Dr. Alexey Yakovlev, under Creative Commons license 2.0

 

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