A post about female masturbation recently appeared on Christianity Today‘s women’s section. Christianity Today is generally more mainstream evangelical than my upbringing, so much so that I remember viewing it as somewhat liberal. This post, though, has had me questioning all of that.
The basic gist is this—the author accepts that women are sexual and may turn to masturbation as an outlet for their sexual desire—something that is foreign to many evangelicals—but follows that up by affirming that masturbation is not only sinful but actually idolatry. In other words, what we have is this:
Isn’t it nice that we’re finally admitting you women have sexual desires just like men do? Now have a large serving of shame with your potatoes.
With that introduction, let’s turn to the text of the article itself.
It’s refreshing to finally hear women talking about female masturbation. Given the social stigma around the topic, it can be difficult just to bring it up.
Unfortunately, too often the conversation doesn’t overcome the unhelpful stereotypes about the female sex drive…or lack thereof. Time and time again, Christian leaders explain that women masturbate because they want to “fill a void” or have “attachment issues.” These emotional generalizations fail to get at the real problem.
Yes! These are problems! Can I say how glad I am to have them recognized?
Evangelicalism in particular and American society in general have a big problem grasping the reality that women are just as sexual as men. Instead, men are expected to be sexually driven while women are expected to be demure and chaste. That people are challenging this narrative in forums like Christianity Today is an incredibly positive development. Or at least, it should be.
When men talk about masturbation (or at least what I have heard and read), everyone pretty much settles on the basics: It’s hard to practice self-control. It’s hard to resist indulging in lust. Really hard. Few men try to psychoanalyze the process, explaining masturbation away by realizing that they secretly have underlying issues relating to real women. (Though, it’s true that many men do struggle to relate to real women in the flesh, if the movie Her is any indication.) Men realize that even if they do resolve those relational issues with women or somehow meet their “unmet needs,” that won’t solve their real problem. Their real problem is lust.
The Bible does not actually say anything about masturbation. That’s right, not a word. Where, then, do evangelicals derive their teaching that masturbation is sin?
Popular evangelical author Josh Harris wrote a book on lust that I read as a teen. In it he described his adolescent struggle with masturbation and laid out a “biblical” case for why masturbation is always—always—wrong. He argued that it is impossible to masturbate without lusting, and that lusting after a woman you are not married to is just as sinful as actually having sex with her. Within marriage, he argued that sex should only and always be an act between two individuals, and not something done alone. I don’t remember his justification, but I found it convincing at the time.
This, then, is the evangelical argument against masturbation.
Many conversations about female masturbation—including some here on Her.meneutics—are missing that realization [that the “real problem” is lust]. Women are sometimes actually drawn to masturbation and pornography because they desire sexual pleasure. Rather than escaping emotional issues, they simply struggle with lust.
Honestly, I had forgotten just how much of a revelation female sexual desire is to evangelicals. But then, I well remember being taught that women who are sexually active outside of marriage are simply trying to use sex to get love, or fill a void, or obtain financial stability. The idea that women might have sex outside of marriage because they, well, enjoy having sex was not a part of the narrative.
In sermons and blog posts, pastors give examples of men committing idolatry by looking at pornography, and women committing idolatry by desiring romance, flagrantly ignoring the number of women who suffer from porn addictions.
To evangelicals, there is no real difference between looking at porn and having a porn addiction. They’re one and the same.
Also, I well remember that whole lecture on how men are drawn to porn and women are drawn to romance novels, which are the female version of porn. It didn’t help that I really liked romance novels. Ah well, I assuaged my guilt by only reading Christian romance novels.
Christians remain uncomfortable with the idea of women possessing sexual desire. Even as they talk about the ideal Christian woman being a steamy hot wife willing to fulfill her husband’s every desire by not depriving him once married, we don’t want to imagine the wife’s own libido.
The doublespeak here—that women are supposed to be simultaneously sexually adventurous, available, and willing yet without possessing lust themselves—is an impossible contradiction to embody. It treats sex as a man’s playing field, reinforcing the notion that women should cater to men’s desires without possessing similar desires of their own.
What drives me nuts about this article is that in parts like these it makes absolutely crucial points. This double speak is indeed a serious problem, and the Christian steamy hot wife ideal is so full of problems I don’t even know where to start. But . . .
To fully address female masturbation, we don’t need more psychoanalysis about sex that implicitly negates female sexuality. We need a biblical approach that recognizes both the immense pleasure of the female orgasm and the inherent goodness of sexual desire while reserving its proper place for within marriage.
We need a strategy that recognizes the sin of lust and calls it by its name, rather than pretending that women have no agency beyond reacting to environmental stressors or psychological difficulties. We must treat lust like other sins—not a way we act out as a consequence of other problems in our lives—but as a sin requiring us to learn the discipline of self-control that we must master if we ever hope to be the women God made us to be.
And, well, that’s about that.