While searching for something else entirely, I recently stumbled upon a Focus on the Family article about masturbation. I was immediately curious. I was not disappointed.
God isn’t going to send you to hell because you masturbate. Still, this is a complicated and controversial issue because the Bible never mentions it. That’s why Christians have differing perspectives on the spiritual and moral implications of this behavior. This is an area where we have to be careful about laying down hard and fast rules or assuming that we know exactly how God views this matter. There’s little to be gained by calling masturbation itself a sin. In fact, in some ways, we think it misses the point.
The point, as we see it, is the larger meaning and purpose of human sexuality. The Bible has two important things to say about this: first, sex is central to the process by which a husband and wife become one flesh (Genesis 2:24); and second, sex and marriage are intended to serve as a picture or symbol of the union between Christ and His Church (Ephesians 5:31, 32). Sex, then, isn’t supposed to be “all about me.” From first to last, it’s designed to function as part of the give-and-take of an interpersonal relationship.
While we don’t condemn you for struggling with masturbation, we’d also like to help you break the habit because God has created you to experience sexual fulfillment on a much higher level within the context of marriage. We don’t want anything to jeopardize your chances of knowing that joy to the fullest extent at the appropriate time.
God isn’t going to send you to hell because you masturbate … but if you do masturbate, you need to break the habit, because sexual fulfillment is for marriage and marriage only, and masturbating now might ruin your chances of sexual fulfillment in marriage.
This is wrong on so many levels. Let me start by addressing two.
First, masturbation has a place in marriage. There will be times when one partner wants sex and the other isn’t in the mood. There will be times when one partner wants sex, and the other can’t have sex. (I’m thinking in particular of the weeks that follow labor and delivery, but there are other times as well.)
It’s not healthy to make your marital partner your all—to expect them to meet all of your emotional, social, or sexual needs. If you enter into marriage expecting your partner to meet all of your needs, you will be disappointed—and your relationship will suffer. Being able to meet your own needs elsewhere—in each of these areas—is important to maintaining a healthy relationship.
Based on this line in the excerpt above, though, it would appear that Focus on the Family would disagree with much of the above:
Sex, then, isn’t supposed to be “all about me.” From first to last, it’s designed to function as part of the give-and-take of an interpersonal relationship.
According to Focus on the Family, sexual pleasure should always take place between two partners, because sexual pleasure experienced alone (i.e. masturbation) is “all about me”—it’s selfish. So if your partner isn’t in the mood, then, you go unfulfilled; if your partner can’t have sex, you go without.
Here’s the thing, though: knowing that my partner can masturbate makes me feel less pressure to say yes to sex when my partner is in the mood but I’m not—and vice versa. I feel more comfortable asserting my own needs and desires when I know that I’m not the be-all, end-all of meeting my partner’s sexual needs.
But maybe this is exactly what Focus on the Family doesn’t want.
If your marital partner is responsible for fulfilling your sexual needs (and vice versa), either partner saying “no” when the other partner is in the mood is a bad thing. In fact, saying “yes” to sex when you’re not in the mood may be an act of self-sacrifice and self-denial—the opposite of making sex “all about me.”
Here’s the problem: I don’t like this view of sex. I really, really don’t. Sex shouldn’t be self-sacrificial. Yes, there is give and take—you shouldn’t leave your partner unfulfilled. Being selfish during love-making isn’t a good thing. But for me, sex isn’t fundamentally supposed to be self-sacrificial. It’s supposed to be fun.
Focus on the Family needs to be more clear about the assumptions they are making when they write about sex and marriage. A teen reading their article about masturbation needs to know what assumptions they are building their case against masturbation on—because that teen may not share those assumptions.
There’s a second problem with Focus on the Family’s logic on masturbation: for women especially, but also for men, masturbating before marriage is a good way to get to know your body, and to get to know what you like and what brings you pleasure.
While men typically experience an orgasm fairly effortlessly when they become sexually active, this is not the case for women. If a woman has experience masturbating, she can tell her partner what she likes, and show him now to pleasure her. If she hasn’t, she’s not going to know how to show her partner how to pleasure her—and if her partner is a man, he probably won’t know how to pleasure her either.
Masturbation also makes teens more comfortable with their bodies, reducing shame and other negative feelings they may otherwise experience when they become sexually active with their first partner. (This is the case even if their first partner is their spouse, on their marriage night.)
Focus on the Family finishes their article with this:
So what can you do to break the pattern of sexual self-gratification? It may be helpful to understand that masturbation can be a self-soothing behavior. In other words, it’s a way of coping with the pressures of life and seeking to meet your need for peace, security, comfort and reassurance. If you think this might have something to do with your reasons for masturbating, ask yourself whether it might be possible to replace this behavior with a more positive activity, such as talking to a friend, reading a good book, listening to music, pouring yourself into a constructive project, or serving other people. Often people use masturbation to cope with feelings of isolation. It’s important to realize that only the Lord can fill the empty spaces in our hearts in a deep, lasting, and satisfying way.
Just so we’re clear, the flip side of that last statement is that if you’re a teen experiencing a natural desire to masturbate, there is something wrong with your relationship with God, because if you’re right with God, he will fulfill all of your needs. This kind of logic creates serious problems for evangelical teens.
This is similar to the logic that if you’re experiencing depression, there is something wrong with your relationship with God, because otherwise you would experience the joy God gives all his followers.
Anyway, back to Focus on the Family:
One of the best ways to deal with difficult or sensitive subjects of this kind is to talk over your questions with a caring, trustworthy adult – even if it seems embarrassing. Your parents or youth leader at church can discuss aspects of this issue that may seem troubling or confusing. You may even want to consider the option of getting some help from a professional Christian counselor.
Call us. Our counselors would be happy to talk about your concerns with you over the phone, and they can also provide a list of qualified therapists practicing in your area. There’s no cost for this – it’s just a way we can show you our friendship.
If I don’t miss my guess, these are the same people who get upset if transgender teens talk to a counselor without their parents’ consent. But apparently, asking teens to call Focus on the Family to talk to their counselors—who have what qualifications, exactly?—about their masturbatory habits is a-okay.
And evangelicals question what we mean when we purity culture critics talk about the shame we experienced growing up in evangelical churches. This is what we’re talking about.
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