To wrap up Love Week, I want to talk about some of the biggest taboos in Christianity: porn consumption and masturbation.
I did not masturbate as a Christian. I can’t even claim it was because I was such a true-blue Christian. The embarrassing truth is that I just didn’t know how. I understood what all the parts did and I got a good secular biology education in school, but after some halfhearted attempts I gave up and decided I just wasn’t very sexual. I still fantasized, but it never went further than that.
When I got married, I still didn’t masturbate because I still didn’t really understand my body at all. Biff was horrendous at sex, which was at best boring and messy and at worst painful, and neither of us really understood what we were doing. Biff had been fairly active sexually before our marriage, but his girlfriends had clearly been faking it till they made it–he was convinced he was a sex god and insisted that all his other partners had gotten theirs with him, and I really think he believed he was skilled at it (see, this is why people shouldn’t fake it). The only partner I had, however, was him, so I had nothing to compare. I deferred to his experience in this matter since I really didn’t have any experience of my own.
Thus, our problems with sex, which largely centered around me not ever wanting to have sex and him wanting it constantly, were my problem and not his, and while he was happy to “work with me” to improve our sex life, this involved finding new and innovative ways to get me interested in engaging in an exercise that was guaranteed to feel either unpleasant or painful.
After I fled from him in terror of my very life, one of his honest-to-goodness ploys to win me back was to confess, wretchedly and in horror, that now that I’d left him, he’d had to start using “using the self-service pumps” (yes, he stole that line from Weird Al). He seriously thought I’d be just horrified as well that he was now quite seriously dooming his soul to Hell because of my thoughtlessness and selfishness. He was a little surprised that I literally laughed and told him that maybe he needed to find a god who was less insanely petty and unreasonable.
I’d changed quite a bit regarding my view of masturbation. At one time, I’d have been equally horrified. I really believed that my god, the creator of quarks and quasars, the god who’d set the whole universe in motion, cared very deeply about whether or not one of his human pets touched their genitals.
If you can control what a human being does with his/her private parts, then you’ve got that human being under control. If you can convince a human being that your idea of sexuality is the only right and correct one, then that human being will let you do pretty much anything else you want with and to him or her. It’s really no surprise at all to me that control of adherents’ sexuality is a huge part of most cults’ tactics. It seems obvious to me now that Christianity is a fear-based religion of control and terror at its core and so its oppressive control over its people’s sex lives is part and parcel of its legacy, but at the time, I bought wholly into its vision of asexual men and women who spent all that energy serving and adoring their god. Except when they got married. Then sex was totes awesome and perfect and Jesus was right in the bedroom with them.
See, I didn’t realize that sexuality is an appetite, just like hunger is. I didn’t realize that healthy people don’t just ignore hunger entirely. They eat when they’re hungry. But they want to channel that hunger into something healthy, so instead of reaching for a box of Girl Scout cookies or a Baconator burger, they’ll find something to eat that honors their appetite and nourishes their bodies.
In the same way, sexuality is a perfectly healthy need–but you would never know it to listen to most of these Christians talk. To them, the only healthy sexuality is the totally suppressed and crushed sexuality–except in marriage, where most flavors of Christianity are all for as much sex as the participants desire. Not all flavors, of course; plenty of Protestant thought-police look very suspiciously at sexual expression even within marriage and have rules about just how married couples can get freaky. Rules, rules, rules. Unwritten perhaps, but rules all the same, and couples who toil together in the traces for years hide their most secret desires from the only person in the whole wide world who is authorized to share in those desires.
In this way, Christians turn something honest and good into something to be ashamed of, even within their own constraints and parameters. They turn something that is a rather straightforward appetite into something bad that people have to sneak around to get, like those little kids in 300 who could only get enough food if they were willing to go out and steal it–or take it from other kids. When you’re hungry, you will eventually get to a place where you don’t care what you do to sate that hunger. And when you are starved sexually, you’re going to eventually do something stupid to meet that need. All the pontificating, moralizing, and finger-waggling in the world won’t change that simple fact. That doesn’t stop Christians from doing all of those things, of course.
So no wonder Christians get really weird about even the most basic and forthright of all bodily urges. No wonder there are so many sexual scandals coming out of its churches and so many survivors of abuse coming forward! The real miracle would be any of them coming out of the religion with even semi-sane ideas about human sexuality. Even getting past the misogyny rampant in most of the religion’s flavors, there’s a lot of control, victim-blaming, slut-shaming, denial, paternalism, and moralizing going on in every vision of Christian sexuality I have ever seen. Sex is treated as currency and women’s bodies are treated like livestock or worse. And for some crazy reason, in most Christian denominations, masturbation is treated as a mortal sin.
Why? Does it hurt anybody at all? Does it do any demonstrable harm to even the person doing it? Does it damage people’s minds or bodies?
Back in the Victorian Age and even before that, masturbation was regarded as a serious physical and mental risk to people, but we know better now. We know that masturbation is good for both men and women, that it is healthy, that it doesn’t hurt anybody, that it is totally safe (aside from the people who experiment with vacuum cleaners, I guess), that it never gave anybody an STD or an unwanted pregnancy, and that it not only clears the mind but also helps people doing it learn what their bodies are like and what they need so when they do have sex, it’ll be better sex. Telling Christians that their fuss about masturbation is nothing but a manufactured thought crime feels like what I imagine the mother of an anorexic child must feel like when she tries to convince her child that eating is a perfectly healthy and good thing to do.
Obviously, I’m talking about the news that’s come out lately about masturbation, especially masturbation fueled by pornography. Not long ago, BYU-Idaho, a Mormon college, put out a laughably homoerotic video admonishing young men not to masturbate to porn and to turn in to church authorities any friends they thought were doing so. After the whole world did a spit-take and got done laughing, the Mormons drilled down on the bizarre video, saying that they thought viewing porn was a “harmful and destructive vice” and that they still thought it was a good idea for their young men to police each other in the way suggested.
And it is quite clear that the most religious cities in our country are also the ones that love them some porn. It’s probably a little embarrassing for the folks in the zealot-heavy Bible Belt that their residents produce about 1/3 of the amateur porn submitted to one large amateur-porn website–oh, and that most of this porn is submitted by, apparently, women. Reminds me of that story from a few years ago about how Utah led the country in paid porn subscriptions–and that 8 of the 10 top states in that regard were solid
Jesus Party Republican states. (I know, I know–I said the same thing: Are Mormons just too dumb to know where the free porn is?)
Obviously there’s a huge double-standard with regard to pornography in Christian-land, just like there is a serious lack of healthy boundaries around masturbation. I’m not sure most Christians would know healthy sexuality if it came up and (consensually, of course) bit them on the butt. I’m talking about masturbation and pornography together because I see Christian guilt and shame around them as based on the same unhealthy, repressed sexual idea of Christians being “above” such depraved, worldly, fleshly appetites.
But denying a need is not the same as destroying a need. That is why Christianity has been fighting the same hilariously failed war on human sexuality for 2000 years and why that war is not only not ending anytime soon but is actually being lost spectacularly as more and more people shed the religion and start trying to re-learn how normal humans handle their sexual needs and desires.
We can definitely pinpoint where Christians’ war on sex got lost: when people began to realize that consent matters a lot more than hoary, misognyistic old rules from thousands of years ago. At some point, we realized that Christians are more interested in “does it seem like something an ancient woman-hating genocidal tyrant would approve?” than in “is everybody involved of-age and consenting to these festivities?” We began to realize that Christian views of sexuality are not only insane and cruel but not worth entertaining any further, not even in the polite-nod-till-you-can-escape way you might find yourself doing at parties when cornered by a 9/11 truther. We simply lost our patience with Christian repression.
Thus, we no longer need or even desire Christians’ input regarding our sex lives, and you can’t tell me that doesn’t drive them the craziest. There’s a whole country full of people having sex and enjoying porn, and there is nothing toxic Christians can do about it because for them to force us back into lockstep they’d have to have a better reason than being terrified of what their tyrannical god will do to them if they can’t rein us in (or being enraged at losing control of so many people). And they really don’t have any excuse to control us outside of that.
I guess there are two ways Christians can engage with the simple reality that their “war on genitalia” is a losing fight. They can start accepting that their entire paradigm about sex is flawed, or they can drill down harder on the paradigm and cling to it even as they hemorrhage membership. Since that cruel paradigm is a big part of their entire belief system at this point, I’m not holding out a lot of optimism for that one, but I figure if they keep clamping down on people and pushing into people’s private lives without being asked, they’ll keep losing numbers (and tithes, more importantly), then the religion will fade into irrelevance even more quickly. Either way, humanity wins.
And we will win person by person. Person by person, people will figure out what they’ve been missing, like I did eventually (in my 20s, years out of the religion), and they will realize what an absolutely lame and horrific worldview they used to have. The problem is that some of these Christians will figure this out while they are still Christians, and Christians already think most people who leave their religion leave “to sin,” which means “to have unapproved sex.” The truth is far more nuanced than that; people discover how awesome healthy sexuality is, and some of those folks will wonder why Christianity doesn’t seem to have room for healthy sexuality–and from there they may well start to question everything else. Nobody actually leaves a religion that threatens an eternal punishment-place over sex itself. But denigrating a decision in that specific way shows where their heads are about sex–it is both terrifyingly powerful to them, and a force to be denied with their very last breath.
The truth is this, too: Christians sure don’t feel constrained to leave if they want to have unapproved sex. I’ve never met such dishonest, unfaithful horndogs as I have among Christians; they definitely are having the sex already. They’re just feeling hugely guilty about it. So I just don’t accept that the sex itself is making people leave. But at some point I guess we’ll just have to stop caring what the heck Christians erroneously think about those who leave and stop worrying about what they’ll say.
It sure wouldn’t be the first time they comforted themselves with mean-spirited illusions about apostates.
Today, as we leave Love Week behind, let’s remember to love the ones we’re with, especially if that one is ourselves.
Also, you wouldn’t believe the stuff my image-suggesting tool put up for this post. Have a picture of cookies instead.