“I’m sure that god forgives you, but you’re grieving the holy spirit when you do this.” It wasn’t an uncommon piece of conversation in my weekly meetings with my religious leader. During my accountability sessions with respect to prayer, Bible study, and strict boundaries around dating, I was also asked to report masturbation. I didn’t know that I’d signed up to accept a classic anti-masturbation mindset.
I joined this conservative religious group in my late teens, but when signing up I was unaware of this little disclosure requirement. I’d only practiced masturbation a couple of years to this point and talk of such might be dodgy, but I’d already cobbled my own three-ring wank circus. While I wasn’t ashamed of my private joy, I was quite unprepared to disclose my performances in a religious counseling session.
This early intimate method of plying trust through private sexual detail was unsettling. I was a kid quite unaware of my own feelings and consequently didn’t much trust myself. The only thing to do was comply, and I did. I reported solo sexual behavior, and over the next months, my circus left town. I felt like I’d lost my favorite stuffed animal.
My discovery of masturbation opened massive uncharted territory of personal discovery. Pointless, yet elegant, masturbation is a dance of my humanity, an uncovering of my deep. Through genital pleasure, previously unfelt emotions revealed themselves. I grew socially confident. Appreciation for my lithe body cultivated not only an interest in sexuality but a desire to date and hone my skill in intimate relationships. I’d never known what it was to be close to someone — anyone.
Had my religious leader’s inquiry into my private genital play followed a somewhat different vector, it may have actually helped me. For example, he might have intersected my personal sexual discovery with spiritual growth. Or he could have drawn my attention to self-pleasure as a powerful affirmation of my developing self-image. Instead, he classified the most sexual fun I’d experienced to that station in life as grievous sin — fun which caused God pain.
I’d been sexually hamstrung, and I didn’t know it.
Anti-Masturbation Is Nothing New
Centuries upon centuries sense the tension between the human condition straining to grow fully into its own potential and the conservative souls who fear unleashing sexual autonomy and strive to contain it. Sex lies at the tautest points of this tension. Sex is either a reflection of the honesty and beauty of our hearts or a revelation of our lies.
Sexually repressive propaganda rolls off the lips of preachers, printing presses, and politicians in any era, but masturbation is a relative newcomer to sex meddling in our lives. Give anything a name and you can conceive public fear. This was the secret weapon of the anonymous author of Onania an anti-masturbation pamphlet broadly distributed throughout Britain and the US in the 1700 and 1800s. Onania ushered the heinous sin of masturbation into church confessionals, counseling rooms, woodsheds, doctors’ offices, and eventually surgeries where young boys lost their foreskins as a behavioral corrective measure. This would become known as medical circumcision. We could also think of it as the 19th-century version of anti-masturbation.
“FOR Fornication and Adultery it self, tho’ heinous Sins, we have Frailty and Nature to plead; but SELF-POLLUTION is a Sin, not only against Nature, but a Sin, that perverts and extinguishes Nature, and he who is guilty of it, is labouring at the Destruction of his Kind, and in a manner strikes at the Creation it self.” Onania, 1717
Why do those who seek to influence collective social thought when at first blush it seems masturbation to such an inconsequential practice to control? We now have science and history to assure us of what we intuitively already knew. Masturbation is completely natural human behavior. Being natural, it is also an integral function of physical, mental, and spiritual self-care.
Masturbation’s Common Knowledge
Millenia of Taoists practiced holistic cultivation of energy through genital pleasure to nourish the mind, body, and spirit. The medical and psychology communities agree that masturbation is anything but harmful. We’re finally getting past the tired it’s-good-practice-for-the-real-thing rhetoric, and we now understand that masturbation is more than sexual pleasure, but also profound practice of intense self-discovery and spiritual enlightenment. Masturbation is a critical means for us to realize our individuality and access our essential self.
That is why masturbation is a vulnerable topic. Our private relationship with our genitalia is the core of the human reactor and our most sensitive strike zone. When we masturbate, we are in all ways most individual. If those who influence our thinking can suggest even the possibility that masturbation may be harmful, immoral, weak, deviant, irresponsible, dishonest or cheating on our lover, they have compromised the most central system of our individual identity. Reliable and accurate inward focus is disoriented, and our connection with our most essential self is severed.
The loss of our primary lover, our most faithful sex partner has thus occurred. When masturbation is wrong, we’ve lost ourselves.
Religious Anti-Masturbation Movements
The most insidious and indefensible of movements are the religious as they strike at a person’s worthiness of inclusion. Religious movements are essentially self-policing with self-worth enforced by the all-knowing eyes of God and shame and good standing in the group checked by the risk of discovery. Transgression easily inclines people to deceive leaders and other members about their behavior or invent elaborate workarounds.
An acquaintance of mine was a member of a Christian sexual purity accountability group. The group required weekly reporting of sexual activity and browser tracking software installed on all electronic devices to alert the group of porn violations. He told me he’d purchased a new laptop which surprised me as I thought he’d bought one a few months earlier. He explained that the group will not know about the new laptop and of course, won’t have browser tracking.
Universal knowledge informs us about Catholic priests hearing a weekly litany of sin and confession of wanking fourteen-year-old boys. Certain hell (masturbation is a grave sin, what we call a mortal sin) awaits boys who don’t confess. My conservative Christian college was not dissimilar. Damnation was the reward for unrepentant men who entertain erotic thought. I burned under my cohort’s condemnation at my suggestion that perhaps one could masturbate absent any erotic thought. A silly idea, I know.
A common Christian position puts the question of who owns your body and sexual pleasure. Campus Crusade, a Christian campus ministry answers that question in their guide for campus counselors. “…one of the sad consequences of masturbation, or self-gratification, is that you learn how to please yourself sexually. How can your spouse compete with you?” And again here, “These urges were designed to be satisfied by your spouse … but not by you.” Campus Crusade’s position on masturbation is a tough standard for students who may not meet a spouse for years or at all.
Some anti-masturbation movements hinge membership in the community on complete abstinence from masturbation. Such language might sound like, “a blemish on the brothers”, “behavior unbecoming a soldier”, “a slap in God’s face” or “the worst kind of perversion”. Anti-masturbation thought of this breed not only dissolves individuality but regulates if and how a group member touches their genitals. In these communities, a person unknowingly surrenders their autonomy rendering their sexuality — the essence of their identity — to the whim of another — God, a leader, or the group.
Elna Baker, a producer for This American Life recently produced a segment on her experience as a youth in the Mormon church. Listeners were appalled at the required private confession of sexual behavior during annual interviews with the bishop for all 12 to 27-year-olds. According to one Mormon physician, 12-year-old Mormon children may hear the message that masturbation is among “sexual sins ranked right next to murder.”
The web is replete with stories of Mormon shame, suicide, and neurosis over the struggle for masturbatory abstinence. Mormon leadership generously offers guidance to overcome members’ predicament with an otherwise natural and healthy human urge to feel alive. Church literature suggests, “Never touch the intimate parts of your body except during normal toilet processes.” And also, “If you are associated with other persons having this same problem, YOU MUST BREAK OFF THEIR FRIENDSHIP.” A final helpful idea for the despairing: “In very severe cases it may be necessary to tie a hand to the bed frame…”
Much of the world enjoys sexuality and spirituality as inseparable. Public symbols of sex and acknowledgment of sex are common anywhere but in the west. Why is the church so afraid of sex? Osho suggests a possibility: “Two things have been taboo in the world: sex and death.”
The Christian church spends an irrational amount of time and energy on these two taboos. Fear of death is everywhere. Means and promises to conquer a certain and eventual part of the cycle of life — death — infuse sermons, songs, and prayers.
Sex, on the other hand, and particularly masturbation is a threat to God and the church. “I the LORD thy God am a jealous God.” A confident assertion of independence and self-love, masturbation directs affection inward to the soul of self. Such affirmation of self and affection for one’s own body exhibits delight and pleasure independent of others — quite possibly more delight than a jealous god or church is able to tolerate. “So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God.”
“Christianity is — of all religions of the world — the one uniquely preoccupied with sex.” Alan Watts suggests a plausible reason that sex is so troublesome in the western church. He continues, “Sexuality is something which you cannot get rid of.” We are, after all, here as a result of a sexual act. And reproductive intercourse, the most benign, of sexual acts is relatively minimal. Most sex is for pleasure and a host of reasons other than reproduction. Sex is an expression of the most essential and divine parts of us. Sexual expression is by far the more profound and honest of human expression.
Masturbation, on the other hand, has no potential for reproduction. It is independent, individual, essential, and divine. And, as Alan Watts asserts, it is something you cannot get rid of. Masturbation is both a sexual taboo and an assertion of our divine awareness.
To a society with strong Christian underpinnings, this is simply too much of a threat. Masturbation must by all means be suppressed. Rick James writes again for Campus Crusade, “Masturbation skews our view of sex into being about our pleasure and a quick fix rather than the focus being on giving and intimacy in a committed marriage relationship.” James’ assumption is that all sexual activity is only about intimacy in a marriage relationship and should not be about pleasure.
It’s a narrow view of our massive sexual capacity which we may enjoy the entirety of our lives — solo or partnered. No, not all sex is about pleasure. Some sex including masturbation is about healing, creativity, grieving, personal affirmation, spiritual connection, and confidence to name only a few. Sex is versatile, adaptable, and beneficial in all spheres of life. The Christian concern with regard to our confidence in sexual things is understandable — pleasure, independence, and a sexually developed person are indeed a threat to loyalty to the church. A sexually enlightened person engaging in critical thinking skills will question the denial of pleasure and suppression of a natural human sexual function.
Secular & Social Anti-Masturbation Movements
But religious institutions are not the only fortifications of anti-masturbation movements and organizations. The internet is rife with forums and support systems for men in masturbation recovery. Perhaps more crafty than religious anti-masturbation tactics, web movements choose few moralistic targets and aim for men’s virility instead. And their strategy certainly recruits followers insecure in their manhood.
Promising confidence and greater confidence in picking up women, hundreds of thousands visit anti-masturbation sites for tips, tricks, support, and accountability to kick the wanking habit.
No Nut November is the most peculiar of all the movements whose primary objective is to concern themselves with control of others’ genital play. Lacking any clear reason for prohibiting masturbation among their participants, they simply gather once a year on their subreddit around the challenge of avoiding ejaculation in any fashion — masturbation, intercourse, or otherwise — for the month of November. The rules are posted on their soldier-themed subreddit as well as their website and are pretty straightforward: “The number 1 rule is DON’T NUT; No looking at porn or anything naughty; Abstain from playing with your meat for the whole of November; Pursue a new skill to replace masturbating.”
No Nut November considers unbelievers in their challenge to be losers — “weak and incapable boys who perish on the battlefield.” Those Nut Comrade soldiers who participate become brave heroes who “gain all kinds of unbelievable powers”. The No Nut November subreddit boasts over 16,000 current members.
NoFap is likely the most popular online gathering of fastronauts, men abstaining from masturbation or pornography. Alexander Rhodes, the founder of NoFap, unwittingly launched the most popular modern-day nonreligious anti-masturbation and anti-porn movement. In recent years the organization has adjusted its proposition to appear more palatable in a sex-positive sense claiming they are not a movement and are not inherently opposed to masturbation. Still, the anti-masturbation name, NoFap, remains and the logo exhibits a prominent prohibition symbol. Taken with 385,000 subreddit posters alone decrying their ejaculatory relapses and failures, the message is clear — masturbation is bad for you. With an apparel store and a speakers bureau, this is a movement.
Anti-masturbation movements of all stripes see themselves as sex educators sparing adherents from the dangers of sex yet avoiding accurate and complete information about sexuality. Painfully few men ever receive a shred of sex education specifically addressing masturbation.
It is never beneficial to withhold information, yet medical, religious, and educational systems insist on leading young men to believe that their sexual desire and pleasure are volatile and dangerous. It is never ethical to misinform, yet social institutions feel it is beneficial to do a bad thing in order to assuage their fears. It’s never helpful to suppress anyone’s sexuality. Sex is by nature, considerate, generous, and life-giving.
Defending Rights And Benefits Of Solo Sex
A natural question presents itself. What can I do to make a dreadful situation right? Use your sexual energies of kindness and generosity. Consider the following:
- Have honest and open conversation about masturbation with people you trust.
- Educate young people in your care about their rights and benefits of self-pleasure.
- Invite sex-positive speakers and educators to your groups and organizations.
- Become informed of the messages and mindsets of those in sex-negative religious groups, movements and organizations. Understand why others think the way they do.
Use your sex-positive generosity, kindness, and consideration to accept all in sincerity. Don’t hate, but accept. Believe that people will grow in a safe environment.
Most of us become inured to the gift of shame we encounter each time the topic of masturbation is crassly tossed and degraded. Yet, like sneaking a cookie from the jar, we quietly consume our brief but secret moment of guilty pleasure and never ever speak of it. A greater gift in return to ourselves, one another, and future men should there be any, would be to learn to masturbate shamelessly and fearlessly. That alone should be enough — to be solidly human and delightfully declare ourselves as such. Yet also, as such a person, we will also more easily love and be loved by others.