Masturbation isn’t a subject for daily discussion. In fact most of us don’t think much about it, though we may engage in it occasionally. In fact statistics on masturbation note that it is very common. If you believe the old joke, everyone does it – “98% of people masturbate – and the other 2% are lying.” But recent research shows masturbation may be a less common activity than that. According to a recent study of a “representative sample of American adults,” 38% of women said they had masturbated during the last year and 61% of men said they had. Interestingly, the research also showed that masturbation was more likely to occur with increased education, sexual experimentation during puberty, a greater frequency of sexual thoughts, and a larger number of lifetime sexual relationships.
Now, masturbation is an intense, though private experience. It also has a powerful pull (no pun intended) to elicit quirky myths, stern cautions, and, thankfully some tolerance, based on the many religious viewpoints through the centuries. From the current public health perspective, masturbation is deemed “A normal expression of the sexual drive and is physically and psychologically harmless, as long as it doesn’t become a preoccupation or a substitute for ordinary sexual relations.” Going even further, a common public health perspective, and that of this writer, is that self and/or self disgust concerning masturbation is much more harmful than masturbation could be.
Growing up, I encountered many myths about masturbation. Some arose from religious doubts and cautions about masturbation. (More about that later.) Other concerns or scares about masturbation were simply myths. Remember any from your childhood? I’d usually hear it from my friends who were extremely good conduits for gossip and hearsay. Masturbate a bit and you might see hair growth on your palms, or acne, or hair loss – all nasty signals to you and your friends that you crossed the line with masturbation. Now, masturbate a lot and you might lose your eyesight. No gentle warning there – rather, the wrath of god! And the fear of going around blind for the rest of your life and only having blind friends who also masturbated endlessly was a grim fate. But, many other myths about masturbation arose. For guys, they were legion… masturbation could use you up sexually … it could cause mental health problems….cancer!…damage to your genitals… and on and on. I wasn’t so clear about myths about masturbation for young women but I’ve read that there were similar ones and more that were specific to females like… it was more acceptable for boys to masturbate than women…men have to masturbate, women don’t… people in relationships don’t masturbate…and only “certain kinds” of people masturbate. Oh, and I’ve also heard the ones about using vibrators and how one can get addicted to them and never need a partner again.
So why would there be such powerful negative mythology about masturbation when the public health perspective is so benign?
Well, enter religion! For thousands of years masturbation in its many names has brought forth a wide range of religious views. I poured over the opinions of many religions regarding masturbation and found a complex fabric of views with most tilting toward caution or the forbidding of the practice.
The Bible doesn’t say much about masturbation, but there is a section often cited regarding Onan that refers to forbidding coitus interruptus. In fact, many biblical scholars tend to concur that the Bible really doesn’t talk about masturbation as a matter of morality. One says, “Returning to the Levitical list of sexual taboos, curiously missing from the list is any mention of masturbation.” That being said, most Biblical-based religions do discuss it. In fact, scholar James Brundage’s notes that: “the themes of masturbation and sexual fantasy were unimportant to either pagan or Christian writers until the fourth or fifth centuries” (when the rise of monasticism happened)
And yet, in Western culture today, the more conservative faiths look down on masturbation. Catholicism sees masturbation as a “seriously disordered act.” Sexual acts must be done within the confines of marriage. In addition, the Catholic Church teaches that all other sexual activity, including homosexual acts, acts of sodomy, all sex outside of or before marriage (fornication), use of any form of contraception or birth control, all of these are: gravely disordered.” The reason is that it frustrates the natural order, purpose and ends of sexuality.” So much for sex for pleasure.
For Protestantism, the conservative and evangelical groups may look down upon it, but tend to not focus upon it, noting that the bible says little about masturbation. In more progressive parts of Protestantism, masturbation is viewed more benignly – even seen as healthy. I found a reference to a discussion on masturbation geared to “Christian women” that was interesting. From a conservative perspective, the author was a bit equivocal for single people regarding masturbation. For married couples, she said it was OK to fantasize about sex – with your husband.
For Orthodox Judaism, masturbation is forbidden. The most authoritative work of Judaic law, the Shulchan Aruch, (Even Ha’ezer, ch.23) says that “it is forbidden to release semen for no purpose and this is as serious a sin as any in the Torah…those who masturbate…and release semen, not only is it a serious sin…but it is as though they’ve killed a human being.” That’s heavy stuff for a teenager to grapple with. Reformed and Reconstructionist Judaism takes a more progressive view. Reconstructionist Rabbi Alexis Roberts maintains that masturbation is “harmless, natural and healthy. It may provide release and pleasure, as well as self-knowledge that is useful for pleasurable sex with a partner. It may make it easier for young people to have sexual release in the years when they are too young for a mature, committed, loving relationship.”
Traditional Islam has a dim view of masturbation. There isn’t much in the Koran to even address the question but one does stand out. When Allah describes the followers, he says: “Those who guard their sexual organs except with their spouses or those whom their right hands possess, for (with regard to them) they are without blame. But those who crave something beyond that are transgressors.” (Al-Mu’mun: 5-7) In case you’re wondering about the “right hand” possession, that refers to slaves. But masturbation is out. Except, according to Hanbali jurists, under two conditions: first, the fear of committing fornication or adultery, and second, not having the means to marry.
General Buddhism thought would consider masturbation harmless and natural – not too far a view from the general public health view we see today. The exception would be renunciates who take a vow of abstinence during a period to “conquer their desires.”
Hinduism has a complex view. Unless one has taken a vow of celibacy, it seems that masturbation is well within the boundaries of the faith’s strictures. It’s interesting that a Hindu-related treatise on sex, the Kama Sutra (4th-6th centuries) does not condemn masturbation at all. Rather, it explains in detail the best procedure to masturbate. But, Hinduism takes one far beyond the physical desires. Sexual pleasure is part of kama, one of the four goals of life, but in hinduism “brahmacharya” takes the student to divine studies apart from sexual understandings.
I also found a wide array of opinions on masturbation among the many smaller faiths around the world. And as one would expect, those that were able to view life through a more complex and nuanced perspective were more open to allowing masturbation, and, those that were more literal and moralistic, it was viewed dimly.
Well, after reading so much about religious views on masturbation, potential sin and sex, I needed to take a break and reflect on how far we have come in the hundreds if not thousands of years since many of the religious views on sex were initially formed. We need to remember that many of these beliefs emerged in highly conservative tribal societies where science and public health considerations were non-existent. So folks, remember, we’ve come a long way baby! We can still be strong moral forces in our world without being hung up on ancient interpretations of sexual morality.
And as for masturbation? I’d like to say – It’s a natural thing and no big deal.