Second hot-button post ot the day, and the last one.
I've been promising a post about masturbation for a couple of days. This is especially important because what I'm about to write is at least partially in contrast to what I wrote just seven months ago. I have reread that post several times, and my own views have (as they sometimes do) evolved. There were some things I wasn't ready to write back in August 2005 that I am ready to write now. What I wrote then was largely based on what I was comfortable teaching; I didn't touch much (sorry) on how it is that I seek to live my own life. Now, I'm ready to do that.
First off, I'm not writing to titillate or to offend. I'm trying to balance several things together here as I write: my feminism, my faith, and my ever-evolving understanding of human psychology and sexuality. But in the end, this post is going to be written from a spiritual perspective, one that will be sharply at odds with conventional feminist thought.
Below this post on Monday, my reader and student "Mermade" asked:
Is it possible to masturbate without lust involved? My boyfriend, who has struggled with porn and masturbation, says that it is impossible to masturbate without using some sort of lustful stimulation (except in the cases of children, which is an entirely different topic). Anyway, we know lusting creates many problems, problems which I have personally witnessed and been VERY hurt by. Therefore, if it is impossible to masturbate without hurtful lustful thoughts, should masturbation itself be endorsed as healthy if it cannot be done without damaging thoughts?
I have always wondered how feminism views women masturbating to porn depicting naked men (Playgirl, etc.) I am firmly against the sex industry and I wholeheartedly agree that men must give up their lust after women in order to be pro-feminist. However, I have scarcely heard about how people feel regarding women lusting and masturbating after men and whether or not feminism sees that as wrong. Granted, the porn industry is mostly aimed at men's interest. However, many women lust after porn as well, and I don't believe that's right either. (That kind of fits in with "me too" feminism). I would like to hear yours and other people's thoughts on that.
It's at this point that a great many of my secular readers, particularly feminist progressives, will start to get annoyed. (I almost said "hackles up", but caught myself in time.) In the secular feminist world in which I was marinated for years and years as a child, a college student, and a periodic activist, no one ever expressed any negative feelings about masturbation.
And this always struck me as odd, frankly. I've written a lot about pornography and the sex industry,and I've critiqued them using both a Christian and a feminist perspective. I readily concede that feminism is divided on the ills of pornography; some feminists see all porn as problematic, while others prefer to draw distinctions between porn that demeans and objectifies women and erotic imagery in which women's pleasure matters, and in which women are active agents. But here's what got me when I was in college, and what I could never fully understand when I was in discussion with my fellow anti-porn feminists: why is it wrong for men to purchase, view, and masturbate to pornography, but not wrong for those same men to masturbate to demeaning fantasies of women in their heads? If we aren't just objecting to the industry of porn, but also to the way in which men and women objectify each other, shouldn't we consider also consider the ethics of masturbation"? That's what I intend to do here.
Mermade asks some serious questions, the sort that generally only get asked in religious circles (where the healthiness of masturbation is not taken for granted, as it is in the secular world). Her first question is critical: Is it possible to masturbate without lust (or lustful fantasies)? I suppose it's possible, but I don't think most people do. If there are folks who masturbate to orgasm while balancing their checkbooks, or while contemplating the Sensenbrenner immigration bill, I suppose that they'll write in to refute me, but I am fairly certain most people, men and women, use sexual fantasy as a key part of their masturbatory routines.
I can hear the chorus now: Sure, Hugo, everyone fantasizes! It's natural and healthy, though! Are you seriously going to question whether or not it's acceptable to masturbate? Do you want to give all of your students a massive guilt complex? Well, hold on a bit, folks. I'm not denying that sexual fantasy is a powerful part of most of our lives, and a part of our lives that most secular voices insist we ought not even try and control. In the secular world, ethics is about our actions, not the substance of our thoughts. Fantasy, therefore, is nearly universally regarded as harmless; as long as we don't act on all of our fantasies (particularly when they involve boundary violations of one sort or another), we're told to enjoy our private reveries (with or without masturbation.)
But if there's one overwhelming thing that most of the world's great spiritual traditions agree on, it's this: our thoughts do matter. In the Abrahamic religious tradition, the tenth commandment is "Thou Shalt Not Covet." To "covet" is to long for, desire, lust after, envy, etc. This commandment comes after earlier commandments about theft and adultery. To borrow language from our Buddhist friends, It's clear that God is calling His people not only to right action, but also to right thought. Jesus continues the theme in Matthew 5:28: But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. It's difficult to look at Scripture and continue to insist that masturbatory fantasy is harmless!
Fleeting thoughts are impossible to control. But it's one thing to have a fleeting thought, and another to "entertain" the thought for any length of time. To paraphrase the famous line from Martin Luther, "I can't stop the birds from flying over my head, but I can stop them from building nests in my hair." Fantasy and lust -- for anyone other than my wife -- is letting the birds build a nest on my head. And I am convinced that that fantasy life is at odds with my spiritual and physical commitments.
I remember, several years ago, meeting two very different men who helped develop my views on masturbation. One was a Dominican brother who was studying at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley; the other was a very advanced yoga practitioner I met when I was in grad school at UCLA. I became good friends with both, though I never ended up becoming either a Dominican or a yogi (hey, there's still time!) The Dominican was just a few years older than me; the yoga teacher was in his forties. And at different times, in different ways, the subject of masturbation came up. Both men, despite their disparate religious traditions, were celibate in the truest sense -- they not only didn't have sex with other people, they didn't have sex with themselves. The Dominican told me he hadn't masturbated since he was 17; the yogi had gone more than a decade without ejaculating. (There is a school in yogistic thought that is big on sperm re-absorption and celibacy, but I can't remember which one it is.)
As you might suspect, I had a hard time believing either man! At first I though they were lying. Then, choosing to believe them, I began to suspect they were stark raving nuts. I argued with my Dominican friend, pointing out that God says nothing about masturbation in the Bible; I argued with my yogi friend, saying that it simply wasn't healthy to go that long without orgasm. Both men were patient with me (they'd heard this sort of thing before). My Dominican friend emphasized what I emphasized above -- our obligation to honor God with our minds as well as our actions; my yoga friend emphasized the extraordinary physical and psychic benefits of restriction and self-control. I wasn't convinced by either man, though I've never forgotten what they shared with me.
I've come to the following conviction in my own life: for me, as a Christian man on a radical spiritual journey, masturbation falls short of the mark. All of my sexual energy (in thoughts as well as behavior) goes towards my wife. Now, that's easy for someone in a relationship to say, of course. I haven't posted on this before for that reason! First of all, it's an intensely private subject. Second of all, I know that my words in a public forum such as this have considerable power. My goal is not to shame anyone. Please know, I don't tell the teenagers that I work with in my youth group not to masturbate; when the topic comes up in my courses on gender, I never make the suggestion that I think that masturbation "falls short of the mark." This is a private conviction that I've arrived at -- and yet, it's such a vital part of so many people's lives and it's so intimately connected to other issues that we discuss on this blog -- that I felt compelled to address it here.
More recently, I've met several young men and women in a variety of spiritual traditions who have chosen not to masturbate as well as refrain from sex outside of marriage. I've seen young celibate men (at their stereotypical sexual peak) choose to channel all of their sexual energy into other aspects of their lives; some are Kabbalists and some are Catholics but all are convinced that is indeed humanly possible to live without masturbation. As one young man I know who studies Kabbalah put it, "I believe that the purpose of sex isn't necessarily procreation -- I believe it's sharing. Sex is only truly appropriate and sacred when it is an act of sharing light and joy with another human being. Masturbation is all about me, and my goal is to think less about me and more about the world I am called to serve. It's very difficult to restrict, but it isn't impossible."
Do I think masturbation is a sin? No. Do I think folks ought to be ashamed of masturbating, or of sexual fantasies? Of course not. But have I seen very real benefits in my own life and in the lives of others from giving it up? You bet. At nearly forty, I still have a strong and vibrant libido, thanks -- but today, all of it is directed towards one other human being, and that human being is not myself. On my spiritual journey, I've come to the point where I find tremendous liberation not in following my impulses but in sublimating them. (I'm just the latest in a very long line of men and women who have come to that same conclusion, of course.)
In the end, I chose to let go of masturbation and sexual fantasy because they were at odds with my vision of what it meant to live a life of servanthood and discipleship. I believe today that everything I do and say is an ethical issue. How I spend money, how I eat, how I vote, how I share my time, how I love, how I think, how I fantasize, how I use sexuality. It's easier, of course, to live up to these commitments as a married man -- but I have a large number of friends of a wide variety of ages who have made the same decision, and many of them are single. They are not bitter and angry; indeed, though their lives are not without struggle, they seem more joyous and energetic than many of their peers who have not made the same decision.
I am convinced that good people can disagree strongly about this issue. I am convinced that one can masturbate and be psychologically healthy. But from time to time, folks like Mermade have asked me what my true feelings were about masturbation and fantasy. And at long last, I feel comfortable and confident enough to offer my true answer in a public forum.