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March 29, 2006



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?

Because real women aren't the same as imaginary women. Mental fantasies of women aren't real.

I don't think a feminist analysis of porn or masturbation can progress very far without a firm understanding of that point.

Private fantasies can demean nobody but the fantasizer. If you are convinced they do, there's your reason for stopping, but it's nothing to do with women or feminists, who are not obliged to object. Men's thoughts are not magical forces; only their actions have power over women, however much some of them would like it to be otherwise.

Why you don't mention non-demeaning fantasies, I do not know.

sharply at odds with conventional feminist thought.

The non-distinction between real and imaginary women, sure. The rest of it? Conventional feminist thought doesn't really give as much of a damn about men's private, non-harmful self-pleasure as men do. It's a good deal more concerned with harm done to real live women and with women's erotic pleasure, neither of which is a part of this post.

the tenth commandment is "Thou Shalt Not Covet."

...thy neighbor's wife.
anyone who looks at a woman lustfully.

Those of us who direct our fantasies elsewhere aren't really mentioned, are we?


Sophonisba, read the whole verse:

You shall not covet your neighbor's house. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

In any sensible understanding, that includes your neighbor's husband, your neighbor's boyfriend, and so forth.


So... what does that do with this?


Wow, I wasn't going to, as the kids say, 'go there', but since you have: in the modern world, your neighbor's wife doesn't belong to him. She does not belong in the same list with his work animals and his slaves. Wanting to have sex with her is not equivalent to wanting to own her. It is not, in a sane brain, even distantly related.

In a society in which your neighbor's wife does belong to him just as his animals do, your neighbor's husband does not belong to her. The equivalence does not exist.

As long as you're claiming that masturbation saps energy, ("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") would you like to add that masturbators have hairy palms, in addition to being listless and tired? You've gone past claiming that masturbation is spiritually damaging to suggesting that it takes a physical toll and that its mark can be seen on the masturbator by outside observers. This is throughly, patently ridiculous. You say it's a "private conviction," but you don't restrict your judgments to yourself.


I don't think his point was to describe all celibate people, I think it was just to point out that these two didn't fit into a common stereotype of what celibacy has to look like (bitter, angry, etc.).


I must say that while I'm no theologian, but it's always seemed to me that sophonisba's reading of that passage is rather commonsensical, and the standard reading of the passage seems as though it's heavily refracted through the prism of our late modern sexual obsessions (as well as our drifting away from a straight wife-as-property model of marriage).

Without getting too personal, I'd also confess that I agree, not just in theory but in practice, with sophonisba's criticisms of the "energy-sapping" theory of masturbation. Whether or not avoiding masturbation improves the sexual life of a monogamous relationship is dependent on many factors, including the idiosyncracies of sex drive. (Furthermore, what if all your fantasies were about your wife? Would that be acceptable within your personal ethics on this issue?)


Fantasizing about my wife is fine. Masturbating to those fantasies -- rather than restricting and bringing all of my energy to our marriage -- is not. Again, that's just me.

Sophonisba, "ownership" is a common theme in modern marriage ceremonies. It is not at odds with egalitarianism. 1 Corinthians 7:4 says that a husband's body belongs to his wife just as a wife's body belongs to her husband. It's not anachronistic to read that as offering a vision of mutual ownership, mutual submission, and mutual sovereignty over each other. Of course, like most Christians, I read the tenth commandment in light of my understanding of the New Testament notion of mutual submission in marriage.

Vacula, the post about the clitoris stands. I'm writing at someone who arrived at a radical understanding of sexuality as an adult man after a great deal of experience. I wouldn't ever call someone to a standard that I couldn't meet when I was there age.

But if I contradict myself, I contradict myself. Sometimes, to quote an old saying, Hugo worships the "Either, the Or, and the Holy Both." It's not very intellectually impressive, but it's honest. Remember, my blog reflects not only long-held opinions, but temporary musings -- of the very sort that I will subsequently question. I realize it makes me infuriating. It's a character flaw, and I'm workin' on it.


I disagree with you! People don't masturbate to sexual fantasies of other people. Where did you get this from? You don't need to have anyone in mind when you do this!.....You don't have to be thinking of your wife! You don't have to be looking at porn! My word!.......Where did you get this from? .....And it certainly doesn't take away from your relationship with your wife!......I'm sure other people will agree with me!


Nance, do you contemplate the glories of the tax code? Do you compare Coke and Pepsi? The vast majority of research supports the notion that masturbation and fantasy are closely linked.


But if I contradict myself, I contradict myself.

Honestly, it doesn't read so much like a contradiction as like the entirely coherent thoughts of someone who thinks that male sexuality is powerful, mighty, and important - so that its proper management is of crucial importance ('Don't point that thing at somebody, it might go off!')- while female sexuality, is nice, consciousness-raising, and harmless. That's not unproblematic.


Interesting point, sophonisba. Usually your zingers miss their mark, but you might have scored a direct hit with that one. I'll muse about that around the Rose Bowl this afternoon.

David Thompson

So, what we've got here is a call to keep our hands off our junk A. because that's the wife's job (which is nice if you have one on call) and B. to further some spiritual purity thing (which is nice if that's what gets you off). That is a rather flimsy rack to hang suc a broad hat on.


While I respect your thoughts and agree with many of the things you pointed out, I am not convinced that lusting for one's wife or husband is any different than lusting over any other person in any other situation. It's lust, it's human, and it's ok. Or, it's not OK, ever. If you want to say that lust is a negative force (wich it certainly can be, just like spending too much money on trendy clothes, or eating too many twinkies or drinking too much beer), then I think you ought to be more consistent, which means you also shouldn't lust after your wife. As crudly as it was written above, I agree with David Thompson. I don't agree that just because you are married to someone makes your lust any less of a negative force. A person like yourself is not comprable to an ultra-celibate yogi or Dominican or religiously inclined teenager. You seem to feel absolute in your opinion, with only the one exception of your wife.

I personally do not have any strong feelings on this subject, but I'm also not sure you really have yours completely sorted out like you say you do.


Lydia, as far as I can tell, Hugo is saying that all his sexual energy - including his lust - should be directed at his wife. There's nothing inconsistent about that, that I can see. Just as having sex with your wife is positive but having sex with Amy down the street is negative, lusting towards your wife is positive but lusting towards Amy down the street is negative.


Why? I am sort of playing devil's advocate on this one, but I'm not entirely convinced that his wife and Amy down the street are all that different.

I will probably lose this argument, and that's ok because I do see his point and it's not a bad one, it's just not air-tight, that's all.

Bitch | Lab

What is "me too feminism" and who espouses it?


Usually your zingers miss their mark

You say that like you think I'm more interested in being pithy than in being accurate. Interesting indeed.

But in any event, I have no problem whatsoever with any individual adult who chooses to focus their sexuality in the manner they desire. Your marriage and your spirituality are your business. In society at large, however, anti-masturbation views, when generally accepted (as they once were), put lots of extra pressure on women to satisfy mens' "needs" (since for men to satisfy themselves would be demeaning) and contributes to a view of women as mere outlets for male energy.

And this is how people really acted before masturbation was generally admitted to be healthy and normal and allowed to be mentioned in polite society. Not that they have entirely stopped, but it's gotten better since "secular society" has gotten its collective head around the concept. "Blue balls" is a phrase that the female generation before mine had to hear a lot more than I did, I'll wager. A girl who can't say "Go jerk off, if you're so horny - it's not my problem!" is a girl who can be guilted much more easily into having sex she doesn't want.

See David Thompson's joking summary: "because that's the wife's job".

If it strikes you as odd, Hugo, that no one expressed any negative feelings about masturbation to you when you were growing up, as you say above, well - you're a historian, for heaven's sake! Surely you've read about the not-far-distant times when masturbation was heavily disapproved of, and the everyday horrors that produced.

And in those days, just as now, female masturbation was a side-note, if thought worthy of mention at all.

Bitch | Lab

I completely agree with Nancy. Hugo, when you describe your fantasies, I'll show you mine.

I also agree with sophonisba. The position you're taking doesn't seem to account for the work of lesbians on this issue. And I'm not sure why you'd want to ignore research on fantasy and masturbation -- we may find that whatever it is you say you fantasize about is thoroughly grounded in cultural habits. What about the guy I know, who's actually published an article on this, who loves to watch people being pied? Women who fantasize about, not a person, just sensations. Women who fantasize about their own bodies, or just think of hands running all over here, having nothing to do with a particular man or woman?

I was just reading Gayle Rubin the other day and she was saying that, what we really need (and feminism has failed to provided) was a theory of sexuality, which is why we have these wild wars that break out about sexual practices.


Hugo, thank you so much for addressing my questions! I gained a lot of insight from reading your post as well as the responses to it. Thank you!

I've been thinking about how I must come across to people here, based on the few comments that I've written. (I know Hugo might be thinking, don't apologize, don't apologize!) but I feel a disclaimer on who I am and what I believe is necessary here. I probably seem like an uptight-religious-zealot-jesus-freak-prude, but in hopes to defy my stereotype if there is one, let me just say this:

The reason why I feel so strongly about abstinance, masturbation and the sex industry is not 100% based on my Catholic background, although that has a lot to do with it. My beliefs are also based on the fact that my boyfriend was heavily addicted to this, um, stuff, which in turn affected his expectations and assumptions about me when we started dating years ago. Before I became a serious Catholic/Christian, I believed that it was "normal" for guys to masturbate and look at porn, and thus accepted it. But when you're asked indirectly many times why you don't want to do ______ (fill in the blank) because, after all, the girls in porn are "happy" to do it, it changes your perception on things.

I don't think that most girls feel comfortable with the thought of a guy thinking about having sex with her and masturbating to it. As in my case, my boyfriend's thoughts about me quickly turned into actions, actions that were against my will. As the popular saying/poem goes:

Sow a thought, and you reap an act
Sow an act, and you reap a habit
Sow a habit, and you reap a character
Sow a character, and you reap a destiny.

I respect everyone's choices and understand that we all have different feelings on the matter. We each have (and rightfully should have) the power to decide how we feel about this. I do not look down those who masturbate, but I do believe that the act (and NOT the person who does the act) of lusting after someone (no matter who it is) and masturbating to that thought is wrong. Again, that's because I've been very hurt by the two and not because I'm some annoyingly pious and arrogant Christian.


I know what you're saying Mermade, but I'd argue those who expect normal people to act like porn stars haven't known many real people, or might not have the firmest grip on reality. That might sound really judgmental of me, but yeah...


Mermade, I respect your choices and I don't think you're uptight or a prude, not at all. But I think that giving men's fantasies primacy, as you're doing when you ask how girls feel...about men's thoughts!, is in its own way a capitulation to the porn culture, where men's fantasies are the only ones that exist and matter. When I think about masturbation, I think about what's good and 'normal' for me, first. Not for men. Why should I have to have an opinion about men's fantasies? Mine are more important.

And a boyfriend expecting you to mimic a fantasy object whether you want to or is wrong and unfair. "Normal" doesn't matter when it comes to what you do and don't want to do in bed. I think every decent person would agree with that, whatever their masturbation habits.


Cripes, I go for a workout and two hours later, have lots to answer.

Yes, I think there's a huge difference between lust for my wife and lust for other women. Because my wife and I are in a covenantal relationship, our bodies belong to each other. This does not give me the right to do things to her against her will, nor does it obligate her to please me (or me to please her). It does mean that our sexual desire for the other is grounded in a concomitant commitment to live out the consequencs of that desire. Our sexual desires and actions are thus congruent; when we fantasize about someone who isn't "ours" in this sense we're doing something completely different.

I am very familiar with the history of masturbation (including Laqueur's book by that title). Read my post under popular posts about "Surgery, Sex, and Paternalistic Feminism" -- I know well what was done to masturbating women in an earlier era.

Bitch Lab, you're right -- we don't yet have a sufficient theory of sexuality that incorporates faith perspectives, feminist experience, and the extraordinary variety of human behavior.

That said, as I reread my post, I count half a dozen caveats; I'm constantly explaining why I don't expect everyone else on the planet to live the way I do! I don't intend to explain why feminists shouldn't masturbate, because I don't think you can make a secular feminist case against masturbation; my case is based on theology (both Eastern and Western), personal experience, and my own fundamental desire to live a life of service. Mermade asked an honest question, and I gave her an honest answer.


Mermade says (quoted by Hugo): "...I wholeheartedly agree that men must give up their lust after women in order to be pro-feminist."

Hugo - is Mermade agreeing with you? Have you said any such thing?

I can see believing that one must usefully channel one's lust, and/or must limit it to where it is appropriate, but "give up their lust after women"? That turns (pro)feminism into an anti-sex caricature of itself.

Currently your student

Haha. The church of "the either, the or, and the Holy Both." That is so you, Mr. Hugo!

Why is it that knowing you live your life like this makes you even hotter to me? I wawnt to clone you and marry your clone.


"Currently", I don't foresee cloning happening anytime soon. Thanks for your kind words.

Anthony, Mermade is misquoting me slightly. I've made the case that pro-feminist men ought to match their language and their life, and that porn use (and the rest of the sex industry) is incompatible with pro-feminist commitments. In that sense, I'm referring to behavior.

From a CHRISTIAN pro-feminist standpoint (something I don't teach in class, but give voice to on this blog), I think that indulging lustful thoughts for women with whom one is not in relationship is problematic.

When I mentor Christian students, I challenge them in ways I might not challenge secular students. Where a common vocabulary of Scripture and church tradition exists, I'll use it in a heartbeat. But I don't proselytize.

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