Masturbation. A word not everyone is comfortable saying out loud. A topic many people aren’t willing to talk openly about. Something we should be thinking about whether we are single, married, have kids or not.
Like many topics in the church, masturbation was prohibited and then vaguely referenced and then not really talked about at all. Leaders have not clarified whether masturbation is a sin. It was heavily spoken against until it wasn’t. The specific language was removed, but the implication is still there, as well as generations of leaders and parents who believe it is morally wrong.
I don’t want to tell anyone how they should feel about this topic. What I do hope to convey is the need to examine this for oneself and if one has children, how to navigate this topic with them. I hope to share resources that I have found helpful and point people to professionals.
I think the church actually does aspire to teach correct principles and let people govern themselves. And yet moralizing is often what happens in the day-to-day practice of LDS culture. It’s why LDS sex therapists or educators like Kristin B Hodson, Jennifer Finlayson-Fife and Natasha Helfer, often get questions like, “Is it ok if my kid masturbates?” “Is it ok if I masturbate?”
One of the problems I see with the For Strength of Youth handbook is the populations that it leaves out, and yet its principles are applied to all ages and stages. The language is better in than in the past (including the new line “These feelings are not sinful – they are sacred” which can reduce much of the shame evoked from earlier iterations). However, confining sexual feelings to marriage fails to address how we are all sexual beings from birth to death. I have had many conversations with members of the church who are unsure how to approach self-touch with their young children. They wonder if there is an age when it is no longer ok to explore one’s own body or touch oneself for pleasure. I have spoken to people who wonder if it’s ok for their spouse to masturbate when they are apart. Or people who don’t know if solo sex is appropriate after a spouse has died. Is it ok for a gay man who wondered what place there is in church for his sexuality, knowing marriage would never be an option for him? And what about for the many, many single women in the church? Do the FSY guidelines apply to them? Does the church’s definition of the law of chastity – no sexual relationships outside of marriage – include masturbation or not?
I have spoken with many people on this topic and read many articles on LDS blogs. Maybe this is something you have already figured out for yourself or for your family. But what are the principles being taught at church? In the absence of official clarification, members are subject to leader roulette, with some bishops assuring people they’re ok and some men asking for far too many details. In the recent handbook updates, the church did include that people should not face disciplinary action for self-touch. And yet many members still grapple with the question: is masturbation a sin?
Many of my favorite books on teaching sexual health take a values based approach. In his book, For Goodness Sex, author and high school sex educator Al Vernacchio explains:
A simple definition of the term values is: the deepest-set rules that guide one’s decisions. Values don’t just tell us what we do; they tell us why we do it, which is much more important.
He goes on,
In moralizing, the goal is to instill the parents’ (and I would insert here: the church’s -not God’s) values in their children. Value clarification, though, seeks to have a person develop a set of values that are uniquely their own and defendable.
One of Vernacchio’s fundamental values is that sexuality is good. He likes to say, “Sexuality is a good gift from a good god.” I think this is something many LDS people also embrace – a theology of sex as good and a God who desires us to experience joy. But talking about what that looks like outside of heterosexual marriage doesn’t often happen. For myself and many others, we received simple messages of “Don’t’!” and then, “You’re getting married! Sex is wonderful!” So many parents now are trying to be better about having developmentally appropriate conversations about sex starting when their kids are young. However, masturbation, and especially self-pleasuring for girls, is for many people still taboo.
One of the first books I came across when my own firstborn was young, is From Diapers to Dating: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children by Debra Haffner. Right in the first chapter, Haffner encourages parents to think about what sexual values they want to communicate to their children.
Throughout this book, both [parents] will have opportunities to think about your own values and what you both want to teach your children. I will also try to provide you with the best information available on how to raise a child who will become a sexually healthy adult. I will differentiate between those issues that are based on an individual family’s values, like your attitudes about premarital sex and contraception, and those that would interfere with your child’s ability to grow up to be sexually healthy. For example, your family may want your child to know that your family believes masturbation is wrong, but in order not to instill lifelong shame, it is critical that all children at puberty know that it does not cause physical or mental harm.
This is echoed by Vernacchio in For Goodness Sex.
Do give them facts. You might say, “You’ll hear all kinds of things about masturbation, but it doesn’t do any physical, mental, or emotional harm to a person, and for lots of people it’s a normal part of life.
Really it’s not a question of do or don’t; it’s a matter of what role masturbation can play in helping to develop healthy sexuality. While it’s true that not everyone does, or has to, masturbate, masturbating can be an important way for young people to get to know their bodies. If teens know what feels good to them, they’ll know how one day to tell someone else what they like and don’t like when they’re getting intimate. And for those young people who don’t masturbate because they don’t like it, they don’t want to, or it violates their value system, they need to know that they are perfectly normal as well.
Many people want to know if they are masturbating “too much.” Frequency is highly individual. Vernacchio explains, “I tell my students that the important question isn’t whether they’re masturbating too little or too much, but rather, what’s the place of masturbation in the larger context of their lives?”
There are many reasons why a person might masturbate and that might change throughout one’s life. There are plenty of sources out there on the benefits, but again, the main thing I want to explore is how can we examine this topic thoughtfully and act in accordance with our values? If a prophet at one time said masturbation is wrong, was he speaking for God or from his own understanding and upbringing?
I also think it’s important to differentiate between pornography and masturbation. They are not mutually exclusive. Looking beyond a moral lens, there are many reasons why pornography is not appropriate for children. But is it ok to masturbate without pornography? Is it ok for bishops to be asking children or adults if they look at pornography? Especially when the two are often tied together in the church. I believe if we aren’t telling people it’s ok to masturbate, but asking them about pornography, we’re effectively telling them it’s not ok to masturbate.
We should also be mindful of the situations we or our children may come across at church. When would it be appropriate to have conversations about masturbation or pornography? It’s one thing for me to talk to another adult or my own children. It’s not ok for a person in power – e.g. a bishop – to be asking about my child’s sexual behaviors. It is not my intention to dive deeply into temple recommend or youth interviews, but I will refer to the Mormon Mental Health Association’s position statement on one-on-one interviews. Included in their list of concerns:
Sexual questioning in common LDS worthiness interviews addresses and disciplines behavior that has been deemed normative by medical and mental health associations and best care practices (i.e. masturbation, sexual fantasy, gender non-conformity and presentation of sexual orientations other than heterosexual). We believe this is in violation of human sexual rights (see the World Association of Sexual Health).
They also include the suggestion:
Clarify, improve and edit teachings on what the covenant and promise of the Law of Chasity is. Current rhetoric of “sexual purity” teachings go far beyond the Law of Chastity temple covenant language to include and conflate things such as modesty in dress and language, media, music, viewing sexually explicit materials, and various physical affection behaviors including masturbation, passionate kissing, etc. to be a violation. This is often unclear and confusing to youth, especially in worldwide cultures where expectations, prohibitions and practices of sexuality, dress, gender expression, etc. widely differ.
I remember many firesides when I was a youth where a leader would respond to the general question on sex, “Well how far can I go?” with a resolute, “Stay as far away from the edge as possible!” Almost all of the discussion around sexuality was what was not ok. But what about healthy sexual development? How do we talk about that?
What are our beliefs about when it is ok to experience pleasure? The way it is framed within the church is often that sexual behavior must be in a heterosexual marriage to be legitimate. But is it possible (and healthy) to claim sexuality as one’s own before choosing to share that with a partner? Can we adopt a more expansive view of what sex is? As a culture we have moved beyond sex as an act of reproduction, but do we still think of sex only as vaginal intercourse? What ideas do we have around pleasure? Who should feel it? When? How? (The only function of a clitoris is for pleasure!) Is it ok for a child to masturbate? Is it ok for a teenager to fantasize and self-touch to orgasm? Is it ok for a young single adult? Is solo sex ok for a married individual? Is there a person for whom masturbation is not ok?
In a future post, I would love to continue writing about the intersection of sexuality and faith. Why is it that we so openly talk about the Atonement and forgiveness except in reference to sexuality? Is it fear that saying a person can repent will give them carte blanche for sexual behaviors? What if we approached sexual development as – development? Development of values, integrity, and the connection of body and spirit. And allowed for missteps along the way. What if we taught comprehensive sex ed?? What if we stopped teaching sex from a place of fear and shame? Or that there is no going back? Part of this I believe has to do with our culture’s focus on virginity, especially female virginity and “saving oneself” for marriage. I believe we can do better for ourselves and our communities.
I want to include one last quote from For Goodness Sex, changing the pronouns, so that we can each take a moment to think about our own sexual journey.
What if I could grow up with a critical eye, able to see through the unhealthy messages I get each day? What if I believed I am worthy of love and pleasure just as I am? This really can happen for me, but the first step is to see myself as a fully sexual person and to believe that my sexuality can be the force that leads me to true happiness, not hedonism or heresy.
What are your thoughts on self-pleasure? What are your favorite resources on sexual health? What other topics on sexuality would you like to see discussed here?
References and Resource Suggestions:
For Goodness Sex: Changing the Way We Talk to Teens About Sexuality, Values, and Health by Al Vernacchio, Harper Collins, 2014.
From Diapers to Dating: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children by Debra Haffner, New Market Press, 2000.
I also like the book Sex is a Funny Word by Cory Silverberg and Fiona Smyth, Seven Stories Press, 2015. Full of great questions and fun illustration, this is one you can read with your kids to spark discussions about sex, gender identity, respect and more.
S.E.X. The-All-You-Need-To-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College by Heather Corinna, founder and editor of scarleteen.com. It is very comprehensive and aims to help normalize sexuality discussions. I love how she gives solid information and encourages people to make their own decisions. Here’s a short quote: “Isn’t masturbation a sin? – Ultimately, in all aspects of your sexuality, you’ll have to figure out how to reconcile your personal ethics and beliefs with your sexual practices”
Sex therapist Kristin B Hodson. I follow her instagram and love how she takes a values based approach to thinking and talking about sexual health. Lots of great ideas and discussion starters.
The Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education from SIECUS- the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.