Is masturbation a sin? Is it dangerous for our bodies, minds, and souls? Recent Republican and Tea Party senatorial candidate Christine O’Donnell has been connected to a campaign beginning in the 1990s in which groups of Christians sought to teach youth through media about the dangers of masturbation. This prohibition against auto-eroticism is nothing new. It was particularly prevalent in Protestant and Catholic America in the early 20th century, when children were taught about the evils of “Onanism”. My father remembers having joined the Boy Scouts and reading in their handbook about its dangers.
Before we determine whether masturbation is truly an evil or a danger to our bodies and our souls, allow me to discuss the issue of such an act being named after Onan, a character from the Old Testament. For the sake of this discussion, I am going to assume that what the Bible says on this subject is truly the inspired word of God. If you disagree, then this debate is largely moot for you. So, go and enjoy yourself—literally. If you agree, then deciphering the meaning of this passage can be very helpful for us to discern what is good and healthy for our souls and our bodies, and what is not.
If this is one of the primary biblical proofs against the act of auto-eroticism, then we have been sorely underserved by church doctrine. In the passage which mentions Onan—Leviticus 38:6-9—this character is one of the sons of Judah, the Israelite patriarch. Onan’s older brother is described as “wicked in the sight of the LORD” (38:7; NRSV) and so God killed him. We don’t know what the older son did to be called wicked, but for the moment we can just trust the text. Judah commanded his younger son, Onan, to perform his brotherly duties, that is to take care of his brother’s widow and conceive children with her. Onan believes, according to the customs of the times, that these children will be counted not as his own but as his brother’s. Perhaps because of his brother’s wickedness, or perhaps because of Onan’s own jealousy, he attempts to deny any progeny to his brother’s memory—“so that he will not give offspring to his brother” (v. 9). So he carries out coitus interruptus; that is to say, he “pulls out”, when having sexual congress with his new wife—his brother’s widow—so that she may not conceive at all. In doing this act, he spills his semen on the ground. He does this repeatedly, according to the text, whenever they have intercourse. Because of this it says, “What he did was displeasing in the sight of the LORD, and he put him to death also” (v. 10). If we take the author of this text as having correctly understood and interpreted the will of God in this situation and having accurately represented Onan’s actions, then the text is fairly clear. It is not the act of coitus interruptus itself that God abhors, nor is the text even a reference to masturbation (a solo act of self-gratification). Rather, it is Onan’s spiteful attempt to deny his brotherly duties and simultaneously his disobedience to his father’s instructions. It is the act of selfish spite and abrogation of duty that God finds “displeasing” and worthy of death. If it is such that God strikes people down for sins and misdeeds—a questionable theology in itself—then it is only for this very act that we can judge it took place. Neither birth control for economic reasons—careful and natural planning of a family—nor self-gratification are proscribed here. We should not interpret it as if it were.
Where else does Christianity derive such doctrines of self denial in which masturbation is considered a sin? Some very loose interpretations of the words of the Apostle Paul have been applied in an attempt to proscribe masturbation. 1 Corinthians 6:9 lists a variety of sins, both sexual and non-sexual, that would disqualify one from inheriting the Kingdom of God. Some of these employ very contextual and vague terms which even to the early church were already outdated and obscure terms. Not least of which are malakos and arsenokoites. Many scholars debate the exact meanings of these terms, both of which have been widely interpreted among the conservative church communities to indicate and proscribe homosexual behavior. Regardless of whether this is the case or not (and a good number of modern scholars contest this), these terms do not undoubtedly or clearly refer to masturbation. In this passage, Paul encourages people to treat their bodies with respect and not use them in a sexually disrespectful manner. Point well taken. But Paul does endorse marriage in a number of passages of his epistles, especially if the person believes that they cannot remain celibate throughout their lives. And much of Paul’s theology is dependent upon his belief in the impending end of the world, an idea which has long been disproved (we’re still here, aren’t we?). And even Paul himself recognizes that he is fallible and that certain ideas are his own opinions and not strictly God’s command (see 1 Cor 7:25).
In a television series produced by MTV in 1996 called “Sex in the Nineties”, and in one video in particular featuring Christine O’Donnell and various associates from Savior’s Alliance for Lifting the Truth Ministry (SALT), she cites one additional passage from the Bible which might likely be used to proscribe the act of masturbation. In the Gospel of Matthew 5:28, Jesus says “But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” In the video, O’Donnell interprets this passage to say that we should not masturbate because masturbation necessarily involves lustful thoughts. Point well taken. However, can we not say that lust is in some manner involved in sex between lawful marriage partners? Even O’Donnell concedes in that video that sexual desires are God-given and need to be understood and harnessed accordingly. But her belief that masturbation will cause someone to know how to please oneself to the point of not needing their partner is overly unrealistic. She states that if a guy knows how to please himself, what need does he have for a wife? If this were true, no men would EVER get married, nor would there be any married men in history. Because most men masturbate. If they are being truthful, they’ll admit this.
In chapter 5 of the abovementioned text of Matthew, Jesus takes several of the Old Testament commandments and proscriptions and in a point-counterpoint argument, he intensifies the traditional Jewish law in order to show that his disciples are even stricter than the strictest of his opponents, the Pharisees. He also states that anyone who is angry is liable to judgment and anyone who calls someone a fool is liable to go to hell. How literally do we need to take this set of passages? Most of us would be doomed to hell. Could it be perhaps that we are just being told to hold ourselves to a higher standard of behavior? Could chapter 5 be reminding us of the commandment against coveting? This commandment does not only stop with sexual desires, but is advice against any kind of jealous desires of what we don’t have.
Interestingly, Leviticus 15:16-18 take for granted that men are having ejaculations throughout their lives, and does not specifically connect them to the act of copulation with one’s wife. This passage considers any type of sexual discharge as something that makes a man ritually unclean for a finite period of time and requires ritual purification. This is the same for both men and women. It’s just a part of ancient Jewish observance and is no more outlandish than our ideas of washing one’s hands after using the toilet. It is also likely that this passage addresses men’s nocturnal emissions and masturbation as well as approved sexual congress with one’s wife (or wives, as it may be in the Old Testament!)
Taken in the context of these passages, and the lack of any solid biblical proscription against masturbation, could it be that masturbation is a helpful method of safe sexual exploration, learning about one’s likes and dislikes and what kinds of sensations are pleasant, all without having to engage in sex with multiple partners? Could it be that masturbation is a way to release sexual tension without having to have sex with someone before one is ready, either as a youth or as an adult? Could it be that masturbation, if employed in moderation, can be healthy for the body and soul alike?
Perhaps. But before we decide otherwise, we need to check out the sources of our adjudication against it. We are likely to find that it is our desire to denigrate all sexuality and sexual urges that causes us to find meanings in scripture that are simply not there and to mangle and force certain texts to support our own prejudices and irrational beliefs. To the best of my knowledge, no one has yet gone blind or grown hair on their palms from masturbation—either excessive or in moderation.
And one more thing. Don’t you think that there are more important societal problems for us to worry about than whether our youth masturbate?! How about teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, rape (date- or otherwise), wreckless driving, theft, underage drinking, and drug use, amid a myriad of other problems facing youth particularly, not to mention all the other problems that our society faces as a whole!