In my work as a coach to men and women struggling with compulsive sexual behavior, or partners of those struggling, masturbation is always an awkward topic.  The M word is guaranteed to make embarrassed silence descend upon the most comfortable of friends, and acts like a dash of cold water in the face of a conversation with anyone outside of our intimate circle, tasteless jokes and adolescent jesting aside. Of course, there is a time and place for any such discussion, and sexuality always carries with it a deeply personal nature that should not be abandoned.  Still, It is always disconcerting to me how a supposedly sexually “free” society (as evidenced of course by all manner of embarrassing spectacle versus true appreciation of the sensual or sexual) has such an awkward relationship with the topic.

It is hard to find people who will admit that masturbation is a “thing” or ever has been in their own life (come on, ladies, I know that there are more than five of us!). Attempts typically are a mixture of avoidance of eye contact and verbal “Smoke” signals or vehement denial and disapproval of the topic altogether.  This coming from a society where we regularly ingest entertainment, advertising, propoganda, and “news” that (at best) reduces our sexuality to a product, or turns it into an agenda. At worst it propagates all manner of vulgarity into society via mainstream media, regardless of innocent eyes and ears that might be exposed to it.  It makes me think that perhaps that we haven’t “progressed” to the heights we profess, but I digress.

C.S. Lewis on Masturbation and the Imagination

I wish to pause here and share the wisdom of C.S. Lewis that a member of our online program recently shared that is great food for thought.

“For me the real evil of masturbation would be that it takes an appetite which, in lawful use, leads the individual out of himself to complete (and correct) his own personality in that of another (and finally in children and even grandchildren) and turns it back: sending the man back into the prison of himself, there to keep a harem of imaginary brides.

And this harem, once admitted, works against his ever getting out and really uniting with a real woman. For the harem is always accessible, always subservient, calls for no sacrifice or adjustments, and can be endowed with erotic and psychological attractions which no real woman can rival.

Among these shadowy brides he is always adored, always the perfect lover: no demand is made on his unselfishness, no mortification is ever imposed on his vanity. In the end, they become merely the medium through which he increasingly adores himself.

Do read Charles Williams’ Descent into Hell, and study the character of Mr. Wentworth. And it is not only the faculty of love which is thus sterilized, forced back on itself, but also the faculty of imagination.

The true exercise of imagination, in my view, is (a) To help us to understand other people (b) To respond to, and, some of us, to produce art. But it has also a bad use: to provide for us, in shadowy form, a substitute for virtues, successes, distinctions, et cetera which ought to be sought outside in the real world — e.g., picturing all I’d do if I were rich instead of earning and saving.

Masturbation involves this abuse of imagination in erotic matters (which I think bad in itself) and thereby encourages a similar abuse of it in all spheres.

After all, almost the main work of life is to come out of our selves, out of the little, dark prison we are all born in. Masturbation is be avoided as all things are to be avoided which retard this process. The danger is that of coming to love the prison (Lewis, Yours, Jack, 292-293).”   C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis’ assessment of masturbation has depth that is not surprising, considering the source.  I find a lot here that is a good starting ground for a discussion on masturbation.

Masturbation Gone Awry

Lewis captures the heart of unhealthy masturbation in this excerpt below:

“sending the man back into the prison of himself, there to keep a harem of imaginary brides.

And this harem, once admitted, works against his ever getting out and really uniting with a real woman. For the harem is always accessible, always subservient, calls for no sacrifice or adjustments, and can be endowed with erotic and psychological attractions which no real woman can rival.

Among these shadowy brides he is always adored, always the perfect lover: no demand is made on his unselfishness, no mortification is ever imposed on his vanity. In the end, they become merely the medium through which he increasingly adores himself.”

Masturbation can become a prison regardless of porn, all it takes is an active imagination, unresolved pain or effort you want to escape, and an inordinate amount of focus on the act. Before you know it, your life revolves around the next moment when you can get alone, and do it again.

More on Masturbation and the Imagination…

I believe that you cannot address masturbation without also addressing the role of the imagination. In this I feel Lewis is dead on. Like he said, when we make this a coping mechanism and the primary use of our imagination, we are robbing ourselves of the complexity of the imagination and all it might do for us. Its primary function becomes avoiding being an adult, and claiming real sexual connection, which is by far much harder.

I do not believe fantasizing is wrong  (unless you are breaching trust while doing it), and I do not view sexual thoughts or desires as temptations. However, I simply view them as something that happens as a result of natural desires to connect, to be admired and desired, and to seek physical release.

But I also recognize them as only useful in moderation…the question is- how far before it consumes me if I indulge a fantasy?

How long before my partner is less appealing than the fantasy or I am frustrated sexually and view my time to sexually connect with him as a chore?

How long before my creative abilities begin to lapse and all my imagination can do is function as a tool to lead to me to sexual release?

How long before I can only think of the fantasy and my body’s need for more? Before I ruminate and cannot clearly think of anything else?

How frequently and often can I focus on it before it becomes the target of my sexuality and more appealing than sexual release in the context of relationship?

Masturbation and Spirituality 

For more on C.S. Lewis’ view on the Spiritual side of masturbation read here.  My own personal view departs from his in that I try to detach masturbation from the concepts of sin, guilt, temptation at this point in my life. If it involves misrepresentation, breach of vows or commitments, or a violation of someone else, then it should be a concern that is moral in nature.  If it involves excess, it certainly isn’t healthy, and even that can venture into an area that is moral in nature if you are excessive about it to the point that you neglect your roles and responsibilities to the people around you. Overall, however, I think the label of “sin” and the accompanying shame attached to this natural urge and common behavior is unnecessary and unhelpful.  Even well known Christian organizations that would be considered very conservative, acknowledge the dangers in pushing one size fits all rules for people of faith around the act of masturbation.

We tend to dissect the concepts of the spiritual from the physical, it opens the door it for a witch hunt that demonizes natural urges as spiritual failures or transgressions, scrutinizing our intrapersonal and even interpersonal, private sexual behaviors and narrowing our sexuality to a set of legalistic rules.

Degradation and shame around natural urges and their accompanying pleasures does nothing to further the building of a less neurotic and more morally responsible society.  If we do not accept ourselves in our basest states, then how can we appreciate our higher sensibilities?

People of faith would provide crucial healing to their communities by fully embracing that the God they believe created their souls also created their bodies with natural urges and needs to seek comfort, movement, release, relief, rest, and sustenance.  And also entertaining the idea that the need for release isn’t just for those who are married. We fulfill the urge for comfort through shelter, touch, eating, and many other ways.  We fulfill the urge/need for sustenance through consuming food.  We fulfill the urge for movement with exercise.  We fulfill the urge for release through orgasm and exertion.  We fulfill the urge for relief through defecation/urination.  We fulfill the need to rest through sleep. Shaming of these natural urges or the means of attaining them is not helpful, wise, or compassionate, it works against nature itself.

It is also important for people of faith to recognize the intent and the purpose matters.  Masturbating while thinking of another person’s spouse is different on a moral level from masturbating while thinking about your own partner, or simply thinking of the sensations and anticipating release.

So how do we develop a more balanced view of masturbation than simply looking at it through a religious lens?

Benefits of Masturbation
Many medical professionals and sexual health authorities have reported that “solo sex” (Litten,
1993), “sex for one,” “self loving” (Dodson, 1996),and “self pleasuring” (Rowan, 2000) can be beneficial to one’s physical, emotional, and sexual health, and the health of one’s relationships.

They have demonstrated that arousal and orgasm from masturbation may
• reduce stress • release sexual tension (Francoeur, 1991,
393)
• provide sexual pleasuring and intimacy
before partners are ready for vaginal, anal,
or oral intercourse (Francoeur, 1991, 393;
Phipps, 1977, 192)
• serve as a form of outercourse or safer sex
to reduce the risk of sexually transmitted
infections and unintended pregnancy
(Davidson & Moore, 1994; Francoeur, 1991,
393)
• provide a sexual outlet for people without
partners, including the elderly (Masters,
Johnson, & Kolodny, 1986, 289; Phipps,
1977, 192)
• provide a sexual outlet for people who
choose to abstain from sexual intercourse
due to pregnancy, menstruation, or illness of
a partner (Phipps, 1977, 192)
• provide individuals with the opportunity to
learn how they like to be touched and
stimulated (Phipps, 1977, 190; Zilbergeld,
1992, 129)
• alleviate premenstrual tension for many
women (Brashear, 1974, 14; Davidson and
Moore, 1994; Phipps, 1977, 190)
• induce sleep (Crooks & Bauer, 1983, 257)
• indirectly prevent disease and build up
resistance to infections by increasing the
flow of white blood cells and rejuvenating
the circulation of hormones (Stein, 2000)
• strengthen muscle tone in the pelvic and
anal areas, reducing the chances of
involuntary urine leakage and uterine
prolapse (Stein, 2000)
• increase blood flow in the genital region
(LoPiccolo & Lobitz, 1972, 164)
• stimulate endorphin production, allowing
better oxygen metabolism and more efficient
cell functioning throughout the body (Stein,
2000)
• create a sense of well-being (Stein, 2000)
• promote higher self-esteem (Hurlbert and
Whittaker, 1991)
• promote higher levels of marital and sexual
satisfaction (Hurlbert and Whittaker, 1991)

I would like to note that there are many other ways to achieve these benefits listed above and for the person struggling with sexual compulsivity that is derailing your life and the lives of those around you, using this as justification for destructive behavior is a misuse of the information.

In Conclusion

There is a line that we cross that makes masturbation destructive. Finding that line is difficult for those who have had compulsivity. You can give your mind permission to enjoy sexual thoughts that follow your moral code. And allow them to flow through your fingers like water. You can also acknowledge that you may have thoughts that are repugnant to you that you also allow to flow through without indulging. Once you begin to grasp at the water, either to stop the thoughts or to prolong the pleasure, you are latching into a desperate cycle fraught with dissatisfaction and constant craving.

Rather than fantasy and masturbation just being a part of your sexual landscape, a flavor on the menu, you are then reduced to urges and impulses and find yourself cowering in shame post release. Own your power to direct your fantasies, to decide yay or nay If you will masturbate and why and where and how, then the fear of masturbation and fantasy gives way to an opportunity for growth.

Instead of seeing thoughts as temptations we merely see them as things that are going to come and go, yet are nothing to fear because we are clearly at the helm of the ship, directing our sexuality instead of it directing us. For some this means no masturbation. For some this means masturbating only with spousal knowledge and approval, for some it means separate from fantasy and as a mindful act…whatever the decision, the great part is when you recognize that like any decision, you can allow a higher principle to guide you instead of fear and shame.