Solo sex is a good definition of masturbation. It cuts to the chase. When I write or give lectures on the subject (yes, I can think of easier ways to earn a living too!) I will use formal definitions of masturbation, such as:
The act of exciting one’s own sexual organs by handling, sometimes with the help of various objects, in order to evoke sexual pleasure and ultimately, though not necessarily, orgasm; the manual practices are often accompanied by creative or imitative images.
Solo sex however sums up in just two words both the excitement and disappointment of masturbation – the joy of having sex without anyone else’s needs to think about and the emptiness of not having anyone else to share it with.
Anyone who is foolhardy enough to write or speak openly about masturbation should declare their vested interests. Have I ever done it? Since I have yet to meet a post-pubertal male (Christian or not) who has never masturbated, it is hardly a shocking admission to say ‘yes, many times’. When did I last do it? At the time of writing it was so many years ago I simply cannot remember, but if you ask me next week or next year the answer could be ‘Yesterday’.
Should I have solo sex?
There is no shortage of answers for men from both secular and Christian sources. Here’s a round up of a few of them:
Some men like to like to pretend that it’s something you do in your teens but give up when you start having ‘real’ sex. This is cobblers.
Learning to masturbate is simply part of what a growing man has to learn.
Masturbation is normal, healthy and a good way of exploring your body.
It is fine to masturbate as often or little as you like.
No problems, then. In fact, on the many teen advice sites I visited in researching this article, I did not find any note of caution about masturbation at all. Indeed, one web-counsellor rather unhelpfully (and ironically!) in the midst of answering a girl who was furious that her boyfriend treated her so badly in bed because he preferred masturbating ‘at least five times a day’ commented that, ‘men with a high sex drive will usually need to masturbate - probably every day - as well as have full sex with their partners.’
What about Christian sources? Here you find a huge variety of opinions throughout church history and among contemporary writers. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) wrote:
Semen is needed to be emitted for the purpose of generation, to which coitus is ordered. From which it is obvious that every emission of semen in such a way that generation cannot follow is against the good of man. And if this is done on purpose it must be a sin.
Likewise, a Dutch clergyman in 1714 wrote a publication called, Onania or the heinous sin of self-pollution and all its frightful consequences in both sexes considered.
Other writers have stated:
I believe, however, that on the issue of masturbation, especially as it affects young, unmarried Christian men, that to call it sin, in the same category and sentence as homosexual acts and premarital sex, is to go ‘beyond’ Scripture. Hereby an unnecessary and, let us be honest, unmanageable burden is placed on young men.
John White changed his own position in the 16 years between these two quotes: ‘Masturbation is not, in and of itself, sin at all’ followed by, ‘Masturbation is sin. It is not grave sin, not nearly as serious as pride or cruelty or even unkindness. But still it is sin.’
Even more succinctly, the index of an American book reads: ‘Masturbation – see sexual sin’.
God on solo sex
Nick Fisher is typical in misunderstanding Bible passages on masturbation because there are none. This does not stop him referring to the ‘sin of Onan’ (which was certainly not masturbation) and quoting the misleading King James version of 1 Corinthians 6:9, where malakoi (‘abusers of themselves’) are implied to be masturbators. I have seen dozens of tragic cases of self-abusers in my career and none of them had anything to do with solo sex. The word malakoi in 1 Corinthians 6:9 may rarely be stretched to include male masturbators – but even so that would still let women off the hook!
I have read the Bible through many times along with many commentaries on it, but have never once been convinced that God has given any direct revelation in the scriptures about masturbation whatsoever.
The Bible does however have plenty to say about related (and less popular) matters such as self-control, purity, holiness and denying oneself. It also has very clear teaching about the context and meaning of sex. Nearly every New Testament book has something on sex  and even if 1 Corinthians 6:9–7:40 was the only passage this is clear enough – sex is intended by God as the most intimate means of expression of love between a man and woman within the context of the commitment of marriage. Now this is tough teaching in the sex-soaked west and actually it was tough teaching when Jesus affirmed it,15 but that does not leave us free to ignore it.
A harmless habit?
Most Christians under the age of 30 would have been brought up under the mantra that masturbation is harmless; they can at least be thankful that they weren’t brought up to believe that it sends you mad (as many of us older ones were!). However, both personal and clinical experience leads many medics, Christian and otherwise, to have reservations about the ‘totally harmless’ tag.
Both Nucleus and I have recently dealt with this related topic in detail elsewhere. Even Christians who previously have been open-minded about the morality of pornography have changed their minds pretty quickly once they really got to know the heart of the industry:
Now when I look at pictures of women in contrived poses with few clothes on, I ask them: ‘Who are you? What’s your story? How did you come to be doing that?’ I don’t know the answers but I believe those are the questions we ought to be asking… They certainly get in the way of settling down to a good wank.
Pornography may be out but what about fantasies? Surely it depends what the ‘movie in my mind’ is about. If it’s about your wife or husband then that can hardly fall into the category of ‘adultery of the heart’ that Jesus clearly warns against but if it is about anyone other than your own spouse then it must be out for Christians.
Masturbation can easily escalate into a major time-consuming preoccupation. Even John Bancroft, the doyen of UK sex therapists, mentions cases of compulsive masturbation he has treated, though he notes that ‘such cases are exceptions.’ Concluding another article on masturbation fixation one psychiatrist writes, ‘the natural stage in human sexual development should be the reduction of masturbation and successful passage to mature sexual partnerships’.
Impaired emotional development
Agony aunt Marge Proops once joked about masturbation: ‘You don’t meet many interesting people that way’.
This draws attention to the self-absorption of masturbation. It has always struck me as odd that contemporary sex therapists continually harp on about how essential it is to learn to masturbate in order to be sexually adept with a real partner, when all masturbation teaches you is how to please yourself, which can be as much of an obstacle to enjoying sex with a partner as it can be a help.
As we have already seen in the web-counsellor case earlier, most sex therapists will have encountered clients whose sexual maturing or enjoyment has been stunted or impaired by solo sex (their partner’s if not their own). References to such cases can easily be found.[22,23]
Responding to God’s call
I have no desire to make a problem for anyone whose conscience before God is clear over any sexual behaviour that accords with Scripture, and as we have seen there is no direct biblical teaching on masturbation.
However, ‘everything that does not come from faith is sin’ and there remains a lot of guilt about masturbation – guilt that affects almost every masturbator from time to time whether Christian or not. I know many gifted Christian leaders and preachers who find themselves humbled continually by the persistent clamour of masturbatory urges to be satisfied. Some would say that it is resisting them rather than masturbation itself that makes you mad! Is there a way to cope with the reality of this desire without going insane from the conflict? How do we deal with masturbation?
Locate it in a biblical framework
If we are going to embrace masturbation as acceptable Christian behaviour then it has to be anchored in our faith, which will be strengthened by biblical meditation. Yet I find scriptures such as Galatians 5:16,19 cause my masturbatory desires to wither rather than flourish:
live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature...the acts of the sinful nature are obvious– sexual immorality, impurity…
Get it in perspective
When sexual fires are raging within it seems as if nothing else matters at the time but to find an outlet for them. However, when Peter tells us to be ‘self-controlled and alert’, he reminds us that fellow Christians ‘throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings’. Are the sufferings of imprisonment and martyrdom easier or harder to bear than not having an orgasm today? ‘In this all-out battle against sin, others have suffered far worse than you, to say nothing of what Jesus went through.’
Getting it in perspective also involves seeing that there is no value in drowning in excessive self-absorption about our failures either. God is for us not against us, and his focus is ever on forgiveness, restoration and using even our mistakes for future benefit.
Make yourself accountable
Compulsive masturbation is not easily overcome and having someone to share the journey with you is essential. It can take a while to find the right person. Stories of Christians being shunned by condemnatory confessors still sadly occur. You need to pick someone with the right balance of understanding and empathy without colluding with you or compromising themselves.
Uncover the roots
The desire for uncommitted sexual gratification may just be a transient hedonistic urge that affects every man from time to time. However it may have much deeper roots than that, which usually need to be exposed and considered in their own right.
Loneliness is a common cause – developing friendships may be the way forward. Overwork, stress, anxiety, depression and sometimes other mental illness can prompt an increase in masturbation. Issues related to sexual orientation may also need to be explored.
Get specific prayer support
Masturbation conflicts are not the sort of things Christians put in their prayer letters and unless you ask for specific prayer in this area it will not often be forthcoming! Though I do not subscribe to the view that masturbation is an automatic entry point for demonic influence, in this as in any other area of life, ‘our struggle is not against [just] flesh and blood’. Sexual entrapment of one form or another is the most common cause for spiritual collapse in Christian leaders -complacency is highly dangerous.
Focus on the long term benefits
Discipline, including sexual discipline, is tough, especially in the short term. In the long term however ‘it pays off handsomely, for it’s the well-trained who find themselves mature in their relationship with God’. This is surely the ultimate reward and goal for everyone who means business in following Christ. It is the loss of a sense of being intimate with God that is my biggest disincentive to masturbate. I cannot explain why, but it numbs my sensitivity to the Spirit.
It doesn’t seem to do much for sexual intimacy in marriage either. Arterburn and Stoeker are not the only Christian authors to note that sex with their spouse became more exciting, not less, once solo sex stopped.
If you are currently a contented Christian masturbator this article is not for you. If however you want to see your life change in this area, many of the books mentioned in this article will provide further help and there are quite a few good websites around that can help with sexual addictions.[33-36] Read the books, visit the sites and find a mature Christian who can pray and support you through the struggles and joys that lie ahead if you decide to accept the Spirit’s challenge to swap solo sex for something better.