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ss nucleus - autumn 1994,  Masturbation - Two Views

Masturbation - Two Views

The following feature consists of two alternative views on masturbation. I don't know what you think about the issue, perhaps you have never taken time to consider it carefully. The following are two opinions, neither represents an official CMF view. They are merely carefully reasoned arguments. Maybe you won't agree with either, perhaps if you are a woman you'll think its irrelevant, or perhaps you'll just reason that the writers have forgotten what it is like to be a young single Christian. All I ask is that you put your prejudices aside and read these two challenging articles with an open mind. - Ed

A harmless habit?

William Bates is a histopathologist at Tygerberg Hospital near Cape Town, South Africa. He was also the editor of the 'CMF News of South Africa'.

The Dionysius Dialogues by Peter Saunders are both interesting and well written with numerous biblical verses to support the views expressed.

I am concerned, however, that their very readability and confident reference to Scripture may make students and others believe that every view represents unquestionable truth. With reference to the July 1993 contribution, in particular, I personally agree whole-heartedly with the views expressed that God teaches there is to be no sex except in the context of a lifelong, monogamous relationship between a man and a woman! 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.

To fail to call something sin that is sin is serious. To label something sin that is not, or even might not be, can be just as dangerous.

May I list some views, quotations and findings about masturbation collected over a 20 year interest in the issue.

  • The Bible does not mention it at all and so there can be no specific biblical prohibition (as Peter Saunders himself acknowledged).
  • L Dearborn in an 'Encyclopaedia of Sexual Behaviour' notes, 'No other form of sexual activity has been so frequently discussed, so roundly condemned, and more universally practiced, than masturbation'. [1]
  • Noted and respected Christian authors such as Richard Foster and the Canadian psychiatrist and writer, John White, state clearly that they do not believe masturbation is sin.[2,3]
  • Numerous surveys over recent decades have shown masturbation to be almost universal sexual behaviour, especially among young single males who are refraining from sexual intercourse (as we hope Christians are, for clear biblical reasons). Some have put it very straight, 95% of men masturbate and 5% lie.
  • A survey conducted in the 1980's in Britain by an evangelical magazine confirmed both that single, evangelical British Christians were masturbating and that they were feeling guilty about it (94% single Christian males admitted they masturbated, 90% felt guilty about it, female figures a bit lower).[4]
  • The above findings lead to the logical conclusion that the vast majority of male evangelical Christians (including respectable doctors and CMF members) have also masturbated to a lesser or greater degree.
  • The majority of these men went on to marry and masturbation, for obvious reasons, as well as, for example, physiological ones, became in time less of an issue or often a non-issue.
  • The people who are most affected by this problem, young unmarried 'religious' men, find it in many cases very hard to deal with the subject. When you feel guilty, vulnerable and unsure, it is hard to acknowledge to others you are doing something and so initiate a discussion to ask for help and more satisfactory answers.
  • The people who could most easily help, married Christian men, especially doctors, who have been through this experience, seem reluctant to relieve the burden on the following generations, despite the fact that they know masturbation caused no harm to them or their marriages, other than the anxiety of guilt feelings at the time.

Let me assure you, I am not trying to give young Christian men a problem if they don't have one. If, however, masturbation is an issue still causing uncertainty and anxiety all around the world (and there is evidence to support that view) please let us be open about it and see whether, with the combined Godly wisdom of CMF members and others, we can find a more helpful answer.

Not God's best?

Trevor Stammers is a West London academic GP and Author of 'The Family Guide to Sex and Intimacy'.

Dr Bates is to be congratulated for his courage in raising this important debate about masturbation which needs far more open discussion in Christian circles than it receives. I can only briefly respond here but my references will give much further detail.

The whole crux of the matter, as Dr Bates points out, is whether masturbation is sin or not. The Bible indeed has nothing directly to say about it but it also has nothing directly to say about voyeurism, fetishim, transsexualism or pornography either. Arguments from silence are never conclusive.

It's also dangerous to quote even well-respected Christian authors as 'gospel'; they may change their mind! In his latest book 'Eros Redeemed', John White unequivocally states that he now believes that 'masturbation is sin. It is not a grave sin, not nearly as serious as pride... but still it is sin.'[5]

There are several reasons why I tend to agree with this assessment. Firstly the fact that sexual intercourse is all about relationships and interpersonal communication. Masturbation is a self-centred activity and if any communication is involved at all it is usually a cry for help. It is true regular pre-marital masturbation doesn't wreck the majority of Christian marriages but does it enhance them either? Both Bancroft[6] and I[7] have recorded anecdotal cases of marital problems resulting from masturbation, and there is further research literature[8] also documenting this.

The universality of masturbation (at least for males) does not make it right. Pride, economy with the truth and anxiety also seem universal to a greater or lesser degree in the Christians I know. Furthermore, masturbation is as universal as the shame which follows indulging in it. Bates is mistaken to suggest this shame is a product of evangelical neurosis. It is a primary shame and occurs in those with a libertarian upbringing as well as those from religious homes. No sexologist with whom I have discussed the subject has denied this universality of shame, nor been able to explain it. Surely God is saying something through the feeling of guilt which masturbation induces?

Finally, Dr Bates makes no mention of pornography the deadly accomplice of masturbation. Pornography is for masturbation, that is its purpose. Most regularly masturbating males will find it all too easy to get involved with porn as it permeates every cinema, shopping centre and home. The evidence of harm of pornography is in my view overwhelming[9] and masturbation by this means can lead to more serious dangers.

I agree that there is far too much guilt and condemnation around among Christians and it is always good for us to check that we are not laying unnecessary burdens on each other. But I remain quite convinced that masturbation is not God's best for his people. However most of us battle with it at some point in our lives, and we should be more honest in helping each other in the fight.

  1. Dearborn L,'Autoeroticism' in The Encyclopaedia of Sexual Behaviour (eds A Ellis and Aborbanel) Hawthorn Books New York, 1961. Vol 1:204
  2. Foster R. Money, Sex and Power. Hodder and Stoughton, 1985:114-133
  3. White J. Eros Defiled. IVP, 1977:34-42
  4. Cummings T et al. 20th Century Sex. Word Publishing, 1986
  5. White J. Eros Redeemed. Eagle 1994:p141 Also IVP USA 1993
  6. Bancroft J. Human Sexuality and its Problems. Churchill Livingstone. 1985:p120
  7. Stammers T. The Family Guide to Sex and Intimacy. Hodder and Stoughton. 1994:p58,288-91
  8. Betchen S. Male Masturbation. J Sexual and Marital Therapy 1991;17:269-78
  9. Itzen C. Pornography. Oxford. 1993
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