This is FAIR Questions, on the Mormon FAIR-Cast. FAIR Questions features a question that was submitted to FAIR volunteers through the FAIR website at fairlds.org. The answer in each episode is compiled from the various responses provided by the volunteers.
And now for the question:
I’ve been reading a lot lately on the internet and listening to podcasts about the church’s stance on masturbation and the current science on the subject. I have understood that masturbation is considered to be addictive and that Jesus taught that we should not think lustfully about members of the opposite gender. But some people are saying that the Church’s approach to this issue has changed lately, and that masturbation is no longer considered a serious sin. I’m also hearing that if a man does not ejaculate regularly, that it could be harmful and even lead to death. I know that looking at pornography is wrong. It is misleading, degrading and lusting after any person who is already married is a sin. However, I wonder now if masturbation without lusting after someone to whom you are not married might be acceptable.
And now for the answer:
In responding to this question, there are two main points that should be considered: 1) Sexuality is sacred, and its enjoyment is given strict bounds by scripture and modern revelation; and 2) Sexual acts, including masturbation, generate profound and powerful neurochemical reactions.
These two principles are, it seems, related–the physical and mental consequences of sexuality are so important and powerful that God has good reason to give us commandments that help us enjoy the best of those consequences and avoid the worst.
Now, you distinguish pornography use from masturbation, and in a way that’s valid. For instance, part of the sin of pornography use is lustfully, selfishly using images of another’s sacred body, and supporting an industry that exploits those sacred bodies for profit. Masturbation without pornography at least avoids that.
However, in a larger sense, pornography use and masturbation are not so distinguishable. Their main feature is the same: They change sexuality from the divinely-sanctioned sacrament of love for another, into a solely self-oriented activity.
Let’s talk more about what it means to say that sexuality is sacred. First, and most obviously, through the power of procreation, we share in the creative power of God by helping to bring His children into this world. But there are other ways in which proper use of the procreative power helps us to become more like God. Our ultimate goal in life is to become like Christ by overcoming selfishness and becoming a person who is perfectly able and willing to love and serve others. Because sexuality is so powerful, it can easily motivate selfishness–wanting to use others for one’s own sexual gratification. To prevent that, and to help us progress, God instead taught us how to express sexuality in a context, marriage, that encourages selflessness, kindness, and loyalty.
Therefore, a problem with masturbation is that it removes sexuality from that very important context of kindness in marriage. Even though masturbation doesn’t use others for gratification, it teaches an individual to regard sexuality as an individual event, free from the demands of a spouse.
This is where neurochemistry comes in, too. Sexual climax involves incredibly powerful chemical events that can even be analogized to the effect of powerful drugs. Both make the brain perceive incredible pleasure. Because of neuroplasticity (the brain’s tendency to rewire itself so that a stimulus and its response are closely associated with each other), sexual stimulus will be associated with its incredible neurochemical reward. Some of the chemicals that are released during sex are the same as those released after a woman gives birth. And just as these chemicals help a mother to bond with a newborn child, they also help sexual partners to feel bonded to one another.
But when sexual stimulus comes in the form of masturbation, completely devoid of the sharing and vulnerability and complementarity of marriage, then the brain can become wired so that it is primarily masturbation that produces the reward, and an individual can become increasingly unable to sexually respond to a spouse. Masturbation and intercourse are simply different. One who masturbates frequently has a very direct knowledge of what actions bring pleasure most effectively. It can be difficult or impossible for a spouse to reproduce the pleasure that a masturbator has learned how to produce on his or her own. Thus, sexuality, if not expressed in the context of a loving and devoted relationship, turns inward and becomes a focus on self. It is spiritually dangerous to use sexuality for self when God intends for it to be used to help us overcome our love of self.
Even if one were to masturbate while focusing one’s thoughts on one’s spouse, it’s still impossible to replicate the experience of being with another, actual person with flaws and fears and perhaps very different sexual needs. It doesn’t change the fact that one is providing one’s own sexual stimulus, instead of having to learn how to give and receive.
Any claims you have heard that you will be physically harmed unless you do masturbate are simply false, or greatly over-blown. There is a study that shows that older men have a lower risk of prostate cancer if they ejaculate more frequently. However, this same finding was not replicated in the case of young men. In fact,higher rates of masturbation raise the risk of prostate cancer in young men. Interestingly, more frequent intercourse did NOT raise the risk, but masturbation did.
In approaching issues of obedience, the correct approach is not to lay out the “risks and benefits” of obeying or not, and then trying to decide where the best “deal” lies. It seems instead, that our first question ought to be, is it true that God wants me to abstain from masturbation. If so, it doesn’t matter what it does to my physical health, or anything else. And, we must not over-look the possibility that men who are more healthy, more vigorous, etc. for a variety of reasons may be more sexually active or interested–thus, the finding may not be a matter of cause and effect, but more ejaculatory acts may reflect better over-all health. And, masturbation in young men might reflect higher hormone levels, which in the long run might lead to higher cancer risk–again, perhaps the link isn’t causative. Or, perhaps masturbation leads to higher hormone levels via positive feedback. No one knows yet.
The prophets have been clear that masturbation is not a practice that is approved by the Lord. While the current edition of For the Strength of Youth pamphlet does not use the term “masturbation,” it clearly refers to the act all the same. It reads: “Do not do anything else that arouses sexual feelings. Do not arouse those emotions in your own body.”
President Packer made it clear that it is not a grave, heinous sin on the order of (say) fornication or adultery, but it is still something we should avoid:
One of you, perhaps, has not fully understood until now. Perhaps your father did not talk to you. You may already have been guilty of tampering with these powers. You may even have developed a habit. What do you do then?
First, I want you to know this. If you are struggling with this temptation and perhaps you have not quite been able to resist, the Lord still loves you. It is not anything so wicked nor is it a transgression so great that the Lord would reject you because of it, but it can quickly lead to that kind of transgression. It is not pleasing to the Lord, nor is it pleasing to you. It does not make you feel worthy or clean.
(To Young Men Only, pamphlet, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.)
President Kimball said something similar: “Masturbation, a rather common indiscretion, is not approved of the Lord nor of his church, regardless of what may have been said by others whose ‘norms’ are lower. Latter-day Saints are urged to avoid this practice. Anyone fettered by this weakness should abandon the habit before he goes on a mission or receives the holy priesthood or goes in the temple for his blessings.” (Spencer W. Kimball, “Love Versus Lust,” Brigham Young University Speeches of the Year [Provo, 5 Jan. 1965], p. 22.)
Note that he calls it both “common” and an “indiscretion.” It is also termed a “weakness.” This isn’t something catastrophic, and it acknowledges that most of us have to learn how to moderate this part of our lives. But, the standards that the Lord teaches are clear. And, if we are not willing to obey him in the “little” things, when faced with a greater trial, we will not have developed either the strength or resolve to obey in the big things.
C.S. Lewis has a wonderful passage in which he describes what may be the root reason that God gives us this commandment:
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: sends 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 sacrifices or adjustments, and can be endowed with erotic and psychological attractions which no real woman can rival. Among those shadowy brides he is always adored, always the perfect love: no demand is made on his unselfishness, no mortification ever imposed on his vanity. In the end, they become merely the medium through which he increasingly adores himself….
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 to be avoided as all things are to be avoided which retard this process. The danger is that of coming to love the prison.
(C.S. Lewis, letter to Keith Masson (3 June 1956); cited in Yours, Jack: Spiritual Direction from C.S. Lewis (HarperOne, 2008), 292-293.)
At the very least, it violates one of the commands of Jesus:
28 But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.
Jesus here tells us to abstain from lust. And, frankly, masturbation without lust is pretty difficult, even in the manner you describe. Could this be difficult for us? Yes, many people find it so. But, Jesus makes it clear that to be his disciple, we must be prepared to sacrifice our comfort, and even things that we cherish deeply. Losing an eye or hand is a big deal: but, Jesus uses these symbolically as something which we must be willing to part with if it keeps us from obeying God.
This is the sort of case where theory and talking is not as good as practice. “If any man will do his will,” said Jesus, “he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.” (John 7:17.)
There are many people who can verify that it is entirely possible to have a happy life and later rewarding marriage despite abstinence from masturbation. But, the only way, in some sense, to become convinced of that is to try the experiment. And, if one is not able to try the experiment, that suggests that this is more of a problem than one might suspect. If you find yourself in this situation, you will find strength and encouragement if you will read the recent counsel of the Church and if you will take up these matters with your bishop, and with the Lord.
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Music for this episode was provided courtesy of Lawrence Green.
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