Fair Questions 4: What’s Wrong with Masturbation?

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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:

27 Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery:
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.
29 And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.
30 And if thy right hand offend thee, cut if off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.
(Matthew 5:26 – 30.)

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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12 thoughts on “Fair Questions 4: What’s Wrong with Masturbation?

  1. TheodoreB

    The law of chastity is that we are not to have sexual relations, except with our husbands and wives. The implication is that we are not to have sexual relations alone.

  2. iamse7en

    This is a good topic. Thanks for speaking out, because there is a loud, liberal movement within the Church that says we are crippling our young people with unneeded guilt for a common, necessary, and harmless habit.

    TheodoreB, prior to 1990, the Temple verbiage interpreted the Law of Chastity as sexual intercourse, not sexual relations. Food for thought. It’s true that some Bishops might convert this “indiscretion” into something worse than it really is, but it can be a habit which is spiritually devastating.

    Enjoyed C.S. Lewis’ comments on the matter as well.

    Lorenzo Snow believed that plural marriage would help to diminish this “evil self-pollution.” (Quinn, Extensions)

  3. Robert F. Smith

    Masturbation is quite common among young men and women, and this is no surprise given the powerful hormones which accompany puberty. Without such urges, humans (and other mammals) might very well not reproduce.
    However, a society in which sex is used to sell nearly everything and in which normal family life is debased and disintegrating, the problem has become even more serious.
    Various communities deal with this in different ways: Some, as with the Haredi Jewish community, have a system in which young men marry and begin families at age 18 and are focussed on the family business (the Jews focus on learning Talmud, and those who are Israelis are even deferred from military service). Problem solved.
    Among Buddhists, teenage men begin several years as monks learning self-denial and meditation under the tutelage of masters. The first principle there is that the beginning of sorrows is desire. One must learn to sublimate desire.
    Unless one can shift the focus from barren sexuality (porn and sleaze), the problem remains and can prevent proper socialization and healthy perspective.
    I recall many years ago being told by a man married all of 3 or 4 months, that he had imagined that married life would be a great sex orgy. He announced that he was entirely wrong, that marriage was much more than sexuality. It was a way of life. He seemed pleased by the discovery.

  4. Pingback: 2 January 2013 | MormonVoices


    Where was this article when I was in high school and was ridiculed mercilessly for not participating in the above mentioned action? :) Good write up.

    Someone please correct me if I am wrong but to your point about all of the studies being done….remember the study that “proved” that red wine in moderation was healthy for the heart, health, etc.?? For years this study was touted as proof that this was a good activity and we as members were missing out on the benefits. Later it was discovered that the original study was tainted and the findings were not exactly accurate or true.

    I am not trying to debate whether or not wine is healthy or not (I don’t have a clue if true or not) but my point is to just wait. Be obedient to God’s commandments even if it is for obedience’s sake. Even if there is a study stating that X or Y is good/bad and who cares if it conflicts with God’s commandments, just wait. Either we will learn something new or science will do what science does and improve upon its previous findings and even shed further light on an unknown.

  6. TheodoreB

    “If” there are any health benefits from drinking red wine, the benefits would come from the grape juice in the wine, not the alcohol. Otherwise you could get the same benefit from beer or vodka, or straight ethanol, and I have not heard of any such claims. So, one could get the same health benefit from drinking fresh grape juice (new wine? :-) ).

  7. Velska

    The authors of the study you refer, did not give the impression that it would be masturbation that drove the higher (and yet extremely low) risk of prostate cancer in younger men. By contrast, they suggested it was the higher testosterone levels that drove both masturbation and prostate cancer higher.

    Neither is there any truth to the claims, that by masturbation, a young man might render himself unable to healthy relationship, or to even approach a young woman. These are called “old wives’ tales”, even if they were repeated in Miracle of Forgiveness. More likely it is a personality trait like mine, who am very clumsy still approaching people who don’t approach me first. It’s a pure miracle that I’m happily married.

    Then there is the little thing that when Jesus taught his disciples, those were considered adult men, not horny teens.

    I’ve read quite a bit of an LDS therapist’s writing, and her typical patients need help saving their marriages. And most often the problem doesn’t seem to be pornography (although also an issue), but that the wife, who isn’t a newlywed anymore, cannot discuss their sexual life with each other. she hasn’t masturbated, and thus has never experienced any kind of orgasm, and the 5-min max with the husband has started feeling more and more like a displeasure than an enjoyment. Probed a little further, he has no idea what foreplay means, and all her trials to float the subject fall flat. He isn’t willing to discuss those issues, having absorbed the middle-class Middle-American ideas of propriety so well that he has no idea how to talk, even with his wife, who is no sexual therapist herself.

    I’m sure that scenario is more likely to arise among an LDS community with its G/PG culture, if one has slightly dippy parents, who are unable to talk with their children. And I had these young men as companions on my mission, who knew nothing at all beyond “don’t touch yourself” and keeping one’s hands on the blanket. That was not the only experience, but for some of those guys’ wives I felt bad.

    And lastly, I would strongly suggest reading the very latest stuff that the Church puts out, like the updated youth guides, and so forth, instead of old quotes from men who knew very little about modern teenage years.

    I suggest, that a moderate amount of masturbation is healthy for young people. Just so you will know to tell your spouse what s/he could do to give you pleasure. After all, there are some modern statements from the prophets, that sexuality is not only for procreation, but is meant to be a special common joy for the couple; it could be something that strengthens the common attachment and helps with stronger feelings of belonging.

    I am extremely grateful for the gospel, the strength that has given us, who both were baptised as young adults and had time to squeeze in a mission. We have talked a lot about guilt tripping as a way to raise children, and plentifully used with us, and have decided to discard it as best we are able. Jesus, after all, talks a lot more about forgiveness and mercy than guilt. Even the Matthew 5 quote in the OP was written such that one could read causing guilt into “if thy right hand offend thee”.

    I also wish to thank you for you work with FAIR. I believe it serves an important purpose, and this discussion is a courageous overtaking.

  8. SteveDensleyJr Post author


    You are essentially restating the arguments of those to whom this article is intended to respond. So I will not address the issues you raise point by point. I will say, however, that the larger issue here is not whether or not the preponderance of opinions among sex therapists and medical professionals agree that masturbation is harmless. Admittedly, this is widely believed. (I will say, however, that this article was drafted, in part, by a medical doctor and reviewed with approval by a sex and family therapist.) The most important question for a believing member of the Church is: What does God expect of me? I’m sorry to see you so quickly dismiss what you call “old quotes from men who knew very little about modern teenage years.” When we as Church members consider “old quotes,” the salient issue becomes, is there more recent guidance from Church leaders that supersedes those quotes. You are right to “strongly suggest reading the very latest stuff that the Church puts out, like the updated youth guides, and so forth.” However, the very latest counsel does not contradict those “old quotes.” In fact, it only supports what has been stated before. In addition to the statement against masturbation in the Strength of Youth pamphlet quoted above, the current True to the Faith booklet also contains the following quote: “Do not arouse those emotions in another person’s body or in your own body.” Stated simply, the most current guidance from leaders of the Church is that masturbation is to be avoided.

  9. mormography

    SteveDensleyJr creates confusion when he rejects a “risks and benefits” analysis, but then later engages in fallacious “risks and benefits” analysis in favor of his position. Ergo Velska, who appears to be a believing member of SteveDensleyJr’s faith, retorted with examples of when a behavior would be what God expects of some and is different than others depending on their unique situation. In this regard Velska is the one who is truly advocating the-“What does God expect of me?” position. What SteveDensleyJr is advocating is what-does-God-expect-of-the-group position.

    The best analogy would be a moderately sized cup of coffee per day. The peer view studies would say this behavior is not harmful, but rather is actually beneficial. SteveDensleyJr may give anecdotes of when it is a bad idea and Velska can counter with even more anecdotes of when it is a good idea. Attempting to prove the behavior the harmful is just deceitful. The only honest answer is to declare that self sacrifice requires slave morality for the benefit of a group, even if the benefit is respect for leadership no matter how flawed.

    The preponderance of modern opinions is that over eating and obesity is a significant health concern, not drinking a coffee, contrary to SteveDensleyJr’s group. I imagine if most people had to chose though, they would chose SteveDensleyJr’s group, because over eating sounds more fun than drinking a coffee.

  10. SteveDensleyJr Post author

    Mormography: I’m sorry if this article or my subsequent comments have not been clear enough. To clarify, this article is not advocating a risks-benefits analysis. The original question raised in this post is whether or not the Church has changed its position on masturbation. The answer is that it has not. So, rather than merely argue that the risks of masturbation outweigh the benefits, we attempt here to explain the position of the Church and set forth some of the possible reasons for that position. People attempt to do the same with respect to the Church’s position on coffee. However, regardless of whether or not drinking a little coffee is unhealthy, drinking coffee violates the word of wisdom. So, while there are good reasons to think that masturbation (or drinking coffee) could be harmful, there are also arguments to the contrary. Again, the point is not merely to weigh the medical evidence in order to decide the proper course of action, but rather to seek to follow the will of God.

    Finally, note that with respect to the Church’s counsel regarding what we eat and drink, the Church has never encouraged overeating.

  11. mormography

    SteveDensleyJr: I am sorry if my post was confusing. To clarify, Velska and you both appear to argue God’s will is what is important. Velska appears to argue that God’s will is unique for each of His unique children, thus implying your position is correct for yourself, not for everyone, where as you appear to be arguing that God’s will for you is God’s will for all, a much more contentious position. Velska appears to be suggesting that each individual is capable of asking God (not FAIR) what His will is for them. Whereas, you appear to be suggesting that anyone who states that God’s will for them individually is in contradiction to FAIR is a liar (spirit of contention).

    Finally, the (italics)current position of the LDS Church is that over eating is NOT a disqualifier for membership in good standing, where as caffeinated coffee consumption is, a convenient prioritization very opposite of modern understanding.

  12. SteveDensleyJr Post author

    Mormography: I am aware that you are a critic of FAIR and are probably trying to pick a fight. Nevertheless, I will give you the benefit of the doubt and respond to your question as though you really don’t understand. If you persist in arguing, we will not be continuing this discussion, and you may be blocked from posting on this blog.

    Having said that, everyone should do God’s will. God’s prophets help us to learn what God’s will is. If in seeking to discern God’s will, we feel we are being guided to do something that is contrary to what the prophets have said, it is highly likely that we are misunderstanding the inspiration we are receiving, or we are misunderstanding what the prophets have said. Personal inspiration and the words of the prophets are almost always consistent. There are, of course, exceptions, such as Abraham being commanded individually to sacrifice his son. However, none of us should take the exception that was unique to a single individual as being license to the rest of us to depart from the law that is generally applicable. Again, the question originally posed is whether or not the position of the Church has changed on this issue. The answer is that is has not.

    With respect to overeating, this recent counsel has been given: “We should also avoid anything that is harmful to our bodies, such as overeating or refusing to eat enough healthy foods to maintain our health.”

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