The Cult of the Orgasm
Baptist theologian Russell Moore recently warned, "On the nightstand of a woman in your church, there's a Christian romance novel and a Bible." Yet if The New York Times is to be believed, he should have been more concerned with a vibrator on the nightstand.
Cultural mores are changing, The Times reports; once available mainly in dimly-lit sex shops, vibrators for women are now being sold in national chain drugstores, a supposed sign of women's empowerment: comfort with discussing and pursuing not just sex but that sometimes-elusive hallmark of "success," an orgasm. The Times credits this shift to many factors, but inevitably certain TV shows are said have played a role in the vibrator boom.
With the ranks of single Christian women unlikely to shrink anytime soon, it's doubtful we have entirely opted out of buying into this trend, since we navigate the same cultural milieu as women outside the church. Aren't we, too, struggling with some measure of sexual disappointment and frustration? Though many of us are likely too shy or conscience-stricken to purchase a vibrator, masturbation has been a topic of debate among evangelicals, with some concluding that it's an acceptable way to wait until marriage for sex (assuming sex requires a partner). How should Christian women respond to the vibrator trend and its broader message of sexual empowerment?
First, a few observations. A vibrator is a replacement—a simulator, if you will. It's not a man, but it's meant to resemble one. It's straightforward, makes no demands, produces fairly consistent results. And it doesn't smell, make rude noises, or wince when you cry. But neither can it hold you, stroke your hair, or make you coffee.
Given the choice between a "perfect" lover and a vibrator, most women would choose the real thing. But in many cases, the substitute must seem better than no lover or an imperfect one. And for those with an uneasy conscience, the ethics of sexual substitutes aren't entirely clear.
If we look at the few applicable biblical passages, it turns out that masturbation isn't exactly the point. The best-known example is Genesis 38, when Judah's son Onan is slain for "spilling his seed" instead of sleeping with his deceased brother's wife. But as Thomas Laqueur explains in his cultural history of masturbation (yes, one exists), the real moral issue was not the means of avoidance, but rather Onan's refusal to honor the cultural tradition of Levirate marriage, whereby he was supposed to provide Er's widow, Tamar, with children in his brother's stead.