Angela* sits down in my office. After a long conversation about love and God and concerns over family and employment after graduation, she falls silent. I sense she is weighing whether or not to continue the conversation. Then, in a burst of bravado, she plows through her reservations and blurts out: "I struggle with masturbation."
Earlier this semester, Jasmine*, another student, asked me to mentor her. In our first meeting, she revealed that she has struggled with masturbation since junior high but has managed not to masturbate for two years.
Angela has been sexually active and comes from a family that professes to be Christian but is inundated with perversion. Jasmine, on the other hand, appears to be the "perfect" Christian girl, ministering alongside her father (the pastor of her church) and her mother. Her family appears to be relatively healthy. Jasmine has not been sexually active with another person.
These two lovely young women, from distinctly different backgrounds, seek to be faithful followers of Jesus. For them, and I imagine other women, masturbation is about much more than sheer pleasure.
Do we Christians make much ado about nothing when it comes to masturbation? Many of the college students I work with wonder whether it is a categorical sin, a harmless way to relieve sexual tension and stress, or something in between. Opinions vary among Christian leaders. In an e-booklet aimed at men, Mark Driscoll doesn't mince any words about masturbation. The Mars Hill pastor states:
What I am not counting as masturbation is the manual stimulation between married people whereby a husband and wife enjoy pleasuring one another's genitals, as taught in the Scriptures, either orally (Song 2:3; 4:12) or with their hands (Song 2:6). I am also not classifying as masturbation self-stimulation done with the blessing and in the presence of one's spouse …. What I am referring to by masturbation is self-pleasuring done in isolation that is usually also accompanied with unbiblical lust.
If masturbation is done alone and accompanied by lust, then it is a sin, Driscoll maintains. Focus on the Family takes a less direct angle. They state:
The Bible never directly addresses it, and Christian leaders differ widely in their understanding of its spiritual and moral implications …. This is an area where we have to be careful about laying down hard and fast rules or making definitive statements about the mind of God … it seems to us that there's little to be gained by labeling the act of masturbation itself a 'sin.' In fact, in some ways, we think it misses the point.
Focus goes on to say that "sex … isn't intended to be 'all about me.' From first to last, it's designed to function as part of the give-and-take of an interpersonal relationship."
While they take different tacks, both Driscoll and Focus point to something true about human sexuality and thus about masturbation: Sexuality is designed for relationship. Masturbation, in contrast, most often isolates and drives a person away from real relating. But what about women like Angela and Jasmine who habitually masturbate? What response might the church offer them?
To understand the need that masturbation meets for many Christian women, I talked with Jenny, a counselor at the university where I work. Citing the work of Marnie C. Ferree, a leading sex addiction therapist, Jenny confirmed that female masturbation is often (though not always) about more than pleasure: It's part of a sex addiction that results from disordered attachment. She says:
Women who masturbate are often using it to self-soothe in response to negative emotions like feeling undesired, unwanted … I know women who struggle with masturbation because they fantasize about being wanted. If they were in a sexual relationship in the past (even if it didn't include intercourse), they were awakened to how their bodies can feel, and they masturbate to rekindle the feeling of being wanted by that man or by any man in general. It helps them fight the loneliness of not being in a relationship. For other women, it's about sexual curiosity. They heard or saw something that made them curious, so they experimented with their bodies. They may also have experienced touch during play with friends that made them curious, or they have been abused.
About 13 percent of Jenny's caseload consists of female students who seek freedom from addiction to masturbation.
Whether or not masturbation is a categorical sin, it is certainly something that produces shame in Angela and Jasmine—shame from which they seek deliverance. And if masturbation is often about more than pleasure—if it's at root about intimacy and healthy attachment—I believe the Christian community can help women like Angela and Jasmine break free.
Like all of us, these women need places where they can develop intimate nonsexual friendships and also healthy ways of coping with the inevitable stresses of life. They need places where they're known, loved, and belong—places where there's no need to put on masks or put up walls. They need safe places to be whether in sickness or in health.
In my experience as a church leader and a staff member at a Christian university, I've observed that wherever there is freedom to safely seek help while being honest about pain, temptation and curiosity, and wherever people feel welcomed and wanted, there is receptivity to transforming truth. Herein lies fertile ground for transformation.
As Bonhoeffer notes in Life Together, "The Christian needs another Christian who speaks God's word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself …. He needs his brother man as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation."
When our Christian communities are sanctuaries of hope and hospitality brimming with grace and truth, these burdened women who struggle with masturbation and other disordered attachments have a higher chance of running into Jesus and real flourishing. I've seen it happen.
*Stories used with permission; names are changed to protect identities.