This post is part of a weekly Her.meneutics series called The Sex We Don’t Talk About, designed to feature female perspectives on aspects of sex and sexuality that can go overlooked in the church.

Masturbation doesn't fit within typical modern ethical concerns. It's not unsafe or cruel; in moderation it does not interfere with academic or economic performance, and it doesn't make your children more likely to flunk high school or get pregnant out of wedlock. There are no peer-reviewed studies linking it to obesity or reduced charitable giving, and it is virtually the only thing on earth that doesn't give you cancer. Conventional wisdom tells us it's a healthy form of stress relief. It's organic, and nothing could be more local.

So the question for Christian ethics is not, “Is masturbation sinful?” It's, “What could possibly be wrong with it?”

Now, this is the best-case scenario we tend to believe about masturbation, though many times the habit becomes compulsive and tied up into the exploitative porn industry—which are compounding issues on their own.

But for masturbation itself? I approach the issue from two perspectives. First, I have my own experience: I'm an artsy, celibate convert; I’ve masturbated since childhood; and I've never been able to give up this habit for more than a couple months at a time. The other perspective comes out of my faith as a Roman Catholic. Catholic teaching offers what seems to be a compelling argument against masturbation, but ultimately my ethics are rooted in my relationship with Jesus and his bride, the church. No Christian is left alone with her reason and experience; she is also given the church, which nurtures us with Communion and teaches us to follow Jesus.

The significance of relationship—the way love, contact, kiss lie at the beating heart of Christian faith—anchors the argument that masturbation squanders our sexuality. Scripture is the great love story of God and humans, climaxing at the wedding feast of the Lamb. Christ is himself an image of union: justice and mercy (echoing the promises of Psalm 85:11), man and God. The doctrine of the Trinity teaches us that relationship, union with the Other, is part of the inner life of the One God.

In this sense, Christianity is an erotic religion, in that it compels our longing for and contact with the Other. Our bodies are gifts given to us by God, and we give them to him and to others. We are not meant to keep them for ourselves. The sexual union of lovers shows an image and prophecy of our union with God. Sex is to prayer as masturbation is to comforting self-justifications.

Article continues below

Masturbation is the use of sexual urges, and sexual ecstasy, for the self alone. (I'm here talking only about masturbation by yourself, not touching yourself as part of sex with your spouse.) Instead of our urge driving us to pour ourselves out for others—and to accept all the hard, weird, disappointing realities of sex and marriage—we seek to satisfy our urge on our own terms. Ecstasy becomes something we achieve by and for ourselves.

In Christian tradition, we are given two ways to accept and live out our sexuality. Both occur in the context of relationship. Marital sex places us in union and relationship in a fairly obvious way. Continence—refraining from all sex if you are unmarried, what a lot of people casually call “celibacy”—is the other. This is the way I try to live out.

In this form of sexuality, we may sublimate our sexual urges, transforming them into forms of love such as prayer, service to others, artistry, friendship. Or we may seek to sacrifice these urges, pouring them out over the feet of the Crucified. Either way, our sexuality is a gift we give to God and to those he places in our lives, both neighbor and stranger. It is not for ourselves. The ecstasy on the face of Bernini's Teresa is the mark not of solitary pleasure but of contact with her Lord.

Our nearly universal failure at chastity is not an argument against it.

On an artistic level, sex serves as an image of encounter and reconciliation with the Other. Masturbation, by contrast, reflects our self-ownership at best, narcissism at worst. We are taught nowadays to think of our bodies in terms of use, not in terms of iconography; we are taught to think anti-poetically. Only artists still maintain that the body has meaning.

The ballet-horror movie Black Swan captured this poetic meaning of the body brilliantly. A ballerina escapes her anguished reality in lustful fantasy and masturbation, where she can achieve orgasm—attaining ecstatic release without ever giving up control. A more sympathetic portrayal comes in the recent movie The Babadook, where an overwhelmed, widowed mother is about to use her vibrator to fall asleep when she's interrupted by her son. Here, the movie's use of masturbation is more ambiguous; the scene underscores the woman's loneliness and exhaustion. But the overall arc of the film is about the widow's attempt to avoid the grieving she must do. Masturbation, then, is a part of her attempt to escape the life she has been given.

Article continues below

I have read one portrayal of masturbation as a way of reclaiming one's body after sexual abuse, and I think that will ring true for some. Yet even in such circumstances, we reclaim our bodies in order to give them to God and others. The path of healing and reclamation still leads us to a place where we can give of ourselves, through celibacy or marital sex. This position of “self-gift” can be stressful. Chastity is nearly impossible for most people I've talked to.

But our nearly universal failure at chastity is not an argument against it. My inability to be “good enough” is in its own way a gift. It reminds me that virtue—like orgasm—is not something I must strive to attain by and for myself. I depend daily on God's mercy. And I hope knowing this affects how I treat others. The admission, “I can't,” prompts us to be gentler with other people's struggles and sins, whatever they may be—not to justify our own.

Much of the resistance to the traditional teaching against masturbation comes from a desire to reduce sexual shame. Shame isolates us in secrecy, its own secluded poison garden. It drives us to hide, separating us from God and others. Shame militates against self-gift.

For me, the confessional has been the place where shame is healed. I am set free by revealing my stumbles and failures and hearing in unambiguous terms the words of mercy. The priest hears the things I'm most ashamed of and responds, “May God grant you pardon and peace.”

Whatever I think of the specific priest and his advice or lack of it, in these words I hear Jesus. Sin isolates; confession reconciles. Even when I have turned away from relationship with God and sought ecstasy on my own terms, I can always return to him in the intimacy of prayer and penitence. Relationship is restored as repentance and forgiveness kiss.

What is the world, O soldiers?
It is I:
I, this incessant snow,
This northern sky;
Soldiers, this solitude
Through which we go
Is I.

—Walter de la Mare, “Napoleon”

Eve Tushnet is the author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith and Amends: A Novel. She blogs at Hobbies include sin, confession, and ecstasy.