Feminism

the one about masturbation

As a woman who grew up in the Deep South, in an Independent Fundamental Baptist church, in “purity culture”– you can imagine that I have some pretty intense hang-ups about masturbation. Like most women, I think, my experiences with it go back a long time and I have extremely conflicted feelings and memories about it. Throughout my teenage years I battled with it constantly. I don’t even know how many hours I spent on my knees at the altar begging God to help me “stop doing It” (I could only ever refer to masturbation as It) until I finally gave up and refused to go forward to the altar anymore.

It was the first thing I ever really felt betrayed by God about. He promised that there wouldn’t be any temptation we couldn’t face, didn’t he? He said that his strength was made perfect in our weakness, right? He said that we could cast all our burdens on him and he would take care of them? I don’t even know how old I was when I decided that I was done dealing with all the agony and pain– I was convinced that if I could dedicate that much time and energy into “quitting,” into countless promises and bargains and vows, that no matter how much I tried it just wasn’t going to go away … then either masturbation wasn’t a sin, or it was and God didn’t really give a rat’s ass about helping me with it so neither did I.

But, out of curiosity I did some research into the arguments for and against it. The ones “in favor” of Christians masturbating were mostly still under the rules and constraints of purity culture, and went something like “how can you expect someone to make it to their late twenties and not have sex if they can’t masturbate?” The arguments that were definitely against it were pretty standard fare– it’s having sex with yourself, which is basically cheating. One forum poster somewhere had a somewhat more developed argument– the symbol of marriage for Christians is about Christ and the Church and how the Church needs Jesus, and sex is only really an extension of this metaphor, so masturbation is basically giving a big middle finger to God and Salvation and saying we don’t need Jesus to get to heaven, which is heresy.

I actually applauded that guy. Making masturbation into a salvation issue was impressive.

But the one argument I heard that stuck with me and bothered me the longest actually came through a friend when we were having a conversation about our “sexual struggles.” I asked her for her opinion on masturbation, and she explained that women shouldn’t masturbate because we’ll figure out how to give ourselves better orgasms than our husbands can with just their penis, and that will hurt his feelings and make him feel like less of a man, then handed me a book that explained how masturbation was a form of “defrauding our spouse.”

Yes. You read that right.

Women shouldn’t masturbate because all men supposedly really suck at sex. Also, the corollary: women should give up having their best possible orgasms so that they don’t damage the fragile male ego.

That one bothered me up until I had sex with Handsome and had the rather magnificent revelation that I enjoy pretty much any form of sex with him more than I enjoy masturbating by myself. By, like, a lot. At that point that I’d ever believed that I’d never be able to enjoy sex with a partner because it wouldn’t be as good as flicking my own bean just seemed hilarious, but I was convinced of that for a good six years.

I’ve grown in my views a little more since then, and now I don’t think it even matters whether or not you can achieve a better orgasm on your own or with your partner. Hopefully your partner cares enough about your orgasm that they’ll listen and learn, but honestly? That I can manipulate my clitoris just a little bit better than my partner can doesn’t really say anything about him or us or our relationship or about the sort of sex we have. It’s difficult to explain in the heat of the moment exactly what I need, and doing it myself shouldn’t be a problem. If your partner gets his panties in a twist that you got yourself to an orgasm, then your partner has some stuff they need to work out on their own.

But, looking back, it disturbs me that I internalized the message of “sex with your future partner is going to suck.” Obviously, it wasn’t enough to convince me to stop masturbating, but I did it believing that my responsibility as a wife was to make sure my husband felt like a stud and that my own pleasure wouldn’t matter, that achieving orgasm wasn’t nearly as important as taking care of his fee-fees. And I wasn’t supposed to even let him know that I could have a better orgasm. Communicating my sexual needs to my spouse was, apparently, forbidden.

A little while ago I was having a conversation with someone about the sex advice in Cosmo, and how one of their mainstays is “masturbate masturbate masturbate. Figure out what you like and then tell them.” This person thought of that advice as so ridiculously obvious as to be useless, and I had a hard time articulating why the whole concept was revolutionary for me. I literally come from a world where the sentence “communicate with your spouse? Who would DO such a thing?!” isn’t sarcasm.

Photo by Jessie Essex
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  • A friend of mine once made the argument that there are no monogamous Christian marriages because (to simplify dramatically) Jesus is always involved. I wonder if anyone’s ever made a comparable argument that there’s no such thing as Christian masturbation??

    • Biblical or not, some of the metaphors about Christian sex are just…downright creepy.

  • Am really short of words to say, but I think we shouldn’t masturbate. Either a boy or a girl
    Sent from my BlackBerry® wireless handheld from Glo Mobile.

  • I think the “You’ll like it better than sex with men” is a Christian version of a fear some men have regardless of faith. There was a god-awful fantasy novel I read back in the 1970s in which the hero is unable to satisfy the book’s obligatory hot woman, so he immediately accuses of her of having such over-the-top masturbatory fantasies no real man can live up to them (it turns out she’s having sex with a phenomenally well-endowed demon).

    • That… is… hilarious.

      • Less so in the original clunky prose. You had to be a very bad writer for teenage me to register the prose as substandard. But yes, looking back from a distance.

  • Writing from the perspective of life lived as a woman, pre-transition:

    For the longest time I didn’t even know women could masturbate. I didn’t know that I could until sometime in college. I still wasn’t really sure what I was feeling because I was also not aware that women could feel arousal. Remembering the first few times I rubbed against something and felt arousal is confusing to me, because I don’t think I was even fully aware of where the sensation was coming from… I was just that completely dissociated from that part of my body. It’s pathetic how ignorant I was of my own sexuality (and equally pathetic that my parents could never understand later why it took me so long to figure out I was attracted to women only. Hello, I didn’t know women HAD a sexuality, and even thinking about it was deeply forbidden that I wasn’t even aware of my own body!) I’m sure gender dysphoria didn’t help either.

    I do remember reading a Christian advice blog (quite some time later) where someone was asking if it was okay to have a vibrator. The advice columnist said that it wasn’t a sin, but that she didn’t recommend it, because you wouldn’t want to have to rely on a mechanical thing to give you pleasure since your husband won’t be able to replicate that in bed. In retrospect, the obvious answer is that you can bring your vibrator to bed with you and your husband if you like it. He might enjoy it too, for all you know. It seems absurd to me how much energy these Christians spend on trying to ensure that women only get sexual pleasure from their husband and nowhere else, because otherwise he might feel threatened. Seriously, not all women or men get off on the same things, and if that threatens you, you have no business being in a sexual relationship.

    • crazylikeafox

      Slightly off topic from what you’re saying, but it took me a lomg time to figure out my sexuality too. I think it’s because every time I’d catch myself looking at a guy and question it I’d decide I can’t be gay because I’m attracted to women. The possibility of being bi didn’t even cross my mind until much later

  • Kristi

    Wow, this is so close to home for me! I still resist the urge to cringe a bit whenever I instruct my husband in bed, because I was taught that it would cause some bad juju in our marriage. Everything from ruining his pleasure to causing him to seek “comfort” with another woman. Masturbation was considered dirty, cheating on our future spouse, and also the first step down the path to “lesbianism”. I’ve been undoing the damage my upbringing caused for over 15 years, in my marriage and in every other area of my life. I should write a book about it.

  • So the people you reference here think that masturbation is equivalent to/better than having sex with another person? That’s hilarious and pathetic. It makes even less sense put into the context of the standard conservative Christian sexual ethic. In said ethic, one is supposed to only have sex with one’s spouse, who one presumably loves and cares for. And allegedly, married sex is super-holy and stuff while unmarried sex is super-bad. So by saying that even going solo, which they claim is sinful and which one could easily say is the least pleasurable of the types of non-marital sex since it does not involve another party, is more fun/as fun as having sex with one’s spouse, they’re essentially saying that married sex is worse than any other type of sex. and they are also indirectly saying that love for one’s spouse has no impact on the quality of sex, which essentially undoes the thesis of the entire purity culture concept.

    Shifting gears, does anyone know how common the anti-masturbation teaching is in Christianity now? My early adolescence was miserable at times because I read that masturbation was a sin. Of course, as a twelve/thirteen year-old boy, I “failed” in that regard a LOT, and it really upset me when I did. I tried my best, but it was one “temptation” that I was simply physically incapable of resiting for more than a couple of weeks at a time at the max. I did eventually do more research and changed my mind on masturbation being a sin when I was about fifteen or so.

    • I don’t know how common it is but it seems pretty hit and miss. Even James Dobson’s book doesn’t say that it’s wrong, although he also says that you shouldn’t contradict your pastor or parents if they think it is. For myself, I was never actually taught it was wrong… I just assumed it was because it has to do with sexy things.

      I think that Christians are generally just profoundly uncomfortable talking about it, so it often still lurks in taboo-land even if the majority is not willing to outright state that it is taboo. That’s my limited experience, anyway.

    • Anonymouse

      Haha, what a hilarious breakdown! I never realized that before, though it goes along with the general theme I notice in fundamentalism where the only acceptable thing is whatever feels the worst.

      • Yup. The idea is basically that life sucks and is no fun, but it’s FOR YOUR OWN GOOD TO KEEP YOU OUT OF HELL! I distinctly recall one of my A Beka Bible teachers saying something along the lines of “Fun is not biblical. The Bible doesn’t say we’re supposed to have fun. It talks about joy, which is different.”

    • Back when I believed in this purity stuff, the way I imagined it was that masturbation was forbidden because it felt better than being in a relationship. People like to use the word “selfish” when they talk about why it’s forbidden. I guess if you masturbate, it will be so great that you won’t even want to be in a relationship with someone, because in a relationship you have to do the hard work of caring about the other person, etc. (Sort of like, masturbating is better in an instant-gratification kind of way, and being married is better in a it’s-hard-work-but-in-the-long-run-it’s-worth-it kind of way.)

      Which is why, when my boyfriend told me sometimes he watches porn and masturbates, I got really worried because I was taught that basically that means he’s incapable of love. He’ll always like those things better than me.

      Yeah, it turns out that’s bullshit.

  • DaunaKate

    I don’t think I figured out that women masturbated until I watched Pleasantville when I was at university. I had no concept that girls could orgasm until I discovered fanfiction. Almost everything I know about sex I learned from reading fanfiction.

    • Ha! Me, too! (Well, about the fanfiction thing)

      • For me it was a series of PI novels published late sixties/early seventies. While I was aware that its portrayal of a world where men were constantly running into hot, horny women was not true to life, the books did give me a concept of what went into where.

    • Caddy Compson

      I don’t like to think of how clueless I would be now in my late 20s about anything but the most basics of sex if I hadn’t discovered fandom. I think of my recently engaged younger cousins who are completely sheltered, and I think, “They know nothing about sex at all. It’s going to be so miserable for them. Or at least boring.” Because I know their fiances don’t have any idea of how to help a woman enjoy herself.

  • I don’t know if anyone has mentioned this yet, but I was taught in my female-only bible study that masturbation is sinful because it typically involves lusting, or the desire to masturbate is inspired by lust. And lust, as we all know, is sinful. It’s probably a rare thing for someone to masturbate while thinking about…the weather. So I wondered to myself if I could fantasize about my future husband, even though I didn’t know who he was at the time, and use a ‘wedding night’ fantasy to cheat the system and make it okay.

    • Vega Magnus

      I heard the same things about lust and masturbation as you, and I used the wedding night fantasy workaround too. I recall even reading something that actually encouraged the wedding night fantasy. Quite frankly, I think the wedding night fantasy solution is actually a decent idea for adolescents. It helps them develop their sexuality without using porn, which is probably a good thing for that age group.

      • What about adolescents who can’t imagine their wedding night without a specific person in mind, or haven’t yet figured out which sex the person they might have a wedding night with would be, or who might not plan to get married–or who simply don’t find that fantasy turns them on, for any reason?

        • For the first point raised, those adolescents probably need to try making up imaginary people to fantasize about instead. Like Tim mentioned below me this post, objectifying someone without their consent for masturbatory fantasies is… questionable at best and probably not a healthy thing to do.

          For adolescents who don’t know their orientation yet, I think it may actually be helpful for them to try to use said wedding night fantasies to work out what they want.

          The last two… yeah, I dunno. I never said my idea was perfect.

          • I think the idea that fantasizing about someone sexually is objectifying them is awfully closely related to the concept that the way a woman dresses can make her a “stumbling block,” and to the idea that sex is something inherently dirty that needs to be purified by marriage–neither of which I consider at all valid, if my phrasing didn’t make that clear enough.

            Someone who respects other real people less as a result of fantasizing about doing sexual things with them is 1) someone who has issues related to sex that need to be dealt with, not merely channeled down an “acceptable to God” path, and 2) someone who is sabotaging her/his future marriage by putting her/his spouse in that role: Those fantasies are not suddenly going to become “non-objectifying” just because they’re about a husband or wife.

          • Tim

            I think I agree with your second paragraph – if someone ends up respecting other people less as a result of fantasizing about doing sexual things with them, that’s an issue. That’s a way in which their fantasy is having a negative impact on themselves and the way they relate to others. I don’t see that the solution – fantasize in a way that doesn’t decrease your respect for other real people – is a bad solution. An Anglican priest I know once said something along these lines, and it made sense to me at the time.

            But I’m not sure about your first paragraph. It seems to me that fantasizing about someone sexually may or may not be objectifying them depending on the fantasy, and making that distinction doesn’t necessarily have to depend on any idea about sex being essentially dirty but purified by marriage. The two may correlate but don’t have to, if that makes sense.

    • Rebekah

      Yeah for me most of the other arguments against masturbation mentioned here I either hadn’t heard at all (love that its apparently a salvation issue now too! ugh) growing up in evangelicalism or were only referenced in passing. The lust problem was the one I might have heard the most (granted I hardly ever remember having discussions about this in church).

      I do think that the only argument against masturbation that has any weight is its potential to lust and objectify others. Lust defined as purposely (so not thinking/noticing someone is ‘hot’ in passing) objectifying someone sexually (without their consent, if your SO wants you to ‘lust’ after them then it would seem fine) seems to be generally an important part of masturbation, though not a necessary one.

      Maybe tmi, but I guess I try to use, er, fictional or ‘fake’ people? Just trying not to sexually objectify real people.

      • Tim

        I think this is reasonable – the thought that fantasizing while masturbating might involve objectifying someone else. I remember being impacted by Dobson’s comments on this when I was a young teen and I think it was along these lines – masturbation is normal and ok, although it can be a source of guilt for some, but objectifying another person without their consent is not ok, from a Christian perspective.

        What saddens me most about this whole thing is the damage done to a young person who is convinced it’s wrong, wants to stop, asks God to magically make it stop, and then, when it doesn’t, comes to any of a number of horrible conclusions about God, themselves, or the nature of sex.

        When I was younger, I found that prayer had zero effect on frequency; however, during six weeks of ROTC Field Training, the desire disappeared entirely and without any conscious effort – a combination of exhaustion and an absolute lack of privacy had something to do with it, I think.

        • Isn’t that the saltpeter in drinking water? My brother and another roommate explained it to me (they both participated and later directed ROTC FT sessions.

      • Haha speaking of TMI…I never in a million years thought I’d marry one of my friends from Campus Crusade for Christ, who thinks people who don’t masturbate won’t know how to articulate what they like and what they don’t.

      • Caddy Compson

        I actually have never thought of a specific person ever when I masturbate? So the stuff about “lust is wrong!” never made sense to me–I wasn’t lusting over anyone, so did that mean what I was doing wasn’t wrong?

        • Tim

          I think your logic is airtight. 🙂

        • Rebekah

          Yeah, what Tim said. If no one is being objectified and no other argument is very convincing (the case with me anyway) I can’t see why it would be.

          While I grew up in a conservative evangelical environment, lust was probably not defined really well when used and so in my mind it made no sense to say someone was lusting when all they did was use their eyes and brain to acknowledge that someone is sexually attractive to them.

          Another thought that just came to me; since any discussion about lust is going to include Jesus talking about it, its obviously important to remember the context in which Jesus was discussing it. Namely that in that time it would more akin to envying another persons property in a sexual way. So then it might not have involved just objectifying another person but also some lack of consent issues too.

  • sara

    Man. Am I feeling this post.
    I grew up in the Nazarene church, and got a lot of mixed messages from people about it; some said it was normal and healthy, which I believed growing up, but it didn’t matter to me because I didn’t start masturbating until I was about to graduate highschool.
    Then I read a book written for christian teen girls that mentioned masturbation was a sin, and I was DEVESTATED. I had already started, and hadn’t seen anything wrong with it. I asked friends and family for opinions and got that same “what if you please yourself better than your future spouse” spiel. My mom told me it was a sin, and when I asked where in the bible it said that, she was like, “I don’t know, but it just is.”
    When I entered college, I got deeply involved with our version of campus crusade, and the woman leading it was OBSESSED with talking about masturbation with us. How sinful it was, how we were dealing with out struggle.
    I would meet with her in a freaking Burger King, and in public, she would ask, “So how’s your sex life??” Nevermind that I was virgin, because as she loved to remind me, masturbation was having SEX WITH YOURSELF.
    That woman damaged me in more ways than one, but her fixation on the supposed sex lives was so creepy and invasive, and I couldn’t see it at the time. I thought the reason why I felt so uncomfortable was just because I was convicted of my sin.
    The good news is, now I’m back to thinking it’s normal and healthy and that woman is no longer an influence in my life. 😀

    • Holy shit, that’s downright disturbing.

      • sara

        Just a li’l bit.

  • I’ve done minimal research on this and struggled with it myself (hah – still can’t call it anything but IT) and I’ve settled on, I don’t want to do it. It’s not a habit I like having. But as for whether or not it’s sinful for everyone everywhere? Heck, I don’t know. I’m just in charge of me.

  • “That one bothered me up until I had sex with Handsome and had the rather magnificent revelation that I enjoy pretty much any form of sex with him more than I enjoy masturbating by myself. By, like, a lot. At that point that I’d ever believed that I’d never be able to enjoy sex with a partner because it wouldn’t be as good as flicking my own bean just seemed hilarious, but I was convinced of that for a good six years.”
    THIS. So much! I believed the same thing for a lonnnnnggg time. I got that idea from a book I read in my teens. It told the story of a woman who had masturbated for many years then when she got married, her husband could never satisfy her, and though she tried to coach him, he would just get frustrated and quit trying because he “wasn’t good enough”.
    Morals: if you masturbate (especially as a woman!), you are doomed to never be able to be sexually satisfied by anyone but yourself. Christian marriage is all about faking orgasms because otherwise you might hurt the man’s widdle feewings. Women’s sexual needs are, as always, completely irrelevant and even detrimental to a marriage.
    I had a similar revelation to you… sex with my husband in ANY form is a million times better than me and my hand alone. If sex with your hand is better than with your SO, the masturbation isn’t causing the problem. HA! The idea that masturbation could ruin sex for any person is just so laughably idiotic. 😛

  • “Throughout my teenage years I battled with it constantly. I don’t even know how many hours I spent on my knees at the altar begging God to help me ‘stop doing It.’”
    ……….yep. It’s even recorded in my prayer journals. Although I didn’t figure it out until much later in college.

  • mathbard

    When I was a teenager, all I “knew” about sex was that the part of the guy that he peed from was stuck inside the part of me that I wasn’t supposed to touch or talk about. I had absolutely *no* idea that there was anything pleasant for me involved, and didn’t even know that there was a such thing as female masturbation.

    Thankfully, I have since learned so much better, though sex with my love is still better than masturbating by myself.

  • I once heard it said that 90% of men masturbate and the other ten percent are liars. It’s a natural release and it is being proven now to be necessary for prostate health.

    • PSA: Love yourself, fellas, and avoid prostate cancer. True fact. Whenever I hear about a married gentleman fighting prostate cancer, I think: “Poor bastard.” But not because of the cancer.

    • I must have been curing the cancer of men from all the surrounding towns when I was a teen.

  • Tamara

    The only argument against I’ve heard that makes any sense at all to me is a purely physiological one. Basically, whatever you do repeatedly, you train the body to react in a certain way to that stimulus. It’s not an argument for never masturbating, but more for not doing it too much, however you would define too much. I’ve heard the same argument for overuse of porn. I don’t know if this is true, but I’ve heard that too much masturbation can reduce men’s stamina because the point of masturbation is to get off, or can be, so it’s relatively quick, which doesn’t train the body for long bouts of lovemaking. I suppose for women it could be similar in that it trains her to only react to a certain kind of stimulation. The same thing happens though when two people get into what is called a rut when having sex with each other. So like I said, it’s not really an argument saying never do it, but more, you know, be aware of your body, find other outlets as well, change things up sometimes.
    But personally, I masturbated some as a teenager, but pretty much stopped feeling the need altogether when my partner and I started having sex. It just was no where near as fun as sex with him. Now, 14 years and a couple of kids later, so do not have the energy for both sex with him and myself, so it’s still all him. I know that’s not everyone’s experience though.

    • I don’t know if this is true, but I’ve heard that too much masturbation can reduce men’s stamina because the point of masturbation is to get off, or can be, so it’s relatively quick, which doesn’t train the body for long bouts of lovemaking.

      I can only speak for one man, but for him–ah, me–this is very much not true. The entire process of learning how to masturbate better, for me, was about making it last longer: a few seconds the first time, then a minute, then five minutes, ten, twenty, over an hour…

      • Tamara

        Good to know. Maybe it’s all in the technique!

  • I do find it pretty laughable too that women are trained to expect sex with a partner to be disappointing. Also, the whole thing about male egos is ridiculous. Find a man who isn’t so insecure.

    Personally, I decided to make it my goal to be a good lover to my wife. Sure, I wasn’t spectacular at first, but I would have considered it unmanly to leave her unsatisfied. Ever. So we talked, and experimented, and learned how to give and receive pleasure. Besides, the cure for inexperience is practice, right? Lots and lots of practice, preferably…

  • Am I the only one who read this post with the Monty Python song “Every Sperm is Sacred” playing in my mind?
    Thanks for your honesty, Samantha. I’ll share a quick tidbit: I started asking girls I dated if they masturbated (no worries–typically not on the first date). One girl said, “well, yep, started when I was six.” Of course that’s the girl I ended up marrying.
    P.S. Porn is pretty fun, too. She likes fanfic, I like xhamster. But only a moron would say/believe that porn/jacking session is better than sex. It’s not a problem unless it becomes a problem. Oh, and Mrs. TSJ has gotten some awesome ideas from fanfic. We are porn educated and happier for it!

  • Thank you for talking about masturbation. It is one of those topics that most of us are embarrassed to talk about. I appreciate what you had to say. Thank you.

  • As far as the male masturbation goes with religion, it ultimately goes to Jesus.
    Why should it be different with the females, IDK.

    If we read the Genesis book, we see the guys there married pretty old, 100 or older. Besides everything else, what did they do with their sperm all that time? Does it mean they were homosexuals before the listed marriage, or what? Sure they did not do abstinence at that time, there were no commandments and priests, and confessions for sins…

    About Jesus, I posted some thoughts if and how He possibly released his semen, in the blog below. He could’ve possibly ejaculated His Sacred sperm during the prostration prayers that were common for the Jews and performed also in public (Joshua 7:6). Whether He had anything more than that, is anybody’s guess. As a minimum, He must have had that because everyone had it and it was considered solemn prayer, not “sin”. If you are man and lay prostrated for hours, or only 30 min, you will ultimately ejaculate your sperm. Where is the sin, IDK. The pope knows, probably.
    Again, I don’t diminish the women and don’t know why it is discussed mostly the male need of masturbation.