The Bible and masturbation
The Bible doesn’t say anything directly about masturbation. This is vexing for many Christians, because we would have liked God to say something about such a common experience. How common is masturbation? Whilst we don’t have clear statistics, some researchers report a gender difference in masturbation with 90–94% of males and 50–60% of females reporting masturbating at some point in their lives. Other more recent studies report 91% of women indicated that they had masturbated at some point in their lives.
Although there is no explicit instruction or reference about masturbation, the Bible does speak clearly on issues related to masturbation: godly love, sexuality, and relationships. The issue isn’t simply about the mere act of genital stimulation; in the age of internet pornography, there are many other issues to consider when seeking a holistic, biblical response.
How has masturbation been historically treated?
Historically masturbation in adults has been seen as a display of “loss”: a loss of self-control over a man’s own nature and thereby an undermining of masculinity; a loss of essential energy and creative potential. This loss of semen in nocturnal emission and masturbation is bemoaned in a condition known as semen loss or ‘Dhat’ syndrome and biblically, a turning away from divine guidance in the story of Onan (from where we get the term ‘Onanism’ - although this story needs to be interpreted with care since it is about disobeying God through an act of coitus interruptus, and not masturbation).
The fear of ‘loss’ and the consequences on general and mental health in particular led to a search for a ‘cure’ for the condition, taking the form of food, medicines and even surgical equipment:
- Throughout history, torture inducing equipment has been used to subdue the urge to masturbate.
- In 1837, a health food fanatic Sylvester Graham preached sermons about the dangers of masturbation and soon invented a cracker to help ward off those dangers. If you ate your cracker in the morning, the blandness of the cracker was supposed to lower your lust all day so that you would not have "vital fluid" expending urges.
- Similarly, Dr John Henry Kellogg believed that spicy and sweet foods would increase the libido. When the cornflakes were invented by accident, Kellogg immediately latched on to its possibility as a sex-reducing staple food because of its lack of spiciness or exoticness and general lack of flavour.
The internet is rife with sites offering herbal cures for masturbation habits and nocturnal emissions (wet dreams). There is no empirical evidence that any of these work other than at a purely psychological level.
So, what’s the big deal?
It is a great tension release after all, and it doesn’t harm anyone. Or does it?
Masturbation per se is just the rubbing of the genitals for self-pleasure. Men and women do it because the orgasm that follows releases feel-good chemicals in the brain. Dopamine and endorphins give the brain a buzz, and oxytocin causes the feelings of relaxation and euphoria. God created our bodies with the capacity to enjoy pleasure, and there is nothing wrong with that. The problem arises in how we use our body, and at what cost to other people.
Are there downsides to masturbation?
Well, there are a few things to consider:
(i) God gave sex for marriage
The Bible clearly tells us to flee from sexual temptation:
1 Corinthians 6:18 ‘Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body.’
Here’s the catch: it is near impossible to masturbate without some form of erotic thoughts, often complex fantasies. Therapists have long recognised the power of the images associated with the act of masturbation. In the past, this combination of thought and action has been used for reconditioning sexual attraction; and the management of desire and orgasmic problems. This is no longer a common therapeutic practice.
Today, masturbation, especially in men is often associated with the use of pornography. Regular masturbation to pornography or some other sexual activity can set up patterns of quick sexual response in your brain. You may carry these into your marriage and find difficulty with intimacy and sexual performance in marriage.
What are the problems with porn?
- Modern pornography has rapidly altered the way people fantasise, as well as how frequently they masturbate to it. Neurological studies have demonstrated that porn’s effects on our brains and bodies are deep and long lasting.
- Pornography has dramatically shifted our social landscape, so that objectification and sexual violence are increasingly normalised. There is more information here (link to Problem with Pornography page), but research shows that pornography contributes to deep personal harm, relational harm, social harm, and ultimately, spiritual harm.
- Pornography production exploits vulnerable people, it creates insecurities in relationships, and a pornified culture places terrible pressure on young people, especially girls, to conform to an objectification culture.
Masturbation that specifically involves pornography should always be considered wrong.
(ii) Masturbation puts sexual pleasure under a person’s own control.
Does it matter if I masturbate, if it makes me feel good? If you are in a couple relationship, you might consider how it could impact your partner, taking away from the shared act of sensuality and making it into an act of selfishness.
The Bible clearly tells us that our bodies belong to each other, the husbands to the wife and vice versa.
1 Corinthians 7:4 “The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.”
Let’s look at this in a marriage relationship:
Good sexuality starts with good communication. We recommend that couples communicate about what arouses them. By telling your partner, you can both turn the heat up on your lovemaking. It’s entirely normal in new marriages for a partner not to understand your genitals and how and where they’re best turned on. Females don’t know the sensations of a penis, and most men can’t find their way to a clitoris even with a road map. This is why communication is more important than self-pleasuring.
In the marriage context, there are two problems with masturbation:
1. You get used to using sex for your own pleasure, not someone else’s. This can get you into a habit of being sexually selfish.
2. If you get into a habit of masturbating whenever you’re sexually aroused, you’re getting into a habit of not exercising self-control. Self-control is one of the gifts of the Spirit (Gal 5:23). God wants us to learn to control our body, not indulge in passionate lust (1 Thessalonians 4:3-5). Being sexually aroused doesn’t have to lead to orgasm. We don’t have to masturbate. We can do something to distract ourselves, or channel our sexual energy into some other productive activity.
Self-control is important in life, and in marriage. Your spouse is not always going to feel like sex when you do. If you’ve got good self-control, you’ll be able to manage not being satisfied. But if you’re accustomed to the instant-gratification of masturbation, you may pressure your spouse for sex, or watch porn. Both of these will erode your spouse’s trust and undercut the marriage relationship.
Is masturbation ever okay in marriage?
There are some contexts for married couples where masturbation may be acceptable. This is where a couple are separated for long periods of time (for example, one spouse being deployed overseas), or when illness makes sexual intimacy unfeasible (for example, after surgery or in some forms of disability). In these situations the masturbation is a tension release and the fantasies are built around the spouse.
(iii) A person can bond to a fantasy
Oxytocin causes a person to bond with the object of orgasm, usually whatever or whoever they are fantasising about. This is scary if the masturbation accompanies pornography. It could lead to compulsive porn use and affect real life lovemaking. In today’s world of high tech and big porn, there is retail industry that plays on the hunger for sexual satiation by providing mass market stimulation of sexual images, videos and erotic literature. Quick masturbatory self-gratification is available free at the click of a button or the swipe of a credit card: available, accessible and anonymous.
If you saturate your mind with porn images or fantasies, you are training your brain’s pleasure centres NOT to be turned on by your spouse. This is why many male porn users report erectile dysfunction with their partners. And in case you are in any doubt about what Jesus thinks if we fantasise about a person, please recall his words in Matt 5:28: “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
Single people should note that by masturbating to porn and fantasies, you are training yourself not to be turned on by your future spouse. Habitual masturbation is a bad investment in your sexual future – a frustrated, and unhappy sex life. Have you considered how horrible it would be for a person to save their sexual self for marriage, only to find that their partner is unable to be turned on because they are dependent on alternative stimuli?
Ultimately masturbation is an activity that is selfish, and usually is at the expense of someone else (e.g. those exploited in pornography, spouses that are deprived of your sexuality). All people are made in the image of God, but for you to get pleasure at their expense is unloving, and wrong.
So like many good things of a sexual nature, masturbation comes with a user warning. Be careful how and when you practice it and always look for other relational ways of intimacy.
(iv) Don’t make children feel guilty for self-discovery
It is normal for children to discover their genitals as they develope. Exploring them, or even discovering that rubbing them feels good, is not a sin or unnatural. If you are aware of this behaviour, don’t make them feel guilty, rather take the opportunity to explain what God’s good design for sex is, and help them to understand that they should divert that curiosity until when they grow up and get married.
What if you feel that masturbation is a compulsive habit?
Some of you reading this may be in the habit of masturbating regularly. Right now you may be feeling pretty awful. Stop worrying. It’s a habit that can be changed. Our 7 Step process is a recommended way forward for long-lasting change. Here are some brief techniques that could help:
- Keep track of the triggers that tempt you to masturbate. Is it some place? Some thought? Avoid these places and redirect the thoughts as they come into your conscience. If private access to technology prompts you, then use them in places that are less private.
- Find an alternative activity. Since the brain is plastic, you can rewire your habits over time. Take up a new hobby or interest. Hang out more with other people. Doing exercise can help too.
- Find an older wiser Christian who can be your mentor and keep you accountable.
- If your compulsive masturbation seems impossible to escape, you should see a counsellor who specialises in these behaviours. We have a list of local counsellors for you here (provide resource link).
- Don’t be overcome by guilt. If your masturbation occurred at someone else’s expense, you should seek God’s forgiveness. Some people feel weighed down by guilt – but no sin is too much for God’s love. Surrender yourself to him, and allow his Word, his Spirit, and his people to help you find long-lasting change.