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I want to start this discussion with some of my own personal experience with this issue of masturbation. I grew up in the LDS church and was taught since my youth through the 80’s and 90’s that masturbation is wrong and a terrible, horrible and evil sinful act. I was not permitted to advance in the priesthood, take the sacrament, receive a temple recommend etc… I spent my youth virtually in a constant state of guilt over this sin which had been drilled into me as God’s truth and law. I could not get away from these feelings of guilt, and as a result it would often lead to more masturbation to release stress and tension from the guilt I was made to feel because I had masturbated. This may be in part responsible for my wayward youth and eventual decline into other sins such as porn and smoking etc… I hated myself, my life, and was in general miserable. Inevitably I would turn to the one thing in life that made me feel good, at least for a time: masturbation.
This issue was preached from the pulpit, in priesthood and young men’s meetings, preached in for the strength of youth, and included in the bishops handbook directly rather than some vague or indirect language as it is today. (This has been confirmed to me by a current bishop in the church.) It was preached in general conference meetings of the church. The church had even published a pamphlet titled “To Young Men Only” which preached the following.
“A boy should be taught about the power of creation within his body and that the Lord intended that this power should be used exclusively in marriage. He should be cautioned against sexual self-stimulation (masturbation). ”
What I found interesting about this is that this is referencing a pamphlet that is to young men only. It is also treated not as a sin, but as a caution, or recommendation in the wording itself. From what my wife has told me, masturbation was virtually never talked about in her young woman’s classes or organizations and only mentioned very briefly. What I remember however was that it was a regular point of discussion in young men’s class when speaking of chastity and sexual purity. What I find interesting about this is that when we consider the stats, which are reported by sexuality and u we find that 71.5% of women and 82.7% of men have and do masturbate in the past year, and 68.6% of men and 51.7% of women have or do masturbate at least monthly. Statistically speaking, if you have 10 young women in the ward and 1o young men, at least 6 of the young men and 5 of the young women have masturbated in the past month. If this is the case why does the church teaching on this subject lean so heavily on boys when it is clear that girls masturbate almost as much as boys. Is it that this is a bigger sin for boys? Or is this one issue is highly skewed towards boys and men like dress standards are highly skewed towards girls and women? Is it even a sin for girls?
Growing up I never even knew that girls masturbated. With all the emphasis on masturbation among young men at church, school etc… I was led to believe that this was only something that boys and men did. I had no idea that girls masturbated or that it was even possible. The emphasis within the church was so heavily focused on boys and men in the church it was not until adulthood that I realized or learned that girls masturbated as well.
My upbringing on this manner was extremely one-sided, lacked any relevant information and in general pushed and demonized something that has never been proven to be harmful in any way to the individual or others, physically, mentally or even spiritually. All my anxiety and feelings of guilt had nothing to do with spirituality but trying to cope with something I was made to feel ashamed of with no discernible reason other than “God has declared it sin”. Virtually every other sin you can imagine or think of has natural consequences. Either it will negatively impact your personal health and well-being or have the same affect on others. This is not the case with masturbation. We must ask where this idea that masturbation is a sin came from?
Reading in the Bible, the Old Testament specifically, we read of a man name Onan. His story is contained in 3 short verses. Genesis 38:8-10. I mention this story as it has been pointed out to me by more than one person, including bishops that this is the reason masturbation is wrong.
8 And Judah said unto Onan, Go in unto thy brother’s wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother.
9 And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother.
10 And the thing which he did displeased the Lord: wherefore he slew him also.
This short passage of scripture has been interpreted throughout all of Christendom to mean that Onan had masturbated, which he probably did, (at least there is a 80+ % probability that he did at some point in his life) and that the lord had killed him for this sin. What is often ignored is the rest of the story, that despite the fact that it is only 3 verses long tells us a lot.
Verse1: Onan had been commanded to marry his dead brother’s wife and give her children that would be raised in his brother’s name, and not his.
Verse 2: Onan did marry his dead brothers wife, he went to have sex with her, but rather than give his wife children that would not be his under the law at the time, he “spilled it on the ground”, in other words, he ejaculated his semen outside of his wife to avoid getting her pregnant.
Whether this is by the method of masturbation, or otherwise is irrelevant to his motives and the story. The important part of this is his motives and rational for doing it, not the act itself. Onan’s act was one of spite, he would only father children that would be his own, not his brothers. This was a selfish act and went directly against the commands of God at the time.
Verse 3: God now states his displeasure and the resulting consequence of failing to obey his command, which was death. Onan was not killed because he masturbated, but rather because he would not fulfil his legal and religious obligations to his dead brother’s wife. This was the issue.
Sadly this has been interpreted to mean that masturbation is wrong and sinful.
Growing up in the church I was taught that this sin is a violation of the law of chastity. The law of chastity for those that do not understand this or know of it, is a law within the gospel that condemns any sexual relationships outside of the marriage covenant. Numerous prophets and apostles have spoken on this issue.
I remember countless discussions with my bishop as a young man asking “Why it is a sin?” and never getting an answer that I could understand, except that “God has declared it so.” I have had discussions with my Bishops about this issue in my adult life as well. None of them seem to have a grasp or understanding of the reasoning behind this any more than I do. Often what I have been told by Bishops are answers usually starting with “I think” and “I feel”. Some Bishops I have talked to have mentioned that because it is often accompanied by other sins such as porn, and fantasizing about others, he “thinks” or “feels” that may be why it is a sin. I have asked Bishops what the hand book actually says about masturbation. The Answer I have received is that it does not actually use that term, and such does not directly speak to it, but rather uses terms such as “self pleasure” to arousing these feelings within ourselves as the strength for youth speaks of it.
I have asked some rather direct questions of my Bishops on this matter. One such question I have asked is “you mentioned this act being done in conjunction with fantasizing about another as a reason you believe it to be wrong, something that sounds more like a personal opinion than doctrine, if one were to masturbate while fantasizing about their spouse, would you still declare it to be sin?” The response I have received when posing this question is “I have wondered about that myself” I have asked “If I were to fantasize about my wife while masturbating, It cannot be considered adultery as I would not be lusting after another woman, but my own wife, how then is this a sinful behavior?” I have never been able to get an answer to this question aside from the usual, I think, or I feel type answers. What one thinks and what one feels is not doctrine, nor is it the commandments of God, it is one’s own personal ideals and feelings. These things can be good or bad, but they do not make doctrinal truths.
Continuing this conversation and idea that masturbation is wrong due to the other sins it is often coupled with such as porn, or lusting after those we are not married to, while being wed, has led to asking the question of church clergy, “Hypothetically, if one were masturbating just for the enjoyment of the act itself, without connection to fantasies, porn or other sexual sins, would this still be considered a sinful act, taking into consideration the statements made that you “think” or “feel” that this is considered sin due to connections with other sinful acts?” The answer I have often received back again has been “The church considers it a sin, that is the official position, though I do not understand why such a scenario would be sinful behavior, it is still considered to be a sin, the church has not changed it position.” As usual, it is an answer without explanation, and as usual, Bishops and clergy within the church do not understand this any more than I do.
I have asked Bishops within the church why the scriptures do not speak on this subject of masturbation. It is not mentioned in the Doctrine and Covenants, Pearl of Great Price, Book or Mormon or even the Bible. I have been referred to the story of Onan which we have already gone over, to justify how this is a sinful act. When pointing out that Onan was punished not for the act of masturbation (which it is not clear that he did masturbate) but for his reasons for committing the act and refusing to fulfill his obligations often I am answered with silence or a thoughtful “you’re right”
I have been told that the prophets have spoken on this issue themselves. I recently told my Bishop that he is right that prophets have spoken on this, in fact President Kimball did back in the 1980’s. This is what President Kimball said in 1980 general conference:
“The early apostles and prophets mention numerous sins that were reprehensible to them. Many of them were sexual sins—adultery, being without natural affection, lustfulness, infidelity, incontinence, filthy communications, impurity, inordinate affection, fornication. They included all sexual relations outside marriage—petting, sex perversion, masturbation, and preoccupation with sex in one’s thoughts and talking.”
Other references include, with the most recent article on this issue from 16 years ago in the Ensign. The article is titled For The Strength Of Youth
“The Lord specifically forbids certain behaviors, including all sexual relations before marriage, petting, sex perversion (such as homosexuality, rape, and incest), masturbation, or preoccupation with sex in thought, speech, or action” (FSOY, 14–15).”
From a parents guide
“Masturbation is considered by many in the world to be the harmless expression of an instinctive sex drive. Teach your children that the prophets have condemned it as a sin throughout the ages and that they can choose not to do it.”
This statement tells us that we must teach our children something that has in fact never been taught outside of the modern church era. Prophets have not condemned this through the ages at all, it is only in modern era that such things have been considered sin. To make the claim that this has been preached through the ages is wrong. The church leadership knows it is a lie and they have continued to perpetuate this lie for decades. I will not teach my children this lie. If the church wishes to call it a sin so be it, but please do not continue to tell members that it has been preached through the ages as this is simply not true and it is a false statement and misleading statement.
President Kimball states that the early Apostles and Prophets classified masturbation as a sin, Church materials from the 80’s and 90’s state that prophets have taught against this practice through the ages however I cannot find a single reference to verify or validate this claim from the early Prophets or Apostles. It is not recorded in any scriptures. Not the book of Mormon, Doctrine and covenants, Pearl of Great Price or the Bible. This sin, as it has been called, is non-existent in any doctrinal scriptures anywhere in the LDS or christian world. There is nothing to support this claim or why it would be considered sin anywhere.
It is not my intent to prove the church wrong, nor to tell the church what is or is not a sin. My trouble is, and always has been, that If I cannot understand something, then I have a very difficult time accepting it as truth, especially when it is something that has no logic or rationale, but rather is something that is simply stated and expected to be accepted as truth. Masturbation, it seems, is one of these sins with no rational or reasoning, it just is. If the church wishes to consider it a sin, so be it, but we must change our approach to be rational, logical and realistic.
It would appear, considering the lack of documented material and reasoning to back up the claims by church leadership, it is more of the flavor of the day, rather than actual sin. The church has virtually gone silent on the issue for the last 16 years, despite the fact that it is a common issue with up to 80% of the overall population.
Much of the churches current wording and reasoning regarding this issue is worded to encourage one to avoid the practice, rather than calling it sin. Don’t do it because it could lead to sin. We say the same thing about many other things as well. Don’t go to bars, don’t hang out with people of bad influence, don’t watch questionable media content and material, don’t use certain types of language. None of these cautions is by default sin if committed, but rather is good advice to keep away from potential sin.
Lets take a minute to look at some other sexual sins, there are many we can look at but for the purpose of this article we will just focus on a few.
Porn: This is a sin that has some very real world consequences. It has been proven to be addictive and self-destructive. It gives false ideals of sex, and beauty. It can and has ruined many relationships and marriages. This does not even begin to touch on the spiritual side of things. Addiction to porn can degrade you spiritually, cut you off from the influence of the spirit and lead to other sins.
Adultery: This sin also has real world consequences. It erodes trust and destroys relationships. It can bring with it all kinds of disease and STD’s. You can be ex-communicated from the church and end your marriage. It erodes the trust of your spouse and children. Christ himself said if you so much as lust after another, with whom you are not married, you have already committed adultery in your heart.
Fornication: The act of sex before marriage. While the consequences of this are not as serious they can included STD’S as a consequence for yourself, others and possibly a future spouse. The act of sex is about more than reproduction of the human species but serves a vital and important role in that serves to increase the strength of the bond between husband and wife, and re-affirms the commitment of the love they have made. With fornication this commitment is not there or as strong.
These 3 examples are meant to illustrate how sexual sins can in fact lead to consequences beyond our selves. Masturbation however, is not like these sins. Masturbation harms no one. Not you. Not your spouse. It has never been proven to be harmful physically, psychologically and at this point in my life spiritually as well. The reality is that the opposite is true, Masturbation has been proven time and time again to be physically healthy, psychologically healthy and a natural and normal part of being human and childhood development.
We have been counseled to avoid masturbation. This is not bad council, but that does not make it sinful if you do. We should also avoid excessive pop consumption, T.V. watching, sleep, eating etc… and numerous other things. Not heeding this council does not make it sinful however. We have been counseled to have food and water storage, failing to have these things does not mean we have sinned and are unworthy of Gods blessings.
There are many things that we can and could do that can lead to sin, and thus should be avoided. These things in and of themselves are not sins. Going to a bar for example is not a sinful act and requires no confession. I have done this numerous times. This could lead to drinking and getting drunk, causing us to commit other sins while under the influence. This does not make going to the bar a sin in and of itself.
I do not dispute in any way that masturbation can lead to and often has been coupled with other sins such as pornography and lusting after those whom we are not wed to. It is also important to understand the context in which the act is committed to fully understand whether or not it is sinful behavior or not.
As an example of what I mean we can look to the act of sexual intercourse itself. One can have sex and be committing a sin, or one can have sex and not be committing a sin. Sex with one to whom you are married under the law of God is not a sin, however sex with one to whom you are not married is a sin. In both cases, the act is the same, however in one it is a sin, while in the other case it is not. Context in this case is important to understanding the difference between sinful sex and non-sinful sex. There are many things we can do that are not sin in and of themselves. Taking prescription medication for example is not sinful, however if one becomes dependent on such drugs and becomes addicted to them this is now a sinful act that must be rectified. The act of killing someone in self-defense is not a sin, in fact it is upheld by doctrine found in the scriptures even. Captain Moroni is an example of this, he killed many Lamanites during a long and bloody war in defense of himself, family and liberty. This was not sinful, nor was the killing of Laban by Nephi. Other examples include Moses in defense of an Israelite before he fled Egypt etc… However the act of killing an innocent for the purpose of gain, revenge, in anger etc… becomes a very serious sin, even an unpardonable sin. In one case, it is not sin, in the other it is. Context is important! I cannot empathize that enough!
I think I have covered pretty thoroughly at this point why masturbation is not necessarily a sin in and of itself. It is clear that as far as the church is concerned it has been downgraded in seriousness from big deal and serious sin to something to be cautioned against and rarely if ever talked about even indirectly. It seems that this was essentially the flavor of the day and the church has moved on. Other issues of doctrinal serious sins have been talked about since the dawn of time, masturbation however has not, even though the church would have you believe this lie.
Ultimately we have to ask, what natural consequence results from masturbation? Virtually all other sins, and many non-sins have natural consequences whether they be personal, or affects others negatively beyond ourselves. If you really take the time to ask yourself “what consequence comes a result of masturbation?” the answer is, simply, none. There is no consequence to masturbation. It has been proven to be healthy, natural and normal. At this point in human evolution, surely we would have some evidence that masturbation is in fact harmful to oneself or others considering that this has been a normal part of human behavior since the dawn of time. And yet we do not.
The harm that comes from masturbation does not come from the act, but the teaching that it is wrong and sinful in every circumstance. This teaching brings about stress and anxiety to one who has done this in their youth, perhaps before they were first taught it was wrong and learn of it later. The damage is done when kids are indoctrinated into believing something to be wrong, when it has never been declared so in scriptural canon.
At one time the church preached that homosexuality was a choice and that one could be cured of such things. This is not the teaching of the church any longer, and while the treatment of LGBTQ people in the church still leaves much to be desired, the position is no longer that it is a choice on the LGBTQ persons part. Masturbation has had a change in how it is dealt with as well. The tone and denunciation has gone from it is a sin of serious consequences to “you shouldn’t do it” and avoid it. Is the church changing its tune, slowly but surely on this issue? Will it still be considered sin in another 15 years? Only time will tell as attitudes change within the church. If God’s doctrine does not change, then our only conclusion is that if the attitude and stance of the church changes in severity or otherwise on a given issue, then it cannot be true doctrine, but rather ideology and dogma of the day.
Over the years the LDS church’s position on masturbation largely was influenced and has been by popular opinion of the day. A timeline of the LDS church history on this issue show’s how the churches position has evolved. This timeline article summarizes what has happened over the years regarding this issue. To quote from this timeline:
“The picture that I got from this article is that—in the absence of scriptural or official guidance on the issue of masturbation—the popular hysteria and religious distaste for masturbation in the days of the early Mormon church were adopted by default by the members of the church and later enshrined in church doctrine by conservative members of the church hierarchy. The church promoted healthy attitudes toward masturbation during a short time in the early twentieth century. The church then reversed course and now promotes unhealthy attitudes toward masturbation due to doctrinal inertia despite clear evidence that this policy causes its members great, undue emotional distress, all for the sake of a man-made doctrine which insinuated itself into the culture and dogma of the church.”
The Mormon Therapist had a great article on this issue. Quoting from that blog piece:
“I understand that like any normal human tendency, masturbation can become an unhealthy behavior. This is also true for eating – yet we don’t couch our physical desire to nourish ourselves with food as sinful. I believe it is unhealthy for masturbation to be done in a way which interferes with your daily functioning or quality of relationships. I do not want to minimize this for those who have struggled or who have suffered in a marriage where their spouse has withdrawn sexually in part because of an unhealthy masturbation habit. At the same time, I believe unnecessary masturbatory shame and unmet attachment needs are at the core of most compulsive masturbatory behavior – becoming an unhealthy coping skill used in times of stress and discontent (topic for another post).”
What this essentially boils down to is bridling our passion. We do not bridle our passions to eliminate them, but rather to control them in a way that does not negatively impact our lives. It is about having a medium of control, just as the horse’s bridle is used to control the horse, we too need to bridle our passions and desires in order to control them, not let them control you. Masturbation, like any other activity, can become sinful when coupled with other sins, or when it becomes something that controls you.
We teach our children to turn to the scriptures for understanding of the gospel. We teach from the scriptures, we read the scriptures, we use the scriptures as our guide. And yet, there is nothing in the scriptures regarding this issue at all. My only conclusion can be, masturbation is not sinful, unless, like many other things, it becomes a controlling force in your life. It is when we lose control to our passions and desires that we have sinned, not in the action itself.
I do not want my children to suffer the mental anxiety, feelings of guilt and shame that I did as a youth growing up in the church. I personally refuse to put them through that and will never condemn them, or make them feel shame for doing so. I won’t go out of my way to encourage the behavior, however I will also never tell them it is wrong, never make them feel shame for doing so, I will never look down upon them for masturbating. I will treat it as normal and no different from taking a shower, or going to the bathroom. I will only get involved if it becomes detrimental to their well-being. And that is the way it should be. No guilt, no shame, and no sin, so long as it does not interfere with living a normal life, or becomes connected to other sins such as pornography.
And that is the gospel according to Andrew