Disclaimer: This post, as you might expect, does contain some overtly sexual references to specific parts of the body that are prominent in human sexuality. If you think this might offend you then please do not continue to read.
My title is taken from Levi Peterson, who has famously written about masturbation in his book the ‘Backslider’. Additionally, in his interview with John Dehlin, he states that ‘I just don’t think God cares that much about it’. Contrastingly, on January 5th 1965, Elder Spencer W. Kimball said, ‘Masturbation, a rather common indiscretion, is not approved of the Lord nor of His Church regardless of what may have been said by others whose “norms” are lower’. Why is masturbation a sin and how should people within the Church respond to it?
A number of reasons for masturbation’s categorisation as a sin have been given. President Kimball has practically been the only GA to speak repeatedly and publically on this issue. He has written that masturbation is a minor indiscretion but that it leads to other larger indiscretions. He said: ‘Nor does immorality begin in adultery or perversion… Little indiscretions are the berries—indiscretions like sex thoughts, sex discussions, passionate kissing, pornography. The leaves and little twigs are masturbation and necking and such, growing with every exercise’. I question whether this is accurate. It is possible to take the position masturbation may in fact serve to reduce the sexual tension in a relationship that is pre-marriage.
Moreover, President Kimball has also written that the ‘prophets anciently and today condemn masturbation. It induces feelings of guilt and shame. It is detrimental to spirituality. It indicates slavery to the flesh, not that mastery of it and the growth toward godhood which is the object of our mortal life. Our modern prophet has indicated that no young man should be called on a mission who is not free from this practice.’ Clearly things have changed since it seems that some young men are allowed to serve missions who still masturbate. In addition, it is possible that masturbation creates fear, guilt and shame because we are taught that it is wrong and that this attitude emerges from a Victorian context on morality .
Brent Barlow has written that ‘self-stimulation can cause a person to seek sexual satisfaction alone, and, when added to mental fantasies, it can alienate him or her from others, making sexual fulfillment with a marriage partner less attractive’. I can understand more readily that the fear of addiction to pornography may be a pre-emptive strike against masturbation, and also that it may create some sexual difficulties for newly married couples. However, most newly married couples (and some long-term ones) have difficulties in this area anyway.
Although I can understand the position taken above I can also see that there are counter-arguments which are quite persuasive (although I may not have presented them persuasively). Therefore, my first question is this: why is masturbation considered to be a sin, and do you think that it is?
The second area I want to focus on, and the area of greater interest for me, is how should parents and church leaders respond to people who masturbate.
My first issue is that I think women (of any age) should not speak to a Bishop about this issue. I think that it could lead into awkward situations especially among younger women, though I see no reason why it is different for more mature women.
My second issue is how we respond to this issue in the context of repentance. President Kimball has said: “While we should not regard this weakness [self-stimulation] as the heinous sin which some other sexual practices are, it is of itself bad enough to require sincere repentance.”  My first issue is this, if someone does not feel guilty for engaging in this act, should someone make them feel guilty for doing so. Is it that serious? I admit that some people will feel guilty and therefore it is sometimes helpful to speak to a leader/friend in receiving help in moving forward through those feelings. However, if someone does not feel that it is wrong should this issue be brought into the realm of the serious, which is what seemingly happens when we make it a requirement for a Temple Recommend, or to serve a mission.
The ambiguity of President Kimball’s statement is highlighted by noting that ‘sincere repentance’ is required of someone who is angry, who swears, who does any number of things that are contrary to the commandments. The question is whether that sincere repentance can be done while holding a temple recommend, a calling, the priesthood (if male) as it is for so many other issues. Or is this more a matter of frequency and intensity?
Moreover, because this subject is taboo anyway, I wonder whether there is a different standard on this issue for women? I can imagine that an approach of ‘careful dis-attention’ might be taken by Priesthood leaders.
My second question then is this: how serious is masturbation (assuming it is a sin)? Should it stop someone from going on a Mission, getting married in the temple and holding a Temple Recommend generally?[poll id=”139] [poll id=”140″]
1. Spencer W. Kimball, January 5, 1965, BYU Speeches of the Year, 1965 22.
2. Elder Spencer W. Kimball, Conference Report, April 1967, Afternoon Meeting 67.
3. Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1969].
4. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol 1., London: Penguin.
5. Brent A. Barlow, Worth Waiting For: Sexual Abstinence Before Marriage [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1995], 43 – 44.
6. Miracle of Forgiveness, pp. 77-78.