Masturbation isn't anyone's favorite topic. But many wonder if masturbation is wrong.
Did you know that there’s actually an official day that celebrates having an orgasm?1 I’m not kidding. It’s a real thing.
Clearly, humans are sexual beings. No matter where you live or how you were raised, this is true. Sex floods our television screens, our newsstands, and—if we’re being honest—our thoughts. Biologically, our sex drive ensures the continuation of the human race, but there is so much more to sex than just reproduction.
In some ways and in some cultures, sex is celebrated. In other cultures, various forms of sex are considered taboo. Take masturbation, for instance. Is it a natural part of how we’re wired? Or is masturbation a perversion—a sin, even?
Let’s just get this out there right off the bat so we’re all on the same page: Masturbation is defined as manual stimulation of the genital organs. It is typically thought of as a solo act, but it can also be a part of partnered sexual activity.
If you cringed just reading the above paragraph, then you know masturbation can be an awkward topic to address. In fact, some refrain from talking about the issue at all because it can be downright uncomfortable. It can be embarrassing. It’s certainly not usual dinnertime conversation.
However, countless people privately wonder about it: Is masturbation wrong?
The Case in Favor
“‘Everything is permissible for me’—but not everything is beneficial. ‘Everything is permissible for me’—but I will not be mastered by anything.”2
A 2009 survey of 5,865 Americans between 14 and 94 years old revealed that 78 percent of responders had masturbated at some point in their lives.3
Many people, including some devout Christians, have come to believe that masturbation is permissible at times and can even be beneficial—as long as it does not become an uncontrollable, compulsive behavior.
Masturbation is touted as a great way to release tension, refrain from premarital or illicit sex, sleep better, and increase awareness of what “works” as people explore their sexuality. For someone who is single or widowed, masturbation offers an innocent way to fulfill sexual desire when no partner is available. And for as many as 70 percent of women, vaginal intercourse does not result in an orgasm, while masturbation does.4
Advocates of masturbation have even pointed out that in marriages where impotence, general health, or debilitating injuries have impacted sexual ability, partnered masturbation may be the only recourse left for expressing satisfying physical love for one another in a marriage.
The Case Against
“Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body but he who sins sexually sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit?”5
Others disagree. For them, masturbation is a form of sexual immorality that does not honor God.
From this perspective, masturbation enters a world where thoughts and actions warrant self-discipline. Some type of mental or visual fantasy usually accompanies masturbation, and opponents point out that these fantasies can create an inappropriate relationship with others, even if only in the mind.
Critics assert that masturbation creates a self-serving habit that makes intimacy between couples harder to achieve because the mutual need for one another becomes unnecessary. Furthermore, the ease of reaching orgasm through masturbation frequently spawns an addictive pattern. This act can easily usurp the intimate role and relationship of a spouse or the desire to seek the other person’s sexual welfare.
In an excerpt from one of his letters, C. S. Lewis says:
For me the real evil of masturbation would be that it takes an appetite which, in lawful use, leads the individual out of himself to complete (and correct) his own personality in that of another (and finally in children and even grandchildren) and turns it back; sends the man back into the prison of himself, there to keep a harem of imaginary brides. And this harem, once admitted, works against his ever getting out and really uniting with a real woman. For the harem is always accessible, always subservient, calls for no sacrifices or adjustments, and can be endowed with erotic and psychological attractions which no woman can rival. Among those shadowy brides he is always adored, always the perfect lover; no demand is made on his unselfishness, no mortification ever imposed on his vanity. In the end, they become merely the medium through which he increasingly adores himself.6
From this viewpoint, masturbation could be described as infidelity of the heart.
What Does the Bible Say about Masturbation?
There are no specific references to masturbation in the Bible; Christians are left without clear instructions on the matter. Most Christians agree that God made sex to be good and that sex is an important part of marriage. But nothing is said about self-pleasuring sex before, after, or during marriage.
However, there is a long history within the Christian faith of masturbation being considered sinful. In fact, until 1930, all forms of contraception were considered sinful—including engaging in sexual acts with no potential for reproduction.7
But if there is no direct discussion of the topic, how did the Church come to the conclusion that masturbation is sinful?
One of the main sources is a story found in Genesis 38. Often used to condemn birth control, the story of Onan and Tamar has also been cited as evidence that masturbation is sinful.
Some backstory before we begin: According to Hebrew Law, if a woman was widowed and left without a male heir, she was to marry again within her husband’s family in order to preserve her husband’s family line.8 The relative who stepped in to serve the family in this way was called a kinsman-redeemer, and the first son produced from this marriage would “carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name [would] not be blotted out from Israel.”9
This is the situation in which we find Tamar, a widow, and Onan, her brother-in-law, in Genesis 38. Onan initially appears willing to take on his responsibility as kinsman-redeemer, but we quickly discover that is not the case: “Onan knew that the child would not be his; so whenever he slept with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother. What he did was wicked in the Lord’s sight, so the Lord put him to death.”10
Many have associated Onan’s sin with masturbation. Both are instances of engaging in a sexual experience while intentionally avoiding the potential for procreation. However, other interpretations postulate that Onan’s action was sinful not because of the act itself, but because it was selfish.
Though this story does not explicitly speak to masturbation, the Bible does say quite a bit about sex itself. A reading of the book Song of Solomon will reveal that, in addition to procreation, sex was also created for intimacy, companionship, and mutual satisfaction within marriage. It is for these purposes that God draws couples together as sexual beings created for one another in love.
Does masturbation fit into a relationship of love? In their book Intimate Issues, Linda Dillow and Lorraine Pintus come to this conclusion: “Only God can clarify when the Scriptures are silent.”11
As with many modern issues, an absence of biblical discussion on a topic does not mean that something automatically is or is not sinful. The act of masturbation falls squarely into this gray category.
But it may be helpful to remember this: What we allow our minds to think on, to visualize, and to dwell upon does impact our actions. Our thoughts directly affect our behaviors, whether we like it or not. This is why the Bible tells us to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”12
So do a heart check and consider how the issue of masturbation impacts your thoughts—and potentially your actions. Christians are left to review their God-ordained desire for sexual satisfaction in the light of the motives of their heart and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Relationship with God
We should also pause and consider why we ask these questions about masturbation—or other questions like it—in the first place. Are we trying to find the limits of behaviors that stay just within the parameters of God’s favor?
If so, we may be undermining an incredible relationship with God, one intended to be made up of so much more than boundary lines and rules. It’s a relationship that calls us to seek and follow God, grow in our love for him, and trust in his compassions, which are new every morning.13