Wednesday, October 1, 2014

An Ethical Perspective on Masturbation

At first glance masturbation may seem to be an ethically neutral topic. The act of masturbation is completely individual, giving it the appearance of no effect on others, but the biblical and practical implications of the act are actually far more ethically charged than one might believe, and the effects of this private behavior can extend far beyond the privacy of one’s own body and mind. Masturbation can affect one’s relationship with a spouse—current or future—one’s relationship with God, and one’s personal psychological development.

As the ethical implications of male and female masturbation are equal, they will be treated in this discussion as one and the same. However, masturbation within marriage and outside of marriage present separate ethical dilemmas and will therefore be examined separately. Within a marital context, masturbation to any thoughts and images can cause a rift in the sexual relationship between husband and wife. Outside of marriage, masturbation to any thoughts and images is lustful, as whichever person is the subject of the desires is (obviously) not the spouse of the person masturbating.

In Luther’s Small Catechism, the explanation of the sixth commandment says “We should fear and love God so that we lead a sexually pure and decent life in what we say and do, and husband and wife love and honor each other.” As an expansion on how to lead a sexually pure and decent life, we are told to consider sexuality a “good gift of God”. (Luther, p. 79). Also, Luther explains in the catechism that “God forbids sexually impure thoughts and desires” and “requires us to avoid all temptations to sexual sin.” (Luther, p. 81). Masturbation breaks the sixth commandment as Luther explains it, as it often is fueled by “sexually impure thoughts and desires” and always is a sexually impure action, as explained previously.

Some people believe that lustful thoughts toward another person are not sinful as long as the thoughts and desires are not acted on. However, in Matthew 5:27-30, Jesus says,
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” (The Lutheran Study Bible).

Scripture is very clear in this passage that even the sexual thoughts of a person not one’s spouse is adulterous and therefore sinful.

Pornography, often used for masturbation, is opposed not only in the passage just provided, but also in Psalm 101:3, which says “I will not set before my eyes anything that is worthless. I hate the work of those who fall away; it shall not cling to me.” (The Lutheran Study Bible). Pornography, as it causes lustful thoughts (adultery, in the definition given in Matthew 5) and is “worthless” and “the work of those who fall away”, is also sinful and encourages the additional sin of masturbation.

Many people will argue that masturbation, when not done to thoughts or images of another human being, is not inherently sexual. Grantley Morris, in his article “Masturbation: Moral Quicksand or God’s Provision for Those without Adequate Partners?” had this response:

“Irrespective of what extremes one goes to in modifying one’s technique and one’s thought life to drain the act of sexual overtones, masturbation is still the stimulation of sexually responsive parts of the body. It is not like waste elimination or satisfying hunger, because it meets no bodily need. Moreover, it results in sensual feelings and bodily reactions virtually indistinguishable from those resulting from heterosexual relations. In fact, unlike light petting, it usually involves the very pinnacle of sexual pleasure, even beyond what many a woman experiences during intercourse. As is also the case for sexual intercourse, self-stimulation need not involve sexual thoughts or sights but it usually does, because it falls naturally into the same behavioral patterns as other sexual activities.” (Morris).

Clearly, regardless of the thoughts behind masturbation, it is inherently sexual and therefore has all the relational ethical implications for a married couple that any sexual act with another partner outside of one’s spouse would have. Of those who would claim masturbation is not sexual, Michael Okyere Asante says “The problem is they do not understand the meaning of lust, for when one responds to one's sexual desires in order to release sexual pleasure by stimulating self, it is also lusting.” (Asante).

While one may not consider the biblical arguments against masturbation applicable outside of a Christian context, the act also has practical consequences that leak into sexual intercourse. Those who consider sexual climax but not the other parts of masturbation wrong or immoral may deny themselves climax, leading to lack of responsiveness to stimulation during actual intercourse. Men who have denied themselves sexual thoughts and desires during masturbation under the delusion that it is only immoral when “made” sexual by the thoughts behind it often struggle with premature ejaculation when intercourse is introduced. Also, masturbation can become a compulsion or addiction which extends into married life and can cause lack of attention to one’s spouse,

As Asante’s article “Masturbation: A Christian Perspective” quoted Paul Cook, “The hormones released in the brain during sexual arousal cause a bonding to whatever we are looking at and/or thinking about at the time. This can cause us to be more sexually responsive to masturbation (and its associated fantasies) than to real sex.” (Asante). This responsiveness can cause marital rifts, as one spouse may no longer find sexual fulfillment in actual intercourse but only in self-pleasure. The responsiveness to fantasies can be dangerous in cases of particularly unhealthy fantasies such as anal intercourse, abusive sexual relationships, or immoral ones such as homosexual or incestuous relationships which might become the subject of one’s masturbatory thoughts.

Biblically, the rift caused in marriages by masturbation is strictly opposed in 1 Corinthians 7:1-9:

“Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: ‘It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.’ But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” (The Lutheran Study Bible).

In this passage, Paul tells the Corinthians that it is the duty of a wife to sexually satisfy her husband and the duty of a husband to sexually satisfy his wife. When one spouse masturbates, they are denying their partner the right to satisfy them and also the right to be satisfied. Proverbs 5:18-19 says “Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe. Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love.” (The Lutheran Study Bible). Spouses who seek sexual satisfaction in masturbation rather in intercourse with their marriage partner are refusing to “rejoice in” their marriage and the sexual bond that comes with that commitment to one another. This is adultery in the same way that sexual intercourse with another person is adultery, as it is choosing sexual fulfillment by someone other than one’s spouse and therefore failing to fulfill and be fulfilled sexually by one’s spouse.

Finally, God calls us to live with self-control. 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5 says “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God…” (The Lutheran Study Bible). All forms of lust and sexual sin are forbidden, and we are told in this passage to avoid them and learn to control our own bodies. Jesus said in Matthew 5, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” (The Lutheran Study Bible). When one masturbates, one is giving in to the passions of the body and refusing to exercise control. We have been freed from these passions by Jesus’ sacrifice of himself and therefore are no longer slaves to them. In Romans 6:13-14, we are told, “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.” Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we are free to exercise self-control and no longer have to “present [our] members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness” such as lust, adultery, and masturbation.

In conclusion, masturbation in all contexts is unethical. Outside of marriage, it is wrong as it can be due to lust for others not one’s spouse, and it sets unrealistic and sometimes immoral expectations for a future spouse. Within marriage, masturbating to thoughts or images of someone who is not one’s spouse is wrong because of two reasons: one, it is lust for another, which is immoral, and two, it is causing a sexual rift in the relationship. Masturbating to thoughts or images of one’s spouse is morally unacceptable because God has commanded that husband and wife are to fulfill each other’s sexual needs and not withhold from one another.

Works Cited
Asante, Michael Okyere. " Christian Living - Masturbation: A Christian Perspective." Faith Writers, 23 Aug. 2010. Web. 17 Nov. 2012. <>.

Luther, Martin. Luther's Small Catechism, with Explanation. St. Louis: Concordia Pub. House, 1991. Print.

Morris, Grantley. "Masturbation: Moral Quicksand or God’s Provision for Those Without Adequate Partners?" Masturbation: For the Sexually Deprived or the Sexually Depraved? Compassionate, Biblical Insights into a Moral Dilemma for Born Again Christians., n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2012. <>.

The Lutheran Study Bible: English Standard Version. Saint Louis: Concordia Pub. House, 2009. Print.

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