In the last post, we began the discussion of whether masturbation is sinful. This is a controversial topic in Christian circles, and certainly one that many women of faith struggle with. In fact, a respondent to our survey on vibrators asked whether masturbation was against God’s will in the Bible.
So, I’ve rushed in where angels might run for the hills.
In my reading, I noticed an odd thing. Discussions about masturbation were exclusively centered on younger people—either young singles or the married-with-children stage. Not one peep about the specific physiological needs of older women! Nothing about the fact that masturbation is an effective tool for women to maintain a vibrant and healthy sex life within a committed, mature relationship. I find this oversight reflective of the [somewhat ignorant] cultural stereotype that, God forbid, Grandma be sexually active in her golden years.
And, as I mentioned in the last post, the moral quandary regarding masturbation circles around its connection to pornography, lust, and fantasies, about its isolating quality, and about sexual addiction.
Given the probability that Grandma isn’t trolling the porn sites on the internet or lusting uncontrollably while fantasizing about the red-hot dude in a romance novel (not to be stereotypical), I think we can eliminate a couple of the more troublesome aspects of masturbation as it pertains to older women.
I can’t address the issue of addiction to masturbation that seems to worry some Christian thinkers, but I can categorically say that for virtually all women, masturbation doesn’t replace sex with a beloved partner nor do women become dependent on a vibrator in order to orgasm, although it is true that older women tend to need more intense and/or longer stimulation.
Most of the authors I read had no problem with couples masturbating together. It seems that solo masturbation is what opens the door to the “sinful” potential. As for that very narrow Catholic interpretation I mentioned in the last post (that masturbation is intrinsically and gravely disordered), I can only pass along the wisdom of a priest I once overheard. I’m paraphrasing here, but he said that a person can choose to stand under the moral umbrella of church teaching, but if he or she chooses to step outside that umbrella (to masturbate or use birth control, for example), then that person stands alone before God.
At the time, I thought that we all end up standing alone before God anyway, and I could think of worse places to be than before the source of Love itself, who just happens to have made me the way I am.
Which is kind of the point, isn’t it? We are made as sexual beings—as humans, not as angels. Our sexuality is entwined within our love for our partner and for the life that partnership engenders. We can no more deny our sexuality than we can deny ourselves.
True, sex can be disordered, harmful, selfish, and sinful. So can religion, for that matter. Sex is a powerful, sometimes uncontrollable, sometimes disturbing human force, just as it is a God-given, compelling, procreative gift. It has the potential for love and intimacy as well as for degradation and harm. Therein lies the tension and the moral hairsplitting. Sex is a force that’s hard to nail down; it makes us uncomfortable; it challenges our neat categories of morality and sin.
As with so many of our actions, morality depends on our thoughts and motives, which only we can know. For example, masturbating alone within the context of a marriage can either be loving or selfish depending on the motive. When a partner is traveling or ill, masturbation can “take the pressure off” and give our partner the space to heal or to complete the journey. But masturbating to withhold sex or to reject our partner or out of anger is harmful to a relationship.
After a new baby, author and teacher Abigail Rine found that her life was so overwhelming that sex became impossible. “For the first time, I began to dread and fear having sex with my husband, which was incredibly disconcerting,” she writes in this enlightening blog post. “Exploring my own body has been very helpful in making me feel physically normal and like a sexual being. …I am also glad that my husband was able to use masturbation to get sexual release while I was physically unable to have sex with him.”
“Ultimately, the question of whether or not masturbation is healthy for a particular person springs from the question that governs all good discernment: Does this action help me love myself and others more fully and freely, and does it allow me to love God more deeply and with more of myself?” writes spiritual director, speaker, and author Tara Owens.
Finally, to fuel your own exploration, here’s some solid spiritual reading gleaned from several of my minister-friends
Sexual Fulfillment: For Single and Married, Gay and Straight, Young and Old by Herbert W. Chilstrom and Lowell D. Erdahl. This is an exploration of sexuality by two retired bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. The book is a response to their long experience as pastors during tumultuous social upheaval that challenged and redefined homosexuality, marriage, the single life, and sexuality in old age. The book is a pastoral and personal reflection and meditation along with questions for reflection. It doesn’t strive to be a scriptural exegesis or an apology for the Lutheran Church.
Sheet Music: Uncovering the Secrets of Sexual Intimacy within Marriage by Dr. Kevin Lehmen. A surprisingly open and explicit instruction manual for “how to do it, and how to do it better” from this uber-popular Christian psychologist. While he details the “hows” he also places sex front and center in a Christian marriage. A light, straightforward, and humorous read.
Liberating Sexuality: Justice between the Sheets by Miguel De La Torre. A dense and scholarly exploration of controversial sexual topics where religion intersects with class, race, gender, sexual orientation, all from a Biblical perspective.
Dr. Barb DePree, M.D., has been a gynecologist and women’s health provider for almost 30 years and a menopause care specialist for the past ten.