Episode 134 – Masturbation and The Church

masturbation

I know that this topic may be a controversial one. Let me start by saying, I am not the expert for your life. I am here to offer you new and different ideas or options, greater understanding. It is up to you to contemplate these things for yourself and for your family and what works for you. In podcast 134, I will go through the course of changes that have taken historically within the church on this topic. It might surprise you. I highly encourage you to think about it and take your thoughts and questions to the Lord. For a greater understanding. . .stay tuned.

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Show Notes:

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References for this episode: danielaburgess.com

Show Summary:

I know that this topic is going to be quite controversial for many of you.  Let me just start off by saying, I am not the expert for your life.  I am here to offer you new and different ideas.  It is up to you to contemplate things for yourself and for your family and what works for you.  I highly encourage you to think about what I talk about today and take your thoughts and questions to the Lord.  That is what I have done for myself and my family on this very subject and on so many subjects that I teach about.  I have a very strong testimony that these types of questions and how you think about them are very important to our Heavenly Parents.  I also know that what is right for one person is not right for all.  Personal revelation on this matter, and so many other important topics, is crucial.  I love that our dear prophet, President Russel M Nelson, encourages us to seek personal revelation.  It is my opinion that for far too long, we as church members have been immature in the way we approach our sexuality.  And it’s time to grow up.  It’s time to mature and decide for ourselves what works for us, within the actual boundaries and doctrine that the Lord has established, not within the immature culture and non-doctrinal approach that many of have grown up with and continue to practice today.  

I want to start out talking about the history of The Church’s approach to masturbation.  I want to thank my friend Daniel Burgess for his extensive research on this topic.  I will put a link to his website, where I got a lot of this information, in the show notes on my website.  I also appreciate the commentary on this topic in a few facebook groups that I belong to.  Daniel and these groups are what got me thinking about things in a different way and I appreciate the open dialogue that we have about it.  So let’s get to it.

A Historical Approach

In the 1800s, the religious approach to masturbation was based on the story of Onan found in the Old Testament in Genesis 38:9-10

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.

And the thing which he did displeased the Lord: wherefore he slew him also.

It was the predominant belief at the time (and still held by many today) that Onan’s sin and punishment of death was a result of him masturbating.  But, it has since been reinterpreted that it was not masturbation that was the sin, but that Onan’s sexual relationship with his sister-in-law was incest – which was and is a sin.  

There was a British pamphlet published in the 1800’s about Onan’s supposed sin, which coined the phrase “self-abuse.”  The pamphlet also told readers that masturbation would lead to essentially every illness, mental illness and life-threatening disease and would eventually lead to death…hense the “abuse.”  Several other doctors at the time began to adopt these philosophies and add to them, and soon this way of thinking began to infiltrate reputable science and medical teachings and solutions were to not just abstain from masturbation but to prevent it in sadistic and mutilating ways, like sewing the foreskin of the penis closed and using metal constraints to prevent erections.

This was the sexual environment during the time period of the Restoration of The Church.

But, Church leaders in the 1800s and early 1900s, in contrast to prevalent teachings of the time, taught that sexual urges and feelings are to be celebrated and encouraged as God-given.  They approached things from a self-mastery view and cultivating the Godly desire of sexuality, versus the shame and fear based ideas of the time.

As time went on, the scientific and medical fields began to debunk this notion that masturbation caused illness, insanity, and even death.  And these same findings were taught within The Church.

For example, in the official instruction manual for Latter-day Saints, “Community health and hygiene: a study-course for adult-education” on page 138, the Latter-day Saints were taught,

“The pernicious fallacy that insanity is the result of excessive masturbation. The facts do not support any such view, and if they did, the attempt to control self-abuse — injurious as it is — by capitalizing the child’s fear of insanity, would still be morally reprehensible and mentally unhygienic.”

The Church leadership noticeably changed their approach to sexuality in the 30s and 40s.

President J. Reuben Clark, in a conference message, spoke about being taught by his parents about chastity.  He said “Chastity is worth more than life itself.  This is the doctrine my parents taught me; it is truth. It is better to die chaste than live unchaste.”

If his parents did teach him this “doctrine,” it was not one that appears to be common in the early days of the Church.  It is possible that this was a religious concept believed by his parents who were raised in the “Church of God” before converting.  This “doctrinal” teaching doesn’t appear to be present, at least not publically, in The Church.

And then, in the 1950s, Church leaders began an abrupt shift toward emphasizing sexuality as a serious sin.  They also, for the first time, began asserting masturbation as a sin.  Most likely in response to the sexual revolution happening after zoologist Alfred Kinsey’s 1948 and 1953 popular books on human sexuality that dismissed marriage and morality 

In the 1970s and 80s, we started seeing the publications like “To Young Men Only” by Boyd K Packer and The Miracle of Forgiveness by Spencer W. Kimball, (which taught that masturbation caused homosexuality).  Or President Kimball’s letter to Church leaders saying that oral sex is a sin and all married adults need to go confess. Another letter was sent out a few months later stating that church leaders should not inquire about personal matters in the bedroom.  

Current Teachings

So now that you have a better understanding of the history, let’s bring us up to what is happening today.  

Anti-masturbation pamphlets and books are no longer available from official Church sources.  You will never see them officially retracted, but they are no longer in print and have been removed from The Church’s website.

The best known current official publication on the topic today is For The Strength of the Youth.  In previous editions, it did talk about masturbation.  But, in today’s edition the word masturbation has been removed.  Instead it does suggest, “do not arouse these emotions in your own body” in the context of sexual contact with others.  I think this is good counsel as it can lead to breaking the Law of Chastity.  But, nowhere does it say that doing this breaks the Law of Chastity.  It just insinuates that doing so CAN lead to breaking it.  But, this line can also leave youth (and adults) feeling guilty when they experience normal normal surges when “these emotions” are aroused every day, without intention, through all kinds of normal, healthy activities.  

What is the law of chastity?  “Sexual relations are proper only between a man and a woman who are legally and lawfully wedded as husband and wife.”  “Relations” require two parties.  You can’t have “relations” with yourself.  You are you.  The law of chastity, as defined in the temple, does not prohibit masturbation.

Look up in “Preach My Gospel” where it talks about the law of chastity.  Not there and not in the 4th discussion from 20 years ago, where missionaries taught about the law of chastity, was there ANY mention of masturbation.  The law of chastity lesson didn’t, and doesn’t, speak about it at all.  If sexual sin is so serious, and masturbation nearly universal among men, then why would masturbation be left out of the missionary discussions if investigators need to repent of all sexual sins prior to baptism, and affirm in their baptismal interview that they’ll follow the law of chastity?  What other reasonable explanation is there for not teaching new converts that masturbation is bad?  Baptizing them then teaching them that they have to give up masturbation would be a harsh bit of bait and switch, wouldn’t it?  The direction from mission presidents, and church headquarters, was that if investigators were worthy for baptism, they were worthy to be ordained, assuming they were an appropriate age.  So if they’re masturbating, we don’t teach them it’s wrong, they don’t repent of it and continue masturbating after their baptism, yet they’re worthy to be ordained… either their sins are on our heads, or it isn’t a sin at all.

It is also good to mention that masturbation is not mentioned anywhere in the scriptures.  Not in the Old or New Testament.  Not the Book of Mormon.  Not the Doctrine & Covenants or Pearl of Great Price.  If masturbation was such a heinous sin, don’t you think it would be mentioned somewhere in the scriptures?  

My views

So, now that you have an understanding of the history and what the Church says about things today, I’m going to share with you my thoughts.  And again, these are my thoughts based on my own understanding and my own personal revelation.  You have to decide for yourself.  I just want to open your mind up to different possibilities.

For The Strength of Youth is not doctrine.   If it were doctrine, it wouldn’t be able to be amended or changed.  It is a set of guidelines that has evolved over the years based on cultural norms of the times to protect the youth.  Not following these guidelines is not equal to committing sin.  If a youth goes on a date before the age of 16, they don’t need to repent and confess to the bishop.  Are they more likely to potentially make a bad decision regarding chastity? Maybe.  But it’s not a sin.

In my opinion, masturbation is a normal and healthy part of our sexual development.  The Church used to support that, then moved away from it, and are now moving into a place of “neutrality” where they won’t say it’s good or bad.  

I believe it is crucial for children and youth to understand that their sexuality is a gift to them, from their Heavenly Parents and it is important to learn how to manage our sexuality, at all ages.

Too often the “natural man” is equated to sexuality.  That is not the case.  The natural man, in the scriptures, is described as unyielding, stubborn, and hardhearted.  It is giving into what feels good at the moment instead of directing it in a way that will bring you joy and blessings long-term.  To bridle something means to direct it, not lock it up, repress it, or bury it.  When you bridle a horse, you are taking the sheer force of that creature and directing it a safe and healthy way.  Not locking it up, never to be used.  It is the same with our sexuality.  In my opinion, masturbation is a way that youth, and adults, learn how to bridle their sexual passions.

Now, I am not ok with combining masturbation (at any age) with pornography.  I think there are ways that you can use masturbation as a way to manage your sexuality without pornography and the two do not have to be linked, as they so often are.  

In my house, masturbation is not breaking the Law of Chastity.  I talk to my children about privacy and proper hygiene, no pornography, and encourage them to seek their own personal revelation about it.

Now, if masturbation is a sin and I am wrong about this, ok.  I will still stand by thoughts that we are often sexually aroused, without arousing ourselves on purpose and masturbation is a way to take care of those natural feelings.  I also think that if it is used so that the greater sin of breaking the Law of Chastity doesn’t happen, then I think that is a good thing.

Many times youth are encouraged to stop masturbating because it is a sin, and in doing so they suffer from depression, anxiety, and even suicide trying to manage their emotions around it.  Tell me which is the greater problem?

I think it is so important to remove the shame and guilt around masturbation for our youth.  Even if it is a sin, it is not the end of the world.  That is what the atonement is for. 

Masturbation for Married Adults

Now, for married adults, this shouldn’t even be an issue.  We do not need to go by the same guidelines as the youth.  What goes on in the married bedroom is between you and your spouse and God.  No one else.  Masturbation can be a great way to help manage desire levels.  It can be a great way for a woman to get to know her own body, learn to orgasm, so that she enjoys being with her spouse more.

You and your spouse get to decide what works for the two of you.  I would encourage you to spend some time talking with your spouse about what you want things to look like.  Are you ok with it in your marriage or not?  Do you need to let the other person know? Does the other person want to be present?  Do you need to approach your spouse first?  Only the two of you can decide.  And there’s no right or wrong here.  What is going to bring the most goodness to your relationship?  

Many spouses are concerned that if they “allow” their spouse to masturbate then their spouse won’t want them anymore.  In my work and in studies that I have read, that is almost never true.  Most people find that while masturbation may “scratch the itch” it is not as fulfilling as being with their spouse.  They would much rather be with their spouse that do things on their own.  I have also found that if a woman masturbates, this usually increases her desire and she wants to be with her spouse a lot more.  It really is a win, win.

Now, if you don’t agree with me on this, that is totally ok.  You have to try on what thoughts and ideas work for you.  And again, I encourage you to not just take my word for it, but to think about it and take it to the Lord to gain your own personal understanding of what He wants for you.  Masturbation may not be right for every individual or couple.  And that is ok!  You need to figure out what is right for you.  And I am here to support you no matter what you decide is right for you.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Taylor

    In this Podcast you make it seem as though church leaders had a change to their position on this topic both after the 1950s and now recently. The first against the practice and the later to a more neutral position. From what I have found I don think that this is the case. Don’t get me wrong I’m not here to argue. I simply want to ask why you made these claims when there are examples of prophets and apostles making statements against the practice before the 1950s, and even now in 2020? I do think that during the 1960-90s there was a lot of guilt and shame that sprung up because of the sharpness and strictness of church leaders on the matter, but I believe a lot of that is the repercussions of God working through imperfect men. I also think that as a church we are now moving to understand more of the spirit of the law, however, from what I can see I think the Lords representative have maintained a consistent opposition toward the practice outside of marriage.

    One example:
    •1902 – In response to reports of many students at church schools masturbating, church president Joseph F. Smith stated that masturbation was a “damnable and pernicious practice” and that all top leaders should be strongly against it. He stated that stake leaders should instruct and warn their congregations about it. (reference below)

    Larson, Stan (1993). A Ministry of Meetings The Apostolic Diaries of Rudger Clawson . Salt Lake City: Signature Books. p. 411.
    [Thursday, 27 March 1902] Salt Lake City … Meeting at the temple. … At this point Pres. Smith referred to a report made by Elder Jos. M. Tanner at the church board of education meeting yesterday, in which he stated that the practice of masturbation was indulged in by many young people in the church schools. Pres. Smith remarked that this ws a most damnable and pernicious practice, and the face of every apostle, president of a stake, and high councillor should be set as flint against it. The priesthood should be called together at the stake conferences and the brethren and parents should be instructed and warned in relation to this matter.

    2020:
    https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/2020/08/how-when-and-why-talking-to-your-children-about-sexuality?lang=eng

    Thanks for your work, I look forward to hearing from you and getting your thoughts on this.

    1. Amanda

      Hi Taylor,
      You are of course free to disagree. I believe they are coming to a more neutral place, as I stated because publications against masturbation have been removed from publication and the word “masturbation” has been taken out of current literature.

      Your example from 1902, while it seems to disagree with what I have said, it is important to understand the context in which it was stated. I will refer you to the article I gathered a lot of my information from, where the author specifically points out this example: https://goby-celery-4spt.squarespace.com/scriptureguidedlife/2018/01/dont-touch-addressing-sexual-taboos-in_23.html

      As for the 2020 reference – old habits die hard. But no where in that article does it say that masturbation is a sin.

      Thank you for your response.

  2. Frank

    This was very interesting. How well is this being received by Church members?

    1. Amanda

      So far I have received nothing but positive comments.

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