By Dr. Juli Slattery
Because my job is to talk to women about sex, there are few questions I haven't heard and haven't answered. However, there is one common question that I don't like to answer. Is it ok to masturbate?
This question is a bit complicated because the Bible never mentions masturbation. I’m fairly certain that even in biblical times, masturbation was something Christians wondered about and struggled with. God was very clear in spelling out the sexual immorality of other sexual actions, but said nothing specific in Scripture about masturbation. I could take the easy road and just say, "If in doubt, don't do it." The fact is that many Christian women masturbate and feel horribly guilty about it. I've met women who feel more shame about masturbation than they do about sleeping with their boyfriend.
Masturbation is a complicated issue that doesn't lend to a clear black and white answer. I want to be realistic about the struggle without giving freedom that God perhaps hasn't given.
At a purely biological level, masturbation isn't that much different than other things we do with our bodies—like picking our noses. Toddlers do both. They are wired to touch their bodies everywhere and repeat touching where they find pleasure. Little boys and girls quickly discover that their "private parts" feel really good to touch. As children grow, wise parents gently teach that touching some places of our bodies isn't appropriate to do in public. They teach their kids not to pick their noses in public either.
But why does picking your nose have an embarrassing but non-moral stigma, while masturbation has become laden with tremendous guilt and shame? While there is nothing inherently wrong with touching yourself to experience pleasure, masturbation becomes a moral issue because it involves sexuality. Our sexuality has intrinsic moral and spiritual implications. In I Corinthians 6, Paul teaches that what we eat doesn’t really matter, but what we do with our bodies sexually is spiritually significant. Does that mean that masturbation is always sinful? Many Christian ministries consider masturbation the same as viewing porn or dwelling on sexual fantasies. I think the question needs a little more consideration. Here are a few things to consider as you evaluate the issue given your personal circumstances.
Masturbation is often more about dwelling on sexual things and promoting lustful thinking than it is about a physical release. If this is the case, the Bible is CLEAR that this is not God’s will for you. While masturbation may not be specifically called sinful, the sexual fantasies that usually go with it are. Many women only masturbate when they are thinking about or looking at something sexual. As Jesus stated, this is "adultery of the heart."
"But I say, anyone who even looks at a woman [or man] with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matthew 5:28).
Any time you are viewing, reading or thinking about something sexual for the purpose of arousal (apart from a married couple thinking sexually about one another), you are promoting lustful thoughts. For many women, this is a constant temptation. It’s difficult to get sexual thoughts and images out of your mind.
My mentor (and AI co-founder) Linda Dillow gives great advice related to this: You can’t control what comes into your mind, but you can control what stays there. When you are tempted to look at porn or dwell on a sexual image or fantasy, kick that thought out instead of letting it fester in your mind. If this is something you regularly struggle with, come up with a strategy NOW. What can you do to put your attention toward something else? Call a friend, put on worship music or work on a project?
The Bible makes it clear that God is very concerned about our motives.
When I talk with a woman who is asking about masturbation, I am more concerned about what is behind the struggle than I am about the act itself.
Many women learned (or were even taught) to masturbate at very young ages. This is particularly true of those who have been sexually violated and "sexualized" in childhood. While I would never recommend masturbation, I recognize that sometimes the urge to masturbate is a symptom of deeper issues that need to be addressed. My encouragement would be to work toward healing and restoring a healthy view of holy sexuality, which are more central to wholeness than trying to eliminate the urge to masturbate.
It is more effective to address masturbation as an issue of spiritual maturity than an issue of right and wrong. As you grow in your walk with God and as you develop a fuller understanding of His design for sexuality, masturbation will likely become less of an issue. God will give you wisdom that goes beyond the “white knuckle approach” of suppressing sexual desire. However, when all of your focus is on controlling your sexual longings and feeling shame because of the struggle, you may find yourself stuck in a self-destructive pattern. More important than the question, “Are you masturbating?,” I would want to ask, “Are you moving towards God’s design for your sexuality?”.
Our sexuality was created to draw us into covenant love. Without sexual desire, very few people would ever go through the sacrifice required to commit your life to another person. We would be content with work, hobbies and friendship. But our sexuality prompts us to think of romance, passion, intimacy and belonging to another person.
One of the greatest dangers of masturbation (along with fantasy, hooking up, erotica and pornography) is the belief that we can satisfy our sexual needs without pursuing covenant love. I believe that many young men and women delay marriage because they have learned to “take care of” their own sexual desires instead of directing those desires towards the pursuit of lifelong love.
The problem is that our bodies awaken sexually around eleven (or even earlier), while we are not financially and emotionally ready for marriage until at least a decade later. This is a new tension caused by modern “advancements” ranging from the hormones in our food to the growing demands of what it means to be an adult ready for marriage. In biblical times, the period between sexual awakening and marriage age was far shorter! It’s not realistic nor wise (or even legal) to encourage twelve year olds to pursue marriage as an answer to their sexual longings. However, we should be concerned with men and women in early adulthood who delay marriage and romantic pursuit by redirecting their sexuality toward self-pleasure.
I know that many single women reading this blog want a covenant relationship. The fact is that there are more married-minded women than men. Single women are sexual. Even those who are committed to purity in mind and body have sexual hormones, dreams and thoughts that impact their bodies. Just like men have "wet dreams," many women masturbate and orgasm in their sleep.
There are Christian leaders working with singles who believe that masturbation may be a way to stay sexually pure until marriage. While I would be very cautious to give that advice, I recognize that for some, masturbation is a way of channeling sexual urges away from the temptation to have sex. However, some research suggests that masturbation can increase sexual desire instead of helping relieve it.
We also need to consider that masturbation promotes the belief and attitude that sexuality is about personal pleasure. Some men and women who regularly masturbate find that they have difficulty learning to share their sexuality appropriately once they are married. They only know how to sexually respond to their own touch.
The apostle Paul taught that "nothing should master" us. In other words, we shouldn't be controlled or addicted to anything. This applies to food, shopping, social media and also to masturbation. For many women, masturbation can become a way of escape from boredom, loneliness, depression, pain and stress. We learn at a young age to soothe ourselves with something that feels good. Some ways of coping with stress and boredom are clearly unhealthy, like drinking alcohol or cutting. Other forms of coping are destructive because they abuse an inherently good thing. For example, food is a wonderful gift. But a binge on ice cream and Doritos because you are lonely is abusing that gift. The same is true of sexuality. The neurochemicals released during sex and orgasm reduce stress, help you sleep and make you feel at peace. However, having sex outside of marriage or habitually masturbating is an abuse of the body's natural response to sex.
If you are masturbating on a regular basis or use it to deal with negative emotions, I'd encourage you to find other means of coping. God gave us healthy ways to release the chemicals in your body that bring peace and contentment. Prayer, meditation, exercise, talking to a friend or creating something artistic might take more work, but they are alternatives to falling into an addictive cycle.
"Don't you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body" (1 Corinthians 6:19–20).
This verse can bring conviction regarding a lot of choices we make with our bodies, but it was written in the context of sexuality. If there is a "gold standard" question to ask, this is it.
The most important question I would ask a married couple to consider related to the use of masturbation is, “Does this draw us into greater intimacy or interfere with intimacy?”.
There is a huge difference between a selfish wife who masturbates because she is withholding sex from her husband and a wife who masturbates for the purpose of building intimacy with her husband. Consider, for example, a couple who is separated because of deployment or long-term illness. Is masturbation something that can support your marriage and your vows to be faithful to each other? This is a matter of both agreement and conscience. A husband and wife should talk and pray together about the best way to focus sexually on one another when sexual intimacy isn’t possible. Masturbation becomes a problem when it is a secret kept from your spouse, if it is a replacement for sexual intimacy or if sexual thoughts go outside of thinking about just the two of you.
Many married women can only orgasm if they stimulate themselves. While I’d encourage women in this situation to work towards teaching your husband how to pleasure you (I’d recommend the book The Way to Love Your Wife by Cliff and Joyce Penner), there is nothing wrong with touching yourself during sexual intimacy. You are sharing a sexual experience with your husband. Growing sexually requires you to explore your bodies together. Masturbation can even be beneficial for a married couple in cases of sexual dysfunction. A very common form of sex therapy called "sensate focus" helps a woman pay attention to how she responds to sexual touch, first by touching herself and then by guiding her husband's hand as he touches her. This can be an important step in healing, particularly for women who have experienced sexual trauma that triggers anxiety at sexual touch.
I have great respect for women (married and single) who want to honor God with their sexuality. I believe masturbation is an issue that each woman has to ask the Lord about. While God didn’t specifically address masturbation in the Bible, God did tell us that He wants to give us his wisdom. "If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking" (James 1:5).
God is the High Priest who understands your questions and struggles. Even in this most intimate (and perhaps embarrassing) issue, don't be afraid to pour out your heart to him and ask for his specific direction and wisdom.