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Friday, September 16, 2005

Solitary sex: a follow-up

In the wake of my first post on the subject of autoerotism, I've been collecting additional thoughts. Yesterday morning, a Breakpoint commentary by Mark Earley titled Moral Sexuality in a Morally Neutral World appeared in my inbox. Earley speaks of Jennifer Roback Morse’s new book, Smart Sex: Finding Life-Long Love in a Hook-Up World. Both Earley’s and Morse’s thoughts relate closely to my thoughts on autoerotism.

Before I share them, allow me to explain my use of the term “autoerotism.” 1) The term is precise and descriptive; it draws attention to the two most important elements of masturbation: a) it’s about the self, and b) it involves more than mere physical reflex; it is, in truth, eroticism. In fact, it may not involve any physical action at all. 2) It is a term that will perhaps cause a person to think twice and to identify what is spelled out in (1), hopefully free (or at least temporarily so) of some of the associations that might immediately be conjured by the word “masturbation.” 3) The term is not, as some may suppose, styptically academic. It was coined by none other than Havelock Ellis, an early proponent of sexual liberation.

Says Earley, speaking of Morse:

She deals with concepts like “reproductive freedom,” “recreational sex,” and “consumer sex,” and shows how they’re not only morally bankrupt, but also anti-social.
Morse explains that the problem with these views of sex is that they focus on the individual.”

I’d like to suggest that autoerotism focuses on the individual allowing or performing it. It is a thought/act resulting from an inwardly-focused view of sex, at least in that particular instance. Yes of course this is self-evident, but I call attention to it to show that this is antithetical to the proper use of sex as a marital sacrament.

As Morse puts it, “When we engage in consumer sex, we do not fully consider the impact of our actions upon others. Consumer sex is focused inward, on personal pleasure, not on the building up of the community of the family.”

I would put masturbation/autoerotism in the category of both “recreational-" and “consumer sex.” No doubt the person who engages in masturbation does not fully consider the impact of his/her actions upon others, or else does not consider it to be problematic.

I’m aware of the practice of masturbating (by a male) prior to coitus so as to have better relations with his wife. Such an individual would claim that this is done for the sake of his wife, and that the focus of such masturbation is to build up community with his wife. Without going into detail, or claiming to be Dr. Ruth, I would offer that the problem such a man is wishing to alleviate can be addressed in other ways that directly involve his wife.

I’m also aware that there are women who claim to be better at sex and to enjoy it more because of self-discovery as a result of masturbation. This view, however, substitutes knowledge and “achievement” for relationship itself – the sharing, mutual discovery and mutual “achievement” (if it must be called that) that characterizes a healthy marital sexual relationship.

In short, the sexual revolution taught us to think of our sex lives as our own property and our own business, and nobody else’s, even though other people are obviously involved. To use sex this way is to treat it as the opposite of what it was meant to be: a destroyer of relationships rather than something that builds them. (emphasis added)

While I do not claim that masturbation is necessarily a destroyer of relationships, I suggest that its practice is part of a mentality that does destroy relationships. At any rate, I am not convinced that its practice can possibly build up a relationship, or even not detract from it if, as detailed in the first post, sex is solely for the spouse.

“So what,” someone might say. “I have a great relationship with my spouse, including the intimate aspects. Masturbation in no way interferes with that.” Well, he/she may say that, but that doesn't make it true. How can someone truly know that masturbation does not detract from a marital relationship? It seems self-evident that something given to the self or indulged in solitarily is not given to someone else. The fullness, the completeness (speaking in terms of what’s healthy, and I know that’s another can of worms, but please bear with me) of one’s sexuality is to be given to the spouse. To do otherwise is to deny two-becoming-one.

I don’t see personal privacy coming into play here, as it does for many aspects of marriage and personhood. In other words, saying that “what I do sexually in private has nothing to do with anyone else, my spouse included” is not a true statement, as per the quote above. Nor do I see mutual consent as being relevant either. (Meaning a couple mutually agreeing that they’re OK with each other’s solitary masturbation.) The buck stops at the deontology of sex.

Speaking to Christians: clearly, a redeemed view of sexuality starts with the self. Unless one develops the view that sexuality does not belong to the self, one’s view isn’t essentially different than a view whose expression involves sex with an individual or individuals others than one’s spouse, even if one limits one’s practice of mutual sex to one’s spouse. I know many may disagree, but it’s a matter of degree, I believe, not of essence. Adultery begins in the heart/mind. And of course, one can be monogamous yet merely use one’s spouse for one’s own gratification in a selfish way. In other words, the object is still, as with autoerotism, one’s own gratification. If a Christian is monogamous yet holds a self-directed view of sex, then his/her limiting of sex to the spouse is, in actuality, a form of legalism. At its root – in the heart/mind – the sexuality of such a monogamous person has not been (fully) redeemed.

There are many Christians who rightly state that the goal of the Christian life is sanctification, and it seems that sanctification is an oft-forgotten point among evangelicals. In a mindset in which sex is made an idol, it may actually be viewed as a rite of sanctification (as opposed to sacrament when used properly). But this of course is a lie – a grave misunderstanding of sanctification. I fear that such idolatry can occupy a Christian’s mindset quite easily, especially if said individual practices autoerotism. “Be ye renewed by the transforming of your mind...” Romans 12:2


Endnote: I apologize for the frankness of this post. I consider myself a modest person and honestly am not comfortable writing much of what I’m writing here. So why am I doing it? Because I think it needs to be done. I don’t know that anyone else is doing so substantially. It seems as though the pen has been put in my hand, so to speak.

(And to those of you who think modesty is for prudes, I have this to say: showing off in virtually any other area is considered crass. What is the point of publicizing something that ought to be private? (I don’t mean the topics themselves, I mean personal attitudes or specifics.) Do you really think that your not being privy to something by means of someone else “showing” it to you means that it doesn’t exist? Please, don’t flatter yourself. And don’t flatter yourself into thinking that your own blustering means you’re too sexy for your comment, or your blog, or whatever.)

8 Comments:

  • Bonnie, thanks for having the courage to post on this topic and to do it with compassion and dignity. This is definitely one of those issues that the church on the whole has swept under the rug.

    By Blogger jane, at 10:21 PM  

  • Bravo. I've come into sharp disagreement with others for similar comments, and oh I know how it feels to be the odd person out for speaking out about this. But it is still the Truth.

    By Blogger razorbackmama, at 2:00 AM  

  • I posted this comment on your earlier post as well, but I don't know how apt you are to look at comments left on earlier entries, so I felt it might not be inappropriate to re-post it here, as it remains germain:

    ***

    You seem to have misconstrued something important.

    For a guy, it's often just a hygenic matter. If we don't have orgasms while we're awake, it'll happen naturally while we sleep. This is a sticky, nasty, unhygenic mess. Honestly? I find masturbation tiresome some of the time, but I don't relish waking up with my sheets stuck to my body by a mess of my own bodily fluids, having experienced that many times during the years before I started masturbating. It's frankly disgusting.

    It's not a moral or ethical or spiritual matter. It's just a matter of cleanliness, like not peeing and pooping in the bed you sleep in. Granted, you could pee and poop on your own sheets and just do laundry every day, but who wants that kind of hassle when you can just go do it in the washroom?

    It's seriously that level of practical consideration.

    By Blogger Dave_Littler, at 5:30 AM  

  • Thanks, Marla and K, I appreciate the encouragement. Marla, I agree with you. I was hoping to generate some discussion among Christians with these posts. I was also curious to see if anyone would share a Christian “defense” of masturbation, as some have more or less done, but I’m interested in arguments/Scripture in support of it, or even in support of not taking a “position” on it. I’m also interested in response, supportive or non-, to my particular arguments.

    Dave, thanks for your comment. Please know that I am not denying "practical considerations," but I'm also not convinced that they require masturbation to deal with.

    I can understand how nocturnal emission might be unpleasant. But (pardon the frankness) semen is not unhygienic, nor is it waste, unlike urine and feces.

    I’ve heard said that nocturnal emission is often related to mental sexual activity during the day (though this doesn’t mean that it always is). I offer that up for your consideration.

    On mess, well...mess is part of life. I don’t like it either, but I can think of a few natural, non-pathological “messes” produced by women’s bodies (one of them on a regular basis) that must be dealt with. Please pardon me for saying so, but I would think there are measures you could take to contain your own nocturnal “mess.”

    By Blogger Bonnie, at 10:34 PM  

  • OK, let's get honest. First, autoeroticism for males and females is not necessarily for the same reasons, and physicians will attest to that. For men, it's not always for consumerist self-gratification, or lust for someone else. Men have "cycles" of sperm production, usually two or three weeks in length, and that sperm builds up in the testes, and it has to have a release. Sometimes, the body absorbs the semen and sometimes not. That release, outside of masturbation, is a "nocturnal emission". And that emission often accompanied by dreaming, since the build up of sperm raises the hormone level in the body.

    A guy may or may not be thinking about sex with a specific woman in a Biblically inappropriate way, but he will have a wet dream when his body tells him to and there's nothing he can do about. I should know, I struggled with that for years in my early teens and through my twenties, because I didn't masturbate. Such dreams are not voluntary, and the dreams themselves are sometimes so disturbing, vivid, and memorable (twenty years later I still remember some of them), or all three, that in the end, I believe masturbation is almost advisable to avoid the mental component that goes with the nocturnal emission. And then, after the mental humiliation comes the physical one of waking up in a wet spot of your own making.

    Let me tell you, when you're a young Christian man, and you're trying to have control over your thought life and control your impulses, and you're warring against raging hormones that leave you literally shaking at night until you fall asleep (for years), and then, after all that fighting, you have dreams fortnightly about having sex with every kind of woman imaginable and in some very out-of-bounds kind of ways, you start masturbating just to make that kind of imagery stop. And once I started, it did stop. I masturbated about once every couple of weeks and purposefully blanked out my mind so that I would not be lusting as well. It is possible to separate the two, I did it until I got married, and I really haven't masturbated since. I will say, that one interesting side effect of having such thoughts is that even for a virgin like I was until I married, I felt like I had already "played the field" so to speak, and wasn't interested in doing so in real life, because my noctural emission life was so vivid. But don't think for a minute is was pleasant to have such an experience. It made me feel very "soiled".

    While women have their "messes", a period doesn't have the vivid mental component that a nocturnal emission will have, and thus, is not in the same category, imho. Female increase in hormones result in mood changes and other issues which, in some ways, are also involuntary, and yet, most women excuse them for themselves, and demand that their male friends, companions, and spouses compensate for them. Women kind of think they've cornered the market on having a "you don't know until it's happened to you" physical experience because of their periods, but hormones in a man can be just as savage.

    I've been wanting to do a post on masturbation for a while, and I guess I'm going to have to now, so that women can really understand what's going on physiologically and psychologically with a man.

    By Blogger Neil, at 2:50 AM  

  • Neil, good to hear from you. I was wondering what you might have to say about these posts.

    I appreciate your struggle, and thank you for sharing it openly here. I also appreciate very much your expressed desire for sexual purity and attempts to achieve it. I want you to know, though, that the struggle of sexuality and hormones and dreams is not just a male one. I would hazard to guess that sexuality is just as strong a force in women as it is in men, though I don’t know offhand what proof for that would look like. I can’t think of any reason that it wouldn’t be, though. Indeed, the thought that it might be stronger for men than for women might lead to a justification of rape, or something like that. (Not that you’re doing that!)

    autoeroticism for males and females is not necessarily for the same reasons, and physicians will attest to that.

    Though there are certainly (and obviously) male-female physiological differences, I don’t think I would allow my entire assessment of autoerotism to rest on what a physician says – how on earth would a physician know all the reasons that men or women masturbate? S/he can only speak to physiology, and physiology isn’t the only aspect.

    I understand cycles of sperm production, and dreams, and how they relate to nocturnal emission. I did not address the issue of dreams specifically, though, and I’m glad you brought it up. I’ll speak to it briefly: hormone-induced dreams are not just a male phenomenon. I don’t believe that dreams are sins – how can they be? They are not willful (though they are subject to our sin nature). However, dreams are indicators, and they are not unrelated to daytime thought life or to information taken in during waketime. At least, that’s been my personal experience, and I’ve read some things about dreams that support this as being generally true (as a universal human phenonemon). I think that dreams should be viewed and assessed with these things in mind.

    I believe masturbation is almost advisable to avoid the mental component that goes with the nocturnal emission. And then, after the mental humiliation comes the physical one of waking up in a wet spot of your own making.

    Why should this be humiliating, Neil? Why is nocturnal emission humiliating? I can understand how the dream part might be disturbing, but the physical aspect?

    But don't think for a minute it was pleasant to have such an experience. It made me feel very "soiled".

    I never said that I thought nocturnal emission was particularly pleasant, or not. But, again, I don’t think that nocturnal ejaculation itself soils anything other than your jockeys, or the sheets. Does a husband “soil” a wife when he ejaculates within her? I don’t think so. (Sorry about the frankness.)

    Your feeling of being soiled is not a result of the mere physiological component of nocturnal emission.

    While women have their "messes", a period doesn't have the vivid mental component that a nocturnal emission will have, and thus, is not in the same category, imho.

    My point in bringing up women’s “messes” was to illustrate the fact that men are not the only ones whose bodies produce natural, non-pathological messes on a regular basis.

    Female increase in hormones result in mood changes and other issues which, in some ways, are also involuntary, and yet, most women excuse them for themselves, and demand that their male friends, companions, and spouses compensate for them. Women kind of think they've cornered the market on having a "you don't know until it's happened to you" physical experience because of their periods, but hormones in a man can be just as savage.

    Be careful of generalizations, Neil. I never said that women have cornered the market on having a “you don’t know...physical experience b/c of their periods.” While some might think so, I certainly don’t. There are also experiential variations among women.

    Hormones produce different effects in women at different times. There’s the “time-of-the-month” phenomenon, and then there is the “fertile time” phenomenon. Female increase in hormones results in a lot more than just mood changes, Neil. And, let me tell you, pregnancy can do some really weird stuff to a woman, in all areas! What I’m saying is, those “savage” hormones you refer to can be just as savage on the “desire” end of things – physically, mentally, and emotionally – for women as for men.

    I've been wanting to do a post on masturbation for a while, and I guess I'm going to have to now, so that women can really understand what's going on physiologically and psychologically with a man.

    I would be interested to read what you have to say, but I also wonder why you would assume that I or other women don’t already have some sort of appreciative understanding of these things. I also would ask whether you feel you speak for all men. Don’t forget, I know one particular man quite intimately, and, as of yet, have not heard anything from you or Dave or anyone else that I didn’t know about before. I stand by what I've said.

    By Blogger Bonnie, at 10:02 PM  

  • While I do not claim that masturbation is necessarily a destroyer of relationships, I suggest that its practice is part of a mentality that does destroy relationships. At any rate, I am not convinced that its practice can possibly build up a relationship, or even not detract from it if, as detailed in the first post, sex is solely for the spouse.

    This is such an excellent point, and one that I think is missed in much of the discussion on this issue. Both of your posts have been quite thought-provoking. I appreciated your honesty in calling masturbation "solitary sex"; few want to view it that way, preferring to think of it as somehow outside the realm of sexual ethics, a kind of neutral topic as long as lust is not involved.

    There are a few marriages that I know where the husband's years of frequent masturbation before marriage did detract from the marriage relationship. It was difficult for the husbands to switch from sex as being something...well, solitary...to sex being a shared act between spouses, one that was supposed to communicate love and intimacy, rather than just being about sexual release.

    By Blogger Rebecca, at 11:14 PM  

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