By Natasha Helfer Parker
I am 29 and have my endowments, but I also masturbate. I feel guilty about it. I’m trying to tell myself it’s OK. But is it?
I am a single LDS woman, age 31, hoping to get endowed soon. The problem is, I have had issues with . . . well, I am too embarrassed to even type it. I started experimenting [with masturbation] at a fairly young age and continued until about a year ago. I have felt terrible about myself and too humiliated to talk to my bishop about the problem. I continue to postpone my endowment because I feel unworthy, and I’m worried about the interview. I don’t want to miss out on the blessings of the temple because of something like this. I want to do the right thing spiritually as well as take care of myself physically, but how can I do both?
IN 2012, I wrote a blog post at The Mormon Therapist articulating my official stance on masturbation.1 It took me about 10 years to develop this position, drawing on both my perspective as a mental health professional and as a faithful member of the Church. But for a long time, I stayed silent on the subject not wanting to contradict what might be considered church policy, culture, or doctrine. However, I came to the realization that my silence was unethical—especially when I considered the needs of our adolescent and single-adult population. I was being complicit with a structure that caused tremendous pain, unnecessary guilt, ecclesiastical discipline, cultural shaming, marital and sexual repercussions, negative coping, negative self-identity and esteem, and other destructive consequences.
My position is that masturbation is neither sinful nor even a “transgression.” Here is why.
Mormonism holds that God created us as emotional, spiritual, intellectual, and sexual beings. Mormonism also recognizes that both relational connections and independence are essential for spiritual growth. The social and psychological sciences agree: we are social creatures meant to thrive in relationship with others. However, we are also individual entities—and when we’re not able to be in a relationship, we have the capacity to meet our own needs for certain periods of time depending on our age and developmental stage. Through the studies of pediatrics and human sexuality, we know that genital stimulation is normal behavior for children.2 Combining this knowledge with the LDS doctrine that children are innocent, I believe we need to reconsider some of our ideas about masturbation.
We are born and die sexual beings. Currently, Mormon teachings hold that sexuality should only be explored within marriage. However, the opportunity for marital sexuality only occurs during a particular period of adult life—if it occurs at all. A significant portion of one’s life may be spent in a situation where marital sexuality is not an option—and expected asexuality should not be considered a healthy alternative. In order to accommodate and even benefit the inherent sexuality of each of God’s children, we need to reframe our current conceptions of masturbation. Instead of casting it as a sinful, perverse, or degrading practice, we can see it as a God-created, self-regulatory system that can provide some of the benefits of sexuality for periods when we are not in a sexual relationship with another person.
Our sexual drive is a God-given process that leads most human beings to self-explore from an early age. This experimentation helps us get to know our own anatomy, develop a capacity for sexual fantasy, and self-soothe—all in preparation for sharing a sexual life with another person. The teaching of healthy masturbation could be used to help our teens and single adults learn to be sexually responsible, empowering them to learn about and control their sexual drives and cycles while owning their sexuality without shame. Masturbation could be seen as a legitimate way to meet one’s sexual needs while staying within religious sexual parameters and values.
There are many benefits associated with sexual release that are important to experience regardless of marital status. Sexual pleasure and orgasm have been linked to stress relief, pain relief (including menstrual cramping), hormonal regulation, the prevention of certain cancers, and the lowering of loneliness, depression, and anxiety levels.3 It can help women who struggle to reach orgasm in a relationship to find their sexual capacity. It can also help married couples manage libido differences and add variety to their sex lives. Plus it is the safest sex around—no unintended pregnancies, STDs, or harmful emotional repercussions. These are just some of the many positive results that come from the healthy use of masturbation.
It is true that, like any normal human activity, masturbation can become an unhealthy behavior. Eating, sleeping, and eliminating have a similar potential, but we don’t couch them as being sinful. If masturbation interferes with one’s daily functioning or the quality of one’s relationships, its use should be moderated. And certainly, I do not want to minimize the suffering of those who have struggled in a marriage where their spouse has withdrawn sexually in part because of an unhealthy masturbation habit. But I believe unnecessary masturbatory shame and unmet attachment needs are at the core of most of this unhealthy behavior to begin with—not masturbation itself. And the current fear-based rhetoric on this issue leads to spouses feeling unnecessarily threatened in their relationship.
At the time I wrote my initial blog post, I had not heard anything official over the pulpit on this topic for over 20 years, so I expressed my hope that Church leaders were stepping away from old teachings. Unfortunately, I have seen a recent re-trenching toward the old language of “self-abuse”—specifically by Tad R. Callister (now a member of the presidency of the Seventy) who spoke on the issue at a BYU-Idaho fireside. A version of his talk was then published in the Ensign.4 However, the Church has moved away from many of its early to mid 20th century stances (i.e. masturbation leads to homosexuality, insanity, etc.).5 The word “masturbation” has been taken out of the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet6 and it no longer shows up in the official handbooks, leading me to believe that bishops should not be asking about masturbation in their interviews, and that one has a right to refuse to answer such questions.
During the past 17 years, I have spoken to numerous bishops, stake presidents, Relief Society presidents, and high councilmen attempting to piece together an official stance on this matter. The answers I received depended largely on which leader I approached and what their experience had been with their past leaders—all differing from one another.
This lack of unanimity gives rank-and-file members vastly different experiences depending on who their leaders are. For example, I know many men who have been kept from serving a mission for masturbating (even though they have kept a virginal sexual status), while for many others this has not been a problem. Oftentimes men are asked about masturbation in their interviews while women are not—expanding or contracting the options they might have for missionary and other types of service. I have come across a variety of members who view moderate masturbation as an “addiction” and are consequently employing recovery services and attending groups for correcting such behavior—often referred there by their ecclesiastical leaders. I’ve had numerous clients disclose that they are “cutting” (true self-abuse) due to their guilt over masturbation—again, usually virgins. Often Church members will frame any masturbation as problematic behavior.
All of this negativity has its roots in our current rhetoric around masturbation. In my experience, such rhetoric is emotionally and spiritually abusive and leads to negative psychological and sexual repercussions that are unnecessary and sometimes tragic.
As far as a temple recommend interview is concerned, its questions are simple, specific, and to be repeated just as they are written. The person interviewing you is not supposed to deviate from them. The one question that deals with sexuality is: “Do you live the law of chastity?” That’s it. No questions on how you follow it or whether or not you are masturbating. Furthermore, in the temple, “the law of chastity” is defined as covenanting to only have sexual relations with one’s spouse. “Sexual relations” is clearly stated in terms of relationship. Masturbation is an individual practice that only becomes relational once you’re married and establish sexual parameters with your spouse. A priesthood authority does not have the right to ask about masturbatory practice without due cause (i.e. if you have brought the issue up yourself). If an authority figure does ask such a question, it is a good opportunity to honor your own boundaries and say you are uncomfortable with their line of questioning. The lack of boundaries within Mormon interview culture, especially when it comes to sexuality, can lead to both intentional and unintentional ecclesiastical abuse.
The most important thing to consider in this situation is where your authority lies in all of this. How do you apply your spiritual principles and beliefs in regards to the choices you are making? For example, when someone speaks to me of the relief they felt after reading my blog post, I want to ask them where their trust is in their feelings and ability to discern truth. Where does the good fruit of the tree grow for them?
I don’t mean to blame the victim by any means. We live in a conservative religion that places much of its focus on outward behavior. So when we have questions, most of us expect to find solid, behavior-based answers. Unfortunately this often leads us to surrender our personal authority, and that authority is an important facet of healthy psychological and spiritual development. When approaching difficult questions, remember that nestled deep within Mormonism is the wonderful gem of personal revelation—of our individual relationship with God. Claim this truth; stake out your own path according to its direction. It may vary somewhat from the paths of those who walk alongside us, but trust yourself, trust in your unconditionally loving Heavenly Parents, trust in the atonement, trust in transcendence. Time and time again I witness good women and men in our church being blocked from a deeper relationship with the divine by what they deem a deviation from “appropriate behavior.”
Feelings of unworthiness usually come from two different sources:
- The appropriate pricks of guilt that follow behavior or thoughts which are harmful to self or others such as cheating, stealing, gossip, abuse, uncontrolled anger, or drug abuse.
- The inappropriate shame tied to either taboo cultural subjects of questionable “sinfulness” (i.e. an Amish woman caught wearing blue jeans) or past sinful behavior one has repented of but can’t self-forgive.
Guilt doesn’t always come from a healthy source. Our responsibility is to figure out when guilt is healthy—usually when it motivates us, propels positive lifestyle change, and draws us closer to God—and when it needs to be abandoned.
During a temple recommend interview, it is not your relationship with the bishop that is primary; it is your relationship with divinity. If you can feel good about yourself from a standpoint of eternal progression—meaning that you fall within a spectrum of imperfection while striving to move forward—then you are on the right track. If, in a context of prayer, meditation, and divine connection, you feel that your use of masturbation is a healthy, balanced means toward an eternal goal, continue.
Whether you agree or disagree with my position, I wish you well on the journey of making your own spiritual decisions and accepting yourself along the way. May you stretch toward a higher plane and cultivate a deeper connection with God in the process.
- Natasha Helfer Parker, “My Official Stance on Masturbation,” The Mormon Therapist, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/mormontherapist/2012/08/my-official-stance-on-masturbation.html (accessed 3 March 2015).
- “Masturbation,” HealthyChildren.org, http://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/gradeschool/puberty/Pages/Masturbation.aspx (accessed 3 March 2015).
- “Masturbation,” Planned Parenthood, http://www.plannedparenthood.org/health-info/sexuality/masturbation (accessed 3 March 2015).
- Tad R. Callister, “The Lord’s Standard of Morality,” Ensign, March 2014, https://www.lds.org/ensign/2014/03/the-lords-standard-of-morality?lang=eng (accessed 3 March 2015).
- “Historical Development of Masturbation Attitudes in Mormon Culture: Silence, Secular Conformity, Counterrevolution, and Emerging Reform,” Sexuality & Culture, Fall 2005, Vol. 9, No. 4, pp. 80–127.
- “Purity,” For the Strength of Youth, https://www.lds.org/youth/for-the-strength-of-youth/sexual-purity?lang=eng (accessed 3 March 2015).