“I think it’s okay as long as nobody gets hurt.”
That has become the rallying cry of our times, the gloss over all deeds, the excuse for practically any sin. It is the banner of the sexual revolution, the fallback position of those confronted by the “narrow-minded” religious in society. After all, who does it really hurt if teenagers have pre-marital sex, as long as they play it safe? Who does it hurt if two consenting adults decide to have a one-night stand? Who does it hurt if two men or two women decide to sleep together? More importantly, how could one possibly claim anyone is harmed if someone masturbates?
The primary problem with this rallying cry should be obvious to anyone who sits down and reasons for a few minutes. Do we really know that the action isn’t hurting anyone? We commit many actions that are both directly and indirectly harmful both to ourselves and others. Sometimes the consequences are so far reaching that we might not realize at the moment that there are consequences. Moreover, much of the time we might be deluding ourselves to the actual consequences.
Masturbation is such an action. It seems so harmless, especially as it is predominantly a solitary activity. Most people who argue for masturbation see nothing wrong with it, and in fact tend to suggest that decrying masturbation as sinful is not only misleading, but harmful.
Yet contrary to popular belief, masturbation is not the harmless activity, or even the tiny little sin many try to portray it as. Fundamentally, it is the most insidious of all sexual sin. While it may be an exaggeration to say that it lies behind every sexual sin, it is accurate to say that it is the primordial sexual sin.
Masturbation essentially is the use of the reproductive organs to gain sexual pleasure ahead of any other consideration, especially the intended purposes of sex. The Catechism states:
2352 By masturbation is to be understood the deliberate stimulation of the genital organs in order to derive sexual pleasure. “Both the Magisterium of the Church, in the course of a constant tradition, and the moral sense of the faithful have been in no doubt and have firmly maintained that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action.” “The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose.” For here sexual pleasure is sought outside of “the sexual relationship which is demanded by the moral order and in which the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love is achieved.”
The first objection to this is that just because the intended purpose of sex is to unite spouses and procreate, that doesn’t mean that putting to sex to any other purpose, especially the practice of masturbation, is wrong. So here we need to follow the line I mentioned before. Instead of asking “where’s the money?”, we ask “how is this pitting body against soul?”
At first glance, this seems a difficult, if not impossible, connection to make, especially in light of so many things that we do as human beings to derive pleasure. If we are to condemn masturbation on grounds of using the body to gain pleasure, then can we not condemn other activities? Do we not utilize the body for pleasure when playing sports? Are we not forcing our eyes to perform pleasurable acts when we read a book? The list could go on nigh indefinitely, and immediately we face the daunting task of trying to differentiate masturbation from all of these.
What we should notice first is that recreation is needed to keep the body healthy. One of the reasons we have a day of rest and reasonable working hours on days we do work is to prevent us from working ourselves to death. Recreation decreases stress, relaxes the body, and—depending on the activity—can help keep us fit. But even recreation can be taken too far. A person who sits around all day, day after day, reading and re-reading books solely for the pleasure of reading is abusing recreation. How so? By placing the pleasure of recreation over all other considerations.
More extreme examples would be running oneself near to death to achieve a runner’s high, or eating for the pleasure of eating, rather than to satisfy hunger. At this point, the body is flogged beyond its natural function to achieve pleasure, and the harmful consequences are typically obvious at this point.
From this one might continue to argue that masturbation is all right as long as one doesn’t carry the habit to extremes. I might be willing to agree with that sentiment, but in that case, “extreme” means any indulgence at all.
Masturbation is wrong in any instance because it treats the body as nothing more than a vehicle for delivering pleasure. Moreover, masturbation trains us to treat bodies as valuable only inasmuch as they deliver pleasure to us. But even saying this, we are tempted to say, “so what?”, especially when we understand that God desires for us to enjoy life. And we still haven’t yet proved that masturbation is anything more than a natural, healthy bit of recreation.
The analogy with recreation, though, can only be carried so far. Recreation can be performed either alone or in groups, but sex—the intended purpose of our reproductive capabilities—requires another person for proper consummation. Proper, marital sex demands the giving of self to be unitive.
Most people recognize that sex should be performed as an act of love between two people devoted to each other. The Catholic understanding, though, recognizes that first and foremost, we were made to love one another. Our souls are geared towards love, and our love finds one of its greatest expressions when it mimics the Trinity in the procreative marital embrace.
This is then how masturbation pits body against soul. For the sake of physical pleasure, masturbation takes an act geared towards the giving of self to another and turns it inwards for self-gratification. This selfish pleasure-seeking runs counter to our very being and stunts our capability of expressing love. It blocks the soul’s inherent desires and does very well at fulfilling the Gnostic view of spirit trapped in flesh.
This contradiction of nature has two immediate consequences. First, though the high of sexual climax provides a nice euphoria, it ends after a short time and leaves only a hollowness that was meant to be filled with the love for one’s partner. This hollowness in turn opens one to seek ever greater pleasure in the attempt to fill it. Thus masturbation easily becomes addictive and can lead one into a wide range of sinful behavior, such as heavy pornography and fornication.
Second is that the turning inward inherent in masturbation interferes with actual conjugal relations. Once we admit that our sexuality can be perverted from an act meant for the full giving of self to the full taking for the self, it becomes very difficult to differentiate between giving and taking in the marital bed.
This is why I called masturbation the primordial sexual sin. Masturbation is first and foremost the turning inward of sexual pleasure. Once we have accomplished that, once we have agreed that seeking such pleasure is permissible, then we have every right to seek that pleasure in any sexual encounter. For the vast majority of cases, masturbation lies behind fornication, behind adultery, behind even homosexual actions. When we have reduced the act of sex to self-service, then any act of sex runs the risk of being solely masturbatory in nature.
For the continued skeptic, the most remarkable piece of evidence in support of what I am saying lies in all the self-help books and columns written by professed “sexperts”. By and large, we find in these documents a steady theme: if sex is proving unfulfilling, experiment with masturbation to discover how exactly you like to be pleased so that then your partner can please you better.
It should be obvious that if we have taken sex, turned it inward, and made it effectively masturbation, then more masturbation would indeed help us improve at such masturbatory acts.
Next up: fornication and adultery.