The technical term for touching oneself sexually is ‘masturbation’ which may be defined as self-stimulation to cause sexual sensations.
The word masturbation usually suggests that the person is manipulating his or her genitals to the point of intense pleasure or orgasm.
The act of self-gratification in masturbation, if it is practiced by a person on his/her own, lacks the full meaning of human sexuality which is directed towards a loving relationship. On the other hand, the blanket condemnation of masturbation by traditionalists is based on faulty conceptions.
Past views on masturbation
1. Scriptural interpretation – Onan’s wastage of seed?
And Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the LORD; and the LORD slew him. And Judah said unto Onan, Go in unto thy brother’s wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother. 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.
Medieval interpreters were convinced that a future child is contained in the male seed. Onan ‘wasted his male seed’ and thus human life. That was the essence of Onan’s sin according to these medieval theologians, a sin which was identified with masturbation. However, in view of our present-day knowledge, modern Catholic moralists are agreed that the ‘wastage of seed’ is not sinful. Every male ejaculation releases nearly 400 million seeds and only one is necessary for fertilization. Moreover, what is condemned in Genesis 38,7-10 is not the wastage of seed, but Onan’s refusal to raise children for his brother.
2. Medical opinion – Is masturbation harmful to health?
From the Middle Ages on the conviction gradually grew that masturbation was very bad for a person’s health and wellbeing.
Hippocrates, a Greek physician regarded as the father of medicine, had believed that loss of semen would lead to spinal problems! His text was re-discovered in the Middle Ages. Medieval doctors also declared that seed was a powerful fluid and its loss weakened the body.
An anonymous pamphlet on ‘Onanism, i.e. the abhorrent sin of self-pollution’ in 1710 repeated and enlarged the supposed ills of wasting seed. It was an immediate bestseller, leading to 80 editions in many European languages.
A Swiss doctor called Tissot published in 1760 a booklet ‘Onanism – a Treatise on the Illnesses caused by Masturbation’. He enumerated as consequences: TB, loss of vision, digestive problems, impotence and madness. His views were soon accepted as established medical opinion.
In 1812 Benjamin Rush, the „father of american psychiatry”, attributed to masturbation: impotence, kidney failure, spinal cancer, lung cancer, indigestion, blindness, epilepsy, hypochondria, memory loss, prostate trouble, inner bleeding and death. Psychiatrists generally concurred, such as the leading Brit Maudsley who described the ‘illness’ in 1867 as moving through the stages of perversion of emotions and confusion of mind, to loss of intelligence, nightly hallucinations, homicidal and suicidal tendences, and finally total madness.
Such medical opinion has been totally overturned. There is no evidence for the physical ills traditionally ascribed to masturbation. The practice of masturbation for its own sake may, in the long run, turn the person in on himself/herself. For it deprives the human sexual act of its main purpose and context, namely the creation of a ‘holistic’ and intimate relationship.
3. Scriptural teaching – Is masturbation the unchastity condemned in Pauline writings?
Influenced by such medieval and medical opinions, Christians interpreted some New Testament passages as directly referring to masturbation.
“There must be not even mention of fornication among you, or impurity in any of its forms, or promiscuity.”
“Fornication, gross indecency and sexual irresponsibility …. I warn you that those who behave like that will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
Galatians 5,19; see also Mark 7,20-22; 2 Corinthians 12,21;Colossians 3,5.
None of the terms used, however, refers to masturbation. They all refer to external breaches of marriage. Basing a scriptural prohibition on those texts is not justified, as is now generally agreed.
4. Traditional morality – Do pleasurable feelings make masturbation sinful?
Experiencing pleasure is not in itself sinful. There are other forms of body stimulation that generate pleasurable feelings: luxuriating in a perfumed bath, lying on the beach and feeling the sun’s rays beating down on you, enjoying a delicious meal, experiencing a sensual massage. In each case, some external agent stimulates nerve endings which in turn generate pleasant feelings. The only difference with masturbation is the intensity of those feelings.
So while there may be other unwanted side-effects in masturbation, it is not the fact of feeling pleasure that makes it sinful.
5. Traditional Catholic teaching – Is masturbation an ‘intrisically disordered act’, always a mortal sin in itself?
Pope Paul VI issued a declaration in 1975 on many aspects of human sexual ethics. It was entitled: ‘Persona Humana – Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics’, issued by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on 29 December1975. We quote some typical excerpts:
“Masturbation constitutes a grave moral disorder…”
“Masturbation is an intrinsically and seriously disordered act… The deliberate use of the sexual faculty outside normal conjugal relations essentially contradicts the ultimate purpose of the sexual faculty . . .
For it lacks the sexual relationship called for by the moral order, namely the relationship which realizes ‘the full sense of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love’. All deliberate exercise of sexuality must be reserved to this regular relationship.”
The teaching is thus based on a traditional view of the natural law of marriage that equates sex totally with having children. The conclusion of that approach (1) puts a total ban on artificial means of contraception, (2) considers any physical act between homosexuals as intrinsically corrupt and (3) condemns any form of masturbation.
Many Catholic theologians and moralists now reject the view expressed in this papal letter and in similar ones regarding the intrinsic nature of sex. They do not accept the traditional view that sexuality has been exclusively designed for procreation and that all sexual acts that cannot lead to conception are condemned as against natural law.
Sexual acts have other legitimate purposes apart from procreation, such as releasing sexual tension in the individual and strengthening the bonds between partners. In other words: though unimpeded intercourse of husband and wife is the ideal, there are valid reasons for a married couple to use contraceptives during intercourse or fondle each other in mutual stimulation, also for homosexual partners to be involved in physical acts of love, and for individuals to allow themselves to masturbate in certain circumstances.
Present pastoral views on masturbation
Even those (few) moral theologians who still consider masturbation in itself a serious mortal sin, concede that subjectively it often is only a venial (small) sin.
To quote some authors:
- “Masturbation is the natural passage by which is reached the warm and generous love of youth and later the calm and positive matrimonial love of maturity.” Havelock Ellis, The Psychology of Sex, London 1959.
- “Masturbation is no less inevitable and no less a part of the psycho-physical development of adolescence than is nocturnal emission.” William Bausch, A Boy’s Sex Life: Handbook of Basic Information and Guidance, Fides 1969.
- “Masturbation is ordinarily not that important a matter. There is no blanket gravity that can be assigned to every act of masturbation. Masturbatory activity is generally symptomatic . . . . Masturbation might be expressive of a deep-seated inversion or just an adolescent growing-up process. Generally speaking I believe masturbation is wrong since it fails to integrate sexuality into the service of love… This wrongness is not always grave; in fact, more times it is not… Catholic educators should openly teach that masturbation is not always a grave matter and most times, especially for adolescents, is not that important… However, the teacher should not leave the adolescent with the impression that there is absolutely nothing wrong with masturbation.” Charles Curran, Contemporary Problems in Moral Theology, Notre Dame 1970 , pp. 175-176.
- “We face the specific problem in later marriage of impotence in the male, or medical indications in the female which rule out intercourse. Is self-relief or mutual masturbation acceptable and excusable in these circumstances? ‘Traditional’ morality would condemn such activity as mortal sin because it is not procreative in form. To fight it, however, is simply to increase the tension until it becomes unbearable and sleep becomes impossible. For the wife to satisfy herself can in fact increase her sense of well-being, enabling her to love and care all the more for her husband and family. Why should God condemn her for doing what is natural, using his gifts for her comfort and well-being? In fact, it can be said in general that where there are medical or other marital problems which make intercourse inadvisable or impossible, ‘self-service’ can be a natural release of sexual tension for both partners. Might the same not be said for those who have no spouse?” Sean Fagan, What Happened to Sin?, the Columba Press, Dublin 2008, p. 98.
It seems more helpful to consider masturbation as morally neutral.
Like with everything else in life, circumstances usually determine whether what we do is right or wrong. Masturbation is not a good thing if it becomes a substitute for a real loving relationship, or if we become addicted to it. But from a Christian point of view, we do not need to consider every act of masturbation a sin. For some people it may be a natural way of discovering their own bodies, or of releasing tension.