“Um… not with anyone else.” That was my stammered response when my now-husband asked, “Have you ever had an orgasm?” We were having THE conversation, wherein I explained that I was a virgin and intended to remain that way for a while. When he asked the question, I did not see the need to lie. I still remember his grin, “Well, at least you know you can.”
That conversation remains at the front of my mind when I talk with middle or high school students about sex. In our area, we even have a Relationship Retreat as part of the Confirmation curriculum. All other pastors yield the floor to me when it comes to the masturbation questions and/or discussion. I am not afraid of them.
I ask kids to say “penis” and “vagina”. If you can’t say it without giggling, you shouldn’t be in a situation to see someone else’s. I feel the same way about touching. If you don’t know what you’ve got, how it works and what’s good for you… then how will you be able to make it good for someone else? In order to give, you have to be able to receive.
I know for years (and years and years) the church universal has frowned upon masturbation. Connecting it to the biblical story of Tamar and Judah, it was called onanism, after the son (Onan) who “spilled his seed on the ground” rather than impregnate his brother’s widow, in keeping with Levirate law. Onan’s sin was actually, as far as I can tell, failing to uphold God’s law. It was the failure to fulfill his commitment to his brother, not the spilled seed that was the actual problem. Nevertheless, we’ve filled pages and minds with the fear of blindness and hairy palms and smiting.
I hope we’re moving away from that as the Church moves toward an integrated-body understanding of grace and mercy. Ashes, water, bread, wine, fire—concrete images for concrete beings. Even in the most bare-bones spiritual practice, we lift our hands and voices. We sit and wait for the Spirit to move. We listen to the Word expounded through preaching. We need the physical reminders of God’s promises and actions. We need them because we are physical beings and God has made us so.
We still struggle with a separation of body and soul and the elevation of the latter to the denigration of the former. Yet, the Incarnation speaks clearly to God’s effort for us to understand the care God has for us. And God’s care and concern is for all the areas of our life: spiritual, mental, physical, emotional, sexual.
Knowing yourself, knowing what you like, knowing what works for you is part of being a sexual creature. You can go astray in your fantasy life, in lusting, in shame. Yet, as with our parts of our sexual being, masturbation has at its base an opportunity for a deeper understanding of the gift of the body, of ability, of life.
There is a cynical phrase about marriage: “Masturbate and be free.” That’s not the point—either of love of other or love of self. In entering a committed relationship, you want to bring your best self—the self that receives generously and reciprocates generously. We know the greatest generosity from the One who made us. We experience the breadth of that generosity in knowing what our bodies are capable of doing in all areas of physical activity. We experience the depth of God’s generosity in figuring the heights we can reach when sharing the gift of physical love with another person in love.
It would seem like a gross misapplication of the Golden Rule to mention it here. So I won’t. But I think you know what I’m not saying. I am not holding my breath hoping for a tract on masturbation to be the next writ from the World Council of Churches, but I hope and pray that slowly people are coming to understand and appreciate, ever more deeply, the gift of our bodies. We’ve had too many years of strictures, separation and shame. It’s time to shine the light of grace onto sexual self-understanding. Like I tell the confirmation students, “If you’re chafing, stop.”