Most of my posts you’ll find on my blog page, but not this one. That’s because my ideas on the subject are not fully formed and it’s a topic that’s controversial.
But recently, one of the people who read my open letter to an evangelical Christian couple considering sex therapy asked the question on Twitter: “Can you separate lust from pleasure?” and this question was being asked in the context of masturbation.
Here are some thoughts [as at March 2016]. I am writing from a Christian point of view, partly because I am a Christian, partly because this question was originally asked by a Christian, and partly because Christian teaching has been influential on our society’s understanding of sex (though not always in good ways). This post is intended to be accessible for people who come from a different place theologically. There are a few moments when I get preachy in this post, but that’s mainly me wanting to make a point to Christians; if you’re alright with that, then read on.
This post is quite long (best part of 5,000 words), so think about grabbing a cuppa or putting it in your bookmarks if needs be. Overall, the post goes like this:
- Bodies in context
- Pleasure in context
- Lust in context
- Sexual function in context
- Intermediate thoughts about masturbation
- Sexual purpose in context
- Further thoughts about masturbation
- Concluding thoughts
Part 1: Our bodies in context
I feel like I shouldn’t need to write this bit, but there is so much misinformation within churches about what the Bible has to say about our bodies, that if I don’t lay down a few basics we’re going to get nowhere.
Firstly, we are spiritual AND physical beings. Got that? Have a re-read of Genesis 2 if you need. Our bodies locate our identity, identify our distinctiveness from other people, identify our connectedness to other people, and they also demonstrate “continuity through change”.[*footnote] I like to phrase this last point as “our bodies carry our history.”
In other words, our bodies are part of our identity.
Secondly, it is our destiny to remain spiritual and physical beings. Christianity peaches resurrection. The Christian hope is not just hope for the soul/spirit, it’s also hope for the body. In other words, it’s hope for our complete identity. There is no end day where the “soul escapes to live in heaven”. Instead it’s Jesus returning to earth to redeem creation and raise the dead. In some senses there will be continuity of the body, but in other senses radical discontinuity. It’s that whole “a seed doesn’t look like the final plant” analogy that Paul writes about in 1 Corinthians. It’s that thing where Jesus in his resurrected body eats broiled fish but also doesn’t seem to have a problem getting through locked doors. He’s got his history marked into his hands and flash, but he’s also well and whole. Resurrection is about continuity and discontinuity – but it’s still about a physical body.
In other words, our bodies are relevant to our eternal fate.
Thirdly, in the New Testament, when Paul writes about “sarx” or “the flesh”, a lot of the time he’s NOT referring to our bodies. Rather, he’s referring to our hard-wired tendency to get things wrong. Our “sinfulness” or “fallenness” as some people put it. To “crucify the flesh” is to condemn that “nature,” that in-built wrongness that keeps interfering with our lives and the lives of other people around us. But this is not about our bodies!
In other words, our bodies are not the enemy of our spirits or the Holy Spirit.
Why do I feel the need to point these pieces of theology out? Because if you believe that the body is something to escape or you believe that the body is part of the grand problem of humanity, then it’s much more likely that you’re going to say the body is shameful, sex is shameful and/or pleasure is wrong. The church’s teaching on sexuality has done a lot of this in the past (it’s called gnostic asceticism) – and it’s still happening today in various forms. But I have absolutely no time for it. What’s more, there are plenty of biblical scholars (like Tom Wright) who can explain New Testament theology in a lot of depth and with a lot of rigour, and they have demonstrated how the New Testament pervasively advocates resurrection over any dualism of the body and spirit.
For more on how Paul talked about the flesh, see: Flesh: what Paul meant when he used the word ‘sarx’ (Psst! — he wasn’t being sex-negative).
Part 2: Pleasure in context
Pleasure comes in many forms and pleasure is not inherently wrong – in fact, much of the time it is very good. The pleasure of eating good food, feeling a breeze on your face, or lying in a warm bath – all of these are very physical pleasures and there is nothing wrong with them. In fact, this is how our bodies are meant to function! Being a Christian, I believe this pleasure is a gift from God and part of who we are created to be as both physical and spiritual beings.
Conclusion #1: Physical pleasure is part of the goodness God planned for humanity
Sexual pleasure is like these other sensations, except that it is a pleasure primarily associated with certain parts of our bodies that we conceal and refer to using euphemisms. Thing is, I don’t believe there is anything morally wrong or shameful about our genitals and sexual organs. (My reasons why will need to wait until another post.) Instead I think they’re amazingly crafted parts of our body with incredible potential for pleasure.
Conclusion #2: Sexual pleasure is part of the goodness God planned for humanity
But what about all those sinful things we hear about pleasure? What about gluttony? What about lust? What about enjoyment of other people’s sufferings? Are those part of God’s planned good for humanity? No, definitely no. But the problem is not pleasure itself.
Conclusion #3: The morality of experiencing pleasure is linked to what the pleasure is derived from
In fact let’s take that a step further. Because often the phrase “taking pleasure” is used in the context of gratification and typically comes at the expense of someone or something else. “Receiving pleasure” tends to be different contexts. Maybe there’s a distinction between “taking” and “receiving” even if the same experiences (e.g. eating, having a bath, having sex) can fall into either category? There are probably more nuances to this but in the meantime, let’s run with it:
Tentative conclusion #4: Taking pleasure is morally wrong, but receiving pleasure is not
OK, now let’s think about lust.
Part 3: Lust in context
Lust is not pleasure. Sometimes pleasure is experienced (taken) whilst a person lusts, but this is by no means always the case. Instead, lust is a form of desire. But there are many different definitions of lust.
Definition 1: Lust = Desire
In the King James Version of the Bible (and the NKJV), Paul’s letter to the Galatians talks about the “lust” of the flesh as well as the “lust” of the Spirit (as in, Holy Spirit). Let’s be very clear: the intended meaning is simply “desire”; it is not even sexual desire. (And if you remember the points I made in part 1 of this post, you’ll notice that when Paul talks about the “flesh” here, he’s not talking about our physical bodies! This passage in Galatians is not about sex!)
Definition 2: Lust = Sexual / Erotic desire
Some people define lust as being completely the same as sexual or erotic desire. By that definition any sexual relationship without lust is a fail and Song of Songs is loaded with lust. This isn’t the definition understood by most Christians.
Definition 3: Lust = Inordinate sexual desire
By this definition, lust is hyper-sexual desire. It’s over-sized, disproportionate and grotesque on account of its gargantuan dimensions. This definition is consistent with many of the uses of “lust” in the Bible, where lust is cited as a sin. But it’s not the definition I would advocate myself, because I think lust is not sexual desire in overdrive, I think it’s got a qualitative aspect that we ignore at our peril. Here’s my definition:
Definition 4 (my preferred one): Lust is sexual desire without respect for boundaries
This makes sense to me. By this definition, sexual desire without respecting a person’s humanity, or their consent, or their other relationships, are firmly in the lust camp. Objectification, rape and adultery are immediately ruled out as morally wrong if we believe that lust is wrong. (Which it is.)
This definition is also consistent with Jesus’ teaching that looking at a person lustfully is committing adultery in one’s heart. His Jewish culture was an orthopraxy rather than an orthodoxy: everything was about what you did rather than what you thought. But Jesus’ teaching prevented people from being able to defend their boundary-transgressing sexualised thinking with “I didn’t touch her, therefore I didn’t do anything wrong.”
The other thing about this definition is that it allows room for appreciating a person’s sexual attractiveness without lust. I remember well going to the ballet of “The Nutcracker” when I was in my twenties and watching the “Arabian Dance.” It is a very erotic dance and the dancers had beautifully crafted bodies that they used to amazing and powerful effect, but that didn’t mean I desired their bodies for myself or objectified them in my mind. Rather, I watched in admiration and wonder.
(Though, when I was a child, I was totally bored by this dance. Back then, ballet was about women in tutus and this dance had three men and only one woman – and she wasn’t even wearing a tutu. Epic fail!)
And the last thing I’ll say about this definition, is that it allows room for unrequited sexual desire. A person can be attracted to and desire another person, but still respect that person, their desires and their other relationships. I don’t think this is a very comfortable situation to be in and requires careful handling so that the frustration of not being requited doesn’t descend into self-pity, envy and … lust. But I don’t believe that attraction towards someone who’s not available is necessarily lustful. Plus, given the fact that you can’t always know if someone will be inclined to requite you when you first meet them, saying that sexual attraction is always lustful when it’s outside of a relationship, would mean that all relationships that started with physical attraction started in lust. And that’s just… absurd.
Part 4: Sexual function in context
I’m going to borrow from Emily Nagoski’s book “Come As You Are” for much of this section. This is what it says on the inside cover:
Sex is not a need
We can starve to death, die of dehydration, even die of sleep deprivation. But nobody ever died because of not being able to get laid. Maybe they wanted to, but that’s different. (p230)
Instead, sex is an “incentive motivation system.” “Drives” are about survival; a drive is pushed by an unpleasant internal state. And incentive is about thriving; an incentive is upped by an attractive external stimulus. Sex is not a drive. (p231)
Nagoski then gives two big reasons about why this matters so much. Firstly:
if sex was a “drive” then “the 30 per cent of women who rarely or never experience spontaneous desire for sex are … well,… definitely sick! (p231)
when sex is conceptualised as a need, it creates an environment that fosters men’s sense of sexual entitlement. … If sex is a drive, like hunger, then potential partners are like food. Or like animals to be hunted for food. And that’s both factually incorrect and just wrong. (p232)
Nagoski goes on to explain how our brains generate stress when the world isn’t in line with our expectations or our progress towards our “goals” isn’t satisfactory. She explains why this can make sex feel like a drive. She also goes through a case study with a woman who felt her sexuality took over when she was stressed and how this woman’s better understanding of her past history and her body led her to a healthier way of dealing with her stress. This woman also found that her enjoyment of sex was transformed. Which brings us to the next key point:
Sexual desire and sexual enjoyment are not the same thing
Nagoski makes this point well here:
What we often describe as the pleasure centres or reward centres of the brain are in fact crucially more subtle and interesting than that. To call it “reward” or “pleasure” is like saying “vagina” when you mean “vulva”: Pleasure is part of it, certainly, but only part, and to deny the other parts their names is to deny their significance and misunderstand the nature of the multifaceted beast.
There are actually three intertwined but separable functions in these deep, old parts of the brain, which I simplify here as enjoying, expecting and eagerness. (p84)
The sequence works this way: Something sexually relevant happens, and your brain goes, “Hey, that’s sexually relevant.” That’s expecting. And if the context is right, your brain also goes, “Hey, that’s nice!” That’s enjoying. And if the stimulus is nice enough, your brain goes, “Ooh, go get more of that!” That’s eagerness. (p86)
I found this book incredibly helpful when I read it because it explained (in better words than I could manage and with a lot more research behind it) how our bodies’ responses are not always how we might expect. Our brains/body may classify something very not OK as “sexually relevant” and put us into “expecting” mode. The uninformed Christian who doesn’t understand sexual function could easily make a jump to say “I’m deriving pleasure from something deeply inappropriate! I am lusting!” – when that’s not the case at all. This is also of huge importance when it comes to understanding sexual assault: a victim’s body may respond sexually during a sexual assault, but that doesn’t mean they were aroused and it doesn’t mean that they “wanted” or “enjoyed” what happened to them. We need to understand this.
Nagoski also comes out with this gem:
But let’s not mistake relief for pleasure.
Like imagine that you need to pee really, really badly, and you have to wait and wait, and then finally you pee, and it’s almost pleasurable because it’s such an intense relief. Sex to advance the plot in unstable relationships is like that. It doesn’t feel good when you experience fear and instability in your relationship, just as it doesn’t feel good to have to pee really badly. It just feels like a relief when you can finally do something about it. (p137)
Sex, even orgasmic sex, can be quite separate from pleasure. Which also means that lust can be quite separate from pleasure.
Part 5: Intermediate thoughts about masturbation
Some people masturbate because they enjoy it. Some people masturbate because it relieves stress. Some people masturbate as part of a way to “wake up” their bodies sexual responses. There are more reasons than these, but the point I want to make here is that people masturbate for a variety of different reasons.
In fact, I’ll go a step further and say that people engage in sexual fantasies for a very wide variety of reasons. Not all of these reasons are about objectification (typically, of women). Some of them are to fulfil deep-seated needs that we have as human beings. Now, maybe there are better ways to fulfil these deep-seated needs than to engage in sexual fantasies. BUT:
I strongly believe that we need to be very slow to judge other people’s masturbatory habits and fantasies.
Whatever you take from the rest of this post, don’t forget that.
Our bodies are complex. Our minds, imaginations and histories are also complex! And yet, engaging in sexual activity brings all of these things together. I think it’s very harsh to expect people to get it all right, all the time. In some senses that’s not OK, but I also believe that it’s nothing God can’t handle. Yes, he’s holy. But he’s also patient, gentle and powerful to save. Let’s keep these things in balance.
So getting back to whether masturbation is moral or not, there are some conclusions we can draw from the sections above about masturbation, many of which are applicable to sex as well:
Lust in sex or masturbation is problematic
Acts driven by disrespecting-desire are problematic. I’ll point out that these acts aren’t necessarily pleasurable.
I’ll also make the point that I don’t believe it’s inherently wrong to want pleasure. It’s not wrong to want to thrive; it’s not wrong to feel the pull of an “incentive mechanism” and want to respond to it. What is wrong is responding to that desire in a way that disrespects other people and their humanity.
Sex or masturbation of the “taking pleasure” kind is problematic
On the pleasure side, from a moral perspective I don’t think “taking pleasure” is a good thing. Also, from a biological perspective, sex is not a “drive” or a “need”; no one is compelled to “take pleasure” from someone else.
So let’s work through a masturbation example that’s not necessarily about lust: What about sending sexy pictures to your intimate partner for them to masturbate to while you’re parted for a while? Well, you don’t need to masturbate. This might be consensual (and if so, that’s much better than it not being consensual), but I don’t think it’s great. The relationship is meant to be more than just about sex, right?
“Phone sex” could be considered masturbation, but at least there you’ve got some interaction happening. To be honest, the idea of phone sex doesn’t immediately strike me as inappropriate or immoral. It’s not “taking pleasure”, it’s not “lust”, it’s not stress management.
Someone may say, “But if phone sex is OK in your book, then couldn’t there be such a thing as ‘letter-sex’? And if so, how is that different to sending sexy pictures of yourself?” Yeah, OK, point taken. I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t believe anyone is entitled to orgasms, even when their partner isn’t around. But scheduling in time for each of you to in some way “receive” from the other is qualitatively different. Maybe there’s room for masturbation there.
I wouldn’t advocate sex or masturbation for stress relief
This is not about lust, and it’s probably not about pleasure either. It’s more of a coping mechanism. I recognise that there are worse things that people can do to handle their stress, and so I think it’s important that we don’t conflate this use of masturbation with lust etc. because lust won’t always be present. However, I wouldn’t want sex to be about stress relief, any more than I’d want my diet to be about stress relief. So, no, I’m not going to advocate this. Plus, Nagoski’s book makes it clear that this kind of experience isn’t great, even if it is biologically orgasmic.
Discovering your body’s function via masturbation
What about masturbating to stimulate sexual response and understand one’s body (for people who have low arousal or physical problems)? You could argue it’s the “receiving pleasure” kind or even that it’s not about pleasure. You could argue that it’s about coaxing your body to relax.
Let’s look at it another way: when I got dressed for my wedding day, it was important to me to do that separately from my husband. He wasn’t to see me getting ready. He was to see me once I was ready. Maybe there’s a place for saying masturbation can be preparatory. Having said as much, if you’re going to be sexually vulnerable with someone, I believe that person should be willing to be present and patiently waiting while you prepare. There should not be a feeling of, “This is the shameful bit I’m too embarrassed to let them see” or “I won’t burden them with the boring or hard part.” That … doesn’t sit right with me.
I also think we should be really slow to condemn people who discover their body’s sexual potential while they’re on their own. We need to recognise that many people are children when they discover that touching their genitals in a certain way gives a nice feeling. Are we to write them all off as sex-crazed and immoral? Or are we to say we have amazing and complex bodies and it takes time to understand how they work and the best ways of using them?
Masturbation as the exercise of agency
This is an aside, but as it’s such an important one I think it really needs to be said. Some people argue masturbation is wrong and their real reason for arguing this is because they want to control another person’s sexual agency. I find this repugnant. I don’t believe controlling behaviour belongs in an intimate relationship and I know it’s a hallmark of abusive relationships. Now, although I don’t believe that a person needs to use masturbation to demonstrate their agency, I also believe masturbation should not be argued against as a way of controlling a person’s agency.
Part 6: Sexual purpose in context
For a few years now, I’ve had a pet theory for what sex is actually all about. I’ve generally kept it to myself because I’ve not heard of anyone else who’s come up with idea, but here goes. The idea is this:
Sex is theatre
Theatre is about story telling; it’s about feeding the soul; it’s expressive; it’s responsive; it’s collaborative; it’s imaginative; it’s dramatic; it’s playful. And there’s no “one way” to do it right. Factual realities can be accentuated beyond realism to achieve a dramatic purpose – and that’s OK. Roles can be acted and interpreted in different ways, and you can play a role that is different from who you are – and that’s OK. The set on a stage can try for realism, or minimalism, or somewhere in between – and it doesn’t matter which you go for. In theatre there is immense flexibility in both what stories you tell and how you tell them; theatre captures reality and proclaims truth, and yet in some senses is unreal.
To me, sex is like that. Except there’s more.
Sex is prophetic drama
As a Christian, when I think about “prophecy” I’m not really thinking about “predicting the future”. In Christian thinking, prophecy is speaking out about something. The “prophets” in the Bible were speaking out about God’s perspective. There were other prophets, understood as “false prophets”, that were speaking lies, or things that were contrary to God’s perspective. Very often prophetic words were accompanied by prophetic acts: the words were acted out. This is sometimes referred to as “prophetic drama.”
My theory is this: sex is prophetic drama. It is speaking out about reality. The key question is: what is being spoken?
For myself, the best story to play out during sex, is the story of God’s redemption of humankind. And that might sound boring but wow, to me, it isn’t.
Instead, this view reinforces my belief that sex is fundamentally meant to be a shared and mutual act. That isn’t to say it always needs to be equally reciprocal (I wrote about that in another post: On the receiving end of sex – why it’s not just about giving), but I do think it needs to be about giving to and receiving from someone else who is not you. Unfortunately, I haven’t read up on this subject enough to back that up with a proper argument – but it is what I think and I held this view long before I developed my theory about sex being theatre.
In the meantime, the church makes a big thing about how marriage is intended to symbolise Jesus’ relationship with the church and how this is a profound mystery. I think my theory is consistent with this teaching, except that I’m not talking about marriage and covenant, I’m talking about the act of sex. I don’t hear people in the church talking about the meaning of sex.
Actually, that’s not true. Some people – who I vehemently disagree with – have talked about the meaning of sex. They say sex is about the man “conquering” the woman and that’s why men should be in leadership roles and women shouldn’t. In a sense then the guy who said this has made my point for me: he’s saying that sex is a prophetic act. In my opinion though, his way of sex is a false prophecy and it’s utterly unsurprising that he also says that women open themselves up to rape because they don’t submit to authority. No, just… no.
When we think of sex as prophetic drama, Christians have a reason to say why sex matters so much. False prophecy is damaging (see the above example!) But good prophecy… that changes the world.
I’ll repeat my caveat here: this is a theory-in-progress. Prophecies are, by the nature of their poetry, sometimes obscure. One can read too much into them or miss what they’re saying. Even if it’s legitimate to view sex as prophetic drama, I wouldn’t want people to read too much into a moment of arousal here, or a failed erection/orgasm there.
Part 7: Further thoughts about masturbation
The original question I was asked was this: Can you engage in pleasure-seeking masturbation without engaging in lust? If I’m honest, I think this is the wrong question to ask because lust and pleasure are different and each can exist without the other.
Really, the question we’re trying to answer is whether masturbation is inherently morally wrong. I’ve gone some way to answer this in my thoughts of part 5 of this post. I’ll now try and add to that, using some of the thinking from part 6. Though, I’ll emphasise that this is just my theory and it’s a work in progress.
The question to ask then is this:
What is the prophetic drama of masturbation?
The thing about masturbation, as distinct from sex, is that it happens when a person is alone. Is the act of masturbation making a statement about self-sufficiency? If so, I have problems with this.
Also, if sex is meant to be reciprocal, prophetically speaking about the invitation and response between God and humankind, then sex is not meant to be about desire for the self. Masturbation that is self-desiring is therefore also problematic for me.
There are also implications for masturbation as a demonstration of agency. And here, I’m getting into very tentative territory. Got that? This is me thinking out loud and these are tentative thoughts. But take the wife in the film Pleasantville, which is set in a fictional 1950’s American TV show. She has been pigeon-holed into the dutiful wife role by the structures of her society and then she discovers masturbation. You could say this is prophetic of her breaking out of her societal mould; the film arguably frames it that way because this is what turns her from being a black and white character into a colour one. Does that make her masturbation OK? I’m not sure – but it’s not the same as lust! On the other hand, I’ve also read articles describing porn scenes where a man ejaculates into a woman’s face at the end. The article said “This is about men getting back at the potential girlfriends who said no to them.” If that’s what this is about, you could say it’s a prophetic act of spite. Many feminists would say this is an act of oppressive gender violence. Certainly I don’t like it. My point here is that masturbation can be used to make statements about agency and when we weigh them up we should ask ourselves what message is being prophetically proclaimed.
Now let’s consider the case of someone who’s trying to understand and stimulate their body. There is an argument to say that this is not self-focussed because the wider purpose of the act is to have better sexual engagement with someone else. This is one of the reasons why I have time for sex-therapists who suggest masturbation. Do I think it’d be OK as a long-term habit? Well, my instinct is to say “No”, but I also recognise that I don’t understand the difficulties that other people can have.
Overall then, I think there are circumstances where masturbation is not about boundary-transgressing lust, not about “taking” pleasure at someone else’s expense and not about self-gratification. I guess then I’d say that if masturbation can serve a relationship then it can be prophetic in a good way.
I’ll throw in a story for good measure here: I once woke up in the middle of the night when my husband was asleep next to me. As I lay there trying to get back to sleep, my thoughts drifted into thinking about him caressing me. Before I realised what was happening, I orgasmed.
Yes, I was alone in some sense. But in the context of our relationship, I think this also firmly falls into the “receiving pleasure” category. And it wasn’t lustful. Would it have been different if I’d touched myself? I honestly, honestly don’t know. But I do know that it happened gently and it was wonderful. And when I told my husband, he didn’t get all possessive or give me any rubbish like “But your orgasms are meant to belong to me.”
Curiously, as I write this, I wonder if that orgasm was prophetic. It happened over four and a half years into my husband’s and my marriage. For the first three years, we had a lot of difficulties. At about three and a half years, I had my first orgasm. During that time I was at first very quiet about our sex life, mostly because I was ashamed. After a while I began speaking about it in certain contexts, though doing so nearly made me vomit on one occasion. What’s interesting is that after that orgasm in the middle of the night, I began really writing about our relationship. This was for my own personal fulfilment, but also in the interests of raising awareness of the issues surrounding sex. To me, that orgasm closed a chapter of struggle and opened up another chapter.
A chapter that it seems I am still writing.
If you found this helpful, you might also appreciate “An open letter to my pro-porn friend: ethic impossible?”
Or, if you want a short and sweet take on what I think sex is actually about, there’s “The key to lifelong sex: get the right advice.”
[*] OK, that came from Sandra Schneiders, ‘The Resurrection of Jesus and Christian Spirituality’, in Maureen Junker-Kenny, ed., Christian Resources of Hope, Dublin: The Columbia Press, 1995, pp 97-98. I read it in a book written by Russell Herbert: Living Hope , Epworth, 2006, p117