Impurity Culture: Masturbation Is Self-Care

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Emily JoyMasturbation is a topic you might need to do a little extra work on defining your values around if you grew up in purity culture being told that it was a sin—and that’s especially true during the pandemic, when pleasurable touch from others is not always safe or accessible to us and self-care has become more important than ever as we try to process all the painful things happening in our world. Self-pleasure can be an extremely important aspect of self-care even during non-pandemic times, and right now that is especially true.

The first time I ever heard the word “masturbation,” I was thirteen years old and on a weekend getaway with my parents so they could give me what they thought was “sex ed.”

They had purchased a cassette tape sex ed curriculum from a conservative Christian celebrity teacher named James Dobson, who teaches that sexual activity of any kind is to be reserved for legal marriage between a cisgender man and a cisgender woman. One would think, given these commitments, that almost anything Dobson had to say about sex would be wrong. But in addition to being an evangelical celebrity, James Dobson also held a PhD in child development and was a professor of pediatrics for many years, and generally he taught that masturbation in and of itself was not sinful. Those cassette tapes my parents bought might have been my only opportunity to hear that masturbation wasn’t a sin. But when Dobson’s voice came over the car stereo announcing that masturbation was the next topic of instruction, my parents quickly hit the fast forward button. I guess they thought I didn’t need to learn about that.

I never did learn anything about masturbation during my childhood or adolescence—from them, from Dobson, from my church, or from anyone else.

Masturbation is a topic that you might need to do a little extra work on defining your values around if you grew up in purity culture being told that it was a sin—and that’s especially true during the pandemic, when pleasurable touch from others is not always safe or accessible to us and self-care has become more important than ever as we try to process all of the painful things happening in our world. Self-pleasure can be an extremely important aspect of self-care even during non-pandemic times, and right now that is especially true. But it can also raise many questions, anxieties, and worries for those of us who were told during our most formative years lies about sex and sexuality, including about masturbation.

First, there are the theological worries. What if you were told masturbation was a sin, or against the Bible, or even against God? Often when people say that masturbation is a sin and try to justify that stance using the Bible, they cite the story of Onan from the book of Genesis. The story goes (in Genesis 38) that Onan’s brother Er had a wife named Tamar. Er died, and when he died the men’s father instructed Onan to sleep with his brother’s widow Tamar, in order to help her produce offspring so that she wouldn’t be destitute and would be taken care of in her old age. This sounds WACK to our 21st-century ears, but this idea, called “levirate law,” was common back then. However, Onan didn’t like the fact that any child born to him and Tamar would be considered his brother Er’s heirs and not his, so the Bible says he “spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother” (Genesis 38:9b, NRSV). Many pastors and parents take this passage to be an injunction against masturbation, but it is actually closer to describing the pull-out (withdrawal) method, and you don’t see many Christians protesting that!

But you may not just have theological worries.You may also have practical worries—like concerns about living with conservative Christian parents or not feeling like you know enough about your body to give yourself pleasure. Your body belongs to you, not your parents or your teachers or your pastor or the person you’re dating or anyone else. It’s understandable to feel ill-equipped, especially if you have not received adequate sex ed, but that’s why a website like Scarleteen exists! There are many resources about masturbation, sexuality and anatomy on this site, like this one, this one, and this one, just for a start. It can be frustrating to feel like you don’t have the information you need, but it is available and we and other safe folks are here to help you out.

But perhaps even more daunting than the theological and practical fears are the emotional ones. After all, it’s one thing to decide that what your parents or youth pastor told you about masturbation isn’t true—but it’s an entirely different thing to actually know that in your heart and feel it in your body and become empowered to behave differently. Sometimes even after we have changed our minds about something, it takes our bodies a lot longer to catch up. It can be really difficult to convince yourself that you are not sinning, that your body is good and deserves pleasure, and that you are in control of you. Some conservative Christians may try to call that difficulty “The Holy Spirit” pricking your conscience, but it’s really just human guilt and shame put on you by other people, and you don’t have to carry it. This takes time! It does not happen all at once.

You can’t expect to decide that exploring your sexuality isn’t a sin one day and be a totally healthy, free-spirited and sex-positive person the next day. It is a process, and it is okay if it doesn’t happen all at once. Be gentle with yourself, and keep coming back to what you know to be true.

So what can you do if these are issues you’re working through?

First, let me just say that masturbation is normal. It is perfectly normal for babies, children, teenagers, adults, and older folks across the entire human lifespan. It’s normal for single people, and people in relationships, including married people. It has been normal for millennia. There is nothing weird or out-of-the-ordinary or sinful about it. It is not just normal but actively healthy, and we talk about it so we can normalize it! You are not a sinner of any degree for seeking out or giving yourself pleasure.

Second, pleasurable self-touch does not have to be sexual and does not have to progress towards orgasm.

Not too long ago I took a self-massage and yoga workshop where we were taught how to lovingly massage our arms, our legs, our neck and shoulders, our feet, and other non-genital body parts, and I left feeling so peaceful and good about myself. Touching yourself kindly is important always, but even more so during the pandemic. You can start small and build from there if you want to!

Most importantly, it is crucial to remind yourself that if you are someone who considers yourself to be a Christian or a person of faith, your belief in/devotion to God is not at odds with your existence as a thriving sexual being. If you’re religious, imagine a deity who made bodies good—who made everything good, according to the same book of Genesis—and who strongly approves of consensual, life-giving pleasure. You do not have to settle for other people’s shriveled, disapproving notions of “God.”

Like I mentioned, I was given exactly zero information about masturbation growing up. Many babies and small children masturbate, but I was 17 by the time I can remember experimenting with self-pleasure for the first time. It took me until my mid 20s to be truly comfortable in my relationship to self-pleasure and to clarify my values surrounding it. Now, it’s something that I usually don’t think twice about. But that wasn’t always the case, and it’s okay if it’s not the case for you just yet. The pandemic has been a difficult time for so many folks, and if we are going to make it to the other side we have to take care of each other and ourselves.

Pleasure is self-care, and there is no authority figure or deity who should be able to make you feel like pleasure is not your birthright.

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