A Brief Defense of Masturbation

At a recent plenary, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released a "Pastoral Response to Pornography," in which they outlined the assumed manifold dangers of pornography and... wait for it... masturbation. "Create In Me A Clean Heart: A Pastoral Response to Pornography" characterizes pornography as utterly without merit and leading to a host of social (and sexual) ills and sins including but certainly not limited to masturbation. The bishops' logic is rooted in conceptions of original sin:

God created us out of love and for love, but we know that all of history is marked by the sin of our first parents and our own sin. Sin damages our relationships with God, our own selves, others, and all of creation. We are all in need of the Lord's grace, including his mercy and healing.

I'd agree only with the argument that sin damages our relations with each other -- but then again, I am quite certain I have a different view of sin than the U.S. Conference of Bishops. I certainly disagree with the claim that all humans are in need of "the Lord's grace" -- especially as I suspect that their conception of grace is tied to a punitive deity. As a black gay non-theist, I have first hand accounts of how "sin" gets deployed against the marginalized -- usually people of color, women, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender people and non-theists. We can also include sex workers in this category. Also, I have first hand knowledge and experience with how languages of "sin" are deployed alongside hoary claims of "love." For example, the phrase "love the sinner, hate the sin" is often thrown out there in order to show that anti-gay and anti-sex narratives aren't hateful, but supposedly "loving."

According to the Bishops, pornography is evil on the face of it. The way they define pornography is itself a lesson in circular reasoning, as the definition that they use comes from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. That in of itself is problematic, but what I find even more troublesome -- almost to the point of shocked hilarity -- is the Bishops' argument that pornography leads to the "grave" sin of masturbation. Once again, the way they characterize masturbation is a lesson in circular reasoning, as they describe it as "always gravely contrary to the chastity and dignity of one's body." How? How is masturbation always "contrary" to the dignity of the body? I am troubled at the way in which this particular use of "sin" tends to be linked to our bodies -- especially our bodies as sexual bodies.

The problem here is that these Bishops in particular and the Church they represent are relying on centuries-old understandings -- nay, distortions -- of the human body and sexuality. While the Church that these Bishops represent understands that intellectual disciplines like psychology and sociology view masturbation as part of human development and not intrinsically injurious, the U.S. Conference of Bishops tosses that aside, choosing instead to frame social acceptance of masturbation as the province of "popular culture."

Those distortions that this "pastoral response" wants to reproduce are hardly pastoral. Indeed, these distortions contribute to the silencing and shaming of human sexuality. This shaming of human sexuality is what alienates us from our own selves, and perpetuates a separation of ourselves from the larger reality that we may call "God." Rather than see masturbation as some form of "grave sin," why not reimagine masturbation as part of a healthier sex life, one in which we as sexual beings celebrate ourselves as part of a larger, divine unity? Simply put, it is time to lay this 2,000-year-old distortion of masturbation to rest. As opposed to seeing masturbation as some form of grievous narcissism, why not see masturbation as enhancing the dignity of our bodies and the ways in which we imagine them? I see masturbation as a way to get "in touch" with ourselves, to know what we like and the ways we want to be touched and the ways in which we want to touch others. I see masturbation as part of the human experience, one in which our sexual bodies are indeed a gift (however that notion of gift is understood) to ourselves and to each other.