Unhealthy Shame

Huzzah! Another question in the inbox! This one comes from a reader named Ellie. This is no ordinary question, though. The following question involves a sensitive subject and is of a sexual nature. You’ve been warned! Read at your own risk! You must be 18 years old (or this tall) to read this post.

Since this question is both long and complicated, I’ve rearranged it slightly, and I’ll present it and respond to it in pieces.

I understand you may not want to answer this on your blog because I am under the impression you may have a lot of followers from your church on here, which is why I attached my email. I hope to hear from you soon!

You are right, many of the readers of this blog are my fellow members of the LDS church, and this topic has the potential to offend many of them. Hopefully that doesn’t happen.

Most people who have never been involved with the church are shocked to hear Mormon views on masturbation. Outside of the church, as I’m sure you know, masturbation is viewed as a healthy, necessary part of growing up. Inside the church, from what I gather, it is perceived as an awful, disgusting sin that can lead to homosexuality and other horrible things.

I think this is perhaps a little bit of an overstatement about the perception of masturbation in the church. It’s true that there have been church leaders in the past who have suggested that masturbation will lead to homosexuality or any number of other things we would describe today as sexual deviancy. However, you will not find these teachings in the church anymore (or if you do, I think most members of the church are smart enough to simply outright dismiss them as ridiculous). Some members of the church may still use words like “awful” or “disgusting”, but this will vary greatly among members. The church continues to teach that masturbation is sinful behavior and should be avoided, and I suspect most members do not object to these teachings. But I also think that there is a growing number of members of the church willing to use words like “normal”.

Many healthcare professionals and therapists would say that what the church teaches on masturbation is unhealthy and can cause self loathing and unimaginable shame. It seems that to set yourself to such a high standard, if only at least as a young person going through puberty, will inevitably lead to failure (according to WebMD anyway, 95% of males and 89% of females say they have masturbated).

Agreed. Any time the church sets a behavioral standard and the members fail to live to that standard, shame will likely follow. Shame is a problem in the church, not only regarding masturbation, but for many topics. A quick google search will reveal many personal stories from individuals who feel like they can never measure up to standards set by the LDS church (or other churches). The rhetoric surrounding the topic of masturbation can be especially shame inducing.

I also read this article that I thought was interesting (http://www.i4m.com/think/sexuality/masturbation_help.htm). However, the article also made me wonder what this man would do if young people at his church confided in him about their masturbation ‘struggles,’ what would he say to them? Would he speak his mind and try to ease their pain the way he perhaps wished someone would have eased his, or would he remain anonymous the way he did in the article? Food for thought!

Ok, fair enough for that guy. I don’t disagree, although I think the article is weird and unnecessarily explicit.

I have seen how the churches’ views on masturbation have led someone very close to me to feel horrible amounts of guilt and shame and I wish I could take all that shame away from him. It breaks my heart to hear him be so hard on himself about the topic, using words like dirty, and unworthy, it makes me sick. I guess what my question is, what is your opinion on this topic?

Yes, it sounds like your friend is in a very sad place. I think the most unfortunate part of the situation is that your friend probably thinks he’s alone – that he’s the exception in the church for struggling with this. Far from it. If his peers were willing to speak more openly, I expect your friend would discover he is in good company. I hope you can convince your friend that there is an important difference between feeling legitimate guilt for doing something you are not proud of and feeling unhealthy shame. Shame is rarely a useful emotion.

My hope is that masturbation becomes more normalized within the church. I think the church is afraid to teach that masturbation is “normal” behavior, because they’re afraid people will accept that as license to engage. However, I expect that the church will find that each generation in the church will increasingly adopt a “normalized” perception of masturbation regardless. I expect teenagers will grow up increasingly hearing persons outside the church using words like “normal” and “healthy” to describe masturbation, including well-respected therapists, doctors, and other professionals. Regardless of whether the behavior is sinful, the church will have to decide if they want to continue to emphasize teachings that modern scientists and therapists disagree with.

The church has de-emphasized without disavowing many teachings in the past (forbidding birth control, for example). I predict that this will eventually be one of them.

Anyway, that’s all I can say about it. If you need any more light reading, I’m a fan of The Mormon Therapist, who has written on the topic of masturbation many times.

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1 comment to Unhealthy Shame

  • I agree that there are a lot of folks in the Church with extremely unhealthy attitudes toward masturbation. I myself was pretty traumatized about this growing up. It added to a lot of my guilt about being gay, because I had read statements of Church leaders like Spencer W. Kimball that masturbation could “lead to” homosexuality. For a long time, I believed that I had brought this sinful condition of homosexuality on myself because of my masturbation. It took a while to figure out that if masturbation really led to homosexuality, then 95% of the male population of the Church would be gay. That would be so cool! :-) But apparently it doesn’t work that way.

    My take on this is that masturbation is not a sin. There’s nothing wrong with it, just like there’s nothing wrong with eating, sleeping or going to the bathroom. However, just like it’s not healthy to overeat or oversleep, it’s also good to learn to exercise sexual self-restraint.

    Our sexuality is connected to a certain kind of energy in our bodies/minds/souls. When we save that energy by abstaining from sexual activity, we can channel it really productively into all kinds of creative endeavors. I find that when I avoid masturbating, I am more sensitive in a variety of ways — spiritually, emotionally, and mentally. I have more energy. I’m also much more available to my spouse! Our sex life is much happier!

    I’ve learned from experience, however, that there does come a point where if there’s too much pent up sexual energy, it starts to become counterproductive. I get easily irritable or depressed or distracted. I feel on edge. I’ve learned to be able to tell when that’s the case, and in those situations — if other healthy sexual outlets are not available — masturbation is a very, very good, healthy thing.

    How much masturbation is healthy, I guess, depends on the natural rhythms and cycles of our bodies, our metabolism, our energy, whatever. It’s up to each of us to figure it out, I guess. What’s healthy for one person might be really excessive for another, or far too little for yet another.

    Our sexuality is also related to our capacity to love and bond with that “significant other” in our lives. And there is such a thing as sexual sin — anything that will harm or betray the trusts and commitments that we make to each other in the context of such a relationship. Sin will harm us and others. And the capacity to exercise sexual self-restraint will also help us resist temptation to indulge in sexual behavior that can really hurt ourselves and others.

    So I think that within the framework of religious or spiritual teachings about masturbation, I think a healthy message would be that our sexuality is connected to everything else in our lives. It affects our ability to be spiritually in tune. Self-restraint and discipline are good things, and recognizing the relationship between our sexual energy and other kinds of energy in our lives is really important…

    So I would probably stop short of saying, “Just masturbate whenever you feel like it.” Just like I would encourage a person to get some regular exercise (even when you don’t always feel like it), and don’t overindulge in sweets or other unhealthy foods… It takes some discipline to develop healthy habits in our lives.

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