Masturbation is not sexual sin—so why do churches treat it like one?

When I was twelve, I thought the book of Hosea was directed at me.

I had decided to read the whole Bible cover to cover, because I thought that was what good Christians did. I passionately loved God and wanted to follow Jesus.

I enjoyed the familiar stories of Genesis and struggled chapter-by-chapter through Leviticus. And then I read the book of Hosea, and became convinced that I was very bad and deserved to be punished. I read the prophet’s words about his wife Gomer, who he berated and threatened as an ungrateful, sensual, boundary-transgressing adulteress. No one in my quiet mainline church had ever preached on Hosea. I had only one frame of reference for sexual shame, but it was a powerful one—my own body.

Like most young children, I had touched and explored my own body, including my genitals, since before I could remember. But I never heard—in church or elsewhere–that this was a normal human thing, so from an early age I felt shame about it. Around the age of twelve I experienced my first auto-erotic orgasms. I didn’t dare ask the adults in my life for more information about this intense and slightly scary experience, because I’d already seen how fearful they got when I asked questions about bodies and sex. Instead, the only place I had heard about people touching genitals because they liked the feeling was when I overheard adults talking about sexual abuse. I knew that abuse was violent and shameful. So I made the logical conclusion that my own (innocent and developmentally important) explorations of my body were a shameful sexual sin.

In a world run by angry, jealous men like Hosea and an angry, jealous male God, I thought being safe as a young girl meant being ‘good and pure.’ I’d heard being ‘good and pure’ meant being a virgin like Mary; never having any sexual feelings or even sexual knowledge, at least not until I was older and married. But I found I was often turned on by books, trees, the moon, the sea, beautiful actresses, all manner of things that were not a husband. It was going to take me at least a dozen years to be old enough for a husband, and here I was yearning with what I thought was sinful lust to enjoy my own body. So I believed that I was a lost soul. I prayed constantly and desperately for God to forgive me and make me pure.

It almost killed me. I became very depressed and flinched when people touched me. I wrote “masturbation” on the secret altar call confession slip at Bible Camp. I asked pastors and therapists about it. No one seemed willing to tell me clearly that I was wrong, that it was ok. Most churches didn’t talk about masturbation, and the ones that did—campus ministries, evangelical house churches—tended to demonize it as a selfish impure act, as addictive or damaging.

When I was 18 I studied abroad, and tearfully confessed my sin to a pastor. I had to look up the word for masturbation, which turns out in a number of languages to be “Onani”. In the book of Genesis, Onan is struck down by God for failing to carry out his familial duty to have children by his brother’s widow, pulling out of intercourse and ejaculating on the floor. As evidenced by the way his name has become synonymous with masturbation, this story of Onan has been cited for centuries as evidence that God condemns it.

I didn’t dare to notice until years later that the story never says that Onan did this because he sought some kind of auto-erotic sexual pleasure. Rather, he is slain by God for attempting to steal his sister-in-law’s inheritance, refusing to follow the custom of getting her pregnant with a male child who can inherit for her. Neither the story of Onan nor, in fact, the rest of the Bible, ever condemn a person for masturbating. I began to question the theology and silence that had given me so much pain.

A turning point came when I learned that I wasn’t alone in this hurt and confusion. Some close women friends sought me out in deep embarrassment to ask, “Hey, what do you think God wants us to do about…you know?” My answer used to be, “Well, I’m pretty sure it’s ok, but maybe we’d better not do it too much just to be on the safe side.” But that didn’t seem right, or adequate to address such an important and intensely personal human experience.

I began to see the obvious flaws in a theology that humans simply “shouldn’t” experience sexual desire and pleasure on our own. I thought about how ashamed and afraid I was to live in my own skin. About how such theology made me desperately emotionally and spiritually dependent on a future spouse to release those desires and “rescue” me from that shame. And dependent on churches that enjoyed my fervent service in exchange for the promise that my shame and terror would not continue into the afterlife. It began to look like a set-up for abusive relationships. Who could possibly benefit from inducing me to control the way I experienced my body in the most private and intimate moments of my life? At times that should literally be between no one but me and God?

I came to my own conclusions at last that actively affirmed masturbation as a healthy and sacred part of my human experience. But I wish I could have heard that word of life sooner. It was a misunderstanding, but not an accident, that I read into the book of Hosea a demand for brutal repression and control of my own young female body.  The patriarchal themes of jealous husband vs. whoring wife in Hosea are violent, and need active interrogating in the ways they glorify abusive male behavior and demonize female sexuality. Even as a young child, I read not love and liberation in that text but relationships based on power and control. No one in my church-centered life contradicted those assumptions. Their silence did not protect me.

How much would it have meant to me to hear those themes recognized and questioned from the pulpit? What if my childhood church had invested in basic decent sex education? How hard would it be to let kids know, in a safe, responsible ways, that touching our bodies is normal, good, and nobody’s business?

It wasn’t until late in my 20’s that I began to actively embrace my body’s sexuality and enjoy my own company. I began, to use a metaphor from Song of Songs, to enjoy my own garden in peace and delight, without terror or fear of judgement.  And God knows that it is very good.

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