To Whom Does My Sexuality Belong? Reprinting an Oldie on Faith, Masturbation, and the difference between selfish and self-honoring

I wrote this post about self-sacrifice and sexuality in 2005, and saw that Lady J linked to it this week. It accurately represents my thinking about sexuality, and I stand by it now. Here’s most of the post as it appeared four years ago:

When I say "I want the women with whom I work to see their sexuality as theirs", I am not encouraging them to use that sexuality recklessly, abusively, or self-destructively.  What I am arguing is that our sexuality is a gift from God, a gift with more than one purpose: Christians are indeed called to honor God with their bodies, but we are also called to take our own delight in living as embodied creatures.   Pleasure is part of God’s gift; to receive and to give pleasure can be honoring to God.  All Christians believe this; conservatives believe that pleasure should be limited to heterosexual marriage, while progressives believe in a more liberated and inclusive ethic, but we are united in our conviction that God intends us to have sexual pleasure, and that experiencing and sharing pleasure can be profoundly honoring to our Creator!

My body is a gift to me from God, and I am called to use that body as I believe He would have me use it.  That’s not the same thing as saying "my sexuality does not belong to me".   I said:

"it doesn’t belong to their fathers, their future husbands, the leering boys in math class or the older men at the bus stop.  It doesn’t belong to the church, or to MTV, or to the magazines, or to their peers, or to their parents."

God was quite deliberately NOT on the list of things to which the body ought not belong! (Sorry for the double negative.)   I think it’s quite possible to teach young men and women that their bodies are their own, gifts from God to be used to honor God; by the same token, their bodies do not belong to the culture, their families, or their peers.

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On a related topic, here’s a lengthy, thoughtful, Christian argument against masturbation at Bonnie’s blog. (You may need to scroll down).   She’s making an argument that may be similar to Chip’s (though Chip, I don’t presume to know your stance on masturbation).   It’s difficult to summarize her argument fairly, but here’s a key section:

Sexuality is a valuable treasure, a great gift. We give our very best gifts – our figurative gold, frankincense, and myrrh – to God. In so doing, we give our sexual gold, frankincense, and myrrh to our spouse. We do not “spread the wealth” around; to do so is to cheapen its worth and dilute its significance as well as to make a mockery of the gift itself and the covenant of marriage. Adultery isn’t referred to as “cheating” for no reason; adultery cheats a spouse of what ought to be theirs and theirs alone. Autoerotism also cheats one’s spouse (current or future) out of a portion of one’s sexuality.  (Emphasis in the original; it’s Bonnie’s call to use "autoerotism" as a synonym for masturbation.)

Masturbation is a provocative subject.  I share with Bonnie the belief that in healthy, monogamous sexual relationships, I ought to do all that I can to share my sexuality with my partner.  For many couples, that may mean making the decision not to be sexual except when they are together; refraining from masturbating thus allows sexual desire to build for one’s beloved.  I’ve known of more than one relationship where one partner regularly masturbated and then professed little interest in or energy for sex with the other; that, I think, falls well short of the mark for "sharing" and "giving"! Other couples may come (pun somewhat unintended) to different agreements about solitary sexuality within the context of their relationship.  I don’t think there’s a "one-size fits all" answer here.  The key thing is to be clear and honest, with the other’s pleasure and delight one’s foremost concern.

I don’t intend to turn this post into a paean to masturbation.   Though there is much to disagree with in Bonnie’s post on both theological and psychological grounds, at places she makes very good sense.  But I am interested in rejecting the notion that if our bodies belong to God and to our partners, then they do not also belong to ourselves!   Here, I’ll take the "both/and" stance: our bodies are intended both for God’s purposes and for our own pleasure (indeed, more often than we realize, these may be congruent!); our bodies are intended both for our spouse’s delight and for our own.

Ultimately, when it comes to sexuality, I think far too many people fail to distinguish between what is selfish and what is self-honoring.   Selfish sexual expression is anything that robs another person of their dignity, their value, and what is rightfully theirs. Adultery is selfish, and even masturbation can be selfish when and if it deprives one’s partner of one’s entire energy and excitement.  But as created beings, whose bodies — like all creation — are fundamentally good, we are right to honor ourselves.   On the one hand, self-honor doesn’t mean narcissism; even when we delight in our own bodies, we are giving thanks to the Creator who gave us our flesh.   And it’s worth pointing out that self-honor need not always be the same as self-denial!  When we eat to satiety, and delight in the taste of rich foods, in a very real sense we honor both our bodies and God’s gift of sustenance.  When we explore and enjoy our bodies sexually, we are similarly honoring both the gift which was given and He who gave it.

It’s no accident that so many people call upon God at the moment of orgasm!   When we do so, wittingly or no, we are perhaps giving thanks and praise to Him for the extraordinary gift of our sexuality.   As spiritual people, as believers, we must avoid twin pitfalls: on the one hand, we must be leery of a secular ethic that devalues sexuality and sees it as something to be squandered; on the other, we must be equally leery of those who, with the best of intentions, wish to too narrowly limit the time, place, and manner of sexual expression.  We must always approach our own sexuality with a sense of awe and responsibility, and if we do so, we will neither use it recklessly nor unreasonably constrain it.

0 thoughts on “To Whom Does My Sexuality Belong? Reprinting an Oldie on Faith, Masturbation, and the difference between selfish and self-honoring

  1. Hello Hugo. Thank you for re-posting this as I have continued to think about this and other post in the Masturbation section of your blog site.

    I still have questions about lust and masturbation and am curious about your thoughts on the matter.

    In your post “Some Very Long Thoughts On Fantasy and Masturbation” you state that “Jesus continues the theme in Matthew 5:28: But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. It’s difficult to look at Scripture and continue to insist that masturbatory fantasy is harmless!”

    So, what kind of fantasy is NOT harmless? Is there any? And if there is not then would that suggest that masturbation is not appropriate?

    I will disclose that my fantasies consist of scenarios that are very loving and respectful. I need that even in my fantasy life. But isn’t that still lust?

    -Lady J

  2. I’m approaching from another angle–how about us singles? I was 18 once, and cold showers aren’t going to help. I knew someone who took so many cold showers he got excited when it rained. No, really, I think the people who yap at us to save it for whoever, ought to shut up and provide something to make that easier. You’d think a nation that can put a man on the moon, etc., could come up with a safe, cheap antaphrodisiac. At least the military could use it, and bypass altogether the issues of abuse and whether to let gays in.
    Now, I learned about physical pleasure before I was old enough to think clearly, to see past my own innate esthetic prejudices and secular society’s rules about doing anything with that part except pee “just because”. I did not and do not believe in anyone else’s supernatural being telling me what to do, but my response to the inner conflict was to relegate all the not-me thoughts to the problematic pleasure–the abject, the ugly, the bizarre, instead of what I really was or loved. Result, sexual response patterns that don’t match the rest of me. I struggled with this many years; new and healthier ideas arrived but the old ones I could never erase. Could never bring myself to buy a scalpel and an anatomy book and cut the offending nerves (which being discovered later on my death would send a message to all those who failed to help.) Anyway–now I am in my 50′s and what I wished for all those years is finally happening, the urge does not distract near so much, and now I am not sure how I feel about it. I didn’t care any more about society’s taboos–after all what was in my home and mind stayed there and was no one’s business–but my own rules, now that was the boundary line. And don’t people’s bodies give them enough various problems already, without having to deal with that nonsense? I was/am celibate, would always be, I knew from the start.
    I found that many others had responses/fantasies that didn’t match their main persona, and that helped a bit, but still. Why should anyone have to put up with that discord? Whether called by a known god or by something else to put our bodies to the best and least harmful use, can’t we have some real help already? By which I do *not* mean just more people saying don’t touch that. Quit ordering us around and actually help, I wanted to say to them, but I did not waste my time on that effort, after several doctors proved useless.
    All right, I suppose I’ll go and read that article instead of just assuming it’ll sound like so much else I’d read. But I, who cook by my own recipes and get just the best meals for me that way, often suspect that the stigma attached to self-pleasuring in this culture is not only from distorted forms of a religion, but from those-in-power’s desire to keep us dependent on them. A person who does not need to “date”, to dress sexy etc., frequent bars, or even to buy all manner of weird-looking toys, someone for whom lube and imagination are enough, is a lost market and a loose cannon. I’m not supporting the industry, and that’s suspect. Never fear, I spend it on books instead. But it seems being asexual is as subversive these days as being a do-it-yourselfer.
    So those who want to save that for someone special or just for when they can decide just what they want it to mean for them, right on. But it needs to be made easier.

  3. “We must always approach our own sexuality with a sense of awe and responsibility, and if we do so, we will neither use it recklessly nor unreasonably constrain it.”

    I really like this line the most.

  4. …And I might as well add what I originally should have, my agreement that Hugo, especialy in his last 2 paragraphs, said it very well.
    The fantasy aspect is in fact what can be problematic, even for those who don’t have someone now or future to save it for. As I described, some folks wind up with responses to unhealhty fantasies, because nature causes the urges to start many years before the mind knows how to think–especially in a culture like I grew up in. It sounds like being straight or gay is inborn but some other things, like bdsm, might sometimes be adventitious. I don’t claim to know for sure; I do know that if I was running a universe I would hire a smarter nature to build the bodies of my fanbase.
    And there’s this–some of us, while growing up, hear so many bad things about our bodies–from p.e. teachers, from doctors finding faults but no balancing strengths, from our own parents even–that the discovery of pleasure can seem like an oasis in a Pangaean desert. I would not deny that solace to anyone. But even after we all learn to watch what sort of toxic sludge goes into the heads of the young, the gift [or find] of pleasure is something they/we should learn to use wisely, and there’s not a lot of help for that goal right now.
    As for abstinence “building character”, whatever that is, the young have enough challenges already, and don’t need another heaped on them. A drug to delay the whole mess a few years, or for some, indefinitely, would really help. For the curious ones who don’t want to take it, I don’t have an answer, and that is why drugs are not enough. The idea of making it compulsory doesn’t appeal either.
    I myself wouldn’t mind hearing some explications of what healthy fantasies are, since they might be possible. For some folks, it is hard to bring pleasure to its rightful conclusion without some sort of imagery.
    Then again, if someone would just invent the Orgasmatron seen in that Woody Allen movie, Sleeper I think it was, everyone could just get it out of the way instanter and have more time to study, socialize, and so on.
    Again thanks, all.

  5. “And it’s worth pointing out that self-honor need not always be the same as self-denial!”

    I like that. It is very important that people understand that we cannot always measure your goodness or self-worth by what you deny ourselves or what we don’t do. That’s the mentality I was brought up with and it can be much more harmful than helpful at times.

  6. The whole notion that “you own your sexuality” layers a bourgeois/individualist notion of property on top of the much deeper question of how the spirit and the body interrelate and are both shaped by the world.

  7. I don’t know about the bourgeois or however it is spelled part, but I am an individualist for sure. And I don’t claim to know all about how body and spirit interact, but my idea about sexuality is not so much “I can do whatever I want” as, “Look, if this thing I never asked for is going to affect me in any way, I have some say about it–either that or lift it off me entirely, let someone else have it, and leave me to my other pursuits.” I see my responsibility to others as not to hurt them, and leave the world a little better place if I can. As for ownership, people like me who really like their posessions include a lot of responsibility in the concept. I try to keep my machines and so on well maintained, and don’t use them in harmful or irresponsible ways. Same with the machine of flesh my soul finds itself in, though that is no prize to begin with (or so I was always told.)
    But it goes both ways. That which we own, it owns us back in various ways, altering our lives. So we choose them carefully, and try not to let them get too numerous–and to see that they get good homes, that is, someone who can really use them, if we can’t. And if they aren’t useable any way, recycle them into something new.
    Again I don’t know how bourgeois any of this is [and can anyone prove it is, anyway??], but it does show that ownership isn’t necessarily a simple thing, and anyone who assumes another person is using it that way might be very mistaken.
    As to how the spirit/soul/whatever and the body interact, that is something maybe I’d better not get tangled up in, save to note that sometimes the two do not match, and it is not the person’s fault.

  8. I find that lofty sounding rhetoric about communitarian responsibility tends to manifest itself in women doing a hell of a lot more work, and being shamed a hell of a lot more often. YMMV.

  9. Maybe it does sometimes, but that isn’t what I had in mind, and I think that your feminist efforts will eventually bring about a more truly communitarian setup, if that means what I think it does. All right, I’ll admit that both that word and bourgeois still confuse me a bit. Anyway, I was not talking about owning people as if they were property, or foisting the work and blame off on any group. (Except the ones who post nice-sounding job ads on Craigslist and then give us addresses that don’t work. I am not in a good mood right now.)
    For some folks, being good means doing all sorts of things for others; for us loners, it means just keeping out of everyone’s way. So if it was my rhetoric that sounded too lofty, I apologize.

  10. No worries, Angiportus — as with the other thread about bare-breastedness, I’m leery of an ethic that seeks to create community by extolling the virtues of sacrifice to those who are already making more than they ought to have.