Because my job is to talk to women about sex, there are few questions that I haven't heard and haven't answered. However, there is one common question that I don't like to answer. It involves the "M" word—masturbation.
One of the reasons I dread this question is because there is no clear answer. I could take the easy road and just say, "If in doubt, don't do it." The fact is that many Christian women masturbate and feel horribly guilty about it. I've met women who feel more shame about masturbation than they do about having an adulterous affair. Yet the Bible is silent on the issue of masturbation and says a whole lot about adultery.
Masturbation is a complicated issue that doesn't lend to a clear black and white answer. I want to be realistic about the struggle without giving freedom that God perhaps hasn't given.
Let's start with the basics
At a purely biological level, masturbation isn't that much different than other things we do with our bodies—like picking our noses. Toddlers do both. They are wired to touch their bodies everywhere and repeat touching where they find pleasure. Little boys and girls quickly discover that their "private parts" feel really good to touch. As children grow, wise parents gently teach that touching some places of our bodies isn't appropriate to do in public. And they teach their kids not to pick their noses in public either.
But why does picking your nose have an embarrassing but non-moral stigma, while masturbation has become laden with tremendous guilt and shame? While there is nothing inherently wrong with touching yourself to experience pleasure, masturbation becomes a moral issue because it involves sexuality. Sexuality has intrinsic moral implications. Does that mean that masturbation is always immoral? I don't think so. Here are a few questions that can help you evaluate the issue given your personal circumstances.
1. What are you thinking about?
While masturbation itself isn't immoral, the sexual fantasies that usually go with it may be. Most women only masturbate when they are thinking about or looking at something sexual. Sexual fantasies about someone you are not married to are, as Jesus stated, "adultery of the heart."
"But I say, anyone who even looks at a woman [or man] with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart." (Matthew 5:28)
If you are single, fantasizing even about some fictional sexy guy is promoting lustful thoughts. If you are married and fantasizing about another man, you are violating, in your mind and heart, your promise to give yourself sexually only to your husband. On the other hand, there is nothing wrong with a married woman fantasizing about her own husband.
2. What is your motive?
The Bible makes it clear that God is very concerned about our motives. For example, giving money to your church might be a wonderful act of worship or an empty gesture, depending upon the attitude of your heart. The same can be true of masturbation.
Sexuality was created to draw us into relationships. The hormones that flow through a teenager's body awaken the desire to seek intimacy. The goal of masturbation is to bring pleasure to yourself, typically outside of relationship. For this reason, some believe that masturbation is selfish and misusing the gift of sex. While that may be the case, I don't think it is always so cut and dry.
Many women learned (or were even taught) to masturbate at very young ages. This is particularly true of those who have been sexually violated and have been "sexualized" at a young age. While I wouldn't recommend masturbation, I also don't think it should add to the shame that women feel about their sexuality. Just like men have "wet dreams," many women masturbate and orgasm in their sleep. Single women are sexual. Even those who are committed to purity in mind and body have sexual hormones, dreams, and thoughts that impact their body.
There are Christian leaders working with singles who believe that masturbation may be a way to stay sexually pure until marriage. While I would be very cautious to give that advice, I recognize that for some, masturbation is a way of channeling sexual urges away from the temptations to have sex. It's possible for the motive of masturbation to be for purity and a form of exercising self-control.
The question of motive is also important for a married woman. There is a huge difference between a selfish wife who masturbates because she is angry with her husband and a wife who masturbates for the purpose of building intimacy with her husband. Consider, for example, a wife who is separated from her husband because of travel, deployment, or illness. She wants to focus on her husband and channel her sexual urges toward him.
Masturbation can also be beneficial in cases of sexual dysfunction. A very common form of sex therapy called "sensate focus" helps a woman pay attention to how she responds to sexual touch, first by touching herself and then by guiding her husband's hand as he touches her. This can be an important step in healing, particularly for women who have experienced sexual trauma that triggers anxiety at sexual touch.
3. Is it mastering you? (No pun intended.)
The apostle Paul taught that "nothing should master" us. In other words, we shouldn't be controlled or addicted to anything. This applies to food, shopping, Facebook, and also to masturbation. For many women, masturbation can become a way of escape from boredom, loneliness, depression, pain, and stress. We learn at a young age to soothe ourselves with something that feels good. Some ways of coping with stress and boredom are clearly unhealthy, like drinking alcohol or cutting. Other forms of coping are destructive because they abuse an inherently good thing. For example, food is a wonderful gift. But a binge on ice cream and Doritos because you are lonely is abusing that gift. The same is true of sexuality. The neurochemicals released during sex and orgasm reduce stress, help you sleep, and make you feel at peace. However, having sex outside of marriage or habitually masturbating is an abuse of the body's natural response to sex.
If you are masturbating on a regular basis or use it to deal with negative emotions, I'd encourage you to find other means of coping. God gave us healthy ways to release the chemicals in your body that bring peace and contentment. Prayer, meditation, exercise, talking to a friend, or creating something artistic might take more work, but they are alternatives to falling into an addictive cycle.
4. Am I honoring God with my body?
"Don't you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body" (1 Corinthians 6:19–20).
This verse can bring conviction regarding a lot of choices we make with our body, but it was written in the context of sexuality. If there is a "gold standard" question to ask, this is it. In some situations, the answer to whether you're glorifying God in your body may be yes, and in other situations the answer is clearly no.
I have great respect for women (married and single) who want to honor God with their sexuality. I believe masturbation is an issue that each woman has to ask the Lord about. When God wanted to be clear about something, He inspired clear teaching in Scripture. The Bible is silent on masturbation. What God did state definitely is that he wants to give us his wisdom. "If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking" (James 1:5).
God is the High Priest who understands our questions and struggles. Even in this most intimate (and perhaps embarrassing) issue, don't be afraid to pour out your heart to him and ask for his specific direction and wisdom.