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Mark Walley does voluntary youth work in his church. By the time you read this he’ll have crossed to the dark side and started training as a vicar.

Alan Gault has spent the past ten years in full-time youth work. Five of those have been in London, working in the East End and now as youth and student pastor at Holy Trinity Swiss Cottage.

Do we even talk about masturbation in youth ministry?

Mark Walley: My first role in any youth work thing was announcing on stage some categories of the names of seminars and the first seminar I announced was a ‘masturbation’ seminar. I think that’s probably the first and last time I talked about masturbation in a youth group. I think one of my fears in talking about it as a youth worker is wondering: “Oh gosh, am I allowed to talk about this?” Because it feels quite intimate and almost a child-protection issue.

Do you think we use porn as a bit of a cop out, because it feels easier to talk about porn with young people than masturbation?

Alan Gault: I think porn can feel slightly detached, and masturbation is not detached. Masturbation is what you are doing, and so that is an extra level of intimacy on top of everything else. And I think that so much of what goes with masturbation is shame and guilt. Even more so than with other sexual sins and so that is a bit of a block that we need to get over. You’re not going to solve masturbation by telling someone not to masturbate. You’ve got to solve what the root causes of those things are, which is people’s identity in Christ, or lack thereof: knowing that they’re loved, feeling that they belong and knowing who they are in Jesus. Why do people masturbate? They masturbate because they want to feel loved; they want to feel some sort of physical connection. They have these God-given desires that they don’t know what to do with as teenagers or adults.

If you can remove porn or lust from masturbation is there anything inherently sinful about it?

MW: Masturbation is sex turned in on itself; sex is this thing given to serve your married partner, it’s there for intimacy and we take it and use it for self-service and that seems an inherent twisting of how God has designed sex to work. And so the ‘sin’ there is probably more intangible than it is with porn.

AG: For me the issue is the lust, that’s what Jesus talks about. The sin that the Bible talks about is lust. It’s not actually the physical motion of anything, because that can get into other questions: what actually counts as masturbation? If you do it and you don’t ejaculate, if you don’t orgasm, is that a sin or not a sin? Whereas I think it’s the sin of lust, and lust for someone who isn’t your spouse. A question I’ve had asked by a youth group is the situation of a man on a business trip away from his wife: they’ve been apart for three weeks and haven’t had any sexual intimacy, one of them, both of them are quite horny and want to have sex with each other, but they can’t because of distance. Is it sinful for them to get on the phone, talk on the phone, send each other messages, whatever system they want to use, to lead them into a place of masturbating, with the full consent and knowledge of each other? Would you see that as ‘sinful’?

MW: I don’t know what I think about that. How much is that serving another person? My gut reaction would be that it’s a bad idea; sex is designed for two people to do together and so if you’re away, then you’re away and you abstain and that’ll be tough and difficult, but it’s not impossible.

AG: I would probably lean slightly the other way. I ask these questions: Is it biblically outlawed? Not as I know, not directly. Is it illegal or legal? It’s perfectly legal, in most countries, to do such a thing. And then, is it helpful for the purpose of marriage? And I think you could make an argument that it is beneficial to their marriage and it builds oneness and wholeness in a way that them not doing would not.

Physical touch is part and parcel of being a human being, and one of the ways that we actually connect with each other

MW: Maybe that’s the thing, is your heart attitude: “I want sex, I want sexual relief therefore I want this”? Or: “I love my wife and therefore I want sex with her”? There is a difference between these. Masturbation is lust turned in on yourself, just wanting the relief, the feelings, the emotions of it, in isolation. And so you could do that with your wife. That’s a sin in marriage when sex is about having your own gratification.

Some would suggest that masturbation is a lesser of multiple evils. So for a businessman away for six months, him having phone sex or FaceTime sex with his wife is much better than him watching a dodgy channel. Is it the same to say: “It’s much better for a teenage boy to sit in his bedroom and do that, rather than have sex with a girl behind the bike sheds?”

MW: One of the arguments about masturbation is that you have to do it. Jesus Christ lived on earth as a man and did not sexually sin, and I would therefore say he didn’t masturbate too. And obviously we are not him, but he does show that it is possible to live in a way that doesn’t resort to that.

AG: Again I think the issue is the lust and the direction of that. So in the married man scenario, as long as he is using mental pictures or otherwise, if his sexual energy or his arousal is directed towards his wife, then that builds oneness. A teenager cannot do that. As single people you cannot direct it towards a spouse, and I’m aware that the Church often fails single adults and this question becomes tougher for them than it does for teenagers. So actually the sin is the same, because, unless they can masturbate without lusting whatsoever about anybody or anything, then they’re going to be lusting after something, and that is the sin that is biblically called out. It’s a different scenario there, because actually them having sex with somebody behind the bike shed, and them lusting after someone is the same sin of lust and not properly directed affection.

Masturbation is sex turned in on itself

When it comes to tackling the issue, teenagers particularly like black and white boundaries. And a lot of that is: “What can I get away with?” But some of this stuff is a bit grey and we’ve got to teach people to live with the greyness of that. And if they’re trying to follow Jesus, then actually it’s these other needs, like feeling loved or wanting affection that youth workers need to be tackling, rather than: “Here’s five steps to stop you pulling on yourself when you’re in the moment of feeling lustful in your bedroom at night.”

Can we offer both?

AG: I don’t think the latter is going to do much good. I think we need to journey with them; like so many of these ‘controversial issues’ that young people come with, really they’re rooted in something else.

MW: I would agree with that, but I don’t necessarily think that that stops us from saying: “OK, you’re really struggling with this, you want to submit to Jesus and defeat it, so here are some practical things that you can help you to do that.” Be it having a cold shower, or especially when it starts getting linked in with porn, helping things around device usage and internet filters that stop access to it.

Would you say that masturbation is fine, if you can do it without lusting?

AG: I think it’s an awful lot greyer if you can manage that, but the person who can figure out how to do that is going to make themselves a lot of money very quickly. But just because something is lawful, it doesn’t make it beneficial - it can be addictive, it takes away from intimacy with your future spouse in other areas, it is separating what sex is supposed to be into something else; so I would struggle to give it a: “Yes without the lust it’s the best thing that you can do, crack on,” but I think it makes it an awful lot greyer, because the sin that the Bible clearly identifies every time is the lust, which you can do even if you castrate yourself.

Do you give any credence to masturbation being beneficial as a means of sexual stress relief?

MW: It doesn’t seem that that is actually something that happens. They used to say: “If you wank too much you’ll go blind,” and: “If you don’t you might die.” What’s the balance? Neither of those seem true right? No one as far as I’m aware is blind because of this. People say: “I’m really stressed and I’m built up and I need release,” in the same way people say: “I’m really stressed and I need release. I’ll go and have a drink or smoke weed.” Those things aren’t helpful.

It seems like a lot of our approach to this stuff involves shutting people down sexually and this can lead to struggles in the early days of marriage or for single people later in life. What can we do about this?

MW: I don’t think masturbation is helpful in preparing for marriage, because, actually what it teaches you is how to get off as fast as possible, not how to serve someone else.

AG: I was part of the ‘Christian side hug’ generation that was very opposed to contact between members of the opposite sex - physical touch was deemed to be a really harmful thing. I think we could address some of this stuff of: “Nothing sexual is going on then suddenly you’re a sexual being, go and fulfil your husband,” and actually say there is nothing inherently wrong with physical touch. One of the reasons that I love playing games with young people is that some of them get to smack each other with newspaper, or tag each other; it introduces perfectly healthy, normal physical touch, which is one of those needs that I think masturbation plays into, particularly for anyone whose love language is physical touch, physical touch that produces endorphins and good feelings. Our ‘evangelical’ culture sometimes, in trying to stop people having sex with each other, can become: “Don’t touch each other, stay a sheet of paper apart from each other at all times.” I think that we could change that culture a little bit, just to: “Physical touch is part and parcel of being a human being, and one of the ways that we actually connect with each other.”