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John’ is in his late 20s, married and a Christian youth worker. He masturbates daily. He wishes that he didn’t and he’s perhaps most bothered that his behaviour is almost always linked to pornography use. ‘Phil’ is in his 40s, a leader in his church and a married father of two. He masturbates a couple of times a week, as does ‘Clare’, a single youth leader in her 20s. These are not composite or imagined people - they’re real and their stories belie a huge unspoken story. Masturbation is a big factor in the lives of many Christians and many youth and children’s leaders, and we never, ever talk about it.

In recent years, this most taboo of subjects has become buried within the safety zone of talking about porn. We all know and agree - at least within the Church - that porn is unhelpful, that its production is hugely unethical, and that the sort of barefaced lust that it facilitates within us is cut-and-dried sinful. Yet somehow by talking about pornography addiction and ‘use’, we’ve separated out the physical act of masturbation and hidden it away. When I was a teenager in the 1990s, just before the dawn of the internet, we were probably subjected to the awkward ‘M-word’ talk about once a year. We were told that - like so many things back then - it was definitely sinful, a misappropriation of the gift of sex, and to be avoided. That wasn’t a very compelling argument and so, like all other teenagers with raging hormones, we just did it anyway, and then lied about it.

Now however, the subject is rarely breached in so clear a way. Porn has superseded it as an easier target; a more detached evil we can all agree on, and which doesn’t feel half as awkward or grisly. And while I agree that porn is evil, that we should be encouraging our young people to think critically about it, and to avoid it as an act of holiness, self-preservation and rebellion, the question still remains. What about masturbation? Is it wrong? Is it sinful? Before we go about addressing that question with our young people, the stories of John, Phil, Clare and others* suggest that many of us still need to answer it for ourselves. (*I’m grateful to those who took part in the research for this article, for their vulnerability and raw honesty. All names have been changed.)

Sexual function is intrinsically linked with sexual desire

Does the bible tell me so?

Phil tells me that the Bible is “obviously clear” on masturbation. And while the word itself isn’t used in scripture, Paul does drop a fairly big hint in 1 Thessalonians 4 4-5 when he says: “Each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honourable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God.” In the original Greek, “control his own body” is more literally translated as, “possess his own vessel” - a euphemism for the sexual organs. There are plenty of Old Testament references to bodily emissions and how they make a person unclean, but this feels like the clearest point at which the Bible addresses the issue. The subsequent verses are clear that sexual immorality is a sin punishable like any other, and you can quite easily join the dots to suggest that masturbation falls into the same category as any lust-based transgression.

The goal here is to learn self-control, not to legalistically eradicate sin. And like any other sin, masturbation is covered by Jesus’ death on the cross - the once-for-all sacrifice which offers us forgiveness from our sin and freedom from the consequences. Phil tells me that for years he struggled to believe this: “I used to think that every time I masturbated, I dragged myself back to the gates of hell. It was only when I realised that God wasn’t angry with me that I managed to decrease the habit. It probably doesn’t make much sense, but the guilt made me do it more.” The problem with a lot of the Church’s teaching about sexual sin is that it focuses on the crime and on the punishment that it would deserve had Jesus not already dealt with it. Considering how widespread that kind of thinking is, it’s pretty muddled. Surely instead - in both our private lives and in our teaching to young people - we should be concentrating on the choice to not go on sinning.

For me that’s the key to how this issue should be handled with young people. All of the people I spoke to talked about massive feelings of guilt, many of them rooted in those old youth group talks. Like every sin, masturbation does not lessen God’s love for us by a single percentage point. However, our response to his unconditional love to us must be a commitment to holiness - the essence of what Paul is saying in 1 Thessalonians 4. So while we can be free from guilt, we should strive for self-control and self-discipline: a practical, personal act of devotion to God which perhaps represents a head-shift in some of our teaching to teenagers.

There should also be a pragmatic response, recognising that young people crave the kind of dopamine release that an orgasm provides. If we want to encourage any kind of sexual delay, we also need to help young people to find alternative activities - sport, dancing, spending time with friends - which release the same hormone. Otherwise we’re simply asking them to just sit around thinking: “I must not sin...”

It’s (not) different for girls

Clare says she managed to go through seven years of youth group without ever hearing a direct talk on masturbation. “I heard it from the stage at Soul Survivor,” she tells me, “but whenever that subject was discussed at church they’d only do it with the boys. I used to think that was quite funny, as I was probably doing it more than any of them. Now I think it’s sad that my youth leader didn’t get that this is a big thing for girls too. I got completely, totally addicted to it, and no one even imagined it would be an issue for me.” She says masturbation was “a massive comfort thing”, and “probably why I didn’t sleep with any of my boyfriends growing up.” She says she didn’t get the impression that all of her friends were doing it too: “I didn’t ever tell anyone else, so maybe everyone was doing it, and we just all kept it secret!” Unlike the others I spoke to, Clare feels that masturbation: “Probably isn’t a big deal. You’ve got all these hormones rushing around your body - you’ve got to deal with them somehow.”

Clare’s comment about how masturbation might have prevented sex is one of many arguments that it might not necessarily a be bad thing. Mainstream sex education has long taught that masturbation is a healthy part of growing up and ‘exploring your body’. Various studies have suggested that it can help prevent prostate cancer, improve sperm mobility and relieve anxiety and stress. Some Christian leaders have even talked about the idea of a ‘blank wank’, where the physical function is merely used to release hormones and relieve stress. However others would say that you cannot draw such a clear distinction, our bodies are designed by God to be much more joined-up than that; sexual function is intrinsically linked with sexual desire.

Despite our best attempts to justify and explain it away, many would say that masturbation is not healthy - at least not from a spiritual perspective. It takes us into a place of sexual sin, and like a sort of gateway drug, it can open us up to more significant sexual behaviours involving others, the very next thing Paul moves on to talk about in 1 Thessalonians 4. While Jesus has made the bar for salvation incredibly low, the standards that young people hold themselves to should still be high.

It’s also important however to note that the goal of the Christian life isn’t to stop masturbating, nor on its own is that a great marker of someone’s spiritual or emotional development. A person could be incredibly sexually repressed, or in some other way broken, and have gained mastery over this one particular issue of self-control. It’s not the aim of discipleship, but neither is it to be given a free pass.

The real question is whether we’re still prepared to call young people to a life of total, surrendered holiness

When lust takes over

While Phil and Clare have managed to limit the amount that they masturbate (although not fully stop), John is in a very different place. “I would say I’m completely addicted to it, and porn,” he says. “Every time I’m left alone, it’s the first thing I think of doing. I hate it. Afterwards I really hate it; I feel utterly disgusted with myself. But then there’s just the next time, and the next time after that. I’ve tried accountability software, deleting Internet apps off my phone, different things - none of it works. Getting married and having a sexual partner hasn’t changed it at all, although she has absolutely no idea.”

John is desperate and tells me he’s “filled with self-loathing”. He says it’s pornography that makes him feel most guilty, but that he can’t masturbate without it. “I don’t know which came first - the porn or the [masturbating] - but I’m definitely addicted. I get anxious when there’s a day when I can’t do it. And then when I do, there’s just this moment straight afterwards when you just know that this isn’t what sex was designed for.”

He says his Christian youth group didn’t really address the topic. “Porn was a thing - people had it at school and stuff - but it wasn’t talked about at church. I wish we had. I wish they’d explained to me then, not that it was sinful, but that it was so dangerous. It definitely affects my sex life; porn damages the way you see women. I’ve seen stuff I never should have seen - but that just makes you lust after even worse.”

Talking to John, I wonder if perhaps we’ve switched the conversation to pornography for good reason. As Beeban Kidron’s 2013 documentary InRealLife so viscerally illustrated, porn damages the teenage brain and badly subverts how young people see sex and each other. But in focusing on porn, perhaps we’ve also begun to chicken out of addressing the tightly linked but still separate issue of masturbation. Both are issues of self-control, but by hiding one from the conversation perhaps we enable it.

The world of sexual behaviour has changed irrevocably since the toe-curlingly awkward youth camp talks I sat through as a teenager, but young people are still very much the same - still struggling with hormones, developing early crushes, and finding out about the brief, sensory pleasure offered by the orgasm. Whether you still take a ‘traditional line’ on masturbation or not, it seems to me that the real question here is whether we’re still prepared to call young people to a life of total, surrendered holiness, where they develop self-control over their sexual desires and appetites, and are prepared to surrender everything to Jesus - which obviously has wider-reaching implications about the way we talk about, among other vices, alcohol and even gambling. God wants his people to live holy lives; sometimes that means sounding radically out-of-sync with the messages of our culture when we talk to young people. Perhaps we shouldn’t be scared of that; in my experience they’re much more attracted to a radical faith anyway. So here’s the real challenge: is self-control around masturbation a part of that radical lifestyle, or just another area where we can’t expect too much of young people?