The Seal of Selfishness

By: Michael Aquilina


“Don’t knock masturbation,” goes the old Woody Allen line. “It’s sex with someone I love.” And Woody got a lot of laughs, since everyone knew it wasn’t true. The audience knew he was joking, not only because Woody’s comic persona was always low on self-love, but because most people understood that masturbation is a lonely, unsatisfying — and sinful — act.

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out: “Both the magisterium of the Church, in the course of a constant tradition, and the moral sense of the faithful have been in no doubt and have firmly maintained that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action” (no. 2352) But perhaps times have changed. Today, activists deliver Woody’s old line with far from comic intentions. A 1993 edition of The Utne Reader, for example, heralded “a veritable Age of Masturbation.”

 The “End” of Sex, as We Know it

Writer Caryn Brooks effused: “In the shadow of AIDS, and in the spirit of self-exploration, many people” choose to masturbate “as a means of self-expression… A new sexual vanguard is touting fresh and exciting ways to enjoy your body,” Brooks is happy to announce, “and they aren’t ashamed about it either.” Though the Church’s teaching hasn’t changed, the “moral sense” of the west apparently has. Today, even conservative Protestant groups, such as Dr. James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, teach that masturbation is morally neutral, or even “healthy.”

What’s wrong with this picture? Everything, from beginning to “ends.” The Christian tradition has always understood human sexuality as a great good, precisely because of the purposes for which God has created it. In humans, the sex drive guides men and women to join together in monogamous, lifelong marriage, the sacrament that is consummated in sexual intercourse.  The act of intercourse has certain legitimate purposes, or “ends.” It unites a couple in love. It sometimes enables the couple to co-create, with God, a new human life. Sex also seals and renews the sacred covenant of marriage.

That’s the positive truth, and Christians have always rejected any use of sex that contradicts that truth, or frustrates any of those ends. Put concisely, in the words of the Catechism: “The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose” (no. 2352) An earlier Vatican document adds that masturbation lacks “the full sense of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love.” The act of masturbation — the deliberate stimulation of the genital organs in order to derive pleasure — flouts everything a Christian believes about the purposes of sex: union, procreation, sacredness and the love of two people.

The act of masturbation presumes that the purpose of sex is the individual’s pleasure. But such pleasure is fleeting because masturbation cannot satisfy a truly human sex drive, for a man or woman’s desire is not for mere physical release. St. Augustine said it well 15 centuries ago: We long to look upon one who looks back in love.

The sex drive is nature’s way of drawing two people together in that loving embrace. A married couple’s love seeks physical union, and their union is still more perfectly expressed in the procreation of a child. It is only by understanding sexual pleasure in a different (and un-Christian) way that people can begin to approve of masturbation. A hedonist, for example, puts pleasure first in all human activity. The pagan Romans sought the pleasures of eating without the natural consequence of a full stomach — so they induced vomiting and ate more. Modern hedonists seek sexual pleasure without the bother of a lifelong commitment to loving a family — so they masturbate.

Competing Philosophies  

Others misunderstand sex because they see people, essentially, as machines made of flesh. Such “mechanists” claim that the body “needs” sexual release for normal functioning, and this masturbating is as “natural” as sneezing. But this is simply untrue. The body does not need sexual release in the way it needs to eat or sleep or eliminate waste. What’s more, masturbation is not just a physical, morally neutral act (such as sneezing). It is usually accompanied by fantasies that make an object of — and thus dehumanize — another person.

Still others say that masturbation is inevitable, that people simple can’t resist the urge, so it must be “natural.” Such cynics usually cite studies (such as Alfred Kinsey’s) that claim 90 percent of all men masturbate — “and the other 10 percent lie about it.” But this view is doubly absurd: it appeals to morality by majority, and it denies free will. A majority can be wrong — and in a debased culture is likely to be wrong, especially in matters of sexuality, where desires are so powerful and the will so weak.

The human will is very weak in matters sexual, but it is not helpless. To say that all is lost, and to give up the struggle of sexual sin, is to give up Christian morality. The Catechism again speaks eloquently: “Freedom is the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one’s own responsibility. By free will one shapes one’s own life. Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude” (no. 1731).

 Hope Amidst Struggle

The Church does not deny the difficulty of the struggle, especially when masturbation has become a habit or compulsion. Indeed, the Catechism notes that such circumstances can even mitigate an individual’s guilt for the sin: “To form an equitable judgment about the subjects’ moral responsibility and to guide pastoral action, one must take into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or even social factors that can lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability” (no. 2352).

Jesus himself was most generous in the mercy He dispensed to people who had repented of sexual sins. But His mercy required repentance first, along with firm resolve to change. Jesus’ parting words to one sexual sinner still ring true today: “Go, and from now on do not sin any more” (Jn 8:11). The question still remains: How can a person sin no more, in spite of long-acquired habits and disordered desires? The Vatican’s 1975 statement on sexual ethics, Persona Humana (“The Human Person”), presents a tough realism: “Living the Christian life by following in the footsteps of Christ requires that everyone should ‘deny himself and take up his cross daily,’ sustained by the hope of reward…

“The faithful of the present time… must use the means which have always been recommended by the Church for living a chaste life. These means are: discipline of the senses and mind, watchfulness and prudence in avoiding occasions of sin, the observance of modesty, moderation in recreation, wholesome pursuits, assiduous prayer and frequent reception of the Sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist. Young people especially should foster devotion to the Immaculate Mother of God” (no. 12). Dutch psychologist Gerard J.M. van de Aardweg, in his recent book “The Battle for Normality” (Ignatius Press, $12) offers very practical advice: “A good strategy is to make a firm proposal, every morning, and repeat it whenever necessary (in the evening or before going to bed): “The next part of the day (night) I shall not give in.”

“With such a mind-set, the first signs of the emerging desire are better recognized. Then one may say to oneself: ‘I will not give myself this pleasure; rather, I will accept the little suffering it means not to get what I want.’ ” But ultimately, it is chaste people who “get what they want,” because they get what God made them for — and that’s pure love. No matter what Woody Allen said, masturbation is not an act of love. It is self-loathing perpetuating itself, and mimicking a sacrament. Don’t believe the people who don’t knock it.

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