You might think masturbation is a sin because of religious messages that say any sexual act is shameful — especially acts outside of a marriage that don’t result in a baby. Because of such messages, there are many misconceptions and myths when it comes to masturbation. For example, some say masturbating can give you hairy palms. Of course, this isn’t true and masturbation is not a sin. On the contrary, masturbation is a totally normal, healthy part of human sexuality, and masturbation actually has a ton of benefits.
Brandan Robertson, a queer activist, author, and pastor in San Diego tells O.school that masturbation is a natural human desire. “As a Christian Pastor, let me state for the record that masturbation is not a sin,” Robertson tells O.school, “If we're going to have a healthy sexuality in the future with a partner (or partners), it must begin with having a healthy sexual relationship with ourselves. If we don't explore on our own now, then it will be harder for us to express ourselves sexually with others in the future.”
What Christian, Islamic, and Jewish institutions say about masturbation.
Christians consider the passage from Galatians 5:3, which states, “Don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature,” to be the reason masturbation should be considered a sin. Lust, impure thoughts, and something done in secret are considered wrongful actions by Christians.
In Islam, masturbation is seen as less sinful than lust, sex, and adultery. However, it is still not permitted and is seen as feeling lustful outside of marriage. For many Muslims, fasting is recommended in order to alleviate any “impure urges.”
Historically, Orthodox Jewish law has prohibited male masturbation because of beliefs that semen is impure. In the story of Onan, he interrupts having intercourse with his wife in order to prevent conceiving a child. As a result, he “discharged semen in vain,” and God slew him.
How religion can support the idea that masturbation is not a sin.
While every religion has a different take on masturbation, some sects interpret biblical passages on sex and pleasure more broadly and take a progressive view.
Robertson tells O.school that “Our brains produce chemicals that regularly cause us to desire [expressing] or [exploring] our sexuality. Instead of being ashamed or afraid of sexual expression, healthy, spiritually-rooted sexuality should encourage us to explore our bodies and our sexual desires, but from a place that is centered on the values of our faith — such as loving our neighbor, respect, and self-control. If more faith communities taught a holistic, values-centered sexual ethic, I believe we would have much less sexual trauma and misinformation in the world today, and a lot more healthy sexuality.”
Masturbation can be an enlightening experience for a person as they explore their sexuality throughout their entire life. It’s a perfect way to explore what you want sexually, and how you want it. With age, desires change as well, and masturbation is a great way to continue learning about your sexual interests. Masturbation allows you to know what really turns you on physically, and it can be empowering to be in charge of your own pleasure.
Unlearning shame around masturbation
If you grew up being told masturbation is a sin, it can be hard to unlearn the shame and guilt associated with sex. To hear about what it’s like growing up in a religious community and coping with shame, we spoke to Tamara and Maria, who requested to remain anonymous.
Tamara, 30, was raised in a conservative Christian family and was taught the purity doctrine which says any and “all sexual release outside of a hetero-marriage was wrong.” Tamara says she felt intense guilt about masturbating when she was in high school and in college. Eventually, Tamara’s feelings toward masturbation shifted when she broke with the purity doctrine. “At first, I felt guilty even though I knew my beliefs were changing, but I still felt like it was wrong against my husband and God.”
Maria, 25, and was raised in Brazil with a family that wasn’t overtly religious. She was taught at a young age that “God is watching you.” Growing up in a Catholic country meant being surrounded by this doctrine. When she was 13, she began discovering her body and tells O.school, “I felt extremely guilty, to the point where I cried, asked God for forgiveness, and washed myself.” Still, a believer in God, Maria says, “I don't feel guilty about it at all now. As you grow older, you realize Catholicism is very much based on the idea of fear and guilt, awful and negative feelings that my current beliefs try to get rid of.”
Of course, you don’t have to compromise your religious beliefs to understand that masturbation isn't wrong. Robertson encourages young, faithful people to explore on their own. He says, “The ‘sin’ aspect comes into play when we become ‘mastered’ by our sexual desire — we must learn self-control, realizing not every urge is a reason to masturbate or otherwise engage sexually. But when we can engage in a healthy, measured way with our own body, science shows that we become healthier, more balanced human beings. If this is truly the good fruit produced by masturbation, then I cannot see how anyone could call it a sin.”
Masturbation is a way to explore your wants, desires, and urges.
Masturbating is normal at every stage of life, from early childhood to late adulthood. It’s especially common for those going through puberty as a way to start experimenting with their sexuality. Not only does masturbation feel good, but it can also be an important way to familiarize yourself with your body — what kind of motion, pressure, touch feels good and what doesn’t — so you can better communicate your wants and needs to a potential partner. If you don’t explore on your own, how will you know what you like?
So, while religious messages might have us believe that sex is a sin, it’s important we try to unlearn messages of shame and guilt around self-pleasure. Masturbation can be a powerful way to explore yourself and a way to strengthen intimate relationships you may choose to have with a partner down the line.