So I recently wrote an article on female masturbation, in response to a blog post that’s been linked as the best of her.meneutics, Christianity Today’s blog for women. My basic premise was that Christians need to stop pretending that women only masturbate because they want to “fill a void” or have “attachment issues.” The root of the problem – something many Christians feel weirdly uncomfortable acknowledging – is that women lust for sex just like men do. (Though on a spectrum, they may lust less on average.)
There have been many bizarre responses, which I feel weirdly compelled to detail here, even though they make it painfully clear that many of them haven’t read the article at all:
1. This article smacks of patriarchy. I specifically criticized the traditional accounts of female masturbation because I think they are patriarchal and downplay women’s agency in sex. See quote below:
The doublespeak here—that women are supposed to be simultaneously sexually adventurous, available, and willing yet without possessing lust themselves—is an impossible contradiction to embody. It treats sex as a man’s playing field, reinforcing the notion that women should cater to men’s desires without possessing similar desires of their own.
To fully address female masturbation, we don’t need more psychoanalysis about sex that implicitly negates female sexuality. We need a biblical approach that recognizes both the immense pleasure of the female orgasm and the inherent goodness of sexual desire while reserving its proper place for within marriage.
2. What century is this? The 1800s? No, if it were the 1800s I’d be saying:
Some young women actually anticipate the wedding night ordeal with curiosity and pleasure! Beware such an attitude! A selfish and sensual husband can easily take advantage of such a bride. One cardinal rule of marriage should never be forgotten: GIVE LITTLE, GIVE SELDOM, AND ABOVE ALL, GIVE GRUDGINGLY. Otherwise what could have been a proper marriage could become an orgy of sexual lust.
That’s a real quote, from a Victorian marriage guide, written in 1894 by Ruth Smythers. It’s very clear my article is written from a 21st century perspective, drawing from the wisdom of the ancients as well, instead of being completely oblivious to anything before 50 years ago.
Of course, we can simply assume that something is false because it’s old, right? In the end, this is little more than chronological snobbery. People don’t study history and so they assume that whatever is present or current is good, right, and true. Anything from before 1969 is clearly regressive and antiquated and false. Nevermind that attitudes toward sex have varied throughout the ages, especially in cities and the upper classes. Buy let’s just ignore those pesky historical facts!
3. It’s inappropriate to talk about such things in a magazine. Guess what. Everybody’s doing it and nobody’s talking about it. It’s because there is such stigma around this topic that the pastoral responses have been so unhelpful. Because no women are talking about it, every woman who struggles thinks she’s weird or on sexual overdrive or something. So we need to talk about it, and we seemingly can’t talk about it in person due to stigma. A magazine is a good way to resolve this tension.
4. My personal favorite: where is the Bible in all of this? Without getting into the sin of Onan, there actually was a Bible quote in the article. But it was subtle – “to stir up and awaken love before it pleases.” I quoted the Bible like Jesus quotes the Bible – without giving book, chapter, and verse. But you have to be knowledgable to track these more subtle clues… I won’t comment on what this says about the average commenter.
5. Masturbation can be performed without lust. I actually agree with this point; it’s possible to get off without lusting after a particular person. But I don’t think that’s a very common case, so it didn’t seem worth getting into arguments about it. I do worry about what it means when we start using a sexual act intended to be used in communion with another for purposes like our personal stress relief or soporific intents. I don’t have time to get as far into this, but I’ll write about it more later. I just don’t think this is a serious possibility for most people, and that lust is the more common problem.
6. Masturbation is perfectly fine. What’s your problem? This has not been the traditional opinion in the church, and some people I know and respect (Richard Beck, for example), hold the unorthodox position. The purpose of the article was not to make the case for why masturbation is wrong. It was an argument about a pastoral approach to a problem – once we agree something is wrong, how do we treat it? Most pastoral approaches I’ve seen in sermons have been significantly misguided, which is why I wanted to write this. I’ll present a longer argument on another day.
7. My favorite response from my boyfriend: Reading the comments on your article made me feel like this:
Jordan, I looked you up out of curiosity after reading the CT article and some of the comments. I just wondered if you are a pastor or have pastoral training? With all due respect, the argument you make deals with a very sensitive subject, and the guilt, shame, and confusion Christians struggle with tell me that this subject should be handled with the utmost care. I would argue that sweeping statements are inappropriate because this isn’t a theoretical or academic issue, but one that often goes to the heart of an individual’s identity. For that reason…and I don’t say this to be offensive….I seriously question CT’s wisdom in printing your article….unless you have the qualifications and I am unaware of them? Please let me know if I am misunderstanding the situation. I am a CT subscriber and just feel that articles of this nature promoted by CT should be written by a professional pastor, counselor, etc.
I am not a pastor nor do I have formal pastoral training, but I have been involved in women’s ministry and led small groups and discipled others and held other varieties of leadership positions – not to mention that I am a human being with my own experience of what has been helpful within my own life. I could see your argument if I had been providing my own version of Piper’s “Anthem.” But what I’ve advocated is not a new pastoral approach so much as a less stereotypical gendered application of it. Given that I effectively summarized Piper and linked to his advice, I don’t think pastoral qualifications should be at issue here.
The best way to understand my piece is not as an authoritative, definitive, final answer to this pastoral question – it’s best understood as a response to a particular failure I’ve seen in writings from other professional pastors/counselors. In that sense, it’s more about starting a conversation that opens our eyes to the presence of lust in the face of this pastoral problem. I handled the subject with care without making sweeping generalizations; I’m not saying the other approaches cannot be helpful, nor that the issues they raise shouldn’t be dealt with, but rather that they are significantly incomplete (and belie other serious problems in Christian attitudes toward sex). Insofar as CT is just a general magazine and not a definitive textbook on pastoral care, I think they are right to publish pieces starting conversations “from the front lines” as it were.
I think your article was outstanding.While many of the pastoral treatments on this subject have been given by men for obvious reasons, I’m thankful for your realistic, articulate thoughts on this topic.
I’m engaged to be married and this content rings true with a few of the discussions about sexuality I’ve had with my fiance. She says it’s often more challenging for women to deal with sexual sin since they feel like they can’t say anything to other people. Both of us have grown up in the church and completely agree with the last point in the CT piece, that sexual sin (and any other sin, really) is only overcome through prayer and working through a church community.
I have one question: Some (probably incomplete) statistics on men, something like 50% of men and 17% of women are viewing pornography/masturbating.
Anecdotally, with pretty much every man under the age of 30 that I’ve spoken with, this number approaches 100%. In your counseling experience/ experience in church/ministry, do you have any sense of this percentage for women? Thanks in advance.
Great question. My pastoral experience in church has been limited, but probably at least 75% of women who I’ve spoken to about the issue struggle with masturbation (generally less pornography – maybe 10% on that). The most extensive thing I’ve read on this was the academic article “Religiosity and the Sexuality of Women: Sexual Behavior and Sexual Satisfaction Revisited” by Davidson, Darling, and Norton. They cite some numbers from other researchers suggesting that 65%-84% of never married women and 100% of married women of masturbate. They noted some effect of religious attendance (especially monthly or weekly attendance) on the age of onset of behavior, but didn’t delve much into frequency. They’ve got a pretty extensive list there, though I’m in general skeptical of academic research on religion and behavior because it: (a) often ignores frequency and (b) almost universally ignores religious change. So, for example, my behavior in Davidson’s questionnaire would fall into the weekly religious category, but the relevant behavior occurred when I was an atheist. All of this being said, Davidson’s research was from 1995, so I wouldn’t be surprised if those numbers increased in the last two decades.
Your article was frustrating in that I believe there is a distinction between lust and sexual desire. Lust has a predatory feel to it whereas desire is an attraction there is a distinction with a difference. Because you dont distinguish between the two, the reader could draw the conclusion that any sexual arousal or attraction is based on lust and therefore wrong.
Thank You Jordan. This article helped me to understand more what I was struggling with. With the help of JChrist I will overcome but as I like to understand because I think too much, your words were so right to me even in my case that I’m happily married, I was struggling with same lust as a single person. Thank you again. God Bless You
Are males allowed to comment?