Andrew Szebenyi, S.J.
Le Moyne College.

The purpose of this study is to consider the true and false values in the ways we understand sexuality in the complexities of our present conditions. The alchemists of the XVIth century used a touchstone to identify genuine gold and silver. I was searching for a similar shortcut in our assessment of the sexual experience today. The ways we respond to particular sexual issues are of course relevant, but they may be far too confusing to identify fundamental values. On a practical level, I believe that our responses to one carefully chosen particular sexual experience may be more revealing than any other. I find that the ways we respond to masturbation in our contemporary society is the touchstone that reveals our true understanding in what we call sexual.

In the essay, Contemporary Attitudes on the Morality of Masturbation, (The American Ecclesiastical Review, 166, 1972), Norbert Brockman, presents four views evaluating masturbation according to the Catholic position.

1. The traditional view. Masturbation is objectively a serious sin. Except in rare cases, it is also subjectively sinful, and the average person who gives in to masturbation, either as a teenager or as an adult, commits sin. Through confession and the sacraments, a person of good will can obtain the grace to overcome this habit, if he is willing to mortify himself and avoid occasions of sin.

2. The diminished freedom position. Masturbation is far from being a simple sexual sin, but is part of a complex process of maturation. While it is always objectively sinful, habitual masturbation usually involves a significant diminishing of freedom, so that in many cases it is unwise to consider the person who has this problem as being morally responsible, at least in regard to serious sin.

3. The fundamental option view. While masturbation is a moral question, for the average person it is not necessarily regarded as seriously sinful. A particular individual action has meaning insofar as it makes incarnate and intensifies the fundamental moral choice that man must make between God and creatures, which ultimately means self. It is difficult to imagine that an act of masturbation could be regarded as such a fundamental choice.

4. The neutral view. Masturbation is such a normal part of growing up that the only serious evil that can be attached to it arises from the unfortunate guilt feelings that come from early training and negative attitudes toward sexuality. Masturbation represents a phase through which a person grows toward interpersonal relationships. A more secular form of this fourth view has been summarized by Lester Dearborn, B.S. (Human Erotic Practices. The Human Sciences Press, 1979, chapter 1) Masturbation, according to the best medical authorities, causes no harm physically or mentally, Any harm resulting from masturbation is caused entirely by worry or by a sense of guilt due to misinformation.

Donald Goergen (The Sexual Celibate. The Seabury Press, 1974, chapter 7) regards, out of the four views presented by Brockman, only the last one immoral. I find all four views coming up short for one reason or another. Each has some aspect in its position that I would regard as somewhat ill conceived, and therefore, potentially hurtful and destructive.

The traditional view, number one in the list, tells people what to do without explaining the reasons. This view is authoritative, and elusive at the same time. When investigated, the main reason behind the position seems to be the principle that genital sexuality is essentially procreative (so created), and therefore, any use of it for anything else but procreation is contrary to its nature. Consequently, the definitely sexual but not procreative masturbation is an intrinsically disordered and gravely sinful act. The trouble with this view is its lack of contact with reality, and its unwillingness to even consider the changing conditions of human life. What I mean is that we are given a doctrinal view, based on a principle, without much pastoral concern or understanding about the present practical dimensions of its application. Why is it that all sexual must be channeled toward procreation? Are the reasons for this view historical or natural? If there is an historical element, has it been upgraded as conditions changed? Why is it that masturbation is labeled as unnatural when it occurs naturally among animals, and is so prevalent among humans? It seems to me that the principle comes from a time when all sexual had to be reproductive for the sake of survival, that is to balance the high death rate then prevalent. This condition, the need to maximize reproductive success, has been stable all through our history until recently. Nonetheless, we should not confuse historical stability of a set of conditions with being part of human nature, or to look upon human nature as something unchanging. (See Karl Rahner’s essay, Experiment Man, in the sesquicentennial issue of Theology Digest.) We should constantly reevaluate the doctrinal from a pastoral point of view to make the shoe fit the foot at all times. Otherwise, when conditions change and no adjustments are made, a gap is created between the doctrinal and the pastoral, and that is damaging to both, the credibility of the authority, and the people under that authority. During the last century, many conditions of human life have changed. One of the adjustments that we must make, experiencing an unprecedented population increase in our time due to a substantial fall in death rates through the discoveries of modern medical sciences, is to practice considerable reproductive restraint. This restraint is just as important to our survival today, as the maximization of reproductive success has been in the past. Consequently, we must seriously examine all other than the explicitly procreative meanings of our sexuality. Such are the unitive aspects in both heterosexual and homosexual contexts for their own sake, and all considerations in regard to the physical and spiritual health of the sexual individual under the changing conditions of life. Without such concern and effort the doctrinal statement looses its credibility and causes untold suffering and damage.

The second, that is the diminished responsibility view, does not change any aspect of the traditional doctrine, but attempts to find attenuating circumstances that might lessen culpability for an otherwise serious offense. The Vatican edition of the Catechism of the Catholic church puts it this way. To form an equitable judgment about the subjects’ moral responsibility (that is the one who masturbates), and to guide pastoral action, one must take into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological and social factors that lessen or even extenuate moral culpability. (2352) In other words, the doctrinal position remains fully stated and unchangeable at the expense of the people. They are to be blamed for coming up short. The doctrinal presents the ideal way of life and any short coming is sinful, although this sinfulness is somewhat lessened for those who are impaired one way or another by passion, or habit, or some other similar extenuating circumstances. In a metaphor, the shoe is given, and if it does not fit the foot, it is the foot’s fault. Change the foot. If that is not possible then bear the pain. This view is arrogant, and is disrespectful to the human person. It may create the impression of being pastoral and understanding, but actually it is not so.

The third or fundamental option view has its own share of problems. According to this view, and using again a metaphor, we may ask, what is really a single act of masturbation? Just a drop of water in a huge vat of wine. It will not change the quality of the wine. If the general orientation of actions is the effort to avoid masturbation, no fundamental change will take place by an otherwise sporadic event of failure. It is the overall orientation that matters. Do your best, and whatever that may be, feel positive about it, and keep doing your best. Unfortunately, there is a contradiction here. One’s conscience is single act oriented and not fundamental option oriented. On the practical level, the suffering caused by guilt and shame over the occasional failure is not resolved by the general trend of an overall orientation. In moments of failure, the fundamental option appears to be bankrupt. It does not seem to consider the psychology of the habitual, neither does it resolve the shortcomings of the previous two views. In spite of all this, the fundamental option view has some pastoral merit, because it emphasizes the positive in an otherwise negative situation.

The fourth view is that of moral neutrality. Goergen states that out of the four views he considers only this one as immoral. I believe that the neutral view is not being presented here properly, which explains the resulting conclusion about its immorality. There are two different issues to be considered here. One is the actual meaning of a natural given, and the other is the morality of its proper or improper use. Along the fourth view we should attempt to free a natural event from the negative bias of a cultural interpretation, where the latter is mostly based on ignorance, on unproven assumptions, or on some historical values, which by now have become dysfunctional.

Each of the four views presented has some merit and at the same time each has some negative components with destructive consequences. That is why I am proposing a fifth view in which the ideal is more closely based on observing the human condition in our time, than on some principle of the past presented as unchangeable. First I describe here some real problems, and then some tentative solutions to resolve them.

The fifth view.

My position is that sexuality is a lifelong natural given with a whole range of expressions in terms of pleasure, relationship, and reproduction, all of which are colored by cultural biases, some healthy, some destructive. It is my position to attempt to support healthy attitudes measured more in terms of practical functionality, than along the dictates of a given principle. My criteria of morality are rooted in the natural well being of the individuals and of the community. Here are some observations.

The idea that in the course of normal development teenagers may masturbate because they are immature, but as they grow older this behavior changes into adult interpersonal relationships expressed through intercourse is unreal. Masturbation is a far more universal experience than a short developmental phase would imply. It occurs in infancy, among both young and old, among the married and the single. It is simply not true that masturbation is a phase of immaturity teenagers pass through.

It is an often heard assumption that the natural purpose of all sexual is procreation. Observation does not support this assumption. Sexual needs and responses are very much present during non reproductive years, such as before marriage and after menopause. In addition, responsible reproduction today means on the average two children per family, and that can be satisfied within a few years in the lives of most couples. What are they supposed to do for the rest of their married lives? Some say, they are to use the natural family planning method. But it should be known that NFP is neither natural, nor planning for many people. To expect an asexual way of life from everyone all thorough their lives, except for the few reproductive years of those who are married, is an unsupportable and destructive nonsense based upon an unproven and dysfunctional assumption that all sexual must be reproductive. Observation also shows that to make this demand with authority and under the punishment of damnation is the cause of immense suffering and conflict, especially for the good people with sensitive consciences. It should be a primary task of moral theologians today to seriously consider and present the practical meaning of the non reproductive sexual in a positive, balanced, and responsible setting. I believe that masturbation plays a significant role in that setting.

Considering the reasons why people masturbate, it becomes clear that reproduction is but one of many expressions of human sexuality. Masturbation is a pleasurable sexual experience which may help to support being connected with oneself, relieve tensions, loneliness and anxiety, and a host of other needs of personal health and well being. In a social context, it may lessen the probability of unwanted behaviors by reducing sexual tensions, or it may be a means toward deeper and more intimate relationship which are sexual but not reproductive. These benefits are rendered unattainable by a negative attitude toward pleasure in general and sexual pleasure in particular resulting in feelings of guilt and self condemnation. The combination of persistence of sexual needs and this negativity is the cause of untold human suffering and confusion.

Here is the classical example. For some sexual pleasure is a necessary evil, and it finds redemption only in its reproductive function, and even then it is something shameful. St. Augustin wrote (Sermons on the New Testament, Sermon 1. paragraph 23): Those famous men who marry wives for the procreation of children, such as we read the Patriarch to have been, ... if the means could be given them of having children without intercourse with their wives, would they not with joy unspeakable embrace so great a blessing? This statement was made in the fourth century, but even today negativity toward sexual matters surfaces in many forms in our present culture. Many feel that sex is dirty. Children are brought up in an asexual world, a world of denials and taboos. We don’t talk about such things. Many of us have been taught as children to be ashamed of certain parts of our bodies. The expression “Are you decent?” implies that it is indecent to be naked. Isn’t it then strange that naked is the way we are all born. God makes us indecent. All this is most unnatural and destructive and leaves the painful marks of unhealed wounds. These wounds need to be healed.

Here is a suggestion. Divide and conquer was the key to military success in the Roman Empire. The statement also implies that there is a great deal of strength in being united. Nonetheless, we live in a world of dichotomies in which we take ourselves apart and set the parts against one another. A sure sign of a looser. We look on ourselves and say, material and spiritual, body and soul, natural and supernatural. One is evil, the other is good. All we need to do is to set the one against the other and we have a no-win situation. The truth is that all material is spiritual, body and soul are one, and the smallest natural phenomenon is a fantastic miracle. We must be free from the cultural bias of dichotomy in all our endeavors, including science. For instance, we should understand evolution as the way creation runs it course in time, and not in terms of an either-or dichotomy, a hopeless source of an unhappy controversy. It is through faith that our natural world becomes truly meaningful. As to our sexuality, it is a lifelong natural given of many gifts of pleasure, friendship, and the beautiful loving and caring relationships of the family. Sex is not something evil to be redeemed through the process of dehumanization, but a created natural gift of life, spiritual, clean, and supernatural all the way through human life. What is evil is to abuse this created gift for something that is hurtful and destructive to ourselves and to others. It is much worth while to consider the practical aspects of both, use and abuse in this light. Here are some guidelines.

As in everything, so in the expressions of our sexual nature, we need to acquire discipline, which allows us to be free to keep matters under rational control. Such discipline is particularly important in matters, which are powerfully more emotional than rational, as is the case in most matters of a sexual nature. Only through discipline can we find balanced expressions to our sexuality in every stage of our development and in every state of life. The aim of discipline is not the suppression of our sexuality in all but the procreative, but the acquisition of the needed control, which allows us to keep the expressions of our sexuality within a non destructive range.

What are then the expressions of our sexual nature that may cause harm to ourselves or to others? Anything that is disrespectful and irresponsible toward another human person, especially toward new human life. The list of destructive actions and relationships includes such matters as promiscuity, pornography, prostitution, rape, child abuse, abortion, or anything that is contrary to unselfish love, fidelity, and family values. We should also include in this list all those matters which are contrary to personal health.

It is healing to maintain an openness in matters sexual, to lessen the fear, the negativity, and the sense of shame that surround the human body as a destructive cloud of cultural bias. With awe and respect toward the human person, including those with homosexual orientation, we should recognize our fundamental need to love and to be loved, and allow our sexuality to be a source of joy. We should also remember as Christians, that the value of sacrifice is a powerful source of grace. None more than in matters sexual.

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