This is a continuation of my previous post. I’m dealing with some sensitive issues, including lust, pornography, and addiction. If you are uncomfortable talking about these things, you may not want to read what I have to say. If you’re okay with my subject matter (or are very curious, even if you don’t want to admit it), read on.
Before we can talk about the ways in which self-pleasure can be a positive, healthy thing, we need to have a conversation about lust, pornography, and addiction. We need to break the rules that those are all interchangeable terms and are all inherently bad.
When it comes to lust, I think we simply have no real way to discuss what it is and what it means without devolving into some variation on thought-policing. I have some rage about that, actually. I am truly sick and tired of the way lust gets thrown around as a way to tell people what they should or should not find sexy or what fantasies are acceptable when one is wanking. I simply cannot buy into the idea of a God who wastes time fretting about what gives His people orgasms rather than, say, caring what happens to starving children.
I think we need to understand the context of Jesus’ remarks about lust, because otherwise, all sexual fantasy is reduced to lust. I have read numerous articles on the subject, and the problem with all of the Christian versions is exactly the same. Most people seem to think that before Jesus, the line was drawn at “Don’t screw your neighbor’s wife.” After Jesus, there was a new line, but no one seems to be able to define it. It could be anything from “Don’t think sexy thoughts at all” to “Don’t fantasize about the person you just saw in the park.” All we do is keep moving the line, which does nothing to lead to actual freedom. It’s just more about monitoring and controlling other people. I don’t view Jesus’ words about lust that way at all. When Jesus was speaking about lust and adultery, he was making commentary on legalism–saying, “You want legalism? Here you go. Have some more.” (I suggest you read everything in Matthew 5 after the Beatitudes while picturing Condescending Wonka.) Every time we move the line and try to define lust in terms of what people view, read, or think about when they get off, we end up with more red tape.
There are two problems with that. First, if thinking about another person while pleasuring oneself is wrong, then it also applies to partnered couples. Well, shoot. That is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. I mean, I consider it damn hot to imagine my husband bringing himself off in the shower while thinking about me! I really want him to “lust” after me. I don’t consider it some attempt to possess me or reduce my humanity in any way if he were to think about my hands on his body. (You are all blushing right now, aren’t you? That’s so cute.)
Second, it makes people terrified of their own thoughts. I can remember watching movies with my husband–my husband!–and if there was any sex, I would immediately tense up. I would think, I can’t find this sexy. I’m not supposed to find this sexy. I would worry that he was embarrassed. I would fear being turned on by it because oh my god that’s porn! even if there wasn’t much being shown. And for real, folks, that was incredibly damaging. By shutting off any natural reaction because I was afraid that it was veering into Lust Land, I also shut off any ability to respond to actual sex. Thought-policing on the lust front is a recipe for repression and depression. Instead, we need to reframe the conversation so that it’s about how we show respect to others’ humanity rather than about punishing ourselves for naughty thoughts.
So let’s talk about porn, then. Well, what about it? My problem with porn is not holy shit naked people humping. Human beings have sex, and we’ve been creating visual representations of it for thousands of years. The exaggerations in porn? Not new. There is some ancient Japanese art in which men have schlongs the size of their heads. My problem with porn is largely the abuses in the industry and the ways in which rather than being a reflection of humanity, it has become a standard for humanity. I could–and probably should–write an entire post about the relationships between porn and sex trafficking, child abuse, drug addiction, and the degradation of women. I could also include frank discussion of the ways in which use of pornography can cause problems within intimate relationships, often due to differing standards as well as the aforementioned shame attached to it. I could spend a long time hashing out the difference between a person who simply enjoys porn and a person who has become so wrapped up in it that he or she can’t enjoy sex of any kind without it. As I said, those are all important issues, but a discussion about self-gratification is not the place to go into detail. Suffice it to say, watching people get it on is really not the big problem here, but neither do I feel comfortable endorsing it as just another art form.
So now that we’ve gotten lust and porn out of the way, what about sex addiction? Well, first of all, we have to be clear on what we’re talking about. There is good evidence that the rate of sex addiction is greatly inflated because people who enjoy daily sexual release are lumped into this category, as are people who regularly view porn. This is more a function of a sexually repressed society than any actual disorders (not that those don’t exist too, but the church has definitely defined “addiction” in pretty broad terms).
In order to qualify as a genuine addiction or as a problem, there are several things that need to be true. First and foremost, it needs to be a problem for the person, and not just because the person feels embarrassed or ashamed or guilty. It needs to actually have real-life consequences: It needs to interfere with activities of daily living or be truly harmful to oneself or others. Folks, it’s not going to kill you. This is not the same thing as being an alcohol or drug addict. I believe (and sex-positive experts agree) that this is just another lie spread by very conservative religious types. You can fondle yourself multiple times a day and unless you are doing it at inappropriate times or in inappropriate places, you’re pretty much okay. I have seen a number of people claiming that they were “addicted” because they believed themselves to be using masturbation as a way to fill an unnamed emotional hole, and I understand that perspective. But even using sexual release as means of self-soothing is not wrong. Heck, it’s better than getting drunk or binge-eating or self-harm, and it’s a hell of a lot safer than escaping through sky diving or bungee jumping. I think the “filling an emotional need” thing is a distractor anyway. Would you have the same concerns if I were feeling lonely and soothed myself by spending the night watching my favorite movie for the thirtieth time? Probably not.
Please don’t think I’m dismissing the harm that can come from lust, porn, and addiction; I’m not. It’s just very important that we remove the layers of shame and guilt before we can deal with the things underneath that really are harmful. If something feels like a problem for you personally, then by all means do something about it. But make sure that your reasons aren’t stemming from the negative messages from the church or culture.
Next time, we get to the good stuff: what makes masturbation a potentially really awesome thing?