Saturday, July 3, 2010

Masturbation and Spirituality

The question of masturbation as a spiritual practice raised by Steve Caldwell in response to my post on porn and time management is an interesting one for several reasons and raises a lot more questions. Not least among the questions is how to handle it in the congregation.

Other spiritual practices frequently generate classes or practice groups in or around our congregations: sitting meditation groups, yoga groups, chant groups, writing groups, dream work groups, prayer groups, labyrinth groups, and so on until the practices of the congregation's members run too thin to constitute a group. This makes sense for a lot of reasons. In groups we can share techniques that have worked for us and things that failed, we can encourage each other in our common practice and develop good habits that we can use later in private, and we can develop shared philosophies or theologies about what a practice means or aims to accomplish. So I ask, are we going to start masturbation groups in our churches? And what would be some workable parameters of such a group?

I just pulled from my bookshelf Men's Bodies, Men's Gods: Male Identities in a (Post-)Christian Culture, edited by Björn Krondorfer (NY University Press, 1996), and turned to a 13-page article by Scott Haldeman, then a doctoral student at Union Theological Seminary in New York and now an associate professor of worship at Chicago Theological Seminary. The article is titled "Bringing Good News to the Body: Masturbation and Male Identity." In it, Haldeman promotes masturbation as a spiritual practice. And yet he also constantly comes back to the ambiguity and risks inherent in the practice. He writes:
Masturbation is a spiritual practice for me, a way to express my yearning for love and life, even though my desire is rarely satisfied and even when it is, the satisfaction is temporary, ambiguous and fragile. // Masturbation influences many aspects of my life, always with the potential to move me toward more mutual and responsible relationships with myself, others, and my God, or allowing me to slip further into isolation and self-centeredness. My experience reveals the richness of masturbation as a means to investigate men's lives but also the ambiguity of its practice. It is no wonder that many cultures are skeptical of this practice that I would like to call "self-loving" but which is more commonly known as "self-abuse."
Haldeman on physicality:
Masturbation can, as least, serve to put men back "in touch" with themselves... Unfortunately, masturbation often reinforces, rather than addresses, the alienation of men from their bodies when it is focused solely on genital stimulation and release. // On the other hand, masturbation can be an attempt to move beyond simple gratification toward self-knowledge and the reintegration of the body, mind, and heart... If one can pause and let the feelings come as well as the ejaculate, the deadened parts of our physical and emotional selves may come forth.
Haldeman on sexuality:
Masturbation can be the worship of the phallus as weapon: a ritual of witness to its power, the equation of its pleasure with domination, and practice for coming quickly and hard without regard for another's feelings. When connected to pornography, masturbation can reinforce the objectification of others for one's own pleasure. // Masturbation can [also] expand our sexual vocabulary, reawaken our erotic imaginations, help us recognize our enjoyment of our penises and reevaluate our understandings of our sexual orientation...
Haldeman on spirituality:
Masturbation can be relationship-denying, frustrating, self-centered. It can also be centering, creative of creative energy, and expression of our desire to touch the life-force inside and see it manifest.
I interpolate here that the ambiguity and risk practically scream, "Don't try this at home alone!" That is, not if the spiritual side of the practice is what you are after. A practice that has two opposite possibile outcomes - union with the divine and self-fulfillment, on the one hand, and isolation and self-centeredness, on the other, if Haldeman is correct - suggests a need in the early stages for supervision by a master. Now that's a whole level of credentialing the MFC has not yet considered.

Haldeman approaches porn as an extremely complicated tangent to masturbation that has some impact on self-identity, gender relations, and many other areas of life. He refuses to simply condemn porn for reasons that go far beyond the scope of this post. But he does indicate that, along with the rest, there are significant risks in the use of porn as a stimulant. His stated preference is to encourage masturbation without porn, challenging people to develop their erotic imaginations rather than surrendering to someone else's script:
Masturbation is a door into the world of fantasies and desires that each of us has within and that leads us to life and life abundant if we simply turn off the old tapes and free our bodies to speak.
Haldeman addresses only male masturbation simply as a function of the volume's concentration on men's spirituality in relation to their bodies. Hopefully there are similar essays on spirituality and female masturbation.

And with that, I'll return to my conclusion to the post on porn and time management: "But how much of our free time is spent in true recreation, that is, in regenerative activities, and how much of what we do consumes us?" As you consider what the question of masturbation as a spiritual practice means for you, I issue a simple caveat: enjoy your body, use the tool of masturbation if you wish, but keep your eyes open to whether you are being consumed or regenerated. That, in the end, is the real issue.


Anonymous said...

Thank goddess you allow anonymous comments.

Interesting topic. I have a lot of trouble imagining a church, even one as liberal as ours, being willing to take this on anytime soon. The one way it might happen would be as a follow-up to an adult or YA OWL class. Even then I would imagine it would be a closed group.

I won't defend my attitude as healthy, but here's where I am about masturbation: as someone with a loving and mutually interested partner, but one with whom because of our respective lives and busyness we don't get to have sex as often as we like, masturbation is simply snack food. It's a knee-jerk response (let's skip the puns there:-) ) to immediate desire that, left unsatisfied at the moment, can escalate into a much bigger distraction. Pornography further "speeds up" the process, ramping up the desire efficiently so I can cum and then get on with my day. Again, not saying this is healthy, just pragmatic.

But morally I'm ambivalent about pornography (although not masturbation, really), and my questioning of it has escalated since coming across an interview with the author of a new book, "Pornland," which strongly criticizes porn. I never bought into the old Right Wing arguments (Judith Reisman et al) on the subject but did find the Dworkin/McKinnon critique of porn at least somewhat persuasive. So right now I'm troubled by porn and choosing not to use it.

Anonymous said...

A little late, but better late than never. I have always masturbated, even as a small child before I knew what I was doing. All I knew was that I found a way to relieve stress. I had a lot of stress as a child, I was abused (physically and mentally, not sexually) by my mother. She hated me and I could deal with the stress of her by masturbating. I always did so fully clothed (it never worked otherwise) and never fantasized about sex with someone. To this day I do so with clothes on. Sometimes it's stress relief and sometimes not. For example, medidating on anything spiritual makes me have the sensation that I need to have a climax to release the love I feel. An example would be today I was reading The Essential St. John of the Cross/the poetry at the end of the book. I was feeling intense love and then the 'pressure' feeling came about. It is a spiritual love feeling, so hard to explain. But I know that if I don't go (fully clothed) and take care of business, it is really uncomfortable. I used to feel so guilty about it-all you read on how bad it is for you and such a sin-that I would say to God, please take this away from me. I don't know what to do with this. I always get the distinct feeling that I'm being silly by saying that and that it is a gift of sorts. Like I said earlier, I never fantasize about anyone or anything when masturbating, I am fully clothed, and it is just a release. It still stumps me, though. BTW I am female. And yes, thank God for allowing me to be anonymous!

Anonymous said...

I truly enjoyed reading this and also the two comments left here. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

If the man is thinking about a woman when he masturbates he is harming her by interfering with her spirituality and hence disrespecting her. Men need to take care of their thoughts and actions as women must. Why harm each other? REspect is the foundation of all good relationships.

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to thank the author.
I needed this article in a spiritually confused and personally difficult time. It was the first a stumbled upon in my search for guidance.
It has cleared up a lifelong dilemma in a way that spoke clear to my heart and conscience.
Thank you.