There are few topics that mainstream liberal and conservative minds will come to such clearly divergent opinions as masturbation. Most other disagreements between the liberal and the conservative tend to be like ships passing—both right about what they affirm, both passionate, both speaking right past the other. But with masturbation the argument seem to be more straightforward. As such, it is seldom actually argued. For once people have begun to argue they will almost immediately reach an impasse. From one perspective it is permissible, enjoyable, even healthy and from the other it is sinful, self-serving, and destructive.
The facts are straightforward and mostly agreed upon. Sexual impulses are natural for most people and mostly unavoidable. Sexual impulses, if followed, can lead to very positive results, minor results, and dramatically negative results. And so some of our sexual impulses must be restrained when they will damage ourselves or others. But the line between what is good and wholesome and what is destructive is drawn on opposite sides of masturbation by the traditionally liberal and the conservative opinions.
Whether or not masturbation has negative effects or positive effects is debated but the more fundamental question is whether or not it is avoidable. There may be negative effects of drinking unfiltered water from a river, but that becomes irrelevant when you are lost in the mountains and about to perish from thirst. You’re going to drink. And you should. If masturbation is avoidable, then we must debate whether it is constructive or destructive. But if it is unavoidable, the merits become mostly irrelevant. It will happen.
The greatest evidence concerning its inevitability are surveys suggesting relatively high rates of masturbation particularly among men, even men who believe it is wrong. There are many reasons this might be. Men want sex regularly. Woman also want sex, they might even want it more than men, but their wanting tends to be of a different kind. They want sex like someone who is hungry and wants to eat. Men’s appetite tends to be more specific. We want sex like someone who is craving a hamburger. If there are no burgers, the man’s craving will remain unsatisfied while the woman can pick a substitute—fried chicken or pasta. While this is not to speak of all woman or all men, it remains generally true that woman can find satisfactory friendship and intimacy outside of copulation, while men cannot.
For when man is alone, he is like one of those tractors we’ve all passed moving slowly across the highway. The large wheels, the robust frame, the powerful engine, all of which have their utility in the field, make the journey over asphalt bumpy and slow. The idea that man is not very good at being unmarried goes back all the way to Genesis in the moment after Adam is created and before Eve when God supposedly said, “it is not good for man to be alone.”
And so, the problem of being unmarried is especially a male problem that leads, perhaps unavoidably, towards masturbation. If this is true, to be a conservative single man, who believes in the mainstream conservative morality, is to be sentenced to some form of mythical torture. It would be one thing if men had it within their means to substitute their burger for a fish fillet, but they cannot. They are like Tantalus who was always in the presence of food and water but could not eat or drink. A man who fights against his sexual craving fights against a giant and will surely, inevitably, be squished.
If you carry the traditional conservative mentality, as I do, you may not accept this premise at least in terms of masturbation. Perhaps you have avoided it. In that case, substitute the specific term of masturbation with the broader term or lustfulness. But this will be unnecessary for at least 61% of men (from what I can tell). Masturbation will do.
And if masturbation is unavoidable for you, then for the conservative argument to make any sense, it must first explain to you the merit of “sin” and “sinfulness.” That is to say, we must explain the value of our attempts to avoid what is unavoidable. This, I believe, is the essence of the term “sin.” The concept of sin is not so interested in what we can and should avoid but what we cannot. This is the message of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and Paul’s letter to the Romans. The law precipitates failure. The inevitable failure is sin. If masturbation is indeed unavoidable, then to understand the conservative disallowence of masturbation, one must first understand why anyone should try to do what they cannot.
To address this more fundamental question, I will attempt to paint two separate conservative approaches to enduring this endless torture I described above as wrestling a giant. Both, I believe, have their virtues. One approach is to fight the giant with all of your might. This first approach is taken by a man I will label Don Quixote. He will spend his day preparing for battle: sharpening his sword, forging his armor, studying the giant, and at last, before the sun sets, arrive to the battlefield ready to conquer. And, everyday, despite his preparations, he is squished like a bug. The giant departs and, by the logic of this absurd punishment, the man is restored and returns home to nurse his wounds. He rises again in the morning renewed, rebuilds his armor, and prepares again for the triumph that will possibly never come.
The other response is that of resignation. Rather than worrying about the giant, the second man who I will call Galileo, spends days writing down his observations, tracking the sun and moon across the sky. When the giant comes, Galileo steps out without sword or shield, is squished flat as a pancake and then reconstituted. Galileo returns home unexhausted and begins to observe the night stars. I use the name Galileo because of my reading of the book Galileo’s Daughter. This seemed to be his approach. He simply spent his time doing his work, focusing on his studies, and when the urge came and distracted him, he let it happen.
I can see virtue in both approaches. Galileo, rather than spending his time and energy fighting a giant, got work done. Don Quixote, while he may never defeat the giant, there is something undeniably beautiful in a man who will try and try again. And there is the chance that Don Quixote will once and for all slay the giant and end the torture. In practical terms this may mean overcoming masturbation habbits and ejaculating while sleeping instead. For most functioning men, ejaculation will happen.
To my more liberal minded readers, both of these approaches will come off as absolutely ridiculous. For pornography and masturbation are a great deal more enjoyable than being squished by a giant. Indeed, if it is torture, it is only because Galileo or Don Quixote will not see if for what it really is: something pleasurable. This is another element of sin and sinfulness. Sin is something that if it is not endured as a sin would (at least for a time) be pleasurable. Pride, lasciviousness, gluttony, these sins only tempt us because they are pleasurable. And so to understand the conservative position one must not only understand why we should try to do what we cannot, but why in the process of attempting should we experience as a sin what would otherwise be a pleasure? Why regretfully endure rather than enjoy?
We cannot always avoid sin, but we can endure it as a sin. And there is real victory in this. The purpose of sin is not to make life miserable or to sublimate pleasure into suffering. Rather, the purpose is to open our eyes. To see pornography and masturbation as a sin is to be deeply aware of our loneliness. People who indulge in masturbation are not necessarily evil or bad but they are simply unaware of their state of affairs. To indulge is to be ignorant—to not notice that you are driving down a highway in a tractor. The main crime of which is the denying what the tractor is really built for. Driving a tractor on the highway will never capture the potential. The crime is not masturbation in itself. The crime, more fundamentally, is ignorance.
Sin is about being made aware not about being made shameful. Shame is simply a bad response to sin. The purpose of sin is not to detract from our pleasure but to sacrifice the present pleasure for something else. To endure masturbation as a sin is to become aware of the uncomfortable bumping of the road, the overexertion of the engine, the inefficiency of the situation. It is a moment of mindfulness. It is being open to what is. To endure sin well is to let the discomfort move you towards union, towards commitment, towards marriage and family. Because sexuality is meant to be a shared experience that lives and is created in the area between two people. It is curious and active, it’s where the rubber hits the road (or soil as the case may be). It seeks a partner, and proves its surprising utility in creating and sustaining family structures.
A newly married couple has only begun to find the surplus of varied usefulness sexuality provides. It is not only an act with sacramental value wherein two lovers exchange vows of commitment, trust, and vulnerability. For some couples it proves a useful tool for overcoming disagreements. It leads to feelings of trust and communion. It can aid in sleep and start or end conversations. And, as most couples eventually become aware, it leads to the rather crazy adventure of having children.
As much as male sexuality has been blamed for tearing down families, it is also a uniting tendency. There is nothing that has encouraged more bachelors, inspired bravery in a man to propose to a woman, and even aided a man in turning from another man’s wife, than masculine sexuality. For many, the desire to have sex is a large contributor to helping make the decision to be married. A decision so momentous or significant a little push is nearly required. And for others to whom marriage is not a barrier for sexuality, it is still the desire to have frequent, fulfilling sex that helps them keep their commitments (whatever they may be).
But when sexuailty is removed from committed relationships, it’s productivity almost entirely dwindles. Instead it seems like the large tires of the tractor on the highway. That is the great honesty of conservative approach to masturbation. It’s an honest nobility—a vulnerable admittance—that they are just a tractor on the highway meant for something else. That is a peculiar bravery to admit to yourselves that you are not yet where you are meant to be. You are stuck between Adam and Eve, waiting for God to take a rib.