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Hi there! Welcome to my corner of the internets. I'm a 26 year old therapist, photographer, and shop owner currently living in Seattle, Washington. My online spaces are educational and lifestyle accounts dedicated to educating, engaging, and empowering women through digital art, home design, and travel.... with a touch of humor and personality sprinkled throughout. Stay a while!

Ask A Mormonish Girl: The Masturbation Edition

Monday, February 8, 2021

Trigger warning: This post will talk about: sexual abuse, sexual assault, clergy abuse, masturbation, and related sexual topics. 

Happy Monday! We're back for another "Ask A Mormon-ish Girl" post! 


Intentions:


For anyone new, this is a series where I talk about my feelings on being an *unorthodox* member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (aka "Mormon"). My goal of these posts is to help you know you're not alone with your questions and concerns AND to actually talk about them and create some conversation past "just have faith and it will work out". Overall, I believe in imperfect relationships: both with people and institutions. This series documents my very imperfect relationship with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.  


Question directory/past questions:


You can see a directory of past questions on my "Mormon Q+A" Instagram highlight. My handle is @emmycoletti. 


Submitting questions:


You can submit questions to be answered on my Instagram account (@emmycoletti) where I will post a question box on my stories at some point in the week. You can also comment down below, or email me at emmycoletti@gmail.com. If you don't see your question answered , please keep submitting it! I will get to all of them eventually! 


(P.S. Please subscribe via email to be notified of future posts!)




Ok, before I get into the specific question below, I wanted to touch briefly on what is and is not appropriate in the context of sex/conversations about sex. 

About a year ago, I was listening to this episode of A Thoughtful Faith and learned the term "clergy abuse". This is when a leader in a church uses their power to take advantage of others. The episode told stories of women being asked highly inappropriate questions by their bishops, under the justification of a bishop interview. Often times these women felt uncomfortable, but also felt pressured to answer and give details, because it was a "man of God" asking them, after all. 

I want to be clear as day about this: A bishop/church leader does not need to know details about your/your kids sexual practices for any reason. It is 100% inappropriate for them to be asking for any details. Period. If this happens to you, please leave the interview (and if you are a child, tell a parent or other trusted adult about your experience). Please meet with the stake president to discuss your concerns with your bishop's behavior. Clergy abuse does happen, so please take precautions to protect yourself and the children in your life. 

Remember: Everyone is allowed to have an adult with them in the bishop interview room. For kids/teens: This adult does not have to be a parent. It can be anyone. If you are embarrassed with a parent being present, ask a friend's parent to accompany you, another church leader, a teacher, a sibling, etc. The most important thing is that you feel safe and have someone there who can stick up for you. 

Parents: Please remember, that more than 90% of kids who are sexually abused know their abuser. That means that more often than not, kids are being sexually abused by people their parents know and trust: a family member, a close family friend, and yes, maybe even a church leader. Given these statistics, feel justified in knowing that you are never being "too protective" by not leaving your child alone with someone, regardless of how close this person may be to you or how trusted they may be in your community. Hold strong to your instincts and don't allow anyone to tease or guilt you into doing something you are not comfortable with. 

If you are someone who has experienced sexual abuse, or a parent of a child who has experienced sexual abuse: Please know there are therapists out there who can help. You can use Psychology Today or Open Path to find one. (And remember, the LDS church is *usually* good about paying for therapy for those who can't afford it. Even if you're not active anymore. Give your bishop/stake president a call.) 

There are also lots of great sex therapists and sexual abuse prevention resources out there these days, so please rely on them (not bishops/church leaders) for more information on this subject. I'd also encourage all parents to seek out programs that educate kids on sexual abuse and prevention. Just google your state/city and "child abuse prevention" to find programs near you.


Ok, now, on to this week's question: 

Does masturbating break the law of chastity? Where does LDS doctrine (not quotes) say masturbating is wrong? 

This is a tricky question that actually led me down a deep rabbit hole of the church's historical attitudes on masturbation. 

Currently, there are only two references to masturbation in official church literature that I could find. The first one, is in the For Strength Of Youth pamphlet, which I'll link here.


You can draw your own conclusions on what the above wording means. I think it alludes to masturbation, but as you'll read below, it's interesting that when they revised it in 2001 they changed the wording to be more vague. 

The second reference I could find is in the new updated handbook


I believe this is the only reference to masturbation in the entire handbook. It just states that a membership council should not be held for members who engage in masturbation. 

Ok, so that's it for the current literature on masturbation. Now, let's dive into the history of the church's attitudes. I think this is important, because it's important to realize that the way things/attitudes are today, is not necessarily how they may be in the future. We are quick to criticize people who hold differing opinions from the church, but we need acknowledge the fact that the church's opinions have varied since it's conception 200 years ago. 

The history of the Mormon Church and its attitudes on masturbation:

I've talked a lot about how the church is often influenced by the culture of the time, and its attitudes and policies on masturbation are no different. I found an interesting study (which I'll link below). As I read through it, I was shocked by how much of what we have been told is "doctrine" or "revelation", actually aligns really well with what popular American culture believed at that time. 

Let's kick it off! 

Until the 1920s, popular American culture actually thought masturbation caused diseases/negative health outcomes, and for that reason, should be avoided. So, naturally, a lot of the general American and Mormon rhetoric at this time was about abstinence. 

In the 1920s/1930s, researchers started to see a link between shame, masturbation, and suicidal thoughts and attitudes started to shift away from "masturbation is bad". Interestingly, at the time, the church followed suit and changed their tune from "abstinence" to endorsing secular books about sexuality. Their church lessons switched from focusing on abstinence to warning parents about creating "emotional problems" in their children through an "over response" to their kid's masturbation habits. 

However, this attitude change didn't last long. Church leaders started publishing their opinions about masturbation being immoral, and church attitudes went back to emphasizing abstinence. This was also the first time that Mormon literature diverted from the popular American medical opinion at the time. Until this, what the popular American medical opinion was and what the Mormon Church believed/preached were in pretty close harmony. 

This abstinence rhetoric in the church continued. In the 1940s, during World War II, in a General Conference, The First Presidency told youth going off to war they were "better off dead" than to be "sexually unclean". "Better dead clean, than alive unclean" became a theme that some would repeat out loud at mutual each week. 

(A sad side story: In the 1980's, a LDS psychiatrist was required to pay a wrongful death settlement, because one of his clients committed suicide. The lawsuit said he violated his professional standards by telling his patient to follow Mormon values and abstain from masturbation in order to be "worthy". The client left a suicide note talking about his frustrations with his masturbation habits and his desire to be "clean". I believe the church was also sued. In the trial, they showed research that masturbation abstinence had a documented history of suicidal risk. I will not publish his information, but to hit home how so-not-long ago this was, this psychiatrist is still in practice today.)

In 1972, masturbation was officially declared a normal behavior by the American Medical Association. 

In the 1990s, the first version of the For Strength Of Youth pamphlet was released. It explicitly condemned masturbation by saying, "The Lord specifically forbids certain behaviors, including all sexual relations before marriage... masturbation, or preoccupation with sex in thought, speech, or action". 

In 2001, the For Strength Of Youth pamphlet was updated to what it is today (see my screenshot above). There is no specific mention of masturbation, although it could be interpreted that way. 

Today, there are very few official statements published by the church about masturbation. (See my previous section.) There is a lot out there about "chastity" and "morality", and I think we often accept those to include masturbation.

Popular American opinions today still hold that masturbation is a part of normal sexual development. Also, there is some interesting research that not masturbating can increase the risk of prostate cancer and youth suicide in males. (I'd assume the suicide risk is more so associated with the shame based tactics of abstinence, than abstinence itself.) For women, there's research that not masturbating can "undermine orgasm and marital functioning". 

Attitudes on masturbation: 

So, there's the official church standpoint, and then there's the member's standpoint. It's important to remember these are often two separate things, and they are often not in harmony with each other. (Ex: LGBTQIA+ issues today.)

A study in the 1970's asked 8,584 college students about their attitudes on masturbation. 66% of Mormons said they did not think it was immoral. Another study done in 1995 asked 103 married, Mormon women about their masturbation habits. (P.S. 96% of these women were active.) 43% of them said they currently masturbated! 

More recently, I found these survey results of LDS women from 2018 that show: 64% do not believe masturbation is wrong, 80% said they had masturbated, and 50% said they masturbate once a month or more. In the same survey, 55% of LDS men said they masturbated weekly. 

My thoughts on it:

I probably wouldn't consider it breaking the law of chastity. I had this conclusion before, but I hold even stronger to it now that I've read about the history of the church's attitudes toward masturbation. In the article I read, they talk about how Mormons culturally rank publications as "authoritative". From most authoritative to least we have:

  • Official statements/writings published by the church. 
  • Privately published writings by general authorities. (Often these are quoted as authoritative in official church statements/writings.)
  • Privately published writings by members of the church. These are often only accepted as authoritative if they reflect the popular Mormon views and haven't been disapproved by any church authorities. 

The second question asked, "Where does LDS doctrine (not quotes) say masturbation is wrong?" and that's where it gets me haha. For me, there not being a lot of official statements/writings on masturbation lead me to feel like it's a leftover cultural attitude. A lot of the statements are from apostles in like the 1970s, when people were still thinking sexuality was a choice. I just feel like a lot has changed in the past 50 years and often religion is slow to catch up. 

As a therapist, I obviously have issues with the toxic shame culture that surrounds the conversations we have about sex and sexuality. I hear way too often of people thinking they are "addicted to porn" or "addicted to masturbation" because of the lack of sex education combined with the intense shame culture we have in our church. In my book, that icky feeling of shame and being "unworthy", does way more damage than the sexual activity itself. I don't see normalizing sexual activity causing depression, guilt, and suicide the same way I see shame. 

When I tell my clients, "Actually, it doesn't sound like you're masturbating often enough, or looking at porn often enough, that it would be considered an "addiction". What you're doing is actually pretty normal behavior... it just sounds like it's against the rules of your religion." The look of relief on their faces, the knowledge that they are normal, and not sexual deviants, is so incredibly powerful. 

Regardless of if masturbation is or is not against church policies, the way sex is approached in church culture and the accompanying feelings of guilt and shame are damaging and need to be changed.. 

Another perspective on the morality of masturbation:

I mentioned on my Instagram stories the other day that I have been doing a deep dive into sex therapist recommended books. I bought a bunch of books I saw mentioned in one of my therapist networking Facebook groups. Funnily enough, I didn't realize I had already bought the book, And They Were Not Ashamed: Strengthening Marriage Through Sexual Fulfillment that was mentioned in the study linked below . The author has a viewpoint on masturbation that I feel is worth mentioning, as it seems to be a nice bridge between "abstinence" culture and "everything is normal, do it all" culture. 

(The following probably goes more for women than men, as men's orgasms are reached a lot more easily than women's. I think it's important for women to know what brings them satisfaction, in order to communicate this within relationships and have satisfying sex lives with their partners.)

I haven't yet read the book and am taking the following from the article, so forgive any wrong interpretations. Brotherson essentially says that there are two types of masturbation: "self-learning" and "masturbation". They differ based on their intentions. 

  • Self-learning is masturbation for the sake of understanding your body, knowing what you like, what can stimulate an orgasm, what can "further the expression of love" in your relationship. She says "self-learning" is short term. 
  • Masturbation on the other hand is based in the intention to "selfishly gain pleasure" and "sexual gratification"... and act of "lust". It's an "intent to self-medicate or self-satisfy". 

I don't necessarily agree with her viewpoints, but I do feel it's an interesting perspective that may be helpful to some women! She essentially wants to give women permission to masturbate under "special circumstances" without feeling that toxic guilt or shame. 

A note on revelation and church policies: 

As Mormons, I think we are often taught (and believe) that church policy changes come from the top down. This is to mean that the leaders (the "top") are the ones initiating policy change for the members (the "bottom"). This view leads to a lot of chastising of members when they have different opinions than the leaders and the policies at the time. 

However, I believe a lot of the policy changes we have seen have actually been from the bottom up. That is, the church changes because its members (or the culture at the time) demand for it to. 

As the article states, "As Mormon leaders face growing new evidence of the health benefits of masturbation, and the mental and physical health risks of abstinence, they face the dilemma of maintaining a policy toward masturbation that is now increasingly viewed as medically dangerous by church membership. Historically, when church authorities become convinced that the church's position is in danger, prayerful inquiry on the part of leadership often results in policy change. Mormonism has a history of changing to adapt to new social developments. Policies that once had strong theological foundations, such as polygamy, birth control, and prohibition of priesthood to blacks, at one time were stated by church leaders to be absolute, yet over time they have changed. The same may prove true of the dangers of masturbation abstinence." 

And honestly, I couldn't agree more. 

XOXO
Your Mormon-ish Internet Friend,
Emmy Coletti

References:

Malan, M. K., & Bullough, V. (2005). Historical development of new masturbation attitudes in Mormon culture: Silence, secular conformity, counterrevolution, and emerging reform. Sexuality and Culture9(4), 80-127. (You can download the article for free here.) 

Comments

  1. I highly recommend reading Tabernacles of Clay: Sexuality and Gender in Modern Mormonism by Taylor Petrey if you haven't already. A significant part of the history regarding church attitudes of masturbation relates to fears about homosexuality. In short, church leaders (particularly Spencer W. Kimball) believed that masturbation would lead to homosexuality. For the Strength of Youth emerged during this time period (1965) and, if I remember correctly, was related--at least in part--to these fears.

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    2. Oops, I should have read the linked article first, because it mentions that ideas about homosexuality and masturbation are linked. But I still highly recommend the book. Petrey goes way more into detail and uses lots of historical material.

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  2. I’ve intensely read up on this subject as well as I’m trying to navigate what I will teach my children in regards to masturbation. I’ve come to the conclusion that masturbation is fine and can even be healthy. I’m currently trying to figure out how I will teach them that their body is theirs and they have autonomy over it, but not to use pornography to supplement it. We are pretty active members so I feel like I have to teach them also that when they come across others that may teach it is bad that they can ignore them, especially if bishops were to bring it up I think that is highly inappropriate. I worry that the Missionary standards will be brought up though at some point because currently in the missionary standards book under chastity it does mention masturbation directly. “ You should avoid any thought or action that would separate you from the Spirit of God. This includes but is not limited to adultery; fornication; same-sex activity; oral sex; arousing sexual feelings; inappropriate touching; sending or receiving messages, images, or videos that are immoral or sexual in nature; masturbation; and viewing or using pornography (see 7.5.3). See For the Strength of Youth (2011), “Repentance,” 28–29, for additional information.” Thoughts?

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