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Touching oneself

The technical term for touching oneself sexually is ‘masturbation’ which may be defined as self-stimulation to cause sexual sensations.
The use of the word masturbation usually suggests that the person is manipulating his or her genitals to the point of intense pleasure or orgasm.

The act of self-gratification in masturbation, if it is practised by a person on his/her own, lacks the full meaning of human sexuality which is directed towards a loving relationship. On the other hand, the blanket condemnation of masturbation by traditionalists is based on faulty conceptions.

Past views on masturbation

1. Scriptural interpretation - Onan’s wastage of seed?

And Er, Judah's firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the LORD; and the LORD slew him. And Judah said unto Onan, Go in unto thy brother's wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother. And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother. And the thing which he did displeased the LORD: wherefore he slew him also.
Genesis 38,7-10

Medieval interpreters were convinced that a future child is contained in the male seed. Onan ‘wasted his male seed’ and thus human life. That was the essence of Onan’s sin according to these medieval theologians, a sin which was identified with masturbation. However, in view of our present-day knowledge, modern Catholic moralists are agreed that the ‘wastage of seed’ is not sinful. Every male ejaculation releases nearly 400 million seeds and only one is necessary for fertilization. Moreover, what is condemned in Genesis 38,7-10 is not the wastage of seed, but Onan’s refusal to raise children for his brother.

2. Medical opinion - Is masturbation harmful to health?

From the Middle Ages on the conviction gradually grew that masturbation was very bad for a person’s health and wellbeing.

Such medical opinion has been totally overturned. There is no evidence for the physical ills traditionally ascribed to masturbation. The practice of masturbation for its own sake may, in the long run, turn the person in on himself/herself. For it deprives the human sexual act of its main purpose and context, namely the creation of a ‘holistic’ and intimate relationship.

3. Scriptural teaching - Is masturbation the unchastity condemned in Pauline writings?

Influenced by such medieval and medical opinions, Christians interpreted some New Testament passages as directly referring to masturbation.

“There must be not even mention of fornication among you, or impurity in any of its forms, or promiscuity.”
Ephesians 5,3-5.

“Fornication, gross indecency and sexual irresponsibility .... I warn you that those who behave like that will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
Galatians 5,19; see also Mark 7,20-22; 2 Corinthians 12,21;Colossians 3,5.

None of the terms used, however, refers to masturbation. They all refer to external breaches of marriage. Basing a scriptural prohibition on those texts is not justified, as is now generally agreed.

4. Traditional morality - Do pleasurable feelings make masturbation sinful?

Experiencing pleasure is not in itself sinful. There are other forms of body stimulation that generate pleasurable feelings: luxuriating in a perfumed bath, lying on the beach and feeling the sun’s rays beating down on you, enjoying a delicious meal, experiencing a sensual massage. In each case, some external agent stimulates nerve endings which in turn generate pleasant feelings. The only difference with masturbation is the intensity of those feelings.

So while there may be other unwanted side-effects in masturbation, it is not the fact of feeling pleasure that makes it sinful.

5. Traditional Catholic teaching - Is masturbation an ‘intrisically disordered act’, always a mortal sin in itself?

Pope Paul VI issued a declaration in 1975 on many aspects of human sexual ethics. It was entitled: ‘Persona Humana - Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics’, issued by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on 29 December1975. We quote some typical excerpts:

The teaching is thus based on the traditional view that equates sex totally with having children. The conclusion of that approach (1) puts a total ban on artificial means of contraception, (2) considers any physical act between homosexuals as intrinsically corrupt and (3) condemns any form of masturbation.
Many Catholic theologians and moralists now reject the view expressed in this papal letter and in similar ones regarding the intrinsic nature of sex. They do not accept the traditional view that sexuality has been exclusively designed for procreation and that all sexual acts that cannot lead to conception are condemned as against natural law.

Sexual acts have other legitimate purposes apart from procreation, such as releasing sexual tension in the individual and strengthening the bonds between partners. In other words: though unimpeded intercourse of husband and wife is the ideal, there are valid reasons for a married couple to use contraceptives during intercourse or fondle each other in mutual stimulation, also for homosexual partners to be involved in physical acts of love, and for individuals to allow themselves to masturbate in certain circumstances.

Present pastoral views on masturbation

Even those (few) moral theologians who still consider masturbation in itself a serious mortal sin, concede that subjectively it often is only a venial (small) sin.

It seems more helpful to consider masturbation as morally neutral. To quote some authors:

Like with everything else in life, circumstances usually determine whether what we do is right or wrong. Masturbation is not a good thing if it becomes a substitute for a real loving relationship, or if we become addicted to it. But from a Christian point of view, we do not need to consider every act of masturbation a sin. For some people it may be a natural way of discovering their own bodies, or of releasing tension.

John Wijngaards

Nuova attenzione alla morale sessuale cattolica
Fonti accademiche
Il godimento cristiano del sesso Domande frequenti
Le fantasie La nudità I contraccettivi La colpa L’omosessualità masturbazione