Mormonism, Masturbation, and Growing Up Male

This is another post from the old blog. This one was born after reading a post at the old CulturalHall called “Confessions of Serial Masturbator/Repenter.”  A very interesting read, but I haven’t been able to locate it again to link here. 

My Story

 We’ll start at the beginning, my beginning. I grew up in a Mormon family… pretty much. We went to church every week. But there was very little religion at home, no FHE, prayers, scripture study, etc. I grew up more or less believing that the church was true, but never really had reason to doubt it either. When I was approaching puberty, my dad lost his job, and had to go back to school. Since we lived in a rural area, that meant he was gone during the week, and came to visit on weekends for a few years. That meant dad was no longer coming to church. I’d also reached that age where you start to question things, and, long story short… I pretty much decided over the next few years that there was likely no such thing as God, and I was starting to be ok with that.
It was during this time, when left with large open spaces, solitude, and a rather introverted personality, that I discovered masturbation. I really don’t remember when that happened. But I discovered that it felt good, and I somehow intuitively knew I probably shouldn’t tell people, yet I don’t remember even the slightest pangs of guilt about it. I grew up with a lot of empty fields and streams and trees around, so I found secret pleasure in the summer skinny-dipping alone on a hot day, and would rather often end up masturbating as well.
Over the next few years, I struggled with my self-esteem, but not related to masturbation, but rather because of interpersonal issues with my Dad. Sometime around my junior year I once again gained some interest in the church. After a lot more investigating, a LOT of reading, and a LOT of prayer, I received a very powerful witness that the Book of Mormon was true; based on that I “knew” the LDS church was true, and that I needed to actually put my life in line with it’s teachings… and for a teenage boy, that meant no more masturbating.
Trying to Quit
I thought, that’s ok. I’ve always had pretty good self control in almost all aspects of my life. So I stopped. No problem. But then, I don’t remember how long after, it happened. I had this irresistible urge to masturbate. And I did.  I came down on myself really hard for that. I eventually picked myself up again, and was on my merry way. But I slipped up again, and thus began a long cycle of masturbation, shame, feeling miserable about myself, masturbation for self soothing, occasionally making a new resolution to free myself from it. I sometimes made it a long time (several months); long enough, in fact, that I felt worthy to go on a mission.
That time lasted about half-way through the MTC, then it began again. I fought with it throughout my mission. Scriptures like “no unclean thing can dwell in the presence of God,” and GA quotes (miracle of forgiveness, etc) just tortured me. I probably slept for 2-3 hours per night most of my mission. I couldn’t forgive myself, couldn’t imagine that God could forgive someone who’d repeatedly committed a sin second only to denying the Holy Ghost and murder. Finally, two thirds of the way through, I went to my Mission President after one of the best talks I’ve ever heard on forgiveness, and how to know when we’re forgiven.
He helped me so much. He let me know that this was extremely common (I’d always felt I had to be one of the only men in the church with this problem). He said that there were tons of missionaries in the field with me that did it. It wasn’t at all as I’d feared: He didn’t send me home, told me I should still be taking the sacrament, didn’t release me from my calling as zone leader, didn’t take my birthday away, or faint of shock. He told me to work to try and avoid it, and kind of directed the conversation as more of being an issue of self-control, rather than one of the worst sins on earth. He even told me that he, as a younger man, had masturbated as well. This was the first time I’d had any hope of being able to overcome this and become a responsible man in the church one day.
Unfortunately, despite my best intentions, it happened again. I called my MP, and he gave me some support. Before I left for home, he offered encouragement, and told me I should talk to my Stake President about it when I got back. I did, and he told me to visit with my Bishop. When I did that, he was very disappointed in me, but again, the main thing I got from him was that this wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it was. I was still to take the sacrament, and the temple could be a source of strength. I should read, pray, and strive to avoid it. I did that for a long time. But it was still really hard for me to let go, and be ok with an occasional mistake. I still really struggled with my self esteem, for a while taking a break from dating after the mission, because, “even if I find someone I like, why would she be interested in me?”
By Their FruitsFinally, from doing some reading, especially online, I came to doubt whether or not it really was a sin. I encountered statements from GA’s which had since been demonstrated to be false (masturbation leads to insanity, blindness, being gay, etc) or at least misleading. If they were wrong about that, were they wrong about it being sinful altogether? Were they just reflecting cultural biases from generations past? Why haven’t they said anything recently.. relying instead on pre 1975 quotes for FTSOY and such.
I decided to put it to the test. I gave myself permission to masturbate without guilt, and then waited to see if I really did feel guilt from God, or if it was of my own making. And then, for the first time since coming back to the church, I felt fine after masturbating. I felt fine coming home from church, masturbating, then reading my scriptures. I never would have imagined I could feel ok about it, but I did. I didn’t feel the Spirit withdraw from me. It was like my MP had told me, “I’m sure there are days when you’ve felt the Spirit on days that you’d masturbated…” He also told me that, “The Spirit is God’s way of telling you when you are doing ok in His eyes.” If I can feel the Spirit, it must not be the evil, terrible thing that Elder Packer/SWK said it was.
An interesting thing happened, when I gave myself this permission; when I no longer had the self-imposed guilt… I found myself happier, guilt-free (God didn’t impose any on me for it), and even better, shame free! And surprisingly, I found myself masturbating less, and thinking MUCH less about sex. My self esteem finally climbed back out the pit it had so frequently fallen down into.

My Thoughts

I really think that some GA’s have stepped out too far in their interpretation of the Law of Chastity. I don’t think that God ever intended masturbation to be included. Elder Spencer W. Kimball wrote in Miracle of Forgiveness:
“Prophets anciently and today condemn masturbation. It induces feelings of guilt and shame. It is detrimental to spirituality. It indicates slavery to the flesh, not that mastery of it and the growth toward godhood… ” (The Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 77).
He also goes on to say that we shouldn’t justify our actions simply because they aren’t mentioned in the scriptures. However, he fails to provide any evidence whatsoever that ANY ancient prophet thought ill of the practice (let alone there being universal agreement among them).
I agree that just because something isn’t specifically prohibited doesn’t make it morally good. But, this is an activity that 95 percent (or whatever incredibly high percentage you want to use) of men (and a majority of women) do or have done. If this ‘sin’ really falls into the same category as fornication and adultery, why on earth would the prophets not have spoken out on it repeatedly throughout history? They went into all kinds of detail about more mundane things.  They weren’t too bashful to speak about sexuality
I recently read a more scholarly study of the issue in “Historical Development of New Masturbation Attitudes in Mormonism.” Some of the first reactions we have on record by the brethren were negative, for sure… but the reactions were along the lines of, this practice causes insanity (and rest of the 19th century medical ideas about masturbation’s effects). They didn’t ever say, “We’ve received revelation that this is wrong.” If they believed (erroneously) that it caused all the ill effects they thought it did, of course it made sense for them to come out against it, and to advise the youth against it.
Over the years, a few GA’s then continued to teach the same things, having been taught them growing up, and wanting to pass their ‘wisdom’ along to the youth. The problem is, this was the learnings of men (which turned out to be incorrect – especially Elder Packer’s ‘little factory’ idea, that masturbating will cause production to increase, and that if you don’t, you’ll hardly even notice!)
Self Control
I don’t buy the self-control rhetoric any more either. We don’t talk about self-control with food as meaning you never eat…. ever. Or even, only after marriage. It would be ridiculous. I think self-control is important with sex, but I don’t think that means that people need to shut the drive off completely. It’s all about channelling it to proper channels. (Just as it is after marriage) There are a significant number of people in the church who’ll never marry. Why would God place these God-given urges in them if he never intended for them to be used.
I don’t, however, believe that this is some sort of mind-control tactic used by the brethren. That is way too cynical for me. I believe they are inspired men, good men, trying to do the right thing. But here I think good intentions fall short. I believe we have a Prophet of God on the earth. But I also know that not every thing spoken by a prophet (much less the other GA’s) is the literal Word of God. It’s up to us to pray and find out for ourselves what is and is not revelation, by the power of the Spirit, as well as following the New Testament council to put the word to a test… try it, and judge it by its fruits.
Other reading
A brief review of Mormon intimacy from J. Stapely @ BCC
Or Try This for a more scholarly look into the churches view, from the Journal Sexuality & Culture

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