Masturbation doesn’t fit within typical modern ethical concerns. It’s not unsafe or cruel; in moderation it does not interfere with academic or economic performance, and it doesn’t make your children more likely to flunk high school or get pregnant out of wedlock. There are no peer-reviewed studies linking it to obesity or reduced charitable giving, and it is virtually the only thing on earth that doesn’tgive you cancer. Conventional wisdom tells us it’s a healthy form of stress relief. It’s organic, and nothing could be more local.
So the question for Christian ethics is not, “Is masturbation sinful?” It’s, “What could possibly be wrong with it?”
Now, this is the best-case scenario we tend to believe about masturbation, though many times the habit becomes compulsive and tied up into the exploitative porn industry—which are compounding issues on their own.
But for masturbation itself? I approach the issue from two perspectives. First, I have my own experience: I’m an artsy, celibate convert; I’ve masturbated since childhood; and I’ve never been able to give up this habit for more than a couple months at a time. The other perspective comes out of my faith as a Roman Catholic. Catholic teaching offers what seems to be a compelling argument against masturbation, but ultimately my ethics are rooted in my relationship with Jesus and his bride, the church. No Christian is left alone with her reason and experience; she is also given the church, which nurtures us with Communion and teaches us to follow Jesus.
The significance of relationship—the way love, contact, kiss lie at the beating heart of Christian faith—anchors the argument that masturbation squanders our sexuality. Scripture is the great love story of God and humans, climaxing at the wedding feast of the Lamb. Christ is himself an image of union: justice and mercy (echoing the promises of Psalm 85:11), man and God. The doctrine of the Trinity teaches us that relationship, union with the Other, is part of the inner life of the One God.
In this sense, Christianity is an erotic religion, in that it compels our longing for and contact with the Other. Our bodies are gifts given to us by God, and we give them to him and to others. We are not meant to keep them for ourselves. The sexual union of lovers shows an image and prophecy of our union with God. Sex is to prayer as masturbation is to comforting self-justifications.