What should I tell my kids about masturbation? Some of the older church materials seem particularly conservative (and harsh). I’m also wondering if bishops still question kids in interviews about whether or not they masturbate. I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that – but if I’m not, what do I tell the bishop?
In theory, sex positivity from parents and church leaders (i.e. sex is awesome, holy and completely natural, but intended only for husbands and wives) can help children become sexually healthy adults. In theory, children might have insightful bishops who are equipped to give them good counsel. In theory, we can expect complete compliance with the law of chastity — which I’m defining as I understand the church’s teachings, no masturbation and no sex outside of marriage – without the creation of shame or hang-ups.
What I described above actually resembles my own experience. My parents were open and sex-positive, my bishops were loving and never asked me invasive questions (specifically, I was asked if I was keeping the law of chastity, but left to define that for myself). I do believe that how we frame discussions about sex can be just as important, if not more important than what we teach. However, despite my good experiences, I would be hugely irresponsible if I didn’t address the dumb luck of my own situation and the myriad ways that youth in the church can receive shaming, conflicted messages about sex. I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that I’ve never quite made it through The Miracle of Forgiveness and my mother both implied and said straight-up on a few occasions that she thought masturbation was no big deal. In other words, I don’t think my experience as a youth was typical and while you might run into an ideal scenario when it comes to your church leaders, the opposite is just as true and probably more common. Ultimately, I think there is great wisdom in using an approach heavily informed by educators and therapists who study sex and making a clear distinction between normal sexual behavior and the religious sexual standards one might choose to follow.
Researchers have found that people of all ages and both sexes, and I’m sure this includes members of the LDS church, masturbate and it has been viewed as a healthy and normal part of sexual development for decades. Going even further, I would argue that it is an important part of figuring out how your body works, which is why therapists often prescribe self-stimulation for male and female sexual dysfunction. Quite simply, most people do it and labelling it as “sinful” instead of normalizing it runs the risk of creating a great deal of unnecessary shame.
In fact, I’m genuinely concerned that shame over masturbating has the potential to turn into compulsive or obsessive behavior. If you are masturbating several times a day or it is interfering with normal relationships or the business of everyday life, than that is a genuine problem that should be addressed (and by a mental health professional, not a bishop who in all likelihood lacks the knowledge and training to address the issue). However, the vast majority of teens (and adults) do not fall into this category and I think we are too quick in the church to use words like “addiction” or assume that all masturbation comes with pornography. (Pornography deserves its own column, but I’ll quickly say that most of our children will be exposed to it and we should actively and calmly be discussing the misleading messages and misogyny of porn instead of clutching our pearls and screaming “Don’t Look!”) We can and should make ethical and moral choices about our sexual behavior, but attaching that morality to perfectly healthy and normal biological responses or our fugitive thoughts (and anyone who has spent any time on a meditation cushion can attest to how rogue they can be) is a mistake.
I’ve been reading references to masturbation and counsel from church leaders for days to try to get to the heart of why it should be viewed as so sinful. I see some cultural runoff from theologians past and present, mainly from the 18th century to early 20th century where ideas about spilling your seed, Onanism, “self-pollution,” and its health risks (which do not exist) gained some real steam and took root. Specific references to masturbation have been taken out of the newest editions of the Church Handbook and For the Strength of Youth pamphlet, which we can interpret as positive or negative depending on how we look at things. But the problem is that bishops are also left to their own interpretations and mileage varies widely when it comes to local leaders, especially ones that grew up in the church with Packer’s “Little Factory” talk and others like it swirling through their heads. Additionally, despite slightly more frankness in addressing sex, church counsel is still too vague and full of euphemism. As a concept in the church, chastity includes and conflates modesty, masturbation, pornography usage and any sexual contact outside of marriage. Under the umbrella of chastity, these behaviours are then connected with the scripture in Alma, which teaches that sexual sins are more serious than any other sins except for murder and denying the Holy Ghost. I find this extremely worrying and I have no trouble seeing how this scripture and the rhetoric around it is a recipe for shame, guilt and confusion for many LDS people. It shouldn’t need to be said, but masturbation, the viewing of pornography and consensual premarital sex are NOT in the same moral universe as murder.
For those reasons, I think your instinct to protect your children from invasive questions and the more extreme and uninformed views about sex in our culture is a wise one. If you grew up in the church and went through it yourself, it may seem perfectly acceptable to have the bishop ask questions about sexual purity of our youth. But what if we framed the situation differently? Would we be comfortable with a teacher at our children’s school taking them into a room alone and asking them whether they touch themselves down there? How does the scenario look if we are talking about a middle-aged man and girls as young as 12? My guess is that you, like me, would raise bloody hell even if it was a loving and trusted teacher with pure intentions. It’s not appropriate for a grown man to be asking children about sex.
First of all, talk to your children. Let them know that the bishop can be a good spiritual resource, but they should not feel obligated to share the intimate details of their lives and should prayerfully determine how they understand and obey the law of chastity and how much they feel comfortable sharing. Hopefully, by the time your children are entering the youth program, sex will be something that has been openly and calmly discussed on multiple occasions in your home. Hopefully, you will have laid a foundation of trust and given your children explicit and implicit permission to ask any question.
I would also recommend a meeting with your bishop where you clarify what you think is appropriate and what you want to be off-limits (i.e. you don’t mind the question about chastity, but no specifics should be asked). You may also insist that you or a trusted adult, maybe a Young Women or Young Men’s president, be allowed to sit in on the worthiness interviews. This, admittedly, is not going to be comfortable. Going outside cultural norms is never easy in the church and adding sex and authority into that mix probably multiplies the potential for discomfort a million times. Your bishop’s reaction could be anything from relieved (I’m sure asking kids about sex is very uncomfortable for most of these men) to bewildered to annoyed or angry. I can’t take away the discomfort of going against the grain, but I think it can be mitigated by expecting some of these reactions and not taking them personally, remember that a strong reaction from a bishop or others in the ward says a lot more about them and what we’re used to than how reasonable you are being.
We can’t abdicate our role in educating our children about sex to schools or churches and we have the right to do everything we can to make them feel safe, healthy and well-informed. Good luck.
For a more information and a great resource on sex from a Mormon Perspective, I would recommend The Mormon Therapist.
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