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Schouborg, Gary (2016).

"Masturbation and Spirituality".

 

 

Masturbation and Spirituality

 

Gary Schouborg

 

Barry Reayís brief history ofmasturbation (click here) proposes that human ambivalence toward it arises from fear that, absent social disapproval, its solitary nature will undermineproductive work and altruistic social interaction. Following a few brief comments about the article itself, I will sketch four dimensions that help resolve the ambivalence. The fourth dimension provides what some may find a surprising context for discussing masturbation: spirituality and the traditional distinction between ego and non-ego.

 

Reay argues that human disapproval of masturbation increased significantly in 18th and 19th century Western culture. However, his understanding of sexual texts before then is puzzling. For example, in referring to the sin of Onanism in Genesis, he makes the common mistake of thinking that the sin was masturbation per se, whereas in fact it was that by "spilling his seed" Onan failed to fulfill his duty of impregnating his deceased brother's widow. Furthermore, Reay asserts, "In the Middle Ages and for much of the early modern period too, masturbation, while sinful and unnatural, was not invested with such significance" as arose in the modern period, where the rise of modern science inspired allegedly scientific reports that masturbation caused the most terrible physical and mental diseases conceivable. However, when we realize that the medieval "sinful and unnatural" meant eternal damnation into the unquenchable flames of hell, threats of physical and mental disease seem of lesser rather than more significance, arguably representing more of a decline than an increase of disapproval.

 

In any case, modern science has over time  improved our understanding of the nature of ambivalence toward masturbation and ways we might address it. According to Reay, society's problem with masturbation has been: 1) "Perhaps there is something about masturbationís uncontrollability that continues to make people anxious;" 2) earlier fear "that ... masturbation might reinforce individual pleasure and sexual selfishness rather than creating sexual empathy and sharing;" and 3) "Fears of unrestrained fantasy and endless indulging of the self remain. Onaniaís 18th-century complaints about the lack of restraint of solitary sex are not, in the end, all that far away from todayís fear of boundless, ungovernable, unquenchable pleasure in the self." Reay argues that historically the problem has been framed as a competition between unrestrained pleasure and social pressure to restrain it. Presumably, the underlying assumption is that unrestrained self-pleasuring will leave one addicted and unable to live a satisfying daily life, which requires dealing with practical realities and and working with others cooperatively, so that masturbators are socialized out of the womb-like comfort of masturbation and into disciplined productivity and attention to others.

 

(To my ear, "self-pleasuring" too narrowly focuses on sensual pleasure while omitting the many meanings that humans attach to the act apart from the sensual pleasure itself. I will therefore refer exclusively to "masturbation.")

 

In "A handy history," Reay limits himself to the history of ambivalence toward masturbation and society's way of controlling it through social disapproval. I propose that a path to healing the ambivalence runs along four dimensions: psychophysiological, psychological, moral, and spiritual. 

 

Psychophysiological. We are self-regulating organisms; but some processes are more self-regulating than others. It would be unusual for someone to feel an urge to defecate and think, "I'd better not. If I start, I'll never stop." Yet a similar response to our emotions is common, since our emotions are shaped by our imagination, which can be limitless. For example, if confronted with a deep sense of loss, we may defend against feeling grief because we catastrophize the loss, raising the expectation that grieving for it will be endless or even overwhelming. We have to learn from personal experience that grief won't last forever, but is a finite healing process that we have to go through to recover from loss and move on. Masturbation is also a finite process; under normal circumstances we enjoy it for a time and then naturally move on to other things. If we don't move on and instead become preoccupied to the point that our work and relationships are seriously disrupted, then we know that something is interfering with the natural flow of emotion. We can then reasonably assume that we are not masturbating just for its own sake, but as a defense or escape from something we are failing to face; we can then expect that until we address whatever that is, excessive and counterproductive masturbation will continue and possibly increase. Social disapproval is one way to restrain us from this kind of dysfunctional conduct; but it only restrains the behavior rather than addresses the cause. Doing the latter requires us to move to the psychological level of how cognition and affect shape our emotions.

 

Psychological. A friend and colleague, Morgan Callahan, once told me how he counsels clients who are concerned about their shyness about engaging in sexual talk or behavior. He frames the discussion in terms of privacy rather than in terms that suggest disapproval such as sinful, shameful, dirty, or even something as relatively innocuous as inappropriate. I have found this a very useful perspective. What it means to me is that sex exposes us to various degrees and kinds of emotional vulnerability.  No sexual experience is therefore a safe moment to be intruded upon by someone not known to be equally open — someone we perceive as less vulnerable, therefore less likely to be sensitive to our own vulnerability, therefore less able to understand what we are actually experiencing, and therefore more likely to be judgmental and disapproving. In most circumstances, therefore, being intruded upon during a sexual moment is more unsettling than merely being interrupted during an ordinary telephone conversation. Privacy allows us to choose whom to let into this vulnerable moment and how. In principle, we have unlimited sexual choices, since there are many paths to sexual satisfaction, each having its own degree and flavor of privacy. Sex — whether casual, group, observed by others, commercial, or whatever — can be enjoyable or at least emotionally untroubled as long as everyone involved understands what level of vulnerability is possible between them and mutually agreed upon. 

 

A major threat to mutually satisfying intimacy arises when participants have different expectations. A classic example occurs when one party hopes that an imminent sexual encounter is the start of a life-long love affair and the other is interested only in a one-night fling. One party is heading toward heartbreak and the other for undesired complications. More pedestrianly, disagreement between a sex worker and client over the fee can set a mood that spoils the ensuing encounter. In principle, possibilities for conflicting expectations are limitless, making an emotionally unblemished sexual encounter a rare gift except for those who have severely limited their emotional expectations or for those who enjoy both rich emotionality and the emotional clarity to manage it discerningly.

 

Moral. Even when expectations mesh, intimacy can be disrupted by internalized judgments, which are brought in from outside sources who are not sharing in the level of intimacy mutually agreed upon and who are therefore not competent to judge the particular event. This applies to judgments of approval as well as disapproval. The latter is the more obvious. Two singles might have a mutually innocent and uncomplicated sexual relationship, yet feel guilty because they have internalized the judgment that sex outside marriage is morally wrong. However, internalized approval can be just as intrusive. Having internalized the judgment that casual sex is fine, a couple might focus on that to such an extent that they desensitize themselves to their partner's or even their own greater expectations, thereby satisfying their own need for casual sexual gratification while riding roughshod over their partner's or even their own deeper feelings. In other words, they have let a general judgment desensitize themselves to the particular emotional interaction. This is not to condemn general judgments completely. Judgments like sex outside of marriage is wrong or there is nothing wrong with casual sex can sometimes be useful guides for reflecting on the degree of mutuality between participants in a particular encounter here and now. The usefulness of such judgments derives from the fact that perceptions of any situation are fallible, since the accuracy of any perception is only as good as the emotional clarity brought to it. For the inexperienced or obtuse — which we all are unless we literally have nothing more to learn — following rules can be safer than depending on discernment. There is wisdom in preferring to be safe than sorry. Yet for those called to it, there is wisdom in risking sorrow in order to explore the unknown, which takes us to the spiritual dimension of sex.

 

Spiritual. The discussion so far has been at the level of ego (executive function), where we make specific choices of what to think and do.  At this level alone, we are presented only with choosing alternative objects of our attention. However, if the cause of ambivalence about masturbation is fear of engaging in it excessively, and the cause of excess is some obsession, then it is likely that turning our mind to something else will merely trade one obsession for another, even though perhaps a more productive or socially acceptable one. Freeing ourself of the obsessive energy itself therefore requires non-ego (beyond conscious choosing) energy, a caring non-judgmental dwelling with ourself, a healing wakefulness to whatever we are experiencing in the situation in which we find ourself. This non-ego energy is not something that ego can directly choose. It is accessed only by ego's getting out of the way, letting go of the obsession, which allows the non-ego energy to emerge.

 

This state is what Buddhism calls compassion or lovingkindness and what Christian mysticism refers to as seeing God in all things. It is not, as often supposed, an emotional withdrawal from the world into self-pity (ego) or self-absorption (ego); nor is it the solemn attitude often affected in church by egos imagining what non-ego emotionality must be like. Rather, it is an open-, whole-hearted way to relate to the practical everyday world of our ego-level thinking, choosing, and acting, where we necessarily think specific thoughts, identify specific objects to deal with, formulate specific problems to address, and make specific choices. In contrast, at the level of non-ego we experience a felt awareness that nothing that is specific entirely captures the reality with which we are dealing. Fortunately, this caring openness is not a disheartening awareness of our own limitations. That depressing state results when ego, unawakened to non-ego, realizes that nothing in its experience can fully provide the satisfaction that it seeks. Instead, a caring dwelling with one's experience provides its own unique satisfaction, "the pearl of great price," a sense of unconditional well-being or satisfaction distinct from the ego-level gratifications of achieving specific goals. To the extent to which we are enveloped by such a felt awareness, we cannot help but be intellectually humble, emotionally open, and behaviorally flexible, since we are aware of the incompleteness of any specific thing we think or do. From this spiritual perspective, masturbation is just one thing we do, something that, like everything else, presents itself as a problem only insofar as we take its pleasures and vulnerabilities for more than they are.