Without a doubt, the vast majority of people will engage in masturbation over the course of their lifetimes. May, even, is National Masturbation Month. Yet self-pleasure still remains a divisive issue, as it has for some time, and moreover, the question of its role forms the basis for much of the cultural divide in our nation today.
Masturbation is a hot-button issue because it sits at the heart of several fundamental questions of existence. Our treatment of the topic/practice can reveal such things as what we think the purpose of sex is, how we view morality, and how we consider our place within our bodies. In turn, these answers shed light on the greater questions of today’s society: gay marriage, pornography, abortion.
The Atlantic has some background:
The view of masturbation as benign and beneficial is a new one. The Judeo-Christian tradition has long been hostile towards self-pleasure, at least for men. The Talmud compares spilling seed to spilling blood; the Zohar (the central work of Kabbalah) calls it the most evil act a man can commit. The traditional Christian view was no more tolerant; Catholic and Protestant authorities framed masturbation as a deeply sinful (though forgivable) waste of precious semen. Women were left out of these prohibitions for the obvious reason that most male religious authorities didn’t consider the possibility that women were capable of or interested in giving themselves orgasms.
As we at the Airspace have covered, the inventor of the Graham cracker warned against the practice, going so far as to create the bland food to curb lust. But the greater effort was to control the sexuality of women. As recent discoveries have shown, early vibrators were to make hand-stimulation look worthless by comparison. And leader’s like Sylvester Graham and John Kellogg (of cereal fame) hoped that a sexually independent man would be above the influence of lustful, manipulative woman.
Once more Hugo Schwyzer at the Atlantic manages to give an un-biased history of the masturbation debate:
The contemporary catechism of the church doesn’t mention the waste of seed. Rather, heavily influenced by the late John Paul II’s “theology of the body,” it insists that our sexuality is intended for one purpose: “the relationship of one person to another, in the complete and lifelong mutual gift of a man and a woman.” Evangelical Protestants often make the same case; the anti-porn ministry XXX Church teaches that “It is a selfish act that pleases no one but you. God created sex to be between a man and his wife. Not a man and his girlfriend and not a man or woman with himself or herself.”
As religious conservatives see it, the great mistake we make when we masturbate is to claim our sexuality as ours alone. All sexual activity must be about “mutual self-giving” between a husband and a wife, the church claims, arguing that masturbation is “an intrinsically and gravely disordered action.” Since masturbation is the first sexual act in which most people voluntarily engage, it is in a very real sense the original sexual sin from which all the others—based as they are on this mistaken sense of autonomy—flow. On the right, opposition to the idea of masturbation as an acceptable practice is growing rather than declining.
Generally, masturbation puts the singular body, the individual and his or her self, at the center of the equation. This may, as the Church has argued, turn the sexual act into a selfish exercise, something we should be ashamed of. But on the other hand, it empowers us to recognize that we are both individuals and animals, and thereby, that the immense power of sexual pleasure can be in our hands alone. Any alternative implies that sex and bodies are the purview of the community.
“Masturbation Is at the Root of the Culture Wars,” Hugo Schwyzer, The Atlantic