The sin of Onan. Self-abuse. Self-pollution... Masturbation.
This is not a topic many people address openly. And that embarrassment about the subject cost me a great deal. Now, right about this point, I'm sure any people who know me personally instead of as an anonymous blogger are starting to feel a little uncomfortable. Tough. It's a normal part of life and just about everyone does it. Adults should be able to talk about this like adults instead of like giggling adolescents, or squirming prudes. So pretend it's someone else writing this or whatever you have to do. But if you have any interest in not psychologically traumatizing religious teenagers, please read on.
From a very young age I was intensely interested in sex. As a typical adolescent boy, I discovered the pleasures of self pleasuring. This wasn't much of a problem in those earlier years aside from the fact that I didn't have any idea that I was normal or that other guys did it (they all denied it... bunch of liars!). I was pretty sure it didn't cause blindness or hairy palms, since I hadn't yet developed either of those troubling symptoms. Though one friend's claim that looking at too much porn - we were checking out his dad's magazine stash at the time - would lead to a near permanent erection lasting seven years seemed to be pretty plausible. But when I was sixteen and began the path to extreme religiosity, my little habit began to become a serious problem. It never even occurred to me to talk to my parents to inquire about their opinion on the subject. Even if I had, by that time I had gotten far enough into studying the teachings of the church to realize that the average Catholic, my parents included, didn't know very much about the actual teachings and wouldn't be any help. So I did my own research and naturally found the answer that masturbation, and even more so the lust that precedes and accompanies it, are considered mortal sins that will remove one from being in a state of grace. For those unfamiliar with Catholic doctrine, salvation is a bit more complicated than the "I'm saved," you may be used to hearing from born-again Protestant Christians. Basically, if you have confessed your sins and had them absolved, or have performed an act of contrition (which is asking god for forgiveness and resolving to go to confession), then you are in a state of grace which means if you die at that moment, you will go to heaven... after a sufficient time spent in purgatory being cleansed of your sins, of course. However, if you have committed a mortal sin - as opposed to the more minor venial sins - it removes you from the state of grace. If you die in a state of mortal sin, you go to hell. On a side note, if you are in a state of mortal sin, it is an additional sacrilegious sin to receive communion, which means that pretty much 95% of the Catholic population is doomed to hell since the list of mortal sins includes such things as skipping church and using birth control... yep, right up there with murder. So, from the age of 16 until well into my twenties, I lived in a cycle of sin, self-hatred, guilt and shame followed by repentance and a test of willpower.
Before getting a bit deeper into my personal experience, let's look a bit more closely at what the Church says.
First, the bible doesn't actually say anything directly about masturbation (see my earlier post about how incompetent god is at telling us about important questions). The closest it gets is the coitus interuptus of Onan in Genesis 38:8-10. This is the origin of the term Onanism. It's a pretty big leap from Onan being bad because he didn't want to provide a son for his brother, to spilling your seed in general is bad. What seemed much more relevant to me was the fact even just lusting was wrong. There are several references to lust in the bible, but there are two verses that when looked at side by side, put it in perspective. "But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." Matthew 5:28 and Mark 9:47-49 "...if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where ‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ Everyone will be salted with fire."
The 1975 Encyclical Persona Humana written by The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is pretty clear in chapter IX:
"The traditional Catholic doctrine that masturbation constitutes a grave moral disorder is often called into doubt or expressly denied today. It is said that psychology and sociology show that it is a normal phenomenon of sexual development, especially among the young. It is stated that there is real and serious fault only in the measure that the subject deliberately indulges in solitary pleasure closed in on self ("ipsation"), because in this case the act would indeed be radically opposed to the loving communion between persons of different sex which some hold is what is principally sought in the use of the sexual faculty.
This opinion is contradictory to the teaching and pastoral practice of the Catholic Church. Whatever the force of certain arguments of a biological and philosophical nature, which have sometimes been used by theologians, in fact both the Magisterium of the Church--in the course of a constant tradition-- and the moral sense of the faithful have declared without hesitation that masturbation is an intrinsically and seriously disordered act."
I hadn't directly read the whole above quote back then. But I did read the Catechism when it came out. It was one of the first things I looked up when I got my copy.
2396 Among the sins gravely contrary to chastity are masturbation, fornication, pornography, and homosexual practices.
2352 By masturbation is to be understood the deliberate stimulation of the genital organs in order to derive sexual pleasure. "Both the Magisterium of the Church, in the course of a constant tradition, and the moral sense of the faithful have been in no doubt and have firmly maintained that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action." "The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose." For here sexual pleasure is sought outside of "the sexual relationship which is demanded by the moral order and in which the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love is achieved."
To form an equitable judgment about the subjects' moral responsibility and to guide pastoral action, one must take into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability.
Now, despite that last sentence about the mitigating factors that turn a mortal sin into a venial one, I didn't cut myself any slack. I reasoned that, despite the presence of "acquired habit" and "conditions of anxiety," I was fully conscious of the gravely sinful nature of my action when I partook of them, so I had no excuses.
Not only did I know it was wrong, I knew exactly why it was wrong and just how wrong it was. I even wrote an essay in English class (much to the chagrin of my liberal protestant teacher!) about the evils of birth control from a Catholic perspective. The theological basis for that teaching is the same as the teaching on masturbation. In the eyes of the Church, sex is reserved strictly for heterosexual married couples, engaged in it for the dual purposes of love and reproduction. Oh, by the way, this also means any married Catholics who engage in oral sex, anal sex, mutual masturbation, or basically anything but a bit of foreplay before getting down to the intercourse (without any birth control other than natural family planning, of course) are also committing mortal sins and going to hell.
So my cycle went something like this... I would go to confession and get absolved. I would strive to maintain that state of grace as long as possible. Sometimes I made it months. Sometimes just days or even only hours. Most commonly it would be at least a week or two. I would stay up late to catch whatever R rated movie with a few seconds of nudity happened to be playing on the CBC late night movie. I would get very pissed when the movies were delayed due to long-running hockey games, since unlike the majority of teenage Canadian boys, I had no interest in the sport whatsoever. Sometimes I would borrow the Sears catalogue for the lingerie section, or one of my older sister's fashion magazines for the skimpy outfits and the occasional exposed breast. And let's not forget the National Geographic topless tribal girls! On rare occasions I might somehow manage to get my hands on a porn magazine. After I turned 18, getting those was much easier, though still very embarrassing. After I went to college and got that slow dial-up internet connection that took 10 minutes to load a single nude photo, the temptation became ever present. It was simply inevitable. No matter how hard I tried, no matter how strong and sincere my resolve to quit was, no matter how hard or how much I prayed, I just could not escape the temptation. I even tried lessening the sin by trying to do it purely for the sensation, without lusting. That wasn't a great strategy either. I just couldn't help myself. This led to depression and, especially, shame. I regarded myself as a "pervert." I was constantly aware of my sinfulness and I was always keeping track of whether or not I was in a state of grace. The church taught that we are responsible for our own sins, but anything good we do is through the grace of God. So, when I managed to be good, it was God who got the credit. When I sinned, I took all the blame. After I sinned, I would sometimes decide to continue being sinful for a while. I was damned anyway. But eventually, I would always repent. If I had any porn, I would destroy it. I would soak the magazines in water or rip them up before throwing them in the trash in order to prevent myself from retrieving them later. If it was on the computer, I would erase it. If it was a video tape, I'd record over it. Then I would return to confession - I had the schedule of the Fransiscan friary memorized - tell the priest about what I'd done, do my penance (usually a few prayers, or reading a particular bible passage), and start the cycle again. I am sure I must have confessed to at least a couple dozen different priests and even a bishop or two over the years. Despite all of them having themselves been horny teenagers once, and despite having to wrestle with celibacy, not a single one of them ever told me to ease up on myself, that it was a normal part of being a young man, or anything of the sort. They told me to try sports to get rid of some of that sexual energy and things like that. I can only wonder how incredibly difficult it must be for priests to suppress their sexual appetites through the long years. I am so very thankful that I did not end up becoming a priest myself as I thought I would!
At one point, after returning home from several months on an exchange program and finding myself suffering from a great deal of culture shock, I went into a long period of being in a state of mortal sin and not having the strength to break out of it. I went to mass, but abstained from communion, to the inquiring stares of my family. I prayed as Saint Augustine did: Lord, grant me chastity... but not yet.
When I was first married, the problem continued. My wife discovered my porn. To her it was tantamount to adultery. I tried to give it up. I even started attending sex addicts anonymous for a time. There I met men who frequented prostitutes and strip clubs. It was actually a good experience to a certain extent. It normalized my own experience. Sure, I shared some features in common with these guys, but I wasn't really one of them. And looking back I think most of them probably didn't belong there, either. They just needed better outlets for their own high sex drives.
It took a very, very long time, but I have finally completely let go of that cycle. I am finally accepting of my own sexuality and no longer ashamed of it, and my wife no longer views it as adultery or something to be jealous about. Since we've bot set aside shame and guilt around the topic of sex, and focused on communication and being honest about our feelings, our marriage has improved tremendously!
I want to stress that I did not leave the church so that I could sin without guilt... the guilt over this continued long after I had abandoned Catholicism. I also want to stress that though I now loathe the teachings of the church on this subject, and I am angry at the church's perpetuation of this harmful dogma, that anger didn't lead to my atheism. Forgiveness is one Catholic lesson I learned very well, and I long ago forgave anyone who directly or indirectly contributed to my cycle. I do not blame any person but myself.. and I have forgiven myself, too. The problem lies in the deepest core of Christian teachings about sin and salvation. Though these teaching are so watered down as to be nearly unrecognizable in most Catholic households and many parishes, they are still there.
If you know any religious teens, don't let them enter this cycle. You don't even have to address the topic directly. A little hint here and there that masturbation is normal and OK will go a long way.
Peace... and happy wanking ;)