Is it ok to masturbate (that is perform solo sexual stimulation of oneself)? This is a question that we often get asked. It’s something that I think many (if not most) Christians have wondered about and yet few churches talk about. In our culture, the historically unhelpful attitude that masturbation makes you blind or infertile has largely given way to a wholesale acceptance of the practice and casual jokes about it on pretty much every primetime comedy show.
But what should a Christian response be? Firstly, let’s look at the reasons some people are in favour of masturbation.
A release for sexual tension?
One potential justification is that it is a ‘safe’ way to release sexual tension. Someone struggling with sexual temptation, especially when that’s connected to somebody in their day-to-day life, might say that masturbation is a helpful way of relieving pent-up sexual frustration and it’s better than the alternative of acting on temptations and having a wrongful sexual relationship. However, this is presenting a false dichotomy. Having an affair or masturbating aren’t the only alternatives. We should be seeking to be holy and resist temptation in every area of our lives, which includes our thought life and what we do when we’re on our own.
We should be seeking to be holy and resist temptation in every area of our lives, which includes our thought life and what we do when we’re on our own.
It is also debatable whether masturbation eases sexual tension or whether it in fact fuels it. In Matthew 5:27-28 Jesus shows us where the seeds of an adulterous relationship lie – sexual immorality starts with lustful thoughts. The trajectory is that private lust leads to public actions rather than providing a ‘safe’ alternative.
A medical necessity?
Another argument in favour of masturbation is that it has important health benefits. It’s true that there are benefits – relaxation, pain relief for women during menstruation, help with sleeping – but none of these benefits are exclusive to masturbation. Just because there are some positive side effects doesn’t mean the whole thing is justified. (In the same way that improved exam results wouldn’t be a justification for offering monetary bribes to get pupils to revise). There are other – and better – ways that we can relax, aid sleep and get pain relief. There’s no medical evidence that going without sex – whether that is partnered or solo sex – is harmful.1
A matter of personal choice?
However, it’s important to note that masturbation doesn’t do you any physical harm either and many people will have tried it at some point.2 So, if it’s a common practice that doesn’t do any harm, is it something that we should condemn or is it just a matter of individual conscience and choice?
Whilst there is no specific mention of masturbation in the Bible, there are some important factors to consider when deciding if it’s a good thing for a follower of Jesus to practise.
The point of sex
At this point it’s helpful to zoom out a bit and set masturbation in the wider context of the purpose of sex and orgasm. Sex has a number of God-given benefits to be experienced within a marriage between a man and a woman. It is clearly something pleasurable to be enjoyed as a way to build intimacy in a committed and life-long relationship. It also has the potential to create new life if the couple are blessed with children. And the marriage relationship itself is imbued with spiritual significance as it points to the deeper relationship between Christ and the Church.
The focus in sex should be the other – it is a self-less, generous giving to and receiving from the other in a mutually committed relationship. An orgasm in that context is a wonderful, bond of intimacy.
In contrast, masturbation is solely me-focused. It is an act of sexual gratification divorced from relationship. There is no self-giving but only selfish receiving. It’s the icing on the cake with no cake. And the irony is that the physical experience of orgasm without the context in which it was intended is a lonely experience indeed. Something that’s designed to create a wonderful personal bond is reduced to bodily processess. It becomes deeply dehumanising.
Another question we need to ask is whether a sexual act can be separated from sexual thoughts. The Bible calls us to be pure in our thought life and in what we set our hearts on (see Philippians 4:8; Romans 12:2; Psalm 51:10; Matthew 5:28). For most people, it’s impossible to masturbate without thinking about a person or people in a sexual way. That is, we’re objectifying someone who doesn’t even know we’re doing it, for our own sexual pleasure. We may try to mitigate this by thinking of a fictional or idealised person, but we’re still removing sexual pleasure from its rightful context of commitment and intimacy. Of course, there is also a strong association with porn which fosters many additional spiritual, emotional and relational concerns.
To put it bluntly, can we be directing our thoughts towards God in the middle of masturbating? Can we have a pure heart while we’re mentally undressing someone else? If Jesus was watching (which he is) would he be pleased with our activity and thoughts? Is it a pattern of behaviour that we could commend to others and encourage younger disciples to follow?
Can we have a pure heart while we’re mentally undressing someone else?
Another problem with masturbation is that it can be incredibly addictive. Sexuality is a powerful driving force, and it can be difficult to steward in a godly way. For women, there are certain times of the natural monthly cycle when masturbation seems more desirable. External circumstances can play a big part too, for example seeing sexually arousing media (whether on purpose or by accident).
The problem is that anything that we’re addicted to has mastery over us and the Bible warns us strongly about the dangers of this. We’re not supposed to be slaves to anything but Christ (Matthew 6:24; Galatians 5:1). In fact, Christ has liberated us from slavery so that we can enjoy the wonderful life of freedom that he designed us for.
I hope you will see that the alternative to our false dichotomy from earlier – having an illicit sexual relationship or masturbating – is exercising godly self-control. Here’s what Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5:
It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honourable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God.
The calling to all of us – whether single or married – is not to indulge our desire for solo sex, but to be self-controlled in our thoughts and actions. And there is good news for those of us who feel the temptation to masturbate. Self-control isn’t something we need to conjure up from within, rather, it’s a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-24). God himself will help us with self-control. The Holy Spirit now lives within us, and he provides both a reason to be pure and the power that fuels our purity. Look at 1 Corinthians 6:18-20:
Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your bodies.
I hope that the above has helped to bring some clarity around biblical principles concerning masturbation. Whilst I believe masturbation to be sinful, I also recognise that many carry a huge burden of guilt and shame in this area. It’s important to stress that it shouldn’t be a big shameful secret that makes you somehow worse than everyone else.
It’s really common for men and women to masturbate (with figures for British men being around 73% and women 37%).3 Clearly, being coy about it doesn’t help anyone and we need to have frank conversations in our Christian communities. Lots of us will have messed up repeatedly in this area.
I know that when I was masturbating regularly, it was often as a retreat from real relationships, and it became an addictive pattern of deeply unhelpful behaviour, but I didn’t feel able to talk to anyone about it. It’s been a number of years now since I was tempted, but I’m very aware that it’s something I could struggle with again at any time. I’m thankful that I now have close friends with whom I’m able to be open about this and many other things.
If this is a personal struggle for you, I would urge you to find a Christian friend or leader who you trust and just be open with them. It’s good to have a few people to be accountable to in order to safeguard those relationships and make sure others don’t abuse our vulnerability, but we need to not carry our burdens alone. We all wrestle with all sorts of sin and our aim as Christians is to support one another. Just think of it like a giant three-legged race! And our constant encouragement is that the wonderful love of Jesus is transforming us day-by-day to be more like him.
And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
2 Corinthians 3:18
Stuart Parker, Is It Ok to Masturbate?, True Freedom Trust.
Gray, 'Freedom from Masturbation', True Freedom Trust.
Laura, 'Porn, Pleasure and Purity: The Perspective Of A Woman', True Freedom Trust.
- Kim, Tam & Muennig, ‘Sociodemographic Correlates of Sexlessness Among American Adults and Associations with Self-Reported Happiness Levels: Evidence from the U.S. General Social Survey’, Archives of Sexual Behaviour 46(8) (2017), 2403-2415: ‘The purported detrimental impact of sexlessness on self-reported happiness levels was not evident in this large, nationally representative study after adjusting for sociodemographic factors. Sexless Americans reported very similar happiness levels as their sexually active counterparts.’ Accessed 27 November 2020. Muise, Schimmack & Impett, ‘Sexual Frequency Predicts Greater Well-Being, But More is Not Always Better’, Social Psychological and Personality Science 7(4) (2015), 295-302: ‘The association between sexual frequency and well-being is only significant for people in relationships.’ Accessed 27 November 2020.
- ‘Is masturbation normal?’, NHS. Accessed 1 April 2021.
- According to a survey carried out between 1999 – 2001 on participants between the ages of 16 to 44 years. Gerressu M, Mercer CH, Graham CA, Wellings K, Johnson AM, ‘Prevalence of masturbation and associated factors in a British national probability survey’, Archives of Sexual Behaviour. Accessed 8 April 2021.