Is Masturbation a Sin? The Curious History Behind a Long-Held Religious Prohibition.
by Thandazani Mhlanga | 9 February 2023 |
The Message Bible eloquently reminds us that “every part of Scripture is God-breathed and useful in one way or another” (2 Timothy 3:16). Or, in the words of the KJV, it’s “profitable.”
Thus, I am curious: what can we possibly gain from the story of Onan in Genesis 38:8-10?
Most preachers won’t touch that story with a 10-foot pole. It is one of several Bible stories that are hard to wrap one’s mind around, and thus the reason why the story hasn’t made it to a pulpit near you.
Is it, in fact, as Paul says, “profitable”?
Sometime between 1708 and 1716 (no one knows for sure), someone profited in a way that Paul didn’t intend, by publishing a short tract with a rather long and strange title: The Heinous Sin of Self Pollution and all its Frightful Consequences, in both SEXES Considered, with Spiritual and Physical Advice to those who have already injured themselves by this abominable practice. And seasonable Admonition to the Youth of the nation of Both SEXES…
The tract claimed that Onan’s sin was masturbation, a heinous act that, according to that author, destroys one’s physical and spiritual health.
Historians speculate that John Marten, the author of the infamous book Gonosologium Novum, could have been the author behind the tract, since the two shared the same publisher and style. In 1708 Dr. Marten had been prosecuted for obscenity, accused of publishing erotica under the cover of medical advice—which is probably why he didn’t attach his name to the tract in question.
Marten and everyone else who peddled the tract, which was often accompanied by anti-masturbation potions and pills, profited immensely from this enterprise. So while the author hasn’t been definitively identified, the subsequent effects of his tract have been far-reaching.
Onania, as the tract came to be known, sold like hotcakes. By the turn of the century, all of industrialized Europe and North America viewed masturbation as a sin with spiritual and physical ramifications. Intellectuals such as C.G Salzmann, Samuel Tissot, Johann Zimmermann, Immanuel Kant, and Sigmund Freud, among others, wrote of its dangers. The medical professionals assigned several ailments, including, but not limited to, Down’s syndrome and epilepsy as the result of masturbation.
And there seemed to be, in the marketplace, an insatiable demand for preventative devices. Erection alarms, penis cases, sleeping mitts, bed cradles to keep the sheets off the genitals, and hobbles to keep girls from spreading their legs were patented in the United States in this era.
Before Onania, did anyone believe masturbation was an act of self-sabotage and, ultimately, active rebellion against God?
Thomas Laqueur, in his book Solitary Sex, points out that doctors in the ancient world, people as well-known for their medical opinions as Hippocrates and Galen, are silent on its dangers. They seem far more concerned about the risks of having too much sex with another human being.
The Greco-Roman world thought of masturbation as a practice not fit for a true gentleman, because people of means had male and female slaves, mistresses, and prostitutes, etc., at their disposal. Masturbation indicated a low social standing. During this same period female masturbation was expected and comically depicted, since women were thought of as imperfect males who were sexually voracious.
Biblical Hebrew has no word for masturbation. Some have even questioned if the concept existed; they argue that it is impossible to have an idea without corresponding vocabulary. Palestinian rabbis, in particular, didn’t consider an act to be sex if no penetration had occurred; masturbation didn’t qualify.
Indeed, all the rabbis appear concerned primarily with the appropriate use of semen. The rabbis considered spilling semen on the ground a sin. Rabbi Ammi famously likened one who spills seed on the ground to an idol worshiper. Rabbi Eliezer cautioned men not to hold their private parts while urinating lest they end up ejaculating. There is, in fact, a lengthy Talmudic discussion in Nidda 13a-b on the issue of Onan and sperm, including the dos and don’ts of touching one’s genitalia and the religious/scriptural reasoning behind such rules.
All of this is to say that in the Jewish tradition, the primary concern had nothing to do with masturbation but the appropriate treatment of one’s semen.
As for Christianity before the publishing of Onania and the hype that followed it, there appears little about masturbation. In John Calvin’s commentary on Genesis, for example, he accuses Onan of “abortion before the fact.” Calvin reasoned that by preventing the birth of a child, Onan was actively engaged in the sinful practice of abortion—which is a bit of a stretch, in my view.
Toward the end of the 19th century, some in the medical field began to view the health concerns of masturbation as superstition without scientific backing.
But conservative religionists refused to let go of the moralist position. Religious institutions, including the Seventh-day Adventist church, pressed the issue of the presumed dangers of masturbation with increased intensity. Some, such as the well-known Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, a contemporary of Ellen White, preached celibacy as a spiritual ideal, and described masturbation as “a crime doubly abominable than the heinous sin of illicit commerce between the sexes.”
Like many of his contemporaries, Kellogg believed diet was a cure for several ailments, including masturbation and other “unnatural” sexual desires. Some have suggested that the real purpose of cornflakes and other health foods was to cure masturbation.
I needn’t mention the several pieces from Ellen White’s pen that were anchored in Onania’s premise.
I am baffled why no one, through the centuries, has cared to revisit the story of Onan in Genesis 38 and ask the obvious question: was Onan actually masturbating? Hebrew sexual euphemisms in Genesis 38:8-9 are not lost, as they often are in our English translations. The text makes clear that Onan regularly had sexual intercourse with Tamar, but consistently withdrew before ejaculation to prevent impregnating Tamar, thus making false the premise of so-called “onanism.”
Lust in one’s heart
None of the biblical authors and redactors mention masturbation explicitly. Modern-day exegetes have done their own midrash on Matthew 5:27-28, arguing that masturbation is necessarily preceded by lust from mental visualization or pornography.
But while not wishing to minimize the problem of impure thoughts, I would point out that Matthew 5:27-28 does raise some interesting questions. If the passage is arguing that masturbation is a sin before God, why aren’t Christians lining up to have their eyes, hands, and sexual organs removed, as verses 29-30 recommend?
It seems clear to me that the text is talking about the complete and thorough corruption of the soul brought about by adultery—which is something not achieved by oneself. I would suggest that Matthew 5:27-28 is not primarily an anti-masturbation or even anti-lust text; it is an anti-adultery text. The Message Bible captures the spirit of the text beautifully when it says:
You know the next commandment pretty well, too: ‘Don’t go to bed with another’s spouse.’ But don’t think you’ve preserved your virtue simply by staying out of bed. Your heart can be corrupted by lust even quicker than your body.
No easy answers
There are no easy answers here, but it seems to me that masturbation as a horrible religious and physical defilement was an exaggeration of the 18th century that has neither a solid religious nor scientific foundation. Unfortunately, this view remains embedded in our collective religious psyche.
Perhaps the root problem is that we do not talk about human sexuality as openly as we should. Proverbs 13:2, as translated by Eugene Peterson in the Message Bible, says: “The good acquire a taste for helpful conversation; bullies push and shove their way through life.”
So let’s not be bullies; let’s have a helpful conversation. Is masturbation a sin?
- Laqueur, Thomas Walter. Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation. New York: Zone Books, 2003.
- Alex Comfort, The Anxiety Makers: Some Curious Preoccupations of the Medical Profession. London: Nelson, 1967.
- Foucault, Michel, Robert Hurley, and Frédéric Gros. The History of Sexuality. Edited by Frédéric Gros. Translated by Robert Hurley. First American edition. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.
Thandazani Mhlanga is a pastor, educator, speaker, and author who is currently studying ancient Near Eastern civilizations at the University of Toronto. Pastor Thandazani and his wife, Matilda, have three girls who are the joy of their lives. His website is themscproject.com.
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