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The Sin of Onan

Judah got a wife for Er, his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death. Then Judah said to Onan, “Sleep with your brother’s wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to raise up offspring for your brother.” But Onan knew that the child would not be his; so whenever he slept with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother. What he did was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death also. (Genesis 38:6-10)
According to Google's answer to what (let's face it) must be right up there among the most-asked questions since the invention of the search engine, this story is the closest the Bible comes to saying anything directly about masturbation.

And it isn't a story about masturbation. It's not even a story, not really, about birth control methods – although they feature. It's a story about the denial of justice to a vulnerable woman in a patriarchal society. Impregnation by one's dead husband's relatives may seem an uncomfortable and problematic solution to social exclusion and economic insecurity. But levirate marriage – the "inheriting" of a widow by a brother of the deceased – was a part of the welfare system of the day. The bereaved woman, having neither status nor belongings in her own right, gained the male protection and provision needed to survive respectably and to belong within the community, and the opportunity to fulfill her role as childbearer. The firstborn son of such a marriage would be considered heir to the deceased and would receive his share of the inheritance, honouring him and providing further future stability to his widow. Hence Onan's self-interest in preventing Tamar from becoming pregnant – in the absence of an heir to Er, Onan's own share would be larger.

Few Christians seriously cite this passage as an argument against masturbation today. (For one thing, we now know that it takes both a sperm and an egg to conceive a human being, so amidst all our conflicting beliefs about "when life begins", we are at least pretty much in agreement that the "spilling of seed" does not imply the deaths of millions of miniature humans). But a lot of our prevailing assumptions have their origins in a time when we did, and have been little questioned by many of us since.

With no direct Biblical condemnation to cite, the rationale usually given for the claim that "masturbation is a sin" seems to run broadly along three lines:

  1. It is ruled out by implication of what is directly condoned, namely spousal intercourse. "[If] they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion" (1 Cor 7:9).
  2. Sexual gratification can become an addiction, leading to compulsive behaviours and loss of self control. "“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but I will not be mastered by anything." (1 Cor 6:12).
  3. It is associated with fantasy and/or the use of pornography. "But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." (Matt 5:28).

The first of these seems initially quite persuasive. If you are burning with passion, then marry, says Paul. If masturbation were a legitimate alternative for Christians, surely this would be the obvious juncture at which to mention it. Similarly, to married couples, he says "Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer." (1 Cor 7:5a) Sex together, or prayer. Those are your options.

Back when I thought the Bible worked like a list of straightforward instructions (albeit one that had been padded with a whole lot of non-straightforward material, presumably there to test my faith and give me something to do in my quiet times) this argument would probably have had me convinced. But I've since come to believe that there's more to the Bible than that. And on reflection it strikes me as rather ironic to assert definitive "rules" about sexual behaviour from a passage that emphasises a paradigm of "better or worse" trade-offs rather than "right or wrong" absolutes. Paul presents marriage to singles as a suboptimal state which is nonetheless better than another suboptimal state. And he presents abstinence and prayer to married people as an ideal which nonetheless must often give way to a less-ideal-in-his-view alternative. And suddenly it seems rather reasonable to wonder whether there might not be room for other options within this pragmatic balancing act – options which aren't top of Paul's list of suggestions, perhaps, but are not "wrong" per se, and are preferable to some sets of possible outcomes. Especially when we come to consider the outcomes we actually have at the moment.

Which brings me on to the second claim: the risk of addiction or obsession. There is a certain appeal to taking a "better safe than sorry" stance on matters of self-control. But such solutions tend to address only one side of the story; one side of the hard line drawn. With some behaviours, this maybe doesn't matter so much. There is little "risk" involved in not gambling, for example. But not all lines have a safe side. We don't, for example, train people to suppress their natural appetite for food, lest they become addicted to eating. And that's not because there's no such danger – it's because compulsive eating is far from being the only way one's relationship with food can become broken and damaging. We try to encourage one another and ourselves towards habits of eating that promote the best possible relationship with our bodies. There's no universal solution, nor is it something that we can sort out once and for all and then forget about. It's an ongoing, personal task, grievously overwhelming for some, and complicated in one direction or another for a large majority.

Similarly, addiction to sexual release is hardly the only form that a destructive relationship with sexual desire can take. Here are some of the ways that a "hands off" approach to sexual morality is not exactly playing it safe:
  • It helps foster a fixation on purity, centering sex as a sort of inverse idol until it ends up controlling us as much as ever. Time, energy and devotion that could have contributed to abundant, worshipful living are squandered alternating between prideful "resistance" and the shameful self-loathing that was carefully instilled in us from puberty to keep us on the straight and narrow. "Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence." (Col 2:23)
  • It positions members of the opposite sex as the only legitimate "outlets" for sexual urges. And yes, women as well as men experience sexual desire and pleasure, but let's not pretend this works both ways equally. Patriarchal power dynamics as well as an on-average higher male sex drive mean that this supposition impacts considerably more on men's view and treatment of women than the other way around. Popular mega-church pastor and writer Mark Driscoll has been known to call women "penis homes", which for all its vulgar bluntness amounts to pretty much the same takeaway message as scarily much of the evangelical teaching I've encountered on sex and marriage. Men are forbidden to "take matters into their own hands" so that all responsibility for their sexual gratification is placed onto women, creating a culture of theologised male entitlement in which women are dehumanised and objectified – either obligated as spousal "penis homes" or feared and shunned as "stumbling blocks". In this way, not only are our romantic relationships tainted by non-mutuality and indignity, but neighbourly understanding between men and women is eroded, male leadership and decision-making remains uninformed by female perspectives, and we are robbed of many opportunities for meaningful non-sexual male/female friendship. 
  • Devout unmarried Christians have been known to get "too good" at suppressing sexual desire, creating very real complications if and when they later come to marry. And again, I think it's fair to say that this affects women more than men, given women's on-average lower sex drive – which is all well and good while the clear-cut command is to "stay pure", but can become quite another matter when one gains a husband and a supposed Christian duty to satisfy him. I read a heartbreaking article recently about the huge gap between male and female expectations and experiences of sex. When a man describes sex as "bad" he typically means it was boring or dissatisfying; for a woman, the same description tends to indicate that the experience was one of emotional and/or physical pain. And the extent to which society is geared around male satisfaction is reflected even in the priorities of scientific research: "PubMed has almost five times as many clinical trials on male sexual pleasure as it has on female sexual pain. And why? Because we live in a culture that sees female pain as normal and male pleasure as a right." One condition associated with female sexual pain is vaginismus – a tightening of the muscles around the vagina when penetrative sex is attempted. And guess what, diagnoses are common among women brought up in evangelical purity culture: shame, fear and repression associated with conservative morality are well-known to be causal factors, while part of the treatment process typically involves graduated self-touching and insertion. How much literal pain could be avoided if Christian girls weren't so successfully urged to remain strangers to their own bodies to begin with? Not to mention the deterioration of intimacy, respect, mutuality, trust and delight in partnership relationships when the "marriage bed" is defiled by fear, discomfort, duty, guilt, awkwardness... We Christians have an awful lot to say about how promiscuous sex threatens one's future marital happiness and harmony, but we're awfully silent about the demonstrably real threats of sexual repression and male entitlement. 
Of course, none of these factors prove the "non-wrongness" of masturbation. If it is "wrong" it can have no right place in addressing the very serious issues of purity culture and the obstacles it poses to worship, gender justice and godly relationships. (Issues that urgently need addressing either way). But I hope I have at least shown that there is no harmless "safe side" to banning it just in case, and that, within a better/worse framework like Paul's, it might produce healthier fruit than what we're currently confronted with.

The third claim – that it encourages fantasy and the use of pornography – certainly calls for cautious attention. Reducing fellow human beings to objects of selfish desire is a failure of neighbour love that does none of us any good and (once again) impacts disproportionately on women. But ... of course, I can only speak from a female perspective; I don't know what it's like to experience sexual desire as a man ... but as an argument against masturbation it seems like false equivalency. Is it really impossible to seek bodily release without imaginatively involving another person? Maybe it is difficult, non-instinctual (especially when it has been ingrained in Christian men that sexual activity must involve a woman) ... but impossible? Might it not at least be worth a try? I'm in no place to tell anyone what to teach kids but speaking as someone who used to be a teenager there seems worse things to encourage  than shame-free enjoyment-in-moderation of one's own body coupled with high regard for the person and dignity of one's neighbour. (And those "worse things" include much of the Christian sex education I actually received growing up. Sticky tape? Hobs and ovens? Dairy cows for sale? No wonder we have trouble remembering to treat one another as human beings, made in the image of God).

While we're on the subject of porn and sexual fantasy (because, after all, it's one I'd rather not revisit): there's a lot of anguishing goes on about these two evils, but the unpacked content of that concern ... well, it concerns me. Some Christian men talk as though desirable women are the problem, the threatened cause of their own sexual downfall. Well, I want to suggest to those men that this isn't just about them and their individual personal purity. This is about the women they objectify in their use of porn and in their fantasy lives, and their failure of neighbour love towards those women. It's about men's failures of neighbour love towards women generally when they learn to think of all of us in categories of wife versus stumbling block versus irrelevant, and neglect to recognise our full humanity. And when a man diligently avoids and excludes and "others" women in his quest for personal purity, he may feel all the more "self-controlled" for it but he is not loving his female neighbour any better than he was when he was lusting after her. Which is one of the reasons I am so anxiously mistrustful of men's groups. I want to believe that my male Christian friends honour women in the conversations they have when they get together for accountability and mutual counsel; that they speak on terms that recognise us as whole people – their neighbours – and not merely temptations to be navigated (or wives to be managed); that they see and understand and actively seek to minimise the power imbalances that render their "private conversations" far more consequential for our common life than those of women-only groups. But the publicly-visible manifestations of men's ministries have done less than zero to earn that trust (see, e.g. Mark Driscoll), as have the few closer-to-home accounts I've actually heard, while in general most of what these groups do and talk about is, by design, kept carefully behind closed doors. Confessions and decisions and resolutions are being made (I worry) in secret, without the input of women, and yet with serious implications for women. And this to me feels like a denial of justice: the guarding of men's self-interest at the cost of women; the exclusion of women from participation and representation and protection within the community. In short, it feels not entirely unlike the sin of Onan.

The rest of that story is quite something, by the way. When Judah withholds his third son from Tamar, fearful of losing him also, she disguises herself as a sex worker and accepts Judah's unsuspecting solicitation. On discovering later that his daughter-in-law is illegitimately pregnant, Judah orders for her to be killed, at which point she sends back to him the pledge he left in lieu of payment. “She is more righteous than I," he declares, as he realises the situation and reflects on his own part in it. Tamar gives birth to twins, and 35 generations later is honoured as one of five women mentioned in Matthew's account of the genealogy and birth of Jesus. Yep, that's right: this blog post just got seasonal. I bet you didn't see that coming, hey? But after all, what better time than advent to dismantle patriarchy...

[Thumbnail image cc. from Dean Hochman on Flickr.]