Sex and Sacrifice: On the Structure of Autoeroticism

A few weeks back, I wrote the following for Rachel Held Evans’ symposium on whether masturbation is permissible for Christians:

If our ethic is to be Christian, then it must be qualified by the cross and resurrection of Jesus.  That is to say, the pattern for our lives and actions must be shaped by a love that treats pleasure as the (sometimes delayed) fruit of our sacrificial self-giving for others, rather than a good without qualification.

If we disconnect the experience of sexual pleasure from the moment of giving ourselves for another, to another in love, we fundamentally distort the meaning of the human body in its sexual dimension.  In the auto-eroticism of masturbation, we pursue a particular sort of satisfaction or a particular experience of pleasure.  But it is through the mutual self-giving in love that our humanity is established (whether in sex or beyond), rather than the abstract experience of pleasure or the fulfillment of a craving or felt need.  However enjoyable it might be, masturbation fails to fulfill this form of human sexuality, and as such is corrosive to the integrity of our persons and our intimacy of the Spirit.

That answer depends upon a number of prior commitments that, let’s face it, just seem weird to most people these days.  So let’s unpack the question with help from an objector, Danny Gulch.  In a comment he raised three lines of reasoning against my analysis that I take up below.

Masturbation and self-sacrifice

Gulch suggests that masturbation can be a form of sacrifice, as in a situation when a husband desires sex and his wife doesn’t.  In such a scenario, the man lays down his desire for his wife and the wife sacrifices, in Gulch’s words, “her desire to be the entirety of the husband’s sexual satisfaction.”  This sort of mutual self-sacrifice isn’t a total sacrifice—both the husband and wife make small compromise and everyone stays happy.

If my position were simply that the goods of sex were constituted by self-sacrifice alone, then I could see how a view like Gulch’s might be plausible . But the sacrifice and self-giving for another’s good go together.  The moment of sexual desire is not a desire for pleasure per se, but rather a moment of desire for another as other, for the union and consummation with a person made in the image of God. The formal structure of the masturbatory act seems to undermine the unitive dimension of this love, which is why I think it is wrong.

But notice what Gulch wants the wife to give up, namely that she is the “entirety of the husband’s sexual satisfaction.”  It’s not clear to me that she should, given that the only other options in this world for such satisfaction are himself—which destroys the externally directed nature of erotic love completely—or some person who is outside the marital bond, which doesn’t square at all with Jesus’s teachings on lust.

Asceticism and self-sacrifice

Gulch puts his second worry this way:  “A Christian ethic being tied to self-sacrifice quickly leads us to assume that the greater the sacrifice the better, or to be good at all it must require complete sacrifice.”  Gulch suggests that “ascetism earns no bonus points,” which is absolutely true.

Yet as he notes, this point is also open to the rejoinder that “sex is relational.”  He suggests that it’s tacit in my description, when it’s actually pretty explicit:  here too his argument only works if we cut off the “for others” that I added twice in pointing toward a sacrificial self-giving.

It is true that encorporating the askesis of self-denial and self-sacrifice into the structure of marital love might lead to abuses of a more extreme variety.  Yet it is also true that not permitting them may lead to abuses, too.  The possibility of abuse isn’t itself an argument—it’s simply a fact that prudentially minded people have to consider.

Sex and our Desire for God

Finally, Gulch restates Anna Broadway’s statement (which accords well with my own) that the desire for sex is fundamentally a desire for God, and that as such both marriage and masturbation are “imperfect substitutes for being united with God,” such that neither is immoral.

I won’t speak for Anna, but I will note that Gulch’s restatement seems to me to be more of a reinterpretation.  Anna never equates the desire for sex with a desire for God.  Instead, she suggests that the union of man and wife is an image of the unity of the persons of the Trinity.  There is a fundamentally creaturely dimension to this imaging—it is a desire for another person that results in a particular picture being given to the world.

That’s a very different claim than simply equating sexual eros with a desire for union with the Almighty, as Gulch needs to make the parallel between marriage and masturbation go.  And even if sexual desire was simply constituted by a longing for God, the form and mode of its expression would still have to be bounded by the terms God established for it.  Using Anna’s Trinitarian approach, masturbation would be the equivalent of pursuing a Platonic deity:  it is absorption into the personless Being, rather than a mutual self-giving.  That is, unless you want to say that Christ meets us uniquely in the mastubatory act, but then I wonder why we’d ever bother doing anything else like taking communion or reading Scripture.

Mutual sacrificial self-giving love for the good of the other by a husband and wife:  every word in that formula matters.  It’s not a complete statement about the shape of Christian teaching about sexual ethics—it says nothing about children, most obviously—but when thinking through autoeroticism it gets you a long ways toward seeing why it undermines marital and personal flourishing.

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  • Keith Buhler

    As a recovering lustaholic, might I add something, Matt? Auto-eroticism in recovery circles we call “sex with self.” This title is crass, blunt, offensive — and accurate.

    Charles Williams in “Descent Into Hell” calls homoeroticism the sin of Sodom and autoeroticism the sin of Gomorrah, and the greater of the two. The former perverts the union of two sexually different selves; the latter evaporates union and divides the self from the self.

    Masterbation (accompanied by fantasy of the mind or the eye) mirrors the self-giving and relational receiving that occurs in sexual union with another person. But, like a mirror, it flips the image; it takes a three-dimensional thing and flattens it out.

    It is not merely a lack of a good (authentic self-giving) that corrodes our integrity as persons, but the presence of an active bad (self-dividing) that mocks the good. One cannot unite oneself to oneself (being already united) so one must “divide” through fantasy, externalizing the self as a mock beloved before “uniting” again with the self — that is, with the feverish offspring of one’s own mind.

    This habit is not conducive to flourishing.

    • Danny Gluch

      Be careful taking witty and catchy statements as truth. The sin of Sodom was not lust, Ezekiel 16:49 is pretty clear what the sin of Sodom really was

      • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

        Yes. And it goes on to Ezekiel 16:50, too, which somehow always gets overlooked.

  • SJ theivorylighthouse.blogspot

    I guess my only question is on what grounds is this argued on? Is this sin or is this a method of achieving ‘a’ godly marital, personal, relationship with sex? If the first, I think that there might be something in “all things are permissible but not beneficial…” If the second, there is then the possibility that perhaps other relationships/people have found the act to be acceptable.

    My comment is a little open ended, but I suppose that’s also how I read your post…

  • Danny Gluch

    I really appreciate Matthew’s care, thoughtfulness and openness in continuing this discussion, and I wish I could to mirror that in a further response, but given the medium I am attempting to be as brief as possible.

    Matthew is very right in highlighting the differing positions of sexuality being designed entirely for another being the crux of disagreement. To state as simply as possible why I believe sexuality is bot solely “for another” I will look at two uses of language in our discussion so far.

    1) Using words like design, function, purpose, and flourishing to discuss sexuality means the account of sexuality is a teleological one, dating back primarily to Aristotle and then in the Christian tradition of Anselm and Aquinas. A Christian teleology necessarily stems from creation. So, any telos, in order to be Christian, must be ratified by the Old Testament.

    2) When Christians in the contemporary West use the phrase “for another” in regards to sexuality it is assumed that they mean the person’s singular spouse. So, if sex/sexuality is designed for “for another” then any sexual activity outside of the monogamous marriage is immoral.

    The problem I have is that these two uses of language are incomparable. No one can use the Law or a teleological argument to condemn the polygamy of the OT. Likely, someone will use the 2 become 1 passage, but that is merely about prostitution. In the OT if a male had sex (probably rape) with a woman of a defeated opponent it was moral as long as he took her on as one of his wives. Clearly, the sexuality condoned in the OT was not “for another” in the sense that we mean it today. If sexuality could justly be spread to 500+ others in the case of kings, then it would seem absurd for it to be an offense to have mental or physical sexual activity with oneself.

    The NT doesn’t do as good of a job condemning polygamy as we would like either. The fact of the matter is that the best arguments for monogamy are social arguments, not biblical arguments about sexuality, lust or holiness. If we want to make social arguments for masturbation always being wrong or possibly being right we can go there, but lets not pretend that it’s something clearly seen and defined Biblically.

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      Thanks, Danny. I may take up a full treatment of the questions you raise at some point (I’m something of a slow blogger, as I’ve a ton else on my plate these days).

      All the best,

      Matt

      • Danny Gluch

        Thanks Matt, I look forward to it.

  • Rich

    This is clearly a relatively easy perspective for a person to preach when he/she has a pretty normal sexual life and/or the reasonable expectation that approvable, appropriate sexual enjoyment is a need that is being or will be met in one’s life—it’s just a matter of faithfully trusting and waiting for God’s timing. So, as a self-denying homosexual man, who has not been allowed to have his “thorn in the flesh” removed, who nonetheless renounces his inclinations on the grounds that they are rooted in sin and brokenness; according to what I’m reading here, I should expect to never feel sexual pleasure. Period. It is simply a thing that has been denied to me. I can’t have it with a person I’m attracted to, I don’t want it with a person I’m supposed to want it with, and it is wrong to give myself the occasional “release” because it undermines the purity of a gift which is nothing more than a hypothetical in my own life—a gift I’ll never receive because it has been denied me for reasons I am too small and too limited to work out. Do you have anything encouraging or useful to say to someone like me, who never expects to marry, never expects to be involved in “mutual sacrificial self-giving love for the good of the other by a husband and wife?” Please avoid the cliche of saying that God may yet have that in mind, or may surprise me or change my desires, or any of the rest of that Exodus b.s.. I know that’s “possible,” as all things are “possible.” But if a good and wise God doesn’t plan on working that particular miracle in my life, then clearly something is expected of me other than holding on tight and waiting for “His timing.” In the meantime, I have not found celibacy to be any form of freedom, but rather an exhausting discipline at which I fail regularly. Is so much of my life supposed to be about “trying not to be gay,” or “trying not to sin?” The one thing masturbation seems to offer is a way to turn off, admittedly temporarily, the base, animal hunger for release and think higher thoughts for awhile.

    • Danny Gluch

      Thank you for sharing Rich. I have a number of friends in different places in regards to being homosexual and Christian, and none of them are easy. I truly hope you experience grace and peace daily. As far as the “Exodus b.s.” goes, they shut down operations because they realized it was just that.

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      Rich,

      Thanks for the comment. The questions here go a lot deeper than should be addressed in blog comments, so I won’t even try. In fact, I commend to you Wesley Hill’s book if you’ve not yet read it. It’s an excellent treatment of many of the questions you are raising.

      All the best,

      Matt