Why This Article
As an active Latter-day Saint marriage and family therapist, I have worked with many clients who have struggled for many years with pornography and masturbation. At the same time, most of my couples work involves a need to cultivate increasing desire. The current approaches of reading more scriptures, prayer, temple attendance, more faith, and the 12-step addiction treatment model are just not working. In some cases, this approach of sin and fear-based motivation does more harm than good and makes the problems worse.
I have found a solution to struggles with masturbation and pornography that matches The Church of Jesus Christ doctrine on sexuality and gives dramatic results within months.
Church leaders in the 1800s and early 1900s, in contrast to prevailing notions of the day, taught that sexual urges and feelings are to be celebrated and encouraged as God-given. However, not one mention of masturbation as a sin can be found in scripture or in official teachings of this period. This was in stark contrast to culturally common medical quackery ideas from the 1700s, similar to bloodletting, that masturbation led to all manner of physical and mental disabilities. In the early 1900s, as medical research disproved these inaccurate fears, The Church published manuals that embraced the science that masturbation did not cause insanity.
Beginning in the 1950s, perhaps as a reaction to zoologist Alfred Kinsey’s 1948 and 1953 popular books on human sexuality that dismissed marriage and morality, Church leaders began an abrupt shift toward emphasizing sexuality as a serious sin. They also for the first time began asserting masturbation as a sin. This emphasis continued in various teachings through the 1980s. All of these assertions about masturbation, however, were given without support from scripture, and without support from medical research, which now mostly contradicted leaders’ assertions. Some people even specifically opposed medical science on the topic, in at least one case resulting in the suicide of a client and a wrongful malpractice settlement.
Current Teachings And Research
Anti-masturbation pamphlets and books are no longer available from official Church sources, though they are widely mocked among critics of The Church and are viewed with deep concern by medical professionals. The best known current official publication on the topic, For the Strength of Youth (2011), does not mention masturbation, but does suggest, “do not arouse these emotions in your own body” in the context of sexual contact with others. This statement is helpful in the context of caution around premarital sexual relations. However, it can also leave youth confused and guilty when they experience hormonal surges in which “these emotions” are aroused every day, without intention, through all kinds of normal healthy activities. Concerned young men are praying for God to take away the daily erections that are part of normal, healthy development. Local leaders vary widely in their approaches — some asserting masturbation is a serious sin, others convinced it is not a sin at all.
In the past few decades, the idea of “sexual addiction” has been introduced, and Latter-day Saint efforts often utilize ideas based on the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program. Elder Oaks’ 2015 Ensign article did not discuss masturbation but suggested caution about the over-use of addiction treatment for pornography, asserting, “In fact, most young men and young women who struggle with pornography are not addicted.” His article cited extensively from medical research. Many medical professionals argue that research does not support categorizing sexuality as an addiction and that treating it as such does not work because it reduces personal responsibility and uses fear as a motivator. In addition, this anti-biology mentality can lead to many married couples who struggle with overcoming past fears and shame to cultivate healthy sexual desire.
A Solution That Works
Below is a solution that I found works and is compatible with scripture with the restored gospel that sexuality is a God-given, healthy and positive part of our mortal experience. It avoids fear or addiction as a motivator and is compatible with scientific research.
The goal: sexual self-mastery, not sexual self-rejection
Understand the truth that God created your sexual feelings because He loves you and wants you to have joy and to multiply and replenish the earth. Recognize that masturbation is not supported as a sin in any scripture, and was not mentioned at all by Church leaders until the 1950s. Therefore, it cannot be as serious as sins such as failing to love yourself or others and a number of other issues repeatedly emphasized in all the standard works. Medical science does not support physical or mental harms from masturbation, but does show significant harms from excessive guilt, shame, fear, and aversion to sexual feelings. Involve the Lord in the process of cultivating, appreciating, and mastering, and not removing, suppressing, or rejecting sexual desire.
Track baseline activities for 2-4 weeks. Measure your normal daily activities without attempts at abstinence — record when you use porn or masturbate as well as prayer, scriptures, temple attendance, and physical activity, and note emotional or other life challenges.
Measure progress toward your own individual goals on these items and report to the Lord in prayer. Use these data charts to identify patterns related to scripture, prayer, temple, fitness or time connecting with others. Continue to masturbate as a beautiful, respectful discovery of one's individual sexual desires, including planning time to explore and enjoy your body. The goal is sexual self-mastery, not rejection and elimination.
Study and learn from the best books. Using accurate and well-researched information, become familiar with your own arousal cycle and desires, and male and female biology and hormones.
Teach by example the beauty of sexual desire. When addressing your child’s sexual desires and masturbation, focus on the beauty of desire and emphasize how amazing those feelings are. Offer them insights into how we are to learn and master our bodies. Celebrate with them that they are experiencing this new phase of life and how much more amazing it will be if mastered and learned. A youth learning and developing into their pubescent years is no more experiencing a sin by masturbating than a diabetic learning how to control and regulate their blood sugar.
Teach self-mastery concepts to parents. Stop telling youth that masturbation is a sin or dwelling on spiritual or physical fears. Avoid abstract timelines like abstinence for 14 days. Also, your role is spiritual counselor, not a mental health professional. You are not qualified to call a struggle with self-mastery an addiction. Don’t immediately send youth to the church’s Addiction Recovery Program or an effort modeled like Sons of Helaman or Daughters of Light. If the problem is severe enough that they cannot function in everyday life, recommend a professional therapist and let that professional determine the mental health issues that may or may not be involved.
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