I’ve been struggling to find the words to respond to a discussion that I had with my cohost on Episode 8 of our Podcast “Black Gal White Guy” about the #MeToo Campaign. In that conversation, we spoke at length about the problem with sexual harassment and assault, which affects women significantly more than men. It was a difficult conversation for me overall, because I find the need to explain my humanity to others a challenging and frustrating task. Yet the most challenging piece of the conversation was the topic about masturbation as a solution to sexual assault. It didn’t sit right with me from the moment we ventured in that direction. I tried to make sense of my growing discomfort and put them to intelligible words but I am not quite sure they landed.
So here I am, returning after more than a month with hopefully more wisdom and grace to make sense of our conversation and my discomfort. This is important to me because outside of further deliberation, I believe we miss an opportunity to further challenge the unwarranted sexual abuse of women. This is also important because I believe women, who are overwhelmingly victims of sexual assault and abuse, need to be leading the conversation around how they would like to be treated by men.
And as we go there, I want to be careful to not get into whether or not masturbation is sin or not. Because if we do, we will undoubtedly approach it from a reductionist point of view and do one of two things:
- If it is sin, we will blame the sin nature for the inappropriate and violent behavior towards women. In doing so, we will scapegoat our human frailty and fail to take personal and societal responsibility for the ways in which women are victimized. This is where the boys will be boys sentiment comes from.
- If it is not sin, we will dismiss any sort of nuance around this conversation, deducing that if it is not sin it must thus not be harmful. In doing so, the perspective of women stands a chance of being dismissed.
As you can see, with either scenario, we will gloss over the needs of women and instead of centering women, we will center men. Centering men in this discussion is not helpful because it does not get us away from doing what we have always done! Too often throughout modern and ancient history, we have centered men’s desires, expectations, and wants which has often times resulted in the harm of women.
So I want to have, rather, I want to force a different conversation. Rather than pose the ‘is masturbation okay’ question, I want to ask the question that was brought up on our podcast, ‘can masturbation stop the harassment and assault of women?’ And in answering this question, my response is a resounding no – no, masturbation cannot reduce, curb, or stop sexual assault directed towards women because it does not address issues related to power, consent, and male sexual desire.
I want to start unpacking this by addressing the issue of power, as assault is as much about sexual desire as it is about power and who has it. Throughout history, unfortunately, those who have held power have used it to terrorize, harm, and destroy others. Sometimes this power has been exercised through physical violence and destruction. And sometimes this power has been enacted through rape and sexual assault. And sometimes, as in the case of black women under slavery in the United States, physical and sexual violence have been used in tandem as a means of control and subjugation.
Understanding the issue of control in the context of power is important here. Men who perpetrate sexual violence and who wield power over other women will use violence as a means to exert control over her employment opportunities and wellbeing, insisting that if women want to climb higher up the ladder or even maintain the job she already has, she must put out. The same manipulation plays itself out in churches where pastors abuse their spiritual authority to control the lives of their female parishioners and in communities where men will play on the people’s propensity to keep a lid on their issues so as not to bring the entire community down. Regardless of the particular situation, power operates in essentially the same way as men use sexual violence as a means to get what they want and control the outcomes of others.
Masturbation cannot solve for this as it does not address the issue of power. It does not address the way in which some men use sexual violence as a means to exploit, manipulate, and take advantage of women. In fact, as many women will testify, masturbation can still be used as a tool of control when they are forced to watch men get off to their image. The absence of penetration does not lessen the degree to which women feel powerless in the face of this assault; it only makes it more difficult to discuss.
In many cases, masturbation also fails to take into consideration the issue of consent. While some may think consent is unnecessary here, the fact of the matter is that without a woman’s yes in this regard, it still does not honor the self autonomy and personhood of women. Getting off to our image without our consent is still awful and reckless. Outside of a consensual relationship or agreement, it still violates who we are. After all, masturbation is often an act that is done by means of a visual or mental prompt of someone who stimulates desire. And if I could play my woman card and speak for all of us, I can attest to the fact that we don’t want to be conjured up in anyone’s sexual fantasy.
Yes, it can be argued that masturbation is not as bad because it does not involve penetration and for all intents and purposes, the person of desire does not have to know.. Perhaps. And yet, I know better. Not as bad is still bad. The lesser evil is still evil. It is still predatory, still harmful, even if the victim is not harmed in the same way.
We also have to remember that there is an entire industry that makes millions of dollars off of this act alone. Yet in spite of the accessibility of porn to satisfy men’s appetites, sexual assault is not decreasing. In fact, it could be argued, that the availability of women’s bodies on screen, in magazines, and thusly in the male imagination, sets unrealistic and harmful ideas about the availability of our bodies in real time. And yes, women who willingly appear in porn may technically consent to whomever imagining all sorts of things about their bodies. But let’s not go down that road. Let’s not justify masturbation through the use of pornography because lusting after a woman’s scantily clothed body outside of a consensual relationship is ALWAYS and will FOREVER be sin, m’kay!
Lastly, I want to discuss the idea of sexual desire and assault, first by calling our attention to the fact that we live in a culture that does not place a high value on self restraint. In our quest for individual freedom and liberty, we often disregard the need to keep ourselves from certain things and instead are encouraged to give into our passions so long as we don’t hurt anyone. However, policies and laws redefine hurt and personhood so that there is so much latitude here. When we add privilege to the mix, the latitude grows so that whites have more ability to live in a certain way than POCI and men have the capacity to live in a certain way that is not afforded to women. Privilege and power blurs the lines of self restraint so that those without power are forced to restrain themselves under penalty of the law in ways that those with power are excused.
All of this to say, many men are never confronted with the language of self control when it comes to women’s bodies. Instead, the onus is placed on women to control the sexual appetite of men by the way we dress, act, talk, and the places we go. If men are tempted, we are told that it is because we did not do our part to guard their hearts. It is seldom about the seemingly inability to respect and honor the rights of women – rights that should be protected whether we are wearing a full length skirt, a burka, or a string bikini.
Unfortunately, this is not a problem that is confined to one geographical location or political ideology. This problem is so pervasive across race, culture, geography, religion, political affiliation, age, and probably a host of other demographics because sexual desire is a very human need. As we long for air, water, food, and shelter, our bodies also crave sexual intimacy. Unlike other human desires, however, sex is the only need that we cannot meet on our own – it requires the consent of a willing partner in order to be able to make it happen. For this reason, we cannot attend to sexual desire the way that we attend to other desires – if we approach sex from only a needs based perspective, we will run the risk of violating the needs of women in order to accommodate the sexual desire of men.
In my honest assessment, the longer we focus on how we satisfy the needs of men, we miss something and continue to harm women. We must recognize that masturbation as a solution to sexual assault still overwhelmingly focuses on meeting the needs of men, and assumes that women cannot be safe without attending to those desires. But what if we focused on women’s safety and wellness as the central issue here? What if we thought about how to make sure that women’s rights to safety, self autonomy, and consent are upheld? What if we valued our stories and believed our experiences, instead of dismissing the sins committed against us a locker room banter among men who are just being boys? And then what if we championed and supported women of color to implement those changes throughout all levels of decisionmaking throughout our society instead of supporting leaders who will undoubtedly hold up the status quo?
When it comes to sexual desire, I also want us to understand that in many societies, the emotional range of men has often been limited. Rather than expressing the full range of emotions available to the human family, men are often socialized to express emotions that align with strength and power, which include anger and sexual desire. And yet the emotional stunting does not give space for men to express the multiplicity of responses that actually exist when they are triggered and/or aroused. What would it look like to foster an environment where men are given the permission to access other emotions, without having their manhood called into question for expressing emotions that have been are typically (though wrongly) attributed to femininity?
A Final Word
My intent here is not to punish men, leave men out to dry, or throw men under the bus. Instead, I want to force a different conversation than what we are currently having. Sure, it is pretty idealistic. And yet, everything we see and experience is the actualization of an idea that someone brought to bear on society. In our generation, we can have the courage and ingenuity to create a society where sexual assault and harassment is not the norm. We can have the vision to imagine a world where women are not forced to manage men’s emotions and sexual desires. With our words, we can institute an environment where men and women can be in authentic, trusting relationships with each other without the threat of sexual violence looming in the background. All it takes is a people brave enough to take the conversation where it has not been before and hold it there until change happens.
Also, I get that this is a hard topic for many of us in the church to discuss, seeing that masturbation has long been seen as a taboo or that which should never be spoken about, as with all topics that talk about sex. Somehow we believers lose our ever loving minds as soon as we start talking about sex and revert back to our weird prepubescent selves when it is discussed. And yet, I believe this is where the problem lies within the church. Because we don’t talk about it, we subsequently won’t talk about what healthy sexual relationships look like, how to establish (and respect) boundaries in relationships, and what to do when those boundaries are broken. As a result, way too many women bear the guilt and shame of things that are perpetrated against them instead of seeking support from a loving, faith community.
If the church wants to be a part of the solution in regards to sexual assault and harassment, this is where I recommend we start. I don’t recommend that we start sanctioning masturbation, because it won’t get us any closer to addressing rape culture in our society.