So the question for Christian ethics is not, “Is masturbation sinful?” It’s, “What could possibly be wrong with it?”
Now, this is the best-case scenario we tend to believe about masturbation, though many times the habit becomes compulsive and tied up into the exploitative porn industry—which are compounding issues on their own.
But for masturbation itself? I approach the issue from two perspectives. First, I have my own experience: I’m an artsy, celibate convert; I’ve masturbated since childhood; and I’ve never been able to give up this habit for more than a couple months at a time. The other perspective comes out of my faith as a Roman Catholic. Catholic teaching offers what seems to be a compelling argument against masturbation, but ultimately my ethics are rooted in my relationship with Jesus and his bride, the church. No Christian is left alone with her reason and experience; she is also given the church, which nurtures us with Communion and teaches us to follow Jesus.
In this sense, Christianity is an erotic religion, in that it compels our longing for and contact with the Other. Our bodies are gifts given to us by God, and we give them to him and to others. We are not meant to keep them for ourselves. The sexual union of lovers shows an image and prophecy of our union with God. Sex is to prayer as masturbation is to comforting self-justifications.
Masturbation is the use of sexual urges, and sexual ecstasy, for the self alone. (I’m here talking only about masturbation by yourself, not touching yourself as part of sex with your spouse.) Instead of our urge driving us to pour ourselves out for others—and to accept all the hard, weird, disappointing realities of sex and marriage—we seek to satisfy our urge on our own terms. Ecstasy becomes something we achieve by and for ourselves.
In Christian tradition, we are given two ways to accept and live out our sexuality. Both occur in the context of relationship. Marital sex places us in union and relationship in a fairly obvious way. Continence—refraining from all sex if you are unmarried, what a lot of people casually call “celibacy”—is the other. This is the way I try to live out.
In this form of sexuality, we may sublimate our sexual urges, transforming them into forms of love such as prayer, service to others, artistry, friendship. Or we may seek to sacrifice these urges, pouring them out over the feet of the Crucified. Either way, our sexuality is a gift we give to God and to those he places in our lives, both neighbor and stranger. It is not for ourselves. The ecstasy on the face of Bernini’s Teresa is the mark not of solitary pleasure but of contact with her Lord.
The ballet-horror movie Black Swan captured this poetic meaning of the body brilliantly. A ballerina escapes her anguished reality in lustful fantasy and masturbation, where she can achieve orgasm—attaining ecstatic release without ever giving up control. A more sympathetic portrayal comes in the recent movie The Babadook, where an overwhelmed, widowed mother is about to use her vibrator to fall asleep when she’s interrupted by her son. Here, the movie’s use of masturbation is more ambiguous; the scene underscores the woman’s loneliness and exhaustion. But the overall arc of the film is about the widow’s attempt to avoid the grieving she must do. Masturbation, then, is a part of her attempt to escape the life she has been given.