Hi Coach Sam,
I stumbled upon your blog tonight while doing some research after a conversation with my … son.
Tonight my son tearfully confessed to me that he has been masturbating…, with the exception of the last six months, when he has "gotten it under control and made himself stop." He told me that he was doing it because it helped him relieve stress. But he also said that no matter how hard he tries, or what good things he does, he always has this awful feeling hanging over him that he is "bad."
I reacted by hugging him and expressing my unconditional love. I told him that in most cultures besides our LDS one, teenage masturbation is considered completely normal and healthy. I expressed my inner confusion between feeling that it is normal, and wanting to obey what the church tells us is morally clean. I felt that it was a bonding conversation between the two of us.
I value my son's trust and will not tell a soul unless he gives me permission.
What should I do? I want to help my son out of this overwhelming guilt and help him find ways to relieve stress (because he says he does not want to masturbate anymore.). But I don't feel like I am well enough equipped to do everything he might need. This is a big deal; it will influence the way he feels about sex forever, and his self-esteem is being severely hurt by the strict rules the church has placed on his sexuality.
Any thoughts you have on this would be greatly appreciated.
Thanks for your question, Concerned.
I’m glad your son trusted you enough to come forward and talk to you about such an intimately personal thing. I think you’re right not to violate that trust. At his age, finding someone he can discuss such a sensitive topic is very difficult and fragile. At this point, if it wasn’t for that trust in you, he may feel his only other option would be worldly resources.
I’m including a number of resources that go into greater detail on specific areas. You could use these resources to plan Family Home Evening lessons, or simply make your son aware of them so he can review them himself – whatever you feel works best for your situation.
I’m not sure from your email if he had seen his bishop or not. It sounds like he is making a valiant effort to repent, but if he still has overhanging guilt for this, he may not have confessed this to the Bishop. Because it is a moral transgression, he won’t feel spiritually free from it until he gives it to the bishop[i]. In addition to what tools I will share with you below, his bishop may also have some loving guidance he can give to your son, and bishops are required to hold such confessions in confidence.
He has a desire to repent, which is always the best direction to go, and it may require repenting several times before he can fully overcome the habit. However, it seems you are both struggling with the ‘why’.
This is very common. We as an LDS culture don’t talk enough with our children about sex. The world is more than willing to talk about sex, so the messages we receive can be somewhat lopsided and confusing at times.
I also hear in talking with members that many blame the Church for their guilt; that the Church’s rules are too strict, and feel that they have to leave the Church to get away from guilt. At the same time, they don’t want to leave. Either they have a testimony, or they just don’t want to break ties with their social group or family circle or traditions.
Either way, they may still be searching for the ‘why’ of keeping the Lord’s law of chastity.
When we blame the Church, we’re shooting the messenger…because that’s all the organization of the Church is. They relay the message that God is trying to get through to us, and sometimes people blame the Church when they feel it’s too hard, or their self-esteem is suffering because they feel they can’t stop sinning or live up to what they think are the Lord’s expectations.
They want someone to tell them they are okay just as they are, and whatever they want to do will be “acceptable” in the end. Lehi experienced this in Jerusalem[ii], and with his sons Laman and Lemuel[iii]. Abinadi suffered death before he would retract the words God told him to say to Noah and his priests[iv]. Samuel the Lamanite experienced this resistance. Most prophets, old and new, have experienced this phenomenon.[v]
It’s all a distraction. The problem of low self-esteem, or feeling ‘bad’ for sinning, is literally in our heads. It’s in our cultural perspective, not in the doctrine. Why is this?
It’s not the Church, but the Lord, that lays down the standards we live by. [vi] Many people misunderstand that the Church is not “anti-sex”, but the Lord has given guidelines that will allow us to not only have happy sexual relationships, but have them for eternity.[vii]
Sex is healthy, appropriate and even expected, but only in a legal and lawful heterosexual marriage situation. There is no other condition the Lord accepts as appropriate for sexual stimulation of any kind.[viii]
Your letter contains beliefs that both you and your son are laboring under, that I do not find supported by Church doctrine. They are beliefs that you may have picked up from myths existing within the wider culture. Your son’s belief that he is ‘bad’, and that he feels guilty even after repenting for his sins is one of those beliefs. He may also believe that he is flawed for having made a mistake and that flaw can’t be repaired. He may be telling himself that he’s blown it, and maybe he shouldn’t even try anymore.
I’m assuming this, of course, but I’ve heard similar beliefs like the one you shared in your email from others that run along similar lines.
Help your son understand that he is human. Being human means having powerful sexual desires. Making mistakes can sometimes happen as he learns how to govern those powerful emotions and appetites.
Also help him to understand that his body is not his enemy. It is his companion that he will walk with for eternity[ix]. The principles of the gospel teach us how to walk in harmony with our bodies, so that we can receive joy from our physical experiences without causing damage. It’s similar to building a fire. Fire is only our enemy when we use it incorrectly. If we use fire in the right place and in the right way, it has a multitude of benefits for us.
If someone in their youth accidentally burned down their house, wouldn’t it be foolish for them to say “I will never go anywhere near fire ever again?” It would be more productive for that person to learn from their mistake and learn how to use fire properly and in a way that could benefit others instead of harm them. Yet, many cling to the narrow frame belief of all or nothing.
Sexual desires are among the most powerful emotions available to men and women, and the secular world would have us believe that men are weak creatures incapable of exercising sexual self-control. If we hold onto their narrow frame, we would believe that self-control is not possible so why fight it?
Perfection in every facet of your life is not possible in mortality. If it were, those of us who were perfect would no longer need the gospel or the Atonement.
He can be grateful that his mistakes are small, and that he’s still sensitive enough to the Spirit to feel and acknowledge the correcting hand of chastisement (which is a very good thing).[x] Those who strive to avoid those guilt feelings for their sins put themselves beyond the reach of the influence of the Spirit, and are prone to make greater and greater mistakes over time.
He has to learn to say “no” to his body now when it wants to do immoral things. If he can’t say “no” now, he likely won’t have the resistance to say “no” after he gets married and greater moral temptations come. And, as you and I both know, those temptations come.
I would advise you to teach him (or continue to teach him) about repentance and the Atonement.[xi]
Teach him how to repent.[xii] He’s already taken some of the first steps (felt the sorrow, and discontinued the practice).
He needs to read the scriptures and review recent Conference talks regularly, so he can receive counsel and guidance from the Lord for his situation. He needs to continue living the gospel, so that he is worthy to have the Spirit in his life. He needs to eliminate from his life those things that are triggering his habit. He needs to confess this to his bishop if he has not already to remove any spiritual hooks that the adversary has in him.
He may fall back, and have to repent over and over again, before he finds the strength to stop completely. Some sins, especially those that are habits, are like that. Relapses aren’t a reason for giving up, or beating yourself up for your weakness. They’re a chance to evaluate what happened, perhaps figure out why the relapse occurred, and take steps to prevent a similar situation in the future.[xiii]
Darren Hardy, who wrote a book entitled The Compound Effect, teaches that it can sometimes take up to 300 relapses to break a bad habit and create a new one.
Continuing to repent is sanctifying. If he is wise, he will repent, every day, for the rest of his life, of one small thing or another. We all must.[xiv]
Is this a reason to feel bad about ourselves, that we sometimes can’t repent just once and be done with it ? Absolutely not. This is how we journey from one place to another. This is how we follow the gospel path, and how we learn and grow in our sexuality as well.[xv]
The Savior made his Atonement for us, so that we could repent in the first place. We are, in a very literal sense, giving our weaknesses to Him to carry when we repent. Even though we make mistakes, we are of infinite worth to God. The Savior helps us carry our heaviest burdens in this life, so that we can continue forward in our progression and have freedom from spiritual torment despite our mistakes and weaknesses. [xvi]
You, his mother, appear to have a limiting belief as well. It appears your belief is that the Lord has given us the law of chastity, but you don’t yet quite understand why you live it. Part of you believes what the world says, that masturbation is a completely normal and universal human practice, with no ramifications whatsoever. Part of you wants to do what the Lord says is right, but it sounds like you’re still on the level of ‘I do it because God says to do it’.
That’s not a bad level to be on, but it’s not the strongest position to come from in teaching your children the difference between what is sacred, and what is profane or unholy. Children really want to know the WHY. What is the practical application of this? What are the consequences if I do – and if the consequences are weak or optional, why shouldn’t I try it? Why is chastity so important when I want to experience these feelings so bad? Masturbation doesn’t involve anyone else. How could it possibly hurt anyone else?
Following the world’s counsel in this case would be an utter disaster, both for you and for your son. The world avoids applying any concept of what is sacred and what is profane. They don’t acknowledge how our sexual choices as singles can affect our future relationships.
The reason the world teaches that masturbation is normal and healthy is because they look only at the physical plane. On a physical level, nothing bad happens to your body. There are even a few studies here and there that show some physical benefits – lowered stress, a way of learning what you like and don’t like sexually, etc. This is particularly true when you first begin masturbating.
The world does not easily acknowledge what they cannot see with their physical eyes. The drawbacks of masturbation are primarily psychotropic, habitual, emotional and spiritual. Even if they never fully manifest as physical problems, masturbation will absolutely manifest in emotional and spiritual difficulties. Sometimes problems will manifest on a physical level as well, especially if the habit becomes particularly entrenched.
When we masturbate as a single person, we are creating a neural pathway in our brains. Every ejaculation [xvii] floods the brain with dopamine and other chemicals, which throw a hundred more tiny strands together and create a stronger neural pathway. Every time we repeat the behavior and release these reward chemicals in our brain, those pathways grow stronger and stronger.[xviii]
The brain is a very sophisticated organic computer. We can literally ‘program’ ourselves to repeat a certain behavior, until the habit becomes so strong that it reaches down into our subconscious mind and becomes part of our bodies’ autonomic systems (the part that controls systems we don’t even think about, like breathing and digestion).
The subconscious mind is more powerful than our conscious mind. We don’t have to think about when to breathe, or make our hearts beat. Once a habit becomes a habitual subconscious response, we’ve lost control of a portion of our agency. We may want to quit, but our minds and bodies go on automatic pilot and repeat the behavior every time we are triggered to do it.
I’ve had many people tell me “I kept telling myself I don’t want to do it and I will never do it again, but then found myself masturbating all the while telling myself I don’t want to be doing this.”
The body gains strength over the spirit through this practice, and this can then lead to greater sexual sins, including the use of profane sexual materials, or masturbating in public places, or experimentation with others outside of marriage,[xix] when not repented of early.
In addition, masturbation separates us from God, and makes us unworthy to have the Holy Ghost (another consequence not physically manifest), which is why those young men and women who have this habit are not allowed to serve full-time missions for the Church. If a missionary can’t master his body in this way, he can’t have the Lord’s Spirit, and if he doesn’t have the Spirit, he can’t effectively teach investigators.
I have first-hand experience of this from my own mission. When the Spirit is not there, things don’t flow. You just stumble and struggle through a lesson. I’ve seen elders run to the mission president to confess because the weight of that burden was so great they would gladly face the potential humiliation just to be free from the weight of their transgression. Many were sent home in dishonor, and did it gladly just to feel the peace of the Spirit once again. I would spare your son from this by encouraging him to make it his goal to rid his life of masturbation now.
Virginity is a very precious thing. Not enough people realize how fragile and critical our first sexual experience is. We understand in part how powerful it is, but not fully. When a person has their first sexual experience, the brain associates sex with all of the individual’s feeling, surroundings and context.
It’s a lot like a baby bird, seeing its mother for the first time and imprinting on the mother. The bird will imprint as its mother the first living thing it sees when it is born. Sometimes the bird imprints on another kind of animal, or even a human, and then it will associate that animal or human with ‘mother’.
The sexual part of our brain does the same. The hippocampus does not discriminate between what is right or wrong or ideal or between what is real or imaginary[xx]. If we have sex outside of marriage (this includes masturbation), our brains take mental pictures of everything around us and associates the surroundings and context as ‘sex’. Your son’s masturbation was programming his brain to associate ‘sex’, not with ‘marriage’, not with ‘love’, not with ‘wife’, but with his hand.[xxi]
Masturbation is not necessary to either life or health. No one has ever died from a failure to ejaculate. For a sexual relationship to be healthy, it is optimal when a husband’s body is accustomed to using his wife’s vagina instead of his hand to have sex. [xxii]
This habit can interfere with the process of a person finding a boyfriend or girlfriend, or a husband or wife. When they do marry, if their masturbation habit is strong, they may find themselves unable to sexually perform properly with their spouse, or find themselves preferring masturbation to sexual intercourse. At this point, the habit can prevent a relationship from thriving.
Masturbation, especially in relationship with profane erotica, can make it difficult to establish a healthy sexual relationship with a live person, and can even result in eventual erectile dysfunction. [xxiii]
Masturbation itself, at its best, can only be a hollow shadow of actual intercourse. It only stimulates a small part of your physical body, while the rest of you (the whole body is a sexual organ) remains untouched and unfulfilled- sexually starving. It results in a few notes of ejaculation, but not the full symphony of orgasm with the person you love, who is committed to you body and soul for an eternal journey.
For that, we must be married in the way the Lord approves AND live according to gospel principles in our homes. No other combination of sexual lifestyles or practices creates that same experience. Masturbation is a cheap and temporary trade-off, and we lose the greater reward when we make that indulgence.[xxiv]
The Bible tells the story of Esau and Jacob. Esau came home hungry one day, and told his brother he would trade his birthright for a small bowl of food right now. How many of us are like this sexually? How many of us trade away our chance to be with our spouse for eternity, in perfected physical bodies, and to have our eternal increase as the sands of the sea, for a few minutes of immoral mortal pleasure right now? [xxv]
That doesn’t mean we should never masturbate, ever, under any circumstances. Mutual masturbation (two people stimulating each other’s genitals) is an acceptable foreplay practice in marriage - for those who enjoy it - but not an acceptable practice for people who are single.
When singles masturbate, they use up their sexual and moral strength, leaving little remaining for their future spouse. It’s a selfish activity. It’s an activity done purely for personal gratification, which does not help us to become more like our Father in Heaven. It does not serve anyone else, and does not build a relationship with anyone except ourselves.[xxvi] That kind of relationship often leads to an individual hating themselves.
I have compiled some tips to help him deal with stress without masturbating. This is the advice I successfully used as a youth and it has also helped my own boys:
- Encourage him to realize what he’s doing when he masturbates – bonding to his hand instead of his future spouse – spending his sexual energy and moral confidence before he’s married – creating sexual problems that will possibly rob himself and his future bride of a happy and fulfilling sex life.
- Encourage him to cut down on TV and Internet time. Watching videos or Netflix is better than streaming cable – he’ll have more control over what he watches. It will help keep him from being bombarded constantly with sexual images.
- Each tiny suggestion or flash of sex from TV, music or any media causes an explosion of sexual response chemicals in the brain and urges the body’s reproductive system to react, whether we’re consciously aware this is happening or not. The control center (or decision-making center of our brain) takes 2.5 seconds (each hit) to decide not to act on the stimuli and recover from the stimuli physiologically. If you’re getting a lot of suggestions or flashes, recovery time takes longer and longer, until the brain and body take over and simply respond to sexual stimuli as they’re programmed to do. If you’re masturbating, the body will react in this manner. Keep away from sexually suggestive material when you’re single.[xxvii]
- If he’s in his head a lot or has a lot of free time on his hands, tell him to get into his body on a more regular basis so it can express some of that sexual energy constructively. Find some physical work to do that he enjoys- doing chores, working a part-time job, working out, doing sports, or doing service projects for others. Stay busy.
- Read and live the guidelines in the For The Strength of Youth – especially not talking or joking with friends about sexual things (again, remember the 2.5 seconds of recovery for each stimuli he encounters…)
- Fasting is particularly good for those times he may feel out of control. It’s a great, quick way to weaken the body’s hold on the spirit, and reassert the spirit’s dominance. This has been proven to help male missionaries (who have had a masturbation problem before their mission) to not masturbate on their mission. They were able to not only go two years without it, but broke the habit altogether.
- It would be good for him to spend time with the missionaries, if he’s getting close to the age of service himself. The Spirit they carry with them will strengthen his resolve to follow the Lord.
- Help him find ways to change his focus when he finds himself dwelling on sexual thoughts - hymn singing, cold showers….he’ll need to experiment and find techniques that work for him. He could make a note in a journal of what worked and what didn’t.
- Every time he manages to head off a relapse, have him celebrate his successes in moving toward self-control. Perhaps he could count the days (or months) he’s able to keep himself under control, until it’s been months and months and even years. It usually takes about 6 months going cold turkey to break the habit.
- (for you, Mom) The parents’ home should (ideally) be a temple and refuge the children can feel safe to escape from the influences of the world. You, however, are having sex, and he is not. He is liable to be more sensitive to such influences than you or your husband, so enlist his help. If something comes in the house that causes him to struggle, have your son tell you, so you can take steps to make home feel like a safe place again.
The Lord gave us the gift of sex, and He has the right to put requirements on it. Ultimately, He wants to know He can trust us to stay within the bounds He’s given us. When there’s no trust, there’s no blessing.[xxviii]
If he wants to go on a mission, he has to meet the requirements the Lord gives (not the Church – remember, the Church is only the messenger). If he wants a marriage that is truly happy, instead of one that only looks happy for the neighbors, he has to do what’s required to achieve that result.
If he wants to feel worthy to enter the temple, or worthy to receive eternal life, there are requirements to meet. No, he won’t be perfect, but perfection is not required…only consistent, honest effort. The Lord makes up for the rest, through the Atonement of Jesus Christ.[xxix]
Remember the goal, and the goal has to be his. If it’s yours or someone else’s, he’ll fail. If it’s his, he’ll succeed every time. Those the Lord can trust will be blessed with perfect relationships, in perfected bodies, and children – in short, exactly what the Father now enjoys. Those who can’t be trusted will lose that privilege for eternity.[xxx] They will be allowed to repent and return to the Father’s presence eventually, but they will lose a lot of what they could have had along the way.
A powerful example of this is in the story of the Prodigal Son. The son took his inheritance, and spent it until there was nothing left. Eventually he desired to come home, even if he could only be a servant – anything was better than the result he had created through his foolish actions.
The father rejoiced and welcomed the prodigal back into his presence, but the boy had already squandered his birthright. His was a repentance that came too late to fully overcome the natural consequences of his actions. He couldn’t fully recover what he had lost, but he was still welcomed home with joy. The oldest son on the other hand - the one who had been faithful all along - would inherit all his Father had. [xxxi]
Does that mean it’s too late for your son to repent and receive this promise someday? Are his sins of such a nature that natural consequences will prevent him from full repentance and a full restoration of eternal blessings? Of course not, he’s still alive. His sin is still very small. He wants to change. There’s every reason to rejoice in his situation.
You could tell him you love him and that repentance isn’t a scary thing, or a reason to feel ashamed. The Lord pleads with us to do it and do it daily. Encourage him to repent of all his small sins every day, and he’ll win the prize he’s seeking. That’s what we all should do. [xxxii]
Teach him to do what the Lord requires in this regard.[xxxiii]
May I also suggest speaking about sex in a positive context? Let him know that sex is awesome and that he will be allowed to have sex and in lots of different ways with his wife. He just needs to know that in order for it to be fulfilling, joyful and lasting it needs to be in marriage. If these are not your feelings, you will need to explore why that is, and think about what you can do to improve your situation for him.
Please pray about what I’ve suggested, so that you can know for yourself how to apply any or all of this for your situation. I can only offer suggestions…ultimately the stewardship of your son belongs to you and your husband. I wish your family every happiness in the future, and if you have any other questions, I will always do my best to help however I can.
LDS Marital Intimacy Coach
[i] Kimball, Spencer W., President Kimball Speaks Out On Morality, Oct. 1980, LDS General Conference
[ii] 1 Ne. 1:20
[iii] 1 Ne. 16: 37-38
[iv] Mosiah 12:26-30 & Mosiah 17: 6-12
[v] 1 Ne. 16: 1-4
[vi] D&C 1:38
[vii] D&C 130:1-4
[viii] “The means by which mortal life is created is divinely appointed. “The first commandment … God gave to Adam and Eve pertained to their potential for parenthood as husband and wife” (Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2010, 129). The commandment to multiply and replenish the earth remains in force today. Thus, marriage between a man and a woman is the authorized channel through which premortal spirits enter mortality. Complete sexual abstinence before marriage and total fidelity within marriage protect the sanctity of this sacred channel.” – David Bednar, “We Believe in Being Chaste”, Ensign, May 2013.
[ix] Alma 40:23
[x] Heb. 12:6
[xi] D&C 19
[xiii] “The Savior Wants to Forgive, Elder Craig Cardon, April 2013 Conference, http://www.lds.org/general-conference/2013/04/the-savior-wants-to-forgive?lang=eng&media=video#watch=video
[xiv] The Divine Gift of Repentance, Elder D. Todd Christofferson, Oct 2011 Conference, http://www.lds.org/general-conference/2011/10/the-divine-gift-of-repentance?lang=eng
[xv] A Matter of a Few Degrees, Elder Dieter Uchtdorf, April 2008 Conference, http://www.lds.org/general-conference/2008/04/a-matter-of-a-few-degrees?lang=eng
[xvi] The Atonement, Boyd K. Packer, October 2012 Conference; http://www.lds.org/general-conference/2012/10/the-atonement
[xvii] I’m speaking of both men and women here – both can experience a sexual release which is often mistaken as an orgasm. It is an ejaculation, which is a different process that creates a different response in the brain and body.
[xviii] A good book to read in this regard, with some fascinating case studies, is The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.
[xix] Zahedi, Caveh, I Am A Sex Addict, IFC Films, 2006
[xx] Glenn, David, Beginner To Advanced NLP Hypnotherapy Psychology, Amazon Digital Services, Inc., Jan,30, 2013
[xxi] Another Christian marriage counselor I recommend to people, Mark Gungor, has this to say about masturbation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EN_oPBU4NMY
[xxii] For additional information on lust and masturbation, counselor Mark Gungor expounds on these topics on his 9/16/2013 podcast for further information - adults only show: http://www.markgungorshow.com/show/tag/masturbation
[xxiii] A TED talk called ‘The Great Porn Experiment’ by Gary Wilson speaks more to the issues that can arise from excessive masturbation, particularly when used with profane erotica: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wSF82AwSDiU
[xxiv] Gungor, Mark, Mark Gungor Show, Sept, 30,2013, http://www.markgungorshow.com/?powerpress_pinw=7603-videopodcast
[xxv] Continue in Patience, Dieter Uchtdorf, April 2010 Conference, http://www.lds.org/general-conference/2010/04/continue-in-patience?lang=eng
[xxvi]Zaragoza, Sam, LDS Marriage Bed: Sexual Relationship With Yourself, http://ldsmarriagebed.blogspot.com/2013/06/lds-doctrine-or-cultural-myth-sexual.html?zx=c756ab7386424570
[xxvii] Griskevicius, Vladas – University of Minnesota, The Science of Lust, Incubator, Discovery Communications LLC, 13, Feb, 2011
[xxviii] D&C 82:10
[xxix] Matthew 11:28
[xxx] Doctrine & Covenants 84
[xxxi] Luke 15: 11 – 32
[xxxii] Alma 34:32
[xxxiii] We Believe in Being Chaste, David Bednar, April 2013 Conference, http://www.lds.org/general-conference/2013/04/we-believe-in-being-chaste?lang=eng&media=video#watch=video