marriage bed symbol

marriage bed symbol

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

MASTURBATION: What Is The Correct Definition?

One of my favorite apostles, Elder Richard G. Scott, passed away today. In my youth, his words guided me through many challenges with morality. As a missionary in Washington D.C., I had the opportunity to thank him for that. I’d like to dedicate this article to him.

While studying for my next test in my marriage and family textbook, I received some new insights on masturbation. I felt it might be helpful to share what I found.

Definitions mean a lot to me as an adult, because as a youth in the church, we were fed a lot of terminology. Words such as ‘wholesome’, ‘worthy’, ‘morality’, ‘impure’, ‘unholy’, ‘unnatural’, ‘masturbation’, etc… were thrown around as though we (the youth) would just know what they meant.

From an LDS cultural perspective, it was pretty unclear to me what exactly constituted masturbation and why we needed to avoid it outside of marriage. It was treated as such a taboo topic  that discussing it aloud was inappropriate. In my household, the topic was something to be breathed in hushed tones and behind closed doors.

It was stressed on us to avoid it, but never discussed if it was ever appropriate in marriage. Even though in marriage, it can play an acceptable role in a husband and wife’s sacred intimate relationship.

What also mystified me were those people, both in and out of the Church, that felt a need to justify masturbation as a ‘natural’ and harmless practice. This grew more puzzling after I had a chance to read and learn from marriage counselors and therapists about the harmful long-term mental, emotional, spiritual, and relationship effects created by solo masturbation and autoeroticism exercised by the unmarried. See my article "Solo Masturbation, A Sexual Relationship?"

In this discussion, to hopefully shed some light on where some of these cultural perspectives come from, I’d like to share with you some of the definitions I found and allow you to decide which definition will best help you in your marriage and your parental tasks of teaching your children about the law of chastity.

In 1987, Dr. Israel Meizner made the claim in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology that he observed fetus’ masturbating with ultrasound. After closer examination, I learned that he observed a fetus gripping its penis or randomly touching the vulva.

I thought about that and questioned “How can you justify that as “masturbation” and then also use this to justify children, teens and singles masturbating?”  

Relying on science as the source of “truth”, many others – including members of the Church – have found themselves frustrated by this, especially when it came time to address it with their children.

While I was studying this week, I came across a passage in my textbook that helped me realize the answer may lie in our definitions.

I have a strong testimony that God the Father and His son Jesus Christ are the only source of truth. A truth with a solid and eternal foundation that I know I can rely on. Whatever I study in college, I purposefully run through the filter and scrutinizing lens of the gospel.

What I discovered was what was currently taught as scientific truth only remains truth until another degree seeker disproves it or alters the definition. For this reason, if it conflicts with the teachings of the gospel, it’s sifted as chaff and the remaining kernels of knowledge that build and edify eternal families remain.

One justification for masturbation not being a sin is that the word ‘masturbation’ is not found in the Bible. That is true. Masturbation is not found in the Bible or any of our standard works.

The closest we come is the suggestion of it in the word “lasciviousness” and ‘licentiousness’. Both pertain to the pre-occupation with sex and immoral sexual behavior. Our understanding of masturbation comes from modern-day revelation and teachings, which other churches do not have.

So a common justification for masturbation being a “sin” is the story of Onan . With closer examination of the account, it’s discovered that the sin of Onan had nothing to do with masturbation (as we define it) but rather with breaking his marital covenants and obligations by denying children to his wife and deceased brother.

So when it came to masturbation, this is what I did find.

The term masturbation originated in the nineteenth century. It’s believed to have come from the Latin word masturbari, as a conjugation of the word manus, meaning hand, and the word stuprare, meaning to defile. The word ‘masturbate’ therefore means to “defile the hand” as its first definition. [i]

While I was studying my textbook, I came across this definition:

“Sexual self-pleasuring that involves some form of direct physical stimulation. It may or may not result in orgasm. Masturbation typically includes rubbing, stroking, fondling, squeezing, or otherwise stimulating the genitals. It can also be self-stimulation of other body parts, such as the breasts, the inner thighs, or the anus.”[ii]

I finally understood where Dr. Meizner (mentioned above) obtained his broadened justification for calling his fetus observations ‘masturbation’, because of this definition.

I found this ironic since both the Merriam Webster and Oxford dictionaries do not give this definition.

They define masturbation as:

 Erotic stimulation especially of one's own genital organs commonly resulting in orgasm and achieved by manual or other bodily contact exclusive of sexual intercourse, by instrumental manipulation, occasionally by sexual fantasies, or by various combinations of these agencies”[iii]


Stimulate one’s own genitals for sexual pleasure.” From the Oxford dictionary.[iv]

This led me to wonder what definition I could find at the Church website. This is the definition I found:

“…When the fluid and sperm fill the tubules and testes, they are automatically released or ejaculated. This usually happens during sleep and is called nocturnal emissions or “wet dreams.” Sexual dreams are not always present, but they can trigger a nocturnal emission or ejaculation. In either case this is not masturbation…

…masturbation is considered by many in the world to be the harmless expression of an instinctive sex drive…the prophets have condemned it as a sin throughout the ages and that they can choose not to do it.

Throughout childhood, boys and girls have touched their own genitals frequently to wash and to dress. This is a behavior that usually has the same meaning as keeping one’s feet warm in the winter, enjoying a swim on a hot day, or scratching an itch.

We ought to be friendly to our bodies and appreciate the body’s marvelous range of senses. This innocent touching is not the kind of behavior warned against by prophets through the ages.

The sin of masturbation occurs when a person stimulates his or her own sex organs for the purpose of sexual arousal. It is a perversion of the body’s passions. When we pervert these passions and intentionally use them for selfish, immoral purposes, we become carnal.”[v]

This definition is much narrower than Dr. Meizner’s or the definition found in my textbook.  This makes a spirit of the law allowance for washing, stroking, touching, gripping, or scratching our genitals (whether single or married) as not masturbation.

I also understand that when the Church leaders refer to self-stimulation for the purpose of arousing sexual feelings, they are speaking in the context of those who are unmarried. They have not referred to masturbation as being a sin when engaged in as part of the sacred sexual relationship between a husband and wife.

President Kimball, in his book The Miracle of Forgiveness, said this about masturbation:

“Most youth come into contact early with masturbation. Many would-be authorities declare that it is natural and acceptable, and frequently young men I interview cite these advocates to justify their practice of it.

To this we must respond that he world’s norms in many area – drinking, smoking, and sex experience generally to mention only a few – depart increasingly from God’s law. The Church has a different, higher norm.

Thus prophets anciently and today condemn masturbation. It induces feelings of guilt and shame. It is detrimental to spirituality. It indicates slavery to the flesh, not that mastery of it and the growth toward godhood which is the object of our mortal life.

Our modern prophet has indicated that no young man should be called on a mission who is not free from this practice…”[vi]

Boyd K. Packer, in his last talk in 2015, stated, “The only legitimate, authorized expression of the powers of procreation is between husband and wife, a man and a woman, who have been legally and lawfully married. Anything other than this violates the commandments of God. Do not yield to the awful temptations of the adversary, for every debt of transgression must be paid “till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing” (Matthew 5:26).” [vii]

I hope you will find the opportunity to discuss this issue as husband and wife. Hopefully it will help to put each other’s minds at ease about our bodies, and how to discuss this issue with our children when the opportunity arises.

[ii] Benokraitis, Nijoke V., Marriages and Families, Pearson Education Inc., 2005, 182
[iii] Merriam Webster Online Dictionary, 2015, 1,

[iv] Oxford Online Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 2015,1,

[v] LDS.ORG., A Parent’s Guide, 1985, 34-43 (emphasis added)
[vi] Kimball, Spencer W., The Miracle of Forgiveness, Bookcraft,1969, 77
 [vii]  Packer, Boyd K. The Plan of Happiness. Ensign. May 2015.