—Fransico Ferrer Guardia
"The Music Man" is one of the few musicals I actually liked as a kid. As a budding musician, the song "76 Trombones" became very appealing to me. The story itself is about a man who travels the country scamming innocent people out of their money--a classic traveling salesman and con-artist. This is a common theme in various pieces of literature and film about that era. Remember, this was a time when science was not very widely accepted or understood, so anyone who dangled a cure for common or particularly serious ailments could very easily find someone willing to bite. Consider the following clip from "Sweeny Todd":
The claims offered by the young boy that the elixir could stimulate the growth of hair follicles is very appealing to balding older men. If it were true it is very plain to see the benefits of using it. But what if someone offers a cure for something that is not as apparent as baldness? Well, then the salesman would need to convince the audience that the ailment exists before they can proscribe a cure for it. This could be something seeming harmless, like a mole. But if that salesman is successful in associating fear with that mole, they can convince some that they need his elixir. This is precisely what conservative Christianity has done with masturbation.
When discussing pornography before, I briefly touched on masturbation at the end and mentioned a quote by Former Attorney General Joycelyn Elders, in which she advocated teaching people to use masturbation as a way of controlling sexual desires and STDs, etc. I also mentioned that she was subsequently fired from her position as Attorney General for advocating such a view and condemning advocacy and government funding of "abstinence only" sex education programs.
The apparent taboo in America surrounding masturbation most assuredly stems from the rise of conservative Christianity in the early 1900s. This was before pornography was wide-spread and Christian pastors needed something to blame for the rise of [insert anything Pastors don't like] in society. Scapegoating, it seems, is quite popular among religious folks; compound this with the innate desire to protect our children and pastors can get us to hate just about anything--even natural desires.
If you think about it, condemning something as natural and commonplace as masturbation is the perfect con job. Everyone has a desire for sexual release--this is the sex drive. If a church tells their congregants that such a drive is immoral, or that it leads to immorality, then they might instill in the minds of their followers a constant need to repent, thereby making the church absolutely necessary. It's brilliant. It's like an elixir which only cures baldness for a couple of days at a time, thus perpetuating the need to continually buy more bottles.
Aside from the obvious moral implications of such a farce, there are more practical concerns. What if your audience can't afford your elixir? What if it doesn't work for even a couple days at a time? Applying this reasoning to the condemnation of masturbation, what if someone cannot stop doing it? The message from the churches is that they are sinning and according to the Bible as well as the Book of Mormon, sexual sins are almost as egregious and damning as murder. This creates a cycle of guilt and shame associated with something natural, and, at least for some, nearly impossible to stop completely. Most people will eventually relapse, and when they do, they have to turn to the church to sell them more elixir.
So, let's examine what the Mormon church has to say about masturbation and compare it to what actual professionals say. According to lds.org (an official Mormon website), this is what the Mormon church has to say about masturbation [emphasis added]:
"One example: masturbation is considered by many in the world to be the harmless expression of an instinctive sex drive. Teach your children that 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.
"Masturbation is not physically necessary. There is already a way by which the male system relieves excessive spermatic fluid quite regularly through the nocturnal emission or wet dream. Monthly menstrual flow expels the female’s egg and cleanses the womb. For both sexes, physical or emotional tensions can be released by vigorous activity. Thus, in a biological sense, masturbation for either gender is not necessary. In a gospel sense, it is a sin: “Masturbation, a rather common indiscretion, is not approved of the Lord nor of His Church regardless of what may have been said by others whose ‘norms’ are lower. Latter-day Saints are urged to avoid this practice” (Spencer W. Kimball, Love Versus Lust, Brigham Young University Speeches of the Year [Provo, 5 Jan. 1965], p. 22)."
Here is a health site which advocates healthy masturbation: "For many young people, masturbation is an opportunity for private sexual exploration before deciding to engage is sexual activity with another person. It is also considered the safest form of sex in the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, including human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)."
An article from Men's Health outlines 5 positive benefits from masturbation, and says the following about cancer (mildly graphic): "It prevents cancer. A 2003 Australian study found that men who ejaculated more than five times a week were a third less likely to develop prostate cancer. Disease-causing toxins build up in your urogenital tract and when you rub one out, you flush the bad guys out of your system, says Brame."
It is clear that the church sees masturbation as sinful, which to an active Mormon means more than a doctor advocating it. But because of the shame associated with masturbation and the cycle of guilt this causes, more Mormons are speaking out against the Church's official stance on the matter. Several Mormon health professionals have been particularly helpful in generating awareness of the problem.
Here is one I happened upon today which both condemns the shame culture the Mormon church has created, and addresses the apparent conflict she faces as a mental health professional with an obligation to treat patients according to the very best science, yet is told by her church that it is wrong. She says:
"Through the past 15 years, I have spoken to numerous bishops, stake presidents, relief society presidents, and high councilmen attempting to understand an official stance on this matter. What I have come to understand is the answers I received largely depended on which leader you approach and what their past experience has been with leaders of their own. This type of non-directive nuance on such an important matter is not okay with me. Especially when within the last 6 months I’ve known of two LDS adolescent boys referred to the addictions program offered by the church because they masturbate 1-3 times a week and three LDS adolescent clients tell me they believe their masturbatory behavior to be a sin next to murder!!! If this is what we are teaching our youth – then we are emotionally abusing them. And it needs to stop. I will no longer be a compliant witness to this type of psychological assault. I know my language is strong and I intend it to be. The numerous stories I could share about masturbatory shame run in the thousands and I find it unnecessary, harmful and life altering.
"...Sexual shaming has had a long history within religious paradigms – with disastrous results for many. I am no longer willing to participate in any way, shape or form with such shaming."
The Mormon church isn't offering a cure for a real disease. As with reparative therapy for homosexuality, they are condemning a natural urge and claiming they have the cure. No matter how much shame they dump on you, don't buy the snake oil.