Tuesday, February 12, 2008

What's Wrong with What's "Normal"?

Thanks to the new Topical Index, some of my old posts are getting new attention. For example, an anonymous reader recently left the following comment in response to a post from last year on the sinfulness of masturbation:
That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard. Masturbation a sin? Not at all! It is perfectly normal behaviour, and everyone should learn about and enjoy their sexuality! And there is no need to go "confess" to anyone about it. You have done nothing wrong, it is normal behaviour. Use your own judgement people!!
Notice that this person basically has two reasons for approving of masturbation:
  1. it is "perfectly normal behavior"
  2. "everyone should learn about and enjoy their sexuality"
He ends with the implication that anyone who thinks that masturbation is sinful is simply not thinking for himself (cf. "Use your own judgment people!!"). He seems particularly adament on that last point. Let's disect what this person is saying.

As for his first argument, which he says twice, I think we need to first define what "normal" means. If by "normal" we mean "what most people do" then yes, masturbation is "normal." But, if by "normal" we mean "what all people are meant to do" then masturbation is not normal; it is in fact very abnormal. The account of mankind before the Fall gives us a clue as to what normal life is supposed to be.

When God made man and woman, He made them for each other, and the sexuality given to Adam and Eve was meant for the marital embrace, in which two become flesh in a fruitful union (cf. Gen 1:28; 2:18-25). Notice that it was not until they disobeyed God that their attention turned inward, they became objects to each other, and they were filled with shame (compare Gen 2:25 with 3:7,10-12; cf. JPII's "Theology of the Body", audiences #11-18). I posit that masturbation is systomatic of that turning inward and that objectifying of the opposite sex that infected human sexuality after the Fall.

Two do not become one in masturbation. It is not a gift of self to another to whom you are deeply committed. It is neither unitive nor fruitful. Basically, masturbation is none of the things that are supposed to characterize the normal sex act, as revealed by the Genesis account. Thus, by this standard, masturbation is not "normal."

Of course, even if masturbation is normal by the first definition ("what most people do"), that does not necessarily make it right. There are actions that many people do every day that are in fact wrong, such as lying or cursing or taking the Lord's name in vain. An action simply is not right if it happens to be "normal," at least by the common definition of the word "normal."

His second argument was that "everyone should learn about and enjoy their sexuality." To that I say AMEN! It is good to learn about ourselves as sexual beings, to know what it means to have certain sexual urges and how these urges and the actions that derive from them should be properly ordered. It is also good that sexual acts bring us enjoyment. That joy is what compels us to be fruitful as God commanded, and it confirms the marital embrace as the greatest act of love between two people, the act that brings unity to mankind and a taste of Trinitarian love.

But, learning about and enjoying our sexuality does not mean acting on every sexual impulse and having sex however and whenever we want. Our sexuality, which is a good, can be abused, as any good can. What was first a good can be used for evil if we do not use it as it was intended to be used. Masturbation is a misuse of a good, and is in fact "a grave moral disorder" (cf. CDF, Persona Humana, no. 9).

Finally, the implication was made that people who are of one mind with the Church in declaring masturbation to be sinful are not thinking for themselves or using their own judgment. Of course, I can't speak for anyone else, but I can assure you that my own condemnation of masturbation is neither robotic nor mindless or haphazard. I have actually considered this subject a great deal (since it is a problem with which many men struggle), and I hope that my response here is evidence of a very reasoned position on this matter. The Church's position simply makes sense, and Her stance against masturbation is actually one that leads to freedom, not oppression or bondage under the hands of some cold and prudish body of old men who don't know how to have any fun.

For more on human sexuality and masturbation, see the following resources:Blessed Mother, most pure....pray for us.
St. Joseph, her most chaste spouse....pray for us.

Pax Christi,


Anonymous said...

First, let me say that I respect that the goal here is to create good in the world and prevent bad. So we are aligned there, and I respect you for it. There is certainly an abundance of unhealthy sexuality in our society, and that is to be frowned upon. However, it doesn’t mean we have to throw the baby out with the bathwater, as it were.

To say we shouldn’t do it because it says so in book X on page Y avoids real analysis. In response to your post, I agree that masturbation is not “normal” simply because most people do it, nor is whatever many people do “normal” and acceptable simply by the fact that many are doing it. Many people do things which are abnormal and unhealthy behavior, and many people do things that are not acceptable. However, masturbation is in fact normal, and fully acceptable. In and of itself, it causes no harm.

Quite the contrary, masturbation helps you understand your sexuality better, instead of denying it. Being sexual in a healthy way is a normal part of life. Males and females are designed to be sexual, and to be attracted to each other. This is normal and what keeps us going as a species. But the notion that because it is what keeps us going as a species, therefore it cannot be used for anything but making another human, has no basis in anything real. You can either accept this in a healthy way, or fight it. I contend that it is unhealthy to suppress sexual feelings, or to pretend they aren’t there - and it seems there is ample evidence of this as you are likely aware.

You wrote “learning about and enjoying our sexuality does not mean acting on every sexual impulse and having sex however and whenever we want”. Agreed. Clearly this is not what I stated, nor does it have anything to do with masturbation. I think you will concur that masturbation is not “acting on every impulse and having sex however and whenever we want”. Masturbation is a single type of safe and enjoyable act with yourself, at an appropriate time and place, and is harmless.

The challenge with masturbation is not to strive to avoid it altogether. As many likely know, this is an exercise in futility. The challenge is to enjoy it responsibly, at appropriate time and place. This big thing you fear giving into, suddenly becomes no big deal when you realize and accept it is just a normal fun part of life.

I think the main reason many are afraid of saying masturbation is fine, is because they fear their own sexuality. Because they don’t know it, and don’t get to know it, they decide they better just suppress it altogether, because they are afraid of what lurks in that box, so to speak. They fear that recognizing their sexuality will lead to something bad. I content that it is impossible to deny it, and is worse to deny it than it is to learn about it and enjoy it responsibly.

Anonymous said...

Hi, different Anon here.

This may be a case of irreconcilable differences since I'm non-Christian and don't believe in the fall, but:

With humans it's very hard to discern intrinsic ("normal") behaviour from learned behaviour since all humans we know have an inseparable combination of both. Add the concept of a 'fallen' and 'unfallen' normal and things get even more complicated.

As such, I look to mankind's closest relative who shares 95-98% (depending how you count) of our DNA: the Chimpanzee.

Chimps engage in (and presumably enjoy) masturbation. It's not definitive, of course, but if that's normal behaviour for our closest relative, it seems likely that it's normal for us too.

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