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Michael Abrahams: Touch not thyself

Published:Monday | February 23, 2015 | 10:25 AMMichael Abrahams

Masturbation is a touchy subject. Pun intended.

I recently read an article about an elementary school in San Francisco giving out pamphlets to its students, aged five to eleven, warning them of the 'sins' of masturbation and abortion. Called 'The Examination of Conscience and Catholic Doctrine', the pamphlet asks questions such as "Did I perform impure acts by myself (masturbation), or with another (adultery, fornication or sodomy)?"

Pretty heavy stuff for pre-teens.
While I can understand arguments offered against the other above-mentioned activities based on Christian principles, the attitude of certain denominations on self-pleasure intrigues me, as the Bible is silent on the topic.

For example, Catholicism frowns on the concept of giving yourself a helping hand, and considers it to be a selfish act. The attitude of the Vatican regarding this activity is "Hell no!"  Maybe that should really be "Hell yes", as they regard it to be a 'mortal sin', which has the potential to send you downstairs to the basement furnace. And what exactly is a 'mortal sin'? "Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God's law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him (Catechism 1855). Sounds serious. During my Internet travels I also came across a photograph of a sign outside a Catholic church asking the question "Is touching yourself worth an eternity in Hell?"reinforcing how seriously they consider this offence to be. And all this time I thought that learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.

Seventh Day Adventists appear to be very humane. In addition to not eating pigs, shellfish and molluscs, they also do not believe in choking chickens or spanking monkeys either. According to Ellen G. White, one of the founders of the denomination, women who "self-abuse" could end up with, among other things, cancerous tumours, "inward decay of the head", insanity and, in some cases, death.
Thank God that research has not validated these claims, because if they were true, most of my female friends' heads would have imploded to the size of a gungo pea, and truckloads of them would have been carted off to Ward 21 at the University Hospital of the West Indies to be given antipsychotic drugs and chemotherapy. This sounds like something written by someone who hit their head. Wait a minute. Ellen G. White was actually hit in her head by a stone at age 9 years and remained in a coma for weeks. Hmmm...

Jehovah's Witnesses also forbid masturbation. If you peruse their literature you will see where it is described as "unclean", that it displays "greediness", and that it can lead to "sexual promiscuity" and "homosexuality". Engaging in the activity can be a reason for a person to be "withheld privileges". Seriously? Is anyone Awake in the Watchtower?

Mormons also reject the act. One of its 'prophets', Spencer W. Kimball wrote, "It is detrimental to spirituality. It indicates slavery to the flesh, not the mastery of it and the growth toward godhood which is the object of our mortal life". "Godhood." Sounds like something big and scary. I wonder if it has anything to do with "Godhead." But I digress.

The fact is that despite the fire and brimstone cast on the act, it is widely practised, and in some cases perfected. A study performed in the United States found 95 per cent of male and 89 per cent of female respondents admitting to have masturbated.

Psychologists consider masturbation to be a normal part of human development. Fetuses have been observed touching themselves in utero, although this is probably not deliberate, but by age three many children derive pleasure from touching their genitalia as they explore their bodies.
And there are benefits to self-pleasure. It can reduce stress, help sleep, reduce menstrual cramps, ease postmenopausal sex problems, and may decrease prostate cancer risk in men.
More importantly, rather than negatively affect your sex life with your partner, it often helps to make it better. Women who engage are more likely to be orgasmic during sexual intercourse, and this increases not only their satisfaction but their partner's as well. Masturbation is also a vital tool utilised in sex therapy for premature ejaculation and for anorgasmia in women, as well as a means of obtaining semen for assisted reproductive techniques. Also, your hand cannot give you an STI, impregnate you, secretly record you or stalk you.

Edicts and dogmas regarding human sexual behaviour are some of the ways in which religion can be harmful. Many of the religious leaders who confidently spout these declarations are self-appointed 'experts' but have little understanding of human sexuality, and their declarations are often hogwash that has been refuted by objective scientific research. For example, rather than being selfish, masturbation helps people to understand their bodies and, in doing so, communicate to their partners how best to please them. Also, there is absolutely no evidence that it leads to homosexuality or insanity.

Christianity places much importance on healthy marriages, and rightly so. But the irony is that teaching people that masturbation displeases God and can send them to Hell, induces guilt and shame, which can lead to sexual repression and sexual issues in marriage. These issues not uncommonly severely strain marital unions and can even contribute to divorce. Then, if that occurs, there can be a second wave of guilt if one "puts asunder" what "God had put together".

Like any other activity, if done in excess, masturbation can be harmful. If you perform it so frequently that you are no longer satisfied during sex, but only while alone, or if it interferes with your sleep, work or driving, (especially driving) you need to seek help. Also, if you find yourself doing it outside schools, it would be a good idea to present yourself at the nearest police station and stay there.

So, if you discover your children touching themselves, do not chastise or embarrass them or make them feel guilty in any way. And if you find your own hands drifting downward, do not feel ashamed. It is your body and you have every right to touch it. If you scorn it and shun it, how can you reasonably expect anyone else to enjoy it?

Michael Abrahams is a gynaecologist and obstetrician, comedian and poet. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and michabe_1999@hotmail.com, or tweet @mikeyabrahams.