May is National Masturbation Month. I am posting this a little early, because I just found out that the Mormon Church has excommunicated sex therapist and educator, Natasha Helfer (formerly Parker), for her professional activities which included teaching “that masturbation is part of a normative sexual development journey”. (Other issues the church had with her included her opposition to treating pornography as an addiction and her support of LGBT equality.)
Natasha is a friend and colleague and someone who I greatly admire. Both of us used to write at the interfaith site, Patheos, her on the Mormon channel as “The Mormon Therapist”, and me on the Pagan channel as “The Allergic Pagan”. Natasha caught my attention when, in 2012, she wrote an essay entitled, “My Official Stance on Masturbation”. It was this essay which launched Natasha into the the limelight as a Mormon who was not afraid to challenge the church on its harmful teachings about sex and gender.
I used to be Mormon, and my wife (who is also a therapist) still is. At the time Natasha posted the article, my children were still young and attending the Mormon church with my wife. I very was concerned about the sexual messaging they were receiving there.
Shame and guilt from masturbation colored my entire experience of Mormon and Christianity. It’s possible I might still be Christian today were it not for the years of real emotional self-abuse I put myself through over the issue of perceived “self-abuse”(masturbation). I was literally moved to tears when I read Natasha’s statement, made in response to Mormon adolescents being taught that masturbation was a sin close to murder in seriousness:
“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.”— Natasha Helfer, “My Official Stance on Masturbation”
This is much bigger than the Mormon church. I have personal theory that Christianity would not exist if it were not for St. Paul’s own struggle with his own sexuality. See Romans 7:15-24. Hugo Schwyzer has written in The Atlantic that “Masturbation is at the Root of the Culture Wars.” He explains that you can more or less predict where people will come down on issues like abortion and gay marriage if you ask them how they feel about masturbation.
“Masturbation is almost certainly the most common human sexual practice. Though statistics about private sexual behavior vary widely, there’s little dispute that the vast majority of both men and women will masturbate over the course of their lifetimes. Perhaps nothing so universal is discussed with greater embarrassment (or denied with greater frequency).”— Hugo Schwyzer, “Masturbation is at the Root of the Culture Wars”
Schwyzer gives a little history of the repression of masturbation:
- National Masturbation Month was first organized by the pioneering sex shop Good Vibrations in 1995 to protest the firing of Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders who had dared suggest that teaching young people to masturbate could have a place in sex education.
- In the middle of the 19th century, health reformers like Sylvester Graham (of the cracker) and John Harvey Kellogg (of the cereal) warned against the feminizing and enervating effects of male masturbation, describing it not as a sin but as a habit that could rob boys of their vital life force.
- In the early 1880s, Joseph Mortimer Granville patented the first vibrator as a means of quickly inducing therapeutic “paroxysms” (orgasms) as a cure for hysteria in female patients. But Granville wanted those orgasms to take place only under safe medical supervision, thus maintaining medical (and male) control over female pleasure.
Schwyzer explains the issue is largely about male power and female independence:
“The 19th century’s secularized anxiety about masturbation was rooted in a fearful reaction to women’s growing demands for political and economic power. Simply put, doctors and moralists feared that masturbation made men more dependent—and women less so.”— Hugo Schwyzer, “Masturbation is at the Root of the Culture Wars”
It’s not surprising then that the Mormon church would see Natash Helfer, a woman sex educator, as such a threat.
Today, the issue comes down to the questions of who our bodies belong to and what the purpose of sex is: Is sex solely about reproduction and about connecting with another person? Or is it also about “delighting in something that first and foremost, belongs to us as individuals?” Conservatives come down on one side, liberals on the other. In The Ethical Slut, Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy argue that “the fundamental sexual unit is one person; adding more people to that unit may be intimate, fun, and companionable, but it does not complete anybody.” Masturbation matters, they say, not just because it helps you learn what you want sexually from a partner, but because it helps bring “your locus of control into yourself.”
The Mormon Church is not alone condemning masturbation. Our whole culture is sick over this issue. Natasha Helfer has been helping us all move in the direction of a more healthy relationship with our bodies. Today, the Mormon church tried to silence her for it. But I am confident that, like so many brave women sex educators before her, Natasha will continue her sacred work. Thank you Natasha!