Why Feel Guilty?

Warning: This column contains blatant, repeated use of the “M” word
2000-07-13

So, I’m sitting about a United Airlines seven-something-seven, on the ground at Denver International Airport, two-and-a-half-hours and one missed connection after I was supposed to depart, wondering if I’ll arrive at my destination in time to give my talks tomorrow. (Someone please remind me which part of this is supposed to be “glamorous.”) And as much as I’d like to spend this entire column pontificating on the state of airline unions today, I have other ground to cover.

Next to me on the seat lies last month’s Glamour magazine. I read it to find out what all of you are reading, so I can de-bunk it. (I also read it to find out which hot fall fashion trends I can’t live without, but that’s another column.) This particular issue features, believe it or not , an entire article about sex! (Actually, it features very few articles that aren't about sex.) In this particular article, a book called The Social Organization of Sex is quoted as saying that 27 percent of men and eight percent of women masturbate at least once a week. I have no idea how accurate this is, of course, and I definitely don’t want to know how they actually gained the information.

The interesting thing, however, is that this very same Glamour article, in the very next paragraph, adds that fully 50% of these people feel guilty after masturbating. This particular fact creates an absolute conundrum to the world of Glamour, which is inhabited by people who can’t imagine anything sexual as guilt-provoking. They are represented in the article by a woman named Betty Dodson, Ph.D., sexologist and author of Sex for One (not on my “top ten read” list for this year -- or ever), who is quoted as saying, “I can’t understand why [they feel guilty], since masturbation is the best way to learn about partnered sex.”

I think it’s time Betty and I had a little talk.

I’m sure it’s tough to imagine, in Betty-land, why masturbation would provoke guilt. It’s sexual. It’s pleasurable. And it certainly doesn’t seem to be hurting anybody. Guilt comes from the repression of past generations, doesn’t it? It’s based in all of those old wives’ tales about how you’d go blind or grow hair on your palms or whatever. Society threw all of that off years ago. Now masturbation is recognized as a good thing. Is it possible that so many people still haven’t heard the message? What now -- public service announcements?

Here’s the “problem” for Betty. When they “threw off” the old morality, they forgot to throw off human nature itself. They can spend all day telling us that masturbation is normal and healthy and natural and will bring your blood pressure down and your stock portfolio up and make your life perfect or whatever. They still can’t change the fact that something about it feels very wrong, and that our hearts and our deepest selves rebel against it. That’s where the feelings of guilt come from. They come from the inside, not the outside.

As I’ve said several million times before, sex has a meaning. It speaks a language. That language is a language of permanent commitment. What’s more, it’s a language between two people, a man and a woman. It’s communication, a message sent to one person and received by the other. It says “I give myself to you forever, to be at your side and look out for what is best for you.”

And you can’t give yourself to yourself.

Masturbation is an abuse of the language of sexuality. It’s an attempt to communicate in this incredibly intimate way -- with nobody. That’s what makes it a very lonely, very frustrating activity. So yeah, people feel so badly afterward. On the deepest level, they know that they have abused this precious gift. They’ve attempted to change it from an intimate communication between two people into a selfish act of personal gratification.

Ironically, people are most tempted to the sin of masturbation when they’re feeling lonely. The complex human psycho-sexual nature understands that sex is communication, so the sex drive revs up when they’re most anxious to communicate, most anxious to give ourselves. And yet, afterward, they’re more aware than ever that they’re alone, and they’re generally more miserable than ever.

The longer this goes on, unfortunately, the less able a person becomes to give himself to another in marital sex. The drive has been focused on self for so long that it’s difficult to re-focus. Conditioning has set in. Believe me, if you read my mail, you’d know it happens over and over. Husbands actually prefers masturbation to making love with their wives. Divorces follow. I’ve heard about more times than I care to recount. So, Betty, you’re not quite seeing the whole picture here. Masturbation is not the “best way to learn about partnered sex.” It’s the best way to turn our sexual drive from being other-focused to being self-focused. It’s the best way to guarantee that we won’t be able to be selfless and loving with our spouses in marriage. It’s the best way to mess up a marital sex life

The “partnered sex” Betty refers to is often nothing more than mutual selfishness -- two people out to gratify their own sexual urges. Masturbation may be a good way to learn about that. But if you want to learn about the best sex -- about the real satisfaction that comes from speaking the language of sexuality in it’s truest context, then the best practice is the practice of selflessness. Learn to put the sex drive under the control of the brain. Learn to resist the temptation to sexual gratification for the sake of sexual gratification. Learn to truly see the image and likeness of God in every person you meet, and especially in those to whom you’re sexually attracted.

That’s a recipe for good sex.




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