In the early spring of 2003, I decided to give up masturbation for Lent. Laugh if you will, but I wanted more than anything to rid myself of an unhealthy impulse. The protracted guilt that hovered over me days after each sinful “impulse” was, naturally, a powerful impetus.
Three weeks later, however, I conceded defeat.
As I regained some perspective on the experience, wondering whether the guilt was wholly generated in my mind, or whether it had serious moral grounding, I reached for pen and paper. Writing was (and still is) the only way thoughts can truly reveal themselves to me. Until they are written down in some form, they remain adumbrations, and hardly influential in my reasoning. Unfortunately, regardless of their indistinct form, they always hold a powerful feeling. In this instance, it was guilt.
But why should I have felt guilty for wanting to masturbate? I remember asking my mother once if it was a sin. She told me no in a very gentle way, impressed, I think, that I was concerned with sexuality morality at such a young age (I was 13 or so, as I recall). Still, with a constant struggle between faith and an often-deemed aberrant sexuality, it was hard to let anything related to sex and moral rectitude go so easily. It needed further exploration.
I have since written often (this blog is evidence) of my many thoughts and trials with sexuality. But as I have grown older and my desires have matured and developed, I have begun to recognize the many gradations and definitions of sexual desire. It is, contrary to what many would like to believe, not so black and white.
My friend often tells me, “Sex should be simple.” Indeed, it should. If we’re talking about the natural instinct, borne in all human creatures, that desires physical gratification through sexual acts. The simplest definition of sex must then be the fulfillment of these acts between two people. Forgetting the religious/moral debates about unnatural sexualities, we can see that sex is an understandable consummation, not of love or emotion, but of the need to gratify human lust.
It can be said (and has, I believe) that religion has fouled the simplicity of good, gratifying sex. Familiar only with the Christian tradition, I can attest that the Bible leaves one gravely in doubt of the neutrality of sex. If it’s a homosexual act, then there’s the question of loss of life through ejaculation to no end; procreation is not possible. If we’re talking about sex in relationship, it is one physical experience that can define how intimate two people are. If commitment and intimacy are formally shared between two people (i.e. marriage), then sex with someone else can be seen to sully the true intimacy between the couple. Sex is then inextricably linked to love, and often incorrectly stands for its genuineness. Committed sexual relationships are those that are clearly committed loving relationships. Right?
Not quite. I grew up believing (and still do, to a great extent) that sex is a sacred act. It is so not only because it has been framed by relationship in our world, but because it inherently unveils so much of our vulnerability. When we imagine sex, we imagine the most secret parts of the physical self being revealed to a partner—a definite risk, given our imperfections. If the sex is good, we assume that the person who desires us has seen past our flaws and recognizes a desirable being despite them. In this way, sex is a game of confidences and self-esteem.
But when the act of sex takes on such a weighty meaning, when it is always and irrevocably paired with higher standards of morality and faith, it becomes nearly impossible to call sex simple. How can such a consummation be simple when on it rests the questions of one’s moral rightness or moral turpitude, the depth of one’s faith, and integrity of one’s own soul. I may go too far in my attributions, but I hardly think so—I have seen this played out constantly in my life, and have struggled with it myself.
Should I pray an extra Our Father on afternoons when I succumb to the devil’s temptation (masturbation)? Does my fetish require a penance? Do I need to apologize for hormones that suddenly rage and drive my sexual interest in a hundred directions? My friend says, for the most part, no. I say yes.
But that’s the most curious part about sex to begin with. How much of our viewpoint is subjective? Sex is relative in enjoyment, function, practice, practicality, and purpose. What is truly condemnable to one person is another’s cup of tea. And let’s not take the religious route and call that moral relativism. I haven’t even linked the two. Yes, there are standards of morality. But individual conditions are so different it’s difficult to apply the same standards across the board. My friend tells me I need to explore my sexual self, that I’ve never allowed my desire to flourish—that I’ve never let sex be simple.
I, on the other hand, cannot divorce sex from its sacred nature. I’ve never been able to see sex as a beautiful and complicated component to a rich relationship while recognizing that it can also exist in its greatest simplicity: lust. Neither one is it to be commended or punished. They exist as two manifestations of an amazing physical characteristic of humankind. Why should we force there to be only one?
I’m not sure if there’s a conclusion to all of this. Suffice it to say sex is more diverse and colorful than I originally envisioned. And in my growing maturity, I have begun to look back on the very simple nature of a wonderful human capacity. Why not explore it? Safely, of course, but with the understanding that there are places for sex that is simple and there are places for sex that is many-dimensional and ridiculously complicated.
The next step: removing the guilt complex.