“Science isn’t there to declare truth
but to explain in some fashion the world around us.” – Unknown
My hope with this piece is to provide you information and professional perspective that builds on my Mormons and Masturbation Part I blog post.
My mission and purpose is to empower parents and partners to become the experts and authorities in their own lives and within their own families. This means you will not find a “right answer” in this post. Instead, I’ll provide you with information and perspectives that help you further discover what the right answers are for you.
Additionally, this post was written specifically to help parents navigating the topic of masturbation with their children. It doesn’t explicitly address how to navigate masturbation for adults (18+) in all relationship types including marriage, divorce and adult singles. However, developing your own authority and sexual agency is a principle that is relevant over one’s entire life.
Your developing sexuality is with you from the moment you were born and will grow, evolve, and mature just like every other living and breathing thing is this world.
The American Pediatric Association has spent decades studying the sexual behaviors in children to determine what’s normal and common and what’s rarely normal. They categorize the following behaviors by child as very normal:
- Touching/masturbating genitals in public/private
- Viewing/touching peer or new sibling genitals
- Showing genitals to peers
- Standing/sitting too close
- Tries to view peer/adult nudity
- Behaviors are transient, few, and distractible
When observed via ultrasound, babies in utero have been seen sucking their thumbs, stroking their faces, poking their eyes, touching their genitals and exploring their bodies. It’s normal to figure out what all the holes and crevices are! It’s great for a baby to move and stretch and feel the way their body responds. It’s also very comforting to suck those fingers or hold those toes. Touching their genitals can also be very soothing and calming and is a normal, healthy part of development.
Your sexuality is an inherent, God-given part of who you are from the moment you are born to the moment you die. Understanding your sexuality and learning to express and manage it is an important part of developing healthy sexual agency.
In a study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior college students’ perceptions and feelings toward masturbation were influenced by:
- Learning what masturbation was, and how to do it
- Recognizing the contradiction of stigma and taboo with this pleasurable act and
- Coming to terms with stigma and pleasure.
Nearly every participant in the study learned about masturbation from media and peers instead of from their parents.
Look at the media and the grossly harmful, mixed sexual messages they send to our kids.
You no longer get to choose what your children aren’t going to learn or hear about masturbation! What you do get to do is influence how and what they learn about it and help shape their attitudes toward it.
Masturbation is one of those taboo topics. It always has a shameful and sinful stigma attached to it.
While The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has made statements against masturbation in decades past, currently, there is no such explicit statement in the Strength of Youth manual. The manual contains a topic titled “Sexual Purity,” but there is no statement specifically discussing masturbation.
I’m not here to interpret their intentions rather to share this observation.
In my experience as a sex therapist, many worried parents approach me with the concern that masturbation will awaken “inappropriate” sexual feelings in their children.
They worry that masturbation will lead their children to develop an out-of-control sexual behavior. It becomes a source of fear and anxiety rather than an opportunity to provide education, guidance and support.
This well-intentioned fear around a child indulging these feelings, and having it become an “addictive” behavior that snowballs out of control is not clinically accurate.
Arousal and desire exist within in our children as a part of being human. God made them a part of who we are.
Desire is simply a natural sexual feeling, and masturbation is an action many people take as a response to feeling desire. It’s important to not project our adult sexuality onto our children. For younger children, masturbation is about comfort and pleasure and may or may not lead to orgasm.
Masturbation doesn’t awaken sexual feelings. They’re already there.
Sexual feelings are a part of your child’s life, and you WANT them to be there. Because when the circumstances are in line with their values, they can express their feelings fully without shame in one of the greatest acts of love we are capable of as God’s children.
I have listened to countless men and women share their experiences of growing up and feeling shame for masturbating. They battled endlessly, as they tried to find ways to not take action on their sexual feelings… and then experienced crushing shameful feelings when they weren’t perfect.
For many, they felt that sexuality was something to be endured.,
But the gospel of Jesus Christ teaches that your sexuality is not something to be endured! It’s something to be cared for, tended to, and integrated as a part of your life.
As an articles titled, “Intimacy is sacred and beautiful from LDS.org, it states, “He gave us the capacity for physical intimacy so that we could strengthen and grow our eternal families. He intends for sex to be a beautiful, powerful, and joyful part of our lives—not something evil or corrupt.”
Shifting our perspective from sexuality being something we do and merely a set of behaviors to sexuality being who we are including our feelings, our expression, our identity, our desires, our relationships and connections can help us see masturbation as something developmentally normal within the bigger picture of our evolving sexuality.
There is a line in my patriarchal blessing that states my time on earth as a “great earth school.” This aligns with the gospel principle of eternal progression. We are here on earth to learn and grow and to understand what it is like to have a physical body. We must learn about and develop stewardship over our bodies and how our bodies, minds, emotions and spiritual selves all intersect.
Adam S. Miller speaks to this idea of learning about and understanding our developing sexuality in his book, “Letters To A Young Mormon.”
“With respect to your own body, you must practice. You must be patient with its immaturity because you are still growing. And you must have compassion for its weakness because you are still mortal. Learning to be chaste is like learning to play the piano. There is only one way to learn: you must practice the music without already knowing how to play. Similarly, you must care for your hunger without already knowing its strength, its character, or how to direct it. You have no choice but to learn as you go. Life has never before been lived in your body.
Teaching your kids to care for their own hunger will teach them how to care for the body of the person they’ll one day love.
Teach them to watch their hunger closely. See how, like the ocean, it has a rhythm with tides that come in and out and waves that break. See how it gets tangled up with the stories they tell themselves and with the fantasies you entertain. See how it gets knotted together with all kinds of hopes and shames and fears. Notice how, when the tide of their hunger goes out, this doesn’t suddenly mean they’re chaste. And notice how, when the tide comes in, this doesn’t suddenly mean that they aren’t.”
All my life, I have been taught that the biggest outcome from the great discussion in heaven, was agency. Agency is the foundation of your ability to learn, grow, develop and learn to become like Gods and Goddesses.
President Marion G. Romney said, “Free agency means the freedom and power to choose and act. Next to life itself, it is man’s most precious inheritance.” (Ensign, May 1976, p. 20)
Man’s most precious inheritance next to life itself? It’s that important!
Agency – making choices and learning from their consequences (both good and bad – is how we develop our internal compass. It’s how we develop personal integrity.
To me this feels contrary to our core doctrine of agency.
Yet, what I have seen regarding sexuality within our church, is little to no agency around sexuality. Most of our sexuality is already defined for us. The rules are established and it’s our job to simply follow the rules, which feels contrary to the core belief of our doctrine.
At first glance the idea of “sexual agency” might feel like a sexual free-for-all… but when you really examine the principle of agency, it’s not a free-for-all at all, but an opportunity to develop ourselves, and hone our internal compass which INCLUDES our sexuality.
God’s gift of agency isn’t meant to include everything BUT your sexuality. It’s everything including our sexuality.
Teaching your children how to manage their bodies can be one of the biggest gifts you can give them in order to help them develop a healthy sexual relationship with themselves and others over the course of their life.
Think of all the other ways you help your kids develop. You teach them things like honesty, sharing, and kindness… and you do it over their entire lives starting from toddlers until they move out.
Let’s use sharing as an example. We know that our babies and toddlers aren’t born knowing how to share. It’s something they will learn. We will anticipate that they will steal a toy from a little friend, or hold on to their toys out-of-reach when friends come to play. So we work with them, and help them learn how to share.
The lesson of sharing gets more nuanced and complex as they get older. Because they have been taught the principle of sharing since they were little, they have the capacity to build on their foundation and increase their skills and understanding.
If you want your kids to develop a nuanced understanding and dynamic skill set with regards to their sexuality, you need to take the same approach you do with sharing.
Can you imagine if you didn’t introduce the idea of sharing to your children until they were 12 years old? Can you imagine how hard it would be for them to actually share if they had spent their not sharing?
Here’s another example of a socially understood and expected behavior: nose picking.
Consider how we socialize our children around picking their noses.
We know that when our babies are born, one of the first parts of their body they will discover is their nose.
Parents expect their cute baby to pick their nose. It might not be your favorite behavior, but all kids do it. You anticipate it and it expect and keep your fingers crossed that they will grow out of it.
Because we expect our kids to pick their nose and we know it’s normal, we then start teaching our kids the social norms likes using a tissue, picking their nose in the bathroom, not eating boogers. (Please don’t me you encourage them to eat their boogers…)
For example, a parent may say to an older child, “Pick while in the bathroom, wipe on a tissue, wash your hands, don’t eat them, and if you compulsively pick you can get bloody noses, scabs, internal pimples and so on.
We help them learn how to manage their nose-picking in a proactive way.
Now, what if kids were taught that picking their nose was bad and that they were to never pick their nose — ever. However, the day they are married, they still can’t pick their own nose, but their partner can. Can you imagine then having to teach your partner how to pick your nose? Scratch it? How would you know what felt pleasurable vs. function (don’t you think a good nose pick can feel so good?)
Also, is it realistic to think that our children are never going to pick or blow their noses?
By making nose-picking taboo, or forbidden, your kids might go to great lengths to conceal their nose-picking seek it out in unhealthy ways. Despite them hearing and “knowing” it is bad, their experience with it might feel good leaving them confused and caught up in a cycle of guilt and shame.
It’s amazing how many people will laugh at the ridiculousness of this nose-picking example. And yet, it is remarkably similar to our own sexuality and the agency we do or not allow ourselves and others over our own bodies.
I use this comparison because nose picking has a “gross factor” attached to it… and in that same breath it is something we all do. We approach nose picking so differently and proactively because we see it as a normal thing all humans do.
Your job as a parent is to help your children navigate this period of bodily extremes in a way that leads them to healthy sexuality.
We teach them, no, plead with them to wear deodorant and take more frequent showers because they start to stink.
We teach girls how to manage their periods.
We help them to develop good eating habits.
Why would we ignore the crucial area of sexuality and think that somehow they will learn this on their own?
By offering guidance and education rather than avoiding the topic, you are saying, “I support you in developing an internal sense of confidence and knowledge about your body that will allow you to have the skills, values, and understanding needed to navigate the inevitable exciting and at times overwhelming sexual experiences you will have.
As a parent, you have a HUGE opportunity to shape your children’s attitudes and feelings about sexuality. You are the stewards over your family. You get to decide what, when and how you will teach your children about sexuality and masturbation. You get to decide what your values and vision is for your family and children. You get to decide what informs your values and your decisions and seek personal revelation.
I urge you to take the time to consider what type of relationship you want your children to cultivate with their God-given sexuality, with their God-given body, and with their future eternal companion. What principles and values do you need to teach them now so that they can have the type of positive, uplifting, and connecting sexual experiences in their future that our Father in Heaven desires for them?
By taking the time to wrestle with these questions now, and proactively guiding your children, you will be saving your children years of time spent untangling from shame, confusion, and unnecessary guilt.