New Catholic Encyclopedia


Masturbation is the act or practice of stimulating the external sexual organs by oneself. An explanation of the nature of masturbation, its morality, and suggestions for the pastoral diagnosis and treatment of special problems connected with it will be proposed.

Nature. Masturbation, also called self-abuse, self-pollution, ipsation, and onanism, is the stimulation of the external sexual organs to a point of climax or orgasm by oneself, by movements of the hand or other physical contacts, or by sexually stimulating pictures or imaginations (psychic masturbation), or by a combination of physical and psychic stimulation. When such stimulation takes place during sleep, it is called a nocturnal pollution, Sexual studies show that some experience of masturbation is extremely common among young males at and after the age of puberty, and fairly common among girls and women. Such studies rarely distinguish between voluntary and involuntary acts.

Morality. It has been the constant and clear teaching of the Church from principles found in Holy Scripture that masturbation is a serious sin that will keep one from heaven (e.g., 1 Cor. 6:10). As is also clear from the teaching of the Church as well as from reason, this refers to fully deliberate acts of masturbation. In assigning a reason for such a serious prohibition, the Church teaches that the sexual function is meant by God to serve primarily for the begetting of children. Therefore, any deliberate activation of it outside the proper state of marriage is seriously inordinate and sinful. Within marriage such stimulation is lawful only when it serves in some way to prepare for or to complete a natural act of marital intercourse.

As in the case of any objectively and gravely sinful matter, for a person to be formally guilty of a mortal sin of masturbation, his act must be a fully deliberate choice of what he fully realizes is seriously evil. If the act is performed with only partial realization or only partial choice of the will, the person is guilty of venial sin. If there is no free choice of the will, there is no guilt of sin at all, even if the person is aware of what he is doing. This is true even when a person foresees that sexual stimulation and even orgasm will result from some action that he is freely performing, provided that he does not intend the sexual stimulation but merely permits it, and that he has a sufficiently good reason for what he is doing. (See DOUBLE EFFECT, PRINCIPLE OF.) This has been the constant teaching of the Church through her theologians. Most theologians outside the Church agree basically with this teaching.

Non-Catholic psychiatrists and psychologists other nontheological writers, while considering as an abnormality the deliberate practice of masturbation in preference to other sexual activity, have often criticized theologians and religious teachers for making too much of what they label a natural and harmless practice of occasional masturbation for self-relief, especially on the part of adolescents and other unmarried persons. It is true that some religious teachers have gone to absurd and unscientific extremes in their efforts to discourage the young from such a practice. Such statements have included threats of insanity as resulting from masturbation. This is without scientific foundation. The only psychological illness that can result front masturbation is from irrational and excessive fears and guilt feelings arising from such warnings, especially when such fears and feelings are related by the young person to experiences beyond his voluntary control. On the other hand, compulsive forms of masturbation can be symptomatic of emotional and mental disturbances that stem from other sources.

The stress in the common Catholic teaching that, for the unmarried, all directly intended sexual stimulation is objectively grave matter, has led many to the false conclusion that whenever an unmarried person experiences sexual stimulation while awake, he is inevitably guilty of mortal sin. Such a conclusion overlooks the equally common teaching of the Church that a person incurs mortal guilt only when he has fully and deliberately chosen what he clearly realizes to be seriously wrong. Difficulties can arise in determining whether a particular act is fully deliberate or not. But even here there are certain guidelines especially applicable in this matter that may help to avoid the two extremes of considering all such experiences mortal sins or of declaring that there are never any mortal sins in this matter.

What takes place spontaneously during sleep cannot involve guilt. Furthermore, generally speaking, when one is in a sleepy state of just having wakened on trying to get to sleep, his acts will hardly be fully deliberate. There is a natural interplay of sexual stimulation and phantasm or imagination that can easily lead to spontaneous and involuntary actions by the process known to psychologists as ideomotion. Serious sin must always involve a fully deliberate choice of what one fully realizes to be seriously wrong. Such a choice not easily presumed to be that of anyone who wants to love and serve God.

On the other hand, the sexual instinct is one of man's strongest instincts, and the pleasure connected with its activation is one of the keenest of sensual pleasures. For this reason, many normal persons may at times choose this form of self-gratification when other more natural forms are not available without difficulty or unwanted involvement. Such a deliberate choice is always a mortal sin.

Special Problems. Because of the intense sensual pleasure and the strong drive of the sexual instinct, youths often become involved in a habit of seeking their pleasure before they realize its nature and its sinfulness. When they do realize its malice, the force of habit may already have become strong enough to lead to performance of actions without full deliberation.

At times, repressed conflicts of various kinds trigger a compulsive form of masturbation, so that, while aware of what he is doing, a person may be more or less irresistibly impelled to masturbate. If the impulse is truly irresistible, there is no moral fault; and in any case of truly neurotic compulsion serious fault is rare,

Often most distressing for the psychologically normal person is the experience of the process of stimulation, phantasm, and release during a period of relaxation, weariness. or depression, especially when he trying to get to sleep. There is good reason to believe that some persons eventually, build up a subconscious resistance to a seminal emission during sleep because of the physical repugnance of the results in the bedclothing, much in the same way that a resistance builds up against urinating in sleep. The buildup of resistance is much slower in this matter since the physiological pressure is much less. Once such a resistance has built up, emissions will no longer take place durin g sleep. If the process does begin, he wakes up. Since the pressure is not great, he may be able to get back to sleep without further difficulty. But the same pressure will continue to accumulate. It will exert its influence on causing associated phantasms and involuntary motions at times when other muscular and mental activity is at its lowest, especially at the time of trying to get to sleep, or immediately after awakening. It can also exert influence when a person is very tired, depressed, or relaxed. even while reading a book, especially one that does not require or absorb much attention, or while he is doing monotonous manual work at a table or desk. Sometimes, too, accidental external or internal stimuli will promote reactions, such as bedclothes that are too heavy, underclothing that is too tight, constipation, rectal or bladder pressure.

Pastoral Diagnosis. One of the most difficult and, at times, trying problems connected with this matter, both for the subject and for his confessor or counselor, is that of diagnosis. If pastoral treatment is to be attempted in this matter at all, it is very important that the problem be properly diagnosed. Generally speaking, it would be better not to attempt any treatment than to propose the wrong treatment. To treat involuntary experiences as a habit of deliberate sin can lead the subject to despair, while to treat a deliberate sinner in the way suggested for involuntary experiences could easily be taken as laxism and invitation to sin. To aid in diagnosis, some norms can be suggested, but these do not have the same guarantee of the teaching of the Church as the theological principles of morality.

An involuntary (or semivoluntary) experience of the type last described in the previous section can often cause a person with a delicate conscience to have feelings of guilt. He may confess such experiences simply as sins of masturbation. A confessor may discover this and help the penitent to assess his own actions more accurately, if he lets him realize that such actions can be semideliberate or involuntary as well as deliberate. Often just asking a penitent of delicate conscience whether such acts were fully deliberate, or only partly deliberate, or not deliberate at all, will help him to realize that his actions were not fully deliberate. Such a question might be prudently asked by confessor if the confession contains no other grave matter or evidence of gross negligence.

A fully deliberate choice to offend God in this matter will usually be recognized by a confessor without need of questioning if the penitent confesses other grave sins or indicates deliberate grave negligence in avoiding sinful occasions of sin. One who freely chooses to offend God for the pleasure of self-gratification in masturbation will probably be willing to do other actions against the law of God.

A truly neurotic compulsion will usually cause other symptoms of emotional disturbance that can lead one to suspect some emotional imbalance. This may be from a glaring inconsistency between the person's usual attitude of trying always to please God in all things and his seemingly deliberate setting up of a situation that leads to masturbation. Sincere sorrow immediately after an experience is suggested by some theologians as a fairly good sign that the action was not truly a fully voluntary choice. Constant obsession with sexual thoughts and imaginations by one who wants to love God is usually a sign of some underlying psychological conflict. An absence of any experience of pleasure from the act combined with a feeling of compulsion to perform it is another indication. Even extreme frequency with apparently genuine sorrow after each occurrence can be a significant indication.

These norms are not absolute guarantees of accuracy in a diagnosis, but they can help toward reasonable presumptions of guilt or innocence of formal mortal sin for the subject and for his confessor or counselor.

Pastoral Treatment. The main pastoral treatment for those who deliberately choose masturbation as a form of self-gratification consists mainly in spiritual motivation together with the use of the Sacraments, sacramentals, and prayer. Such is the treatment for overcoming any habit or temptation to serious sin. Instruction on the reasons for the divine laws of chastity may be helpful, but especially means that help to strengthen a determination to love God and to avoid what will offend Him are necessary. As a secondary help might be added the enlightened self-interest of avoiding punishment and meriting the eternal joy of heaven.

Force of a deliberately formed habit (whether innocently or guiltily formed) may be broken by applying the principles of the particular examen as propounded by St. Ignatius of Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises and by other spiritual writers. This will include positive efforts to avoid occasions, and especially unnecessary, external stimuli in the nature of books, pictures, talk, and the like, and to avoid daydreaming of anything even approaching what for the subject is a dangerous area, especially in the hours immediately before retiring. Combined with the spiritual helps of the Sacraments and prayer, these means should help to break the force of habit.

Persons with neurotic compulsions should get professional help from responsible doctors or psychologists. If this is too difficult for them, any counselor or confessor may try to help them by trying to get them to realize that they are suffering from some irrational sense of insecurity, inferiority, or guilt, resulting from some previous repressed experience, perhaps even in early childhood, They should be helped to build self-confidence, as well as confidence in the help of God. They should especially try to become interested in helping others and avoiding too much introspection (see McCormick and Von Gagern in bibliography).

Where the experience is rather of an involuntary emission, perhaps touched off by involuntary actions or phantasms, even when the subject is awake, he should be reassured that he is not guilty of grave sin and perhaps of no sin at all. To tell him that he can avoid even these involuntary experiences if he tries hard enough and uses supernatural means can cause severe anxiety and even despair, since he may not be able to avoid what is really involuntary. Drugs are not to be recommended for reducing normal sexual instincts, but only on advice of a physician when there seems to be excessive sexual sensitivity. Normal expectancy for some kind of involuntary emission by a sexually mature male without any other sexual outlet ranges from about once a month to about twice a week on an average. For women, there is not the same spontaneous pressure of sperm buildup, but for many the onset of menstruation can cause involuntary stimulation, as can other accidental causes, e.g., constipation or bladder pressure.

Theologians are agreed that while one must ordinarily offer positive resistance to temptations, one may omit such resistance for sufficient reasons, As a sufficient reason, they mention the need for rest or study: that one need not put off required rest nor interrupt legitimate study or work to fight positively for any long time against such involuntary motions and temptations. One cannot study or get to sleep while concentrating the mind on positive resistance to such motions or temptations. This does not mean that one may deliberately seek the physical release of masturbation either. But if an unintended process leads to an emission, there is no fault in such a case. This is true even when one foresees that such a release will take place. Even movements of the hand or body at such times can be reflex, involuntary actions.

Masturbation and Vocations. A true vocation to serve God in a virginal or celibate life will include reasonable grounds of assurance that the person will be able to observe a vow of chastity for life. Theologians in the past have often felt that this assurance would be sufficiently present if the candidate had avoided all external sins against chastity with another person, and if, in the matter of masturbation, he had avoided any deliberate acts of masturbation for a period of 6 months or a year before entering the seminary or novitiate or before taking any important step on the way to the priesthood or final vows. Modern theologians tend to believe that any fully deliberate acts of masturbation are a counterindication to a vocation to a fully dedicated service of God in religious or clerical life. Moreover, counterindications, at least until and unless removed by proper treatment, would be a neurotic compulsion or obsession in this matter, or extreme physiological sensitivity in sexual matters. Nocturnal emissions or involuntary emissions while awake are not counterindications if not connected with any of the former problems. Real doubts and serious scruples in these matters should be cleared up in the case of religious and clerical candidates.

Masturbation and Medical Treatments. Deliberate masturbation can never be used or advised as a remedy or help in fighting mental or physical disease or abnormality. This would be to use an immoral means to achieve a good end, a practice condemned by Holy Scripture (Rom. 3:8) and the teaching of the Church. Pius XII expressly condemned any such activity for psychotherapeutical purposes (addresses of Sept. 13, 1952, and April 13, 1953), and the Holy Office denied the licitness of masturbation to obtain a semen specimen for the detection and cure of gonorrhea (reply of Aug. 2, 1929).

Bibliography: J. C. FORD and G. KELLY, Contemporary Moral Theology (Westminster, Md. 1958) v. 1. G. HAGMAIER and R. W. GLEASON, Counselling the Catholic (New York 1959). H. NOLDIN, Summa theologiae moralis, ed. A. SCHMITT and G. HEINZEL, (Innsbruck 1954- ) v.1, De principiis (31st ed.) 329; Complementum: De castitate. ed. G. HEINZEL, (35th ed. 1955) 29-41, 48-50. A. VERMEERSCH, De castitate et de vitiis contrariis: Tractatus doctrinalis et moralis (2d ed. Rome 1921). L. Wouters, Tractatus dogmatico-moralis de virtute castitatis et de vitiis oppositis (rev. ed. Bruges 1932). For the treatment of neurotic masturbation, F. E. VON GAGERN, The Problem of Onanism, tr. M. BOOTH (Westminster, Md. 1955) R. A. MCCORMICK, "Adolescent Masturbation: Toward a Sound Sexuality," HomPastRev 60 (1959-60) 527-540. On methods of questioning to diagnose differentially between involuntary; semivoluntary and fully voluntary masturbation. J. J. FARRAHER, "Questioning on Self-Abuse," Priest 16.1 (1960) 475-477; "Notes on Moral Theology," ThSt 21 (1960) 597-599. For psychological and physiological information. but not recommended for general reading. H. ELLIS, Studies in the Psychology of Sex, 4 v. (New York 1936) v. 1. 1. A. C. KINSEY et al, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male ( Philadelphia 1948); Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (Philadelphia 1953).