Wednesday, November 17, 2010


*(If you know what the acronym M&P stands for, you're a real Mormon.)

I want to take a minute to comment on what the new LDS Church handbook says about masturbation and pornography (yes, M&P). What's most surprising is what's not said.


Masturbation is mentioned in only one place in the handbook and that is in an instruction to bishops and stake presidents about what does not warrant a Disciplinary Council. (The handbook refers to it with the archaic term "self-abuse.")

That's it.

Masturbation is not mentioned in the section of the handbook that describes the law of chastity. The chastity section includes language that prohibits "unholy, unnatural or impure practices." You might imagine that masturbation could be construed as one of these practices, but there's a bit of evidence against this interpretation. The very next sentence says that engaging in these practices will result in Church discipline, which is not the case with masturbation. Breaking the law of chastity appears to require more than one person in the room.

While there still is a strong LDS cultural prohibition against masturbation, we're seeing less emphasis from Church leadership. There's virtual silence on the subject of masturbation from the pulpit in General Conference. It seems as if it's evolving into a don't-ask-don't-tell situation.


Unlike masturbation, pornography has been a common topic of discourse in General Conference. Yet, from the handbook you wonder what the fuss is about. The handbook mentions pornography in exactly the same section as masturbation: it's in the list of issues that don't warrant a Disciplinary Council. Like masturbation, pornography is not mentioned in the section that defines standards for the law of chastity.

Pornography gets its own dedicated section in the handbook. However, this section mainly presents pornography using a medical metaphor: the use of pornography is seen as a kind of addiction. The language in the handbook focuses on counseling and treatment options; it contains contact numbers for LDS Social Services.


Frankly, I'm puzzled by what's going on here. I think the silence about masturbation is a sign that some kind of change is in the works, perhaps a movement toward the more mainstream view that masturbation is benign. The silence about masturbation seems at odds with the increasing rhetoric over the pulpit on the subject of pornography, rhetoric that is not backed up in the handbook by policy. Is it possible that pornography for the LDS hierarchy is more of a symbolic issue? I'm wondering if the fight against pornography is really a fight against cultural change and secularization. I don't have evidence for this conjecture, but it's an idea I'd like to explore further.

Do you have any thoughts on M&P and why the new handbook virtually omits them?


Invictus Pilgrim said...

Thanks, MoHoHawaii, for bringing this to our collective attention and for your insights. As a man, and as the father of two adolescent boys, these topics are very relevant to me and I appreciate knowing what the new handbook does and does not say.

alan said...

The silence about masturbation seems at odds with the increasing rhetoric over the pulpit on the subject of pornography.

A lot of people masturbate to the sexual images or feelings in their minds and never touch pornography. I can see how masturbation could increasingly be viewed as a natural expression of particularly teenage sexuality prior to marriage (as well as adult sexuality within marriage, since partners don't always have the same sex drive, or they also mutually masturbate, given the okay on non-procreative sex nowadays). The Church got a lot of flack from parents in the 1990s about their kids feeling awful for masturbating. Remember the Surgeon General under Clinton who was removed after she recommended that teenagers masturbate to relieve sexual tension, rather than have sex? Well, I'm sure Mormons were already rethinking the value of masturbation at that point.

I'm wondering if the fight against pornography is really a fight against cultural change and secularization.

I'm not as sure on this one, but my understanding is that the campaign against pornography is loud because of how easy it is to access pornography online. Wanting to look at beautiful naked bodies isn't "unnatural," even from an old-school perspective, but back in the day, you had to try to get access; now, it's handed to you for free. Regardless, porn has always been seen as thwarting the "sacredness" of sexual expression with one other: one's husband or wife. The question of addiction versus discipline, though, is curious. Do you know if previous handbooks pointed to discipline?

Ann-Michelle said...

I'm studying psychotherapy at BYU, so we talk a lot about M&P, and the counseling center sees a LOT of clients that struggle with it. It varies from the sweet guys that masturbated ONE TIME and are so freaked out they come to counseling, to the guy who does it 8-10 times a day. The word on the street (meaning I have no official statement to back this up) is that kids were killing themselves over Masturbation, which is the reason they took it out of the Strength of Youth pamphlet. I get the feeling that changes to the CHI are being fueled somewhat by the mental health of members, and the issues that LDS therapists are seeing arise in counseling. One of my professors, a licensed psychologist, was asked to help the church form policies around certain things. I think its a fairly healthy approach to these issues, and I do feel like the church is *trying* to consider, and making strides towards, what is best for members and their mental health.

I have felt for a long time that the church's policies around sexual issues were created by the men in suits and their outright fear of sex. As younger folks take the leadership positions, hopefully too will younger, more sex-positive ideas.

I agree, though, that the cultural prohibition will continue for a long time, as evidence of things that have been left out of general authorities talks, but continue to be spread among members (i.e. oral sex between married couples).

Andrew S said...

I have a few thoughts:

The first is that I don't think this is a shift to a more benign teaching. I think this is rather a practical thing...imagine how many people get "caught up with" M&P a year. Now, imagine if bishops, stake presidents, whomever believe that these things require disciplinary action...that bleeds the pool of eligible deacons, teachers, priests, prospective missionaries. Not the best thing to do.

So, now, they can disapprove without having leaders in the ward or the stake take punitive action.

However, I believe this is *precisely* an example of *incremental* Mormonism. Think about it like this: the near silence in the CHI allows progressive members to say, "Thank the Lord; the church is moving in a better direction on these issues." But the near silence also allows people stuck in their old ways to say, "Well, there is no repudiation of old rules or old cultural it's clear this is still a sin."

And then, of course, I STILL wonder -- even with the release of one of the editions of the CHI -- how far this will spread among members. Will people study this so diligently to discover all of the changes?

MoHoHawaii said...

Thanks, all, for the useful comments.

I can absolutely believe that these policies have been influenced by feedback from LDS Social Services and BYU psychology, as Ann-Michelle suggests. (Invictus P. has a recent post about the harmful effect of previous policies on one of his children.)

Reduced emphasis on masturbation is a case of the leadership espousing a position that is more progressive than the general membership. In other cases it's the membership that is more progressive than the leaders, as in the case of women's issues over the past few decades and the gay issues more recently.

I used to think the Church was a large ship. The leaders could change directions but not quickly. I don't think that way anymore. I think the Church leaders and the members are engaged in a kind of discussion. Sometimes the leaders influence the members, and sometimes the members (usually younger people who have adapted to cultural changes) influence the leaders.

I also agree with Andrew that just because the leaders point toward a more humane handling of the issue, it doesn't mean that this will roll out at the local level. There are no talks in conference telling conservative bishops to knock it off already with the questions about masturbation in youth interviews. Under the principle of incremental Mormonism, they never want to offend the conservative side of the house.

Also, Alan, I haven't looked at previous handbooks. I believe that in the 1970s the TR interview questions and youth interview questions were much more detailed. I can recall as a teenager in the 70s being asked about bestiality. (!) I had to look it up. Thankfully, we're past those days.

apronkid said...

As one of those guys who ended up going to counseling over masturbation, I really appreciate your attention on the subject. Since I was so forward with my Bishop about my "problem", I was put on one of those informal probation type deals. Pretty much the whole time I felt I was being punished because I confessed, and that the rest of the guys at church were just smart enough not to say anything.

It just amazes me how Mormon culture guilts people over sexual expression. I genuinely hope local Church leadership picks up on the handbook's silence. Perhaps it'll save some youth from unnecessary traumatic experiences.

Invictus Pilgrim said...

Apronkid - This is an issue that has struck very close to home for me. I don't know if you've read this post on my blog, but you might find something in it that speaks to you and your experience:

alan said...

Reduced emphasis on masturbation is a case of the leadership espousing a position that is more progressive than the general membership.

I would have thought the membership effected this policy change. Maybe it's a case of Mormon Utah being more conservative than the Church elsewhere.

MoHoHawaii said...


I don't think it's a liberal/conservative issue as much as it is the professionalization of LDS approaches to mental health issues. If what Ann-Michelle reported is correct, the Church involved mental health professionals in its policy development. It's these professionals whose views are possibly more progressive than those of the general membership. But who knows? Maybe Church headquarters also got feedback from bishops, SPs and ordinary members. Maybe they read our blogs. :- )


Welcome and thanks for leaving a comment. I can't tell how I felt when I finally figured out that you were supposed to give the answer they wanted and not the truth when asked about masturbation. Good luck to you!

Cambo said...

I'm really glad you've been posting so many updates about the new handbook. I first heard about the new handbook at Sunday dinner with my family a few weeks ago, and I was tempted to steal my dad's copy (he's a bishop). I read the old handbook of instructions several times on my mission, so I was curious to see what the new one would say.

Joe said...

The church's anti-sex stance in the 1970s was very traumatic for me. I'm so glad I left the church before my kids became teens. (in the late 90s, my oldest went to church once with a friend. By chance it was the weekend of the chastity meetings. She described the things they said. They were exactly the same crap I was taught in the 70s. Makes sense, the children of the 70s were now adults doing the teaching. That means in about 15 years, we're going to see another hysterical anti-masturbation drive in the church.)

Anonymous said...

Here's a theory: too many Bishops and Stake presidents weren't content with asking single members about masturbation and started asking married members. From personal experience, masturbation can be a problem in marriage, but I'll bet too many leaders weren't content with the problem situations and started getting into what couples were doing by mutual consent and that's always a bridge too far.

(In regards to my comment about masturbation sometimes being harmful in marriage; my wife recently confessed that during all the time she's been depriving me of sex and pushing me away, she's been masturbating regularly. Obviously, there are other issues, but if a bishop were to gloss over that, he would likely gloss over all her lies and deceptions.

Of course, the problem is that for every bishop who would wisely use intimate information about a couple to help them, there are many more who would use it in an unrighteous, judgmental way. Though, to be fair, most don't want even to get involved in this nonsense and shouldn't. The single biggest failure of the church is having completely untrained people giving very serious counseling to member.

Full disclosure: I'm in a two decade marriage to a frigid woman because I got horrible counseling from church leaders. The tragedy is that my wife and I didn't get the personal help we should have, even if it meant ending the temple marriage.)