During college, I was part of a young men’s prayer group, and our leader, an Anglican priest, once gave us a copy of a letter C. S. Lewis sent in 1956 to Keith Masson, an American reader of his. The topic of the letter was masturbation. Here is an excerpt:
For me the real evil of masturbation would be that it takes an appetite which, in lawful use, leads the individual out of himself to complete (and correct) his own personality in that of another (and finally in children and even grandchildren) and turns it back: sends the man back into the prison of himself, there to keep a harem of imaginary brides. And this harem, once admitted, works against his ever getting out and really uniting with a real woman. For the harem is always accessible, always subservient, calls for no sacrifices or adjustments, and can be endowed with erotic and psychological attractions which no real woman can rival. Among those shadowy brides he is always adored, always the perfect lover: no demand is made on his unselfishness, no mortification ever imposed on his vanity. In the end, they become merely the medium through which he increasingly adores himself…. And it is not only the faculty of love which is thus sterilized, forced back on itself, but also the faculty of imagination.
The true exercise of imagination, in my view, is (a) To help us to understand other people (b) To respond to, and, some of us, to produce, art. But it has also a bad use: to provide for us, in shadowy form, a substitute for virtues, successes, distinctions etc. which ought to be sought outside in the real world—e.g. picturing all I’d do if I were rich instead of earning and saving. Masturbation involves this abuse of imagination in erotic matters (which I think bad in itself) and thereby encourages a similar abuse of it in all spheres. After all, almost the main work of life is to come out of our selves, out of the little, dark prison we are all born in. Masturbation is to be avoided as all things are to be avoided which retard this process. The danger is that of coming to love the prison.
This is a wise and humane letter, and when my fellow students and I received it from our mentor many years ago, it generated several lines of fruitful conversation. But rereading it now, I’m struck afresh by its particular vantage point: It is written with the assumption, it seems, that its recipient will one day marry. The harem that the lustful young man keeps in his imagination “works against his ever getting out and really uniting with a real woman.” I’m sure Lewis was right to take that approach, but it makes me wonder what he would have said to many of us who are celibate and not planning to be married. If we are going to avoid masturbation, we need a different incentive than the one Lewis offers, since few of us expect to “unite with a real woman” someday.
(It’s this kind of thing, by the way—a priest/mentor addressing a group of college-aged men on the assumption that they’re all straight and soon-to-be-engaged—that often contributes to the loneliness of celibate people in Christian circles. Pastoral guidance usually addresses itself to the majority—in this case, heterosexual young men who, all things being equal, will eventually get married. And no doubt that’s as it should be. But when the minority, such as gay-and-planning-on-celibacy Christians, don’t enter the minds of the mentors and priests dispensing pastoral guidance, that oversight can make them feel all the more marginalized.)
So let me take a stab at broadening Lewis and my priest friend’s perspective. Taking my cues from Lewis’ letter, I would argue that masturbation—or lust more generally—harms the celibate person too, not because it may hinder a future marital union but because it can also harm friendship. If the celibate person, no less than the husband or wife, is called to go out of himself in the love of friendship and siblinghood and in other bonds of kinship, then he also should want to guard his heart from constructing self-serving fantasies that have nothing to do with self-giving. Especially for gay Christians, keeping an imaginary cadre of men (or women, as the case may be) whom we can ogle at will is a habit that harms our ability to strengthen the ties of friendship. This is because friendship, as someone said to me recently, is more itself, not less, when it is unencumbered by lustful desire.
Moreover, if part of the rationale of Christian celibacy is to witness to the goodness of marriage precisely by refraining from sexual relations outside of marriage, then the sexual purity of the celibate—again, no less than that of the married—points to the beauty of a real man uniting with a real woman. (“By abstaining from temporary liaisons, the chaste and single reinforce the logic of marriage,” says my friend Chris Roberts.) Therefore, even if Lewis himself doesn’t spell this out, I can take his rationale for a soon-to-be-married person’s chastity as relevant for my vocational-celibate chastity, too.
Of course, spelling out the rationale for chastity does little to help with the actual practice of it. For that, the grace of God in Christ, as experienced in Christian community, is needed. But that’s another post for another day.
Wesley Hill is an assistant professor of New Testament at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality (Zondervan, 2010). He can be followed on Twitter: @WesleyHill.