/ ask / What do I do when my parents freak out about masturbation?

Dr. Darrel Ray is an atheist, humanist, and psychologist. He is the author of The God Virus, and specializes in issues relating to religious deconversion. [ more ]
If you have an issue relating to religion but no one to talk to, ask Dr. Ray. He doesn’t promise that he has all the answers, but hopefully he will be able to provide insight and experience that will be beneficial for both you and for the many other young people in similar situations.


Dear Darrel,

My parents are very religious and very conservative, especially about sex. They caught me masturbating the other day and grounded me for eight months. I am not religious and think they’re being irrational. What do I do?

From Dr. Ray

First, let’s get the facts of life straight, then I will answer your question. Research going back 70 years shows that virtually all teens masturbate, and most continue throughout their lives. The number of women who masturbate is between 70% or 92%; with guys it is 98%. Anyone who says they have never masturbated is probably lying to you. Someone who says they don’t currently masturbate is probably lying as well.

The sexual health experts at Scarleteen have a ton of great, relevant and accurate information about masturbation, as well as every other sexual health topic.

Masturbation is as normal as eating and breathing for a human being. Unfortunately, religions of all kinds, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, and Mormonism, among others, all try to tell teens that masturbation is a sin. The irony is that virtually all of those telling you not to masturbate do it or have done it themselves.

In the Christian Scriptures, there is little or nothing about masturbation. Some site Matthew 5: 28-29, but that is not specifically about masturbation. Many religionists site the story of Onan to show that “spilling your seed” is immoral. That is not what the story says. The story condemns Onan for not having sex with his dead brother’s wife. That was his sin. He “spilled his seed” because he did not want to have any children with her. It has nothing to do with masturbation. So even religious scriptures do not support the idea that masturbation is wrong.

In Islam, there is disagreement among the many schools of Islamic thought. It is haram among most Shiite but not so in the Hanafi school. In any case, Muslims masturbate as much as any other religious group, they just have to lie about it and pretend that they don’t. Generally speaking: the more repressive a religion is to women, the more it tries to prohibit women from masturbating. Islam is far harsher in its treatment of female masturbation than any of the other major religions. In Christianity, there no mention of female masturbation at all. While most Christian groups try to prohibit it, they have no basis to do so in their scriptures.

In Mormonism it is forbidden, but there are a number of Mormon authorities who now say it is a mistake for the church to prohibit masturbation since it is a natural human function.

For centuries, religious leaders have told myths about the dangers of masturbation. “It will make you go blind, it will ruin your marriage, it will make you into a sex maniac, and it will turn you gay.” Science has debunked all of these myths. Masturbation is something your body wants to do to keep you healthy, clean and functioning. There is no psychological, emotional or health reason to deny yourself the pleasure of masturbation.

Religion thrives on controlling the most intimate aspects of its adherent’s lives. Repressive religions are terrified of female sexuality for the same reasons they are terrified of women’s equality and women’s education; because repressing women is a means for them to keep control over the men as well.

In less extreme religions they use the “sin of masturbation,” which everyone is guaranteed to commit, as a way to make you feel guilty about something that is perfectly normal. People who feel guilt must return to the religion that taught them the guilt in the first place to receive absolution. This keeps people oppressed with religious guilt their entire lives. It is the best way to keep people from questioning, and possibly leaving, their religion.

These are the facts of life. Now to discuss you and your parents. The first thing to know is that masturbation is sex with yourself, and that no one has a right to tell you that you cannot have sex with yourself; even your parents. No one owns your body – not your parents, not your religion, not your spouse. You are the sole owner of your body and your mind. Masturbation hurts no one and it is actually very healthy for your entire reproductive system. You can enjoy it your entire life if you want.

It is difficult to talk about these things with parents, but you might try to have a rational discussion with them and give them some this information. Even the very conservative James Dobson of Focus on the Family says that teens masturbate and it should not be prohibited by parents. Ideas on sexual guilt, especially female guilt, come from religious notions of ownership: that women are owned by their fathers and then by their husbands and that therefore their sexuality is owned as well. It is also based in the idea that males should control women and that men are shamed if their women express themselves sexually. Your parents probably feel shame that you are expressing your sexuality in masturbation – especially if you are girl.

Our own research has shown that parents who prohibit masturbation have little effect on the behavior; but rather succeed only in making their children feel guilty, unworthy, or depressed. You are going to continue despite your parents. I am quite sure of that. If you are grounded for 8 months, you probably have little else to do but masturbate!

What your parents are telling you is what they learned from their parents. Christian, Muslim and Mormon parents tend to deny that they masturbated as teens or had premarital sex – even though most did. In other words, these parents are not truthful with their children. All the major religions teach shameful feelings towards sex, sexuality and masturbation. Your parents probably feel this shame because that is what they were taught when they were your age.

There is much more you can learn from different books and websites, but the most important thing is that there is no need to be ashamed of your body or your sexuality. Do it privately, because it is not something anyone needs to know about or be aware of. Try and talk with your parents but don’t push it too hard. Be respectful and try to understand that they are acting from the shame they learned when they were young, and from an irrational fear. My guess is that they will relax the grounding sooner or later. Grounding is often as hard on the parents as it is on the kids.

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