When masturbation isn’t about “inordinate sexual desire”
An excess or deficiency in one arena can bring about vice in another. And a focus on sexual desire-as-excess can hide this fact.
Those of us who received classical educations often view virtue in Aristotle’s terms, as a mean. Being virtuous involves excellence, but it also involves balance. Vice arises from excess or deficiency. This approach to virtue was adopted and developed by Aquinas and is held by those of us who work in the natural law tradition.
One version of this approach is utilized when Catholic young people are taught about human sexuality. Under this version of “natural law,” many such young people are taught:
Sexual desire and intercourse are directed towards and exclusively for relations between a man and a woman in a lifelong marriage.
Sexual desires aimed at activities outside of such a marriage are disordered and should not be pursued.
One must overcome such disordered sexual desires.
The focus on “overcoming” sexual desire outside of marriage can make such desire into a sort of excess passion. It can lead persons to think that the issue with desiring sexual activity outside of marriage is a matter of having “too much” sexual desire. And, the argument continues, an inability to “tame” sexual desire can lead to activities such as pornography viewing; and indulging in porn, in turn, exacerbates these desires and further increases the excess. Young people who have a preoccupation with pornography may come to see themselves through adapted frameworks of “addiction,” whereby, again, the key problem is a failure to “tame” excess sexual desire. (I should note that the psychology community is often critical of the popular term “sexual addiction.”)
Hiding the Problem
But an excess or deficiency in one arena can bring about vice in another. And a focus on sexual desire-as-excess can hide this fact.
One danger of treating sexual desire within this framework is a misdiagnosis that furthers the problem. For example, let’s say a young man develops anxieties related to his sexual attractions during puberty. Social interactions trigger that anxiety, especially as he manages his desires and self-presentation so as to hide his sexual attractions, both from others and (to the extent possible) from himself. At the same time, he has discovered masturbation as a way to interact with his sexual desires, and as an opportunity to experience distraction from his anxieties, along with a sort of catharsis after the act. The masturbation and anxiety over time go hand-in-hand. In times of greater anxiety, he has a stronger inclination to masturbate, and does so to an extent that some might consider compulsive.
He has learned about the above pseudo-Thomistic concepts of virtue and vice from his high school Catechetics teacher, and then from his campus minister in college. He does not want to masturbate, as it is contrary to his Church’s teachings, and also against his understanding of the natural law. Because the masturbation involves sexual desire, and is talked about solely in terms of sexual desire by his teacher and campus minister, his response to masturbation is to try to just fight against that inordinate desire. He finds that if he can shut down desires through depressive episodes or fight against it through cold showers or “self-mortifications,” he can resist the urge to masturbate. But at times this sort of fighting just makes him more anxious, more overwhelmed, and then, with the increase of anxiety, the sexual desire comes back with a vengeance.
One thing the pseudo-Thomistic framework has done for him is hide the fact that his primary problem is not inordinate sexual desire, but anxiety. He has unwittingly conditioned himself to utilize masturbation as a way to cope with his poorly managed anxiety, which itself is a symptom of his inability to accept certain parts of himself. However, because he has been convinced that the problem is his sexual desire, and that if he fixes sexual desire that his problems will go away, he is in a situation where two things occur. First, he is unable to even see his anxiety or poor self-image. They have been hidden from him. Second, he is therefore unable to fix any of his problems. The only thing he sees and responds to is his desire to masturbate. A focus on pseudo-Thomistic virtue, with its tendency to segregate virtues and vices, has prevented both diagnosis and resolution. Addressing the anxiety and self-image issues may not be enough initially to respond to habituated compulsive masturbation. But he certainly won’t be able to work through the latter fully without addressing the former issues.
The Virtue Problem
This is, in part, due to the influx of various forms of toxic masculinity into discussions of virtue. Virtue and growth in it tend to be viewed in terms of strength, rather than in terms of reflection, narrative, and vulnerability. Aristotle’s analogizing growth in human virtue to excellence in athletics can be misleading for many. Some may assume that excellence in athletics comes from the maximization of strength and muscle mass, failing to take into account the roles of form, developed monotonous habit, and vulnerability before one’s coaches and oneself. The high rates of suicide and depression among Olympic athletes can give some sense of where our mistakes in understanding virtue can lead us, as should our tendency to use and abuse these athletes.
This should all give us a sense of how far away we are from Aristotle’s conception of virtue and the virtues. For him, the virtues are, and should always be, subordinated to the pursuit of general human flourishing. To be virtuous is to flourish.
None of this is to say that Thomistic treatments of virtue and the interior life should be generally rejected. The problem is not necessarily Aristotle or Aquinas, but an oversimplified version of their ideas (and likewise when it comes to natural law). We should be cautious about certain tendencies of pseudo-Thomists today, such as the tendency to view all problems through the lens of inordinate sexual desire (including problems of sexual abuse), the tendency to prioritize stereotypically “masculine” virtues over and against other virtues, and the tendency to disregard the findings and successes of modern psychology (including how anxiety, depression, and self-image can drive all sorts of compulsive behaviors).
Sexuality is a complicated thing. Even sex isn’t always about sex. We should be skeptical when people make it sound simple. We should raise an eyebrow when we’re repeatedly offered solutions that, oddly, don’t seem to work.