Muslims and Masturbation…“Um…you want me to do what?”
During my career as a sexual health educator in Muslim communities, I’ve been confided in by Muslim women who disclose confusion, shame, and guilt when their mental or sexual health provider suggests masturbation as a tool to get to know their bodies. These women have shared that the suggestion often catches them off guard; can bring about feelings of guilt and shame, even confusion; and they’re not sure how to make sense of what they’re being suggested to do, especially when they’re facing challenges with their sexual health and masturbation is posited to be “the answer.”
Before we talk about approaches that professionals can incorporate with their faith-based clients, let’s cover some important context. May is Masturbation Month – as well as mental health awareness month, and pelvic pain awareness month. Given the overlap between these topics, focusing on the diversity and spectrum of thoughts about masturbation was something that seemed particularly timely to address. And it can be a touchy subject, to say the least!
Generally speaking, we may be aware that research points towards the many benefits of masturbation. They include mapping out and experiencing sexual pleasure; stress release; as an outlet for sexual desire when not partnered; to help relieve menstrual cramps and more. On the flip side, there are also many myths abound about masturbation, that result in fear- and shame-based approaches with (unsuccessfully) attempting to control people’s sexual decision with their own body.
Considering this information, how can individuals who hold values that lead them to choose not to masturbate navigate all of this?
Let’s use my own community – Muslims – as an example of a population that holds certain values regarding masturbation. These values are similar to those from other Abrahamic faith traditions, and there are reasons why Islam, for example, holds perspectives and values about masturbation. It’s important to clearly state that with all communities – faith-based or not – there is diversity in beliefs, thought, and practices of Muslims. We are not a monolithic community! And the following are factors that may be important to keep in mind in terms of contextual information, understanding that each person holds their own values and opinions.
First of all, the context of masturbation is important to consider when we’re thinking about values that Muslims may hold. Masturbation is often associated with someone self-pleasuring, either with or without the aid of sexually-arousing stimuli or tools, such as vibrators, written, or visual aids. On the flip side, masturbation is one of the many ways partners and spouses share sexual pleasure with one another, not only as an important approach during sexual intimacy,, but also for those who are experiencing sexual dysfunction where intercourse may not be possible at the moment.
Masturbation can therefore be a form of sexual intimacy that spouses can share together, while sexual dysfunction is being worked through and addressed. Therefore, the context of masturbation is a very important consideration when working with faith-based clients, and may indeed impact how individuals understand masturbation within their own lives.
Next, let’s explore Islamic religious rulings (known as “fiqh” in Arabic) in relation to masturbation. Islam’s schools of thought and numerous scholars hold varying perspectives on masturbation: Some categorize it as completely haraam (religiously impermissible/forbidden) whereas others believe it to be makrooh (strongly discouraged). Scholars have debated about this categorization, with some believing that when single Muslims are faced with the choice of pre-marital sex or masturbation, that the latter is not forbidden as a mercy to them when other means of abstaining Islamically (i.e. fasting, getting married, controlling what your five senses are exposed to, etc) are not working or available. The school of thought and/or scholar that Muslims individually ascribe to will impact their religious perspective on masturbation.
As we dive deeper into Islam, we explore the field of Islamic Psychology (which is 1500 years old!), and learn that God created us with a body, soul, intellect, and spirit. The goal of Muslims on the path of Islam is to become closer to God; that is, to foster the ability to see God everywhere, and not only during formal times of worship. To become closer to God, we’re advised to do challenging inner work on our soul, which the Quran speaks about in terms of moving through three stages: The lower self (Quran 12:53); the discerning self (Quran 75:2); and the enlightened self (Quran 89:27).
When we look at the lowest level of our soul, it is connected to our tendency to move strongly towards our desires – including our sexual ones – and to avoid harm/pain. Our sexual desires are thought to originate from this lower self, both for individual purposes (to experience pleasure) and for communal ones (to procreate). As Muslims, our goal is not to give into/be at the whim of our sexual desires, but to learn how to elevate them with our intellect and God-consciousness, through spiritual practices and the acquisition of knowledge, such that we can choose to delay sexual gratification until marriage.
Why? Well, as scripture from the Islamic tradition states, sexual pleasure within marriage is the closest form and a glimpse of the pleasure that we’ll experience in the Afterlife, in Heaven. And for this reason, sexual pleasure shared between spouses in marriage is a form of worship of God – and sexual gratification and pleasure outside of marriage is giving in to our lower self and its desires, and therefore, doesn’t receive spiritual blessings in the same way.
Unfortunately, many Muslims themselves are not aware of this psychological and spiritual explanation of why Islam encourages delaying sexual pleasure until marriage. Many of us have received fear- and shame-based messages that focus on the “what” (i.e. “no sexual activity without marriage, it’s a sin”) without any explanation of the “why” and “how.” This contradicts Islamic psychological perspectives, which share that telling people what to do without any context or understanding leads to fear being instilled and the lower-self being activated, resulting in either shamefulness or shamelessness.
This is exactly what is happening within many Muslim community spaces when we see that fear- and shame-based messages about sex don’t support Muslims with fully understanding their sexuality and decisions about their bodies. And can result in sexual shame and guilt within their marriage.
With all of this in mind, let’s circle back to the initial example of a healthcare provider suggesting masturbation as a tool for their Muslim client. Muslim or otherwise, not everyone holds the value or perspective that leads them to embrace masturbation as an embraced and valued part of their sexuality. Ideally, this decision is made from a fully-informed perspective, but as we’ve just explored, it’s often not, and fear, shame, and guilt are often present. Therefore, what can providers keep in mind as they work with clients who hold a diversity of values related to sexual pleasure and masturbation?
Assess your implicit biases
Providers must have a keen awareness of their implicit biases, values, and perspectives related to masturbation and sexual pleasure, to ensure that they’re not projecting them towards their clients. No one “should” do anything with regards to their sexuality if it’s not in line with their values. This is especially important when many Muslim identifying women are often incorrectly deemed to be “oppressed” – including sexually – and masturbation is seen as a tool for “sexual liberation.”
This line of thinking has colonial/imperial roots and serves to cause more harm than good. Broadly speaking, there’s encouragement that masturbation supports freedom of the self, and Islamic psychology and spirituality are encouraging Muslims to move towards freedom from the self, in order to elevate our sexual experiences to those that are rooted in spirituality.
Explore your client’s values about sexual pleasure
Rather than directly recommending masturbation to Muslim clients, it would be helpful to gain more insights about their values. That is, what are their perspectives on how they choose to experience – or not – masturbation? Do they have holistic understandings, or more fear and shame-based perspectives? Many providers do already explore this with clients, and it’s important to circle back to values when recommendations and approaches are being suggested. Again, the goal is not to change anything about the client’s values, but to facilitate self-awareness and to provide information if needed, so that decisions are being made from a fully informed perspective.
Offer options to your clients
When working with clients who lack holistic awareness about their bodies, masturbation isn’t the only way to learn about their bodies, and it should not be posited in this way. I’ve recommended starting with psychoeducation – that is, accessing books, a website, a sexuality educator, and so forth, to learn comprehensive and holistic sexual health information.
I’ve also recommended to Muslims that performing a vulva self-exam, for pelvic and physical health reasons, is another way to learn about their bodies and that touching their bodies, for this reason, is not considered masturbation, where the intention is sexual pleasure. We can still learn about our bodies – and even what sexual pleasure is, what leads us to feel desire and arousal, and so forth – without needing to directly experience it if that is the value that we hold for the time being.
Understand sexual health education barriers for religious minorities
As previously mentioned, many faith-based communities do not receive comprehensive, accurate sexual health education that meets their identities and needs. As such, when working with these individuals, it’s important to understand the context they’re bringing with them. There may be a lack of understanding of anatomical and reproductive health, for example, resulting in not knowing foundational information that others may have learned earlier on in life. It’s therefore important to meet the client where they are at, and not impose a journey onto them that we deem they need to take, in order to “catch up.”
Continue to be open with your own learning
Cultural competence does not exist – cultural humility, however, is a concept that exists within my professional background as an Occupational Therapist, and those of social work and counseling as well. Being open to continually learn means that you’re exploring what comes up within you regarding your own values about sexuality, and seeking information from professionals who interest in faith and other diverse communities, whom you may not necessarily have interacted with before.
To summarize, masturbation can indeed be a touchy subject! As professionals, it’s important for us to have a constant awareness of ourselves: Our thoughts, intentions, and behaviors. The ability to think critically about our own sexuality – including our values and perspectives related to masturbation – is important to consider in the broader scheme of how we show up with clients.
Because whether we ascribe to a religious tradition or not, self-awareness is critical to align our actions with who we are on the inside, to ensure that we’re living authentically and making decisions from fully informed perspectives. And this should be the ultimate goal when we’re working with clients from diverse faith backgrounds.
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