Masturbation is a serious obstacle to integrating sexuality into the personality and to maintaining psychological health.

Masturbation is the act or practice of the self-stimulation of one's sexual organs.  It is usually done with the goal of achieving sexual climax, sexual gratification, or the release of sexual tension.  Although masturbation exists among both males and females, it is generally considered more common among men than women (Leitenberg et al. 1993, 87-98).  Although the term mutual masturbation is used in reference to mutual acts of sexual stimulation, the following discussion considers masturbation only according to its more common meaning: namely, the self-stimulation of the sexual organs.

The Church's Teaching

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) teaches that the sexual function is meant by God to be enjoyed in "the total meaning of mutual self-giving" (CCC, n. 2352) within the marital relationship of a man and a woman.  The Church understands the purposes of sexuality to be the begetting children and the mutual pleasure for building the couple's unity.  Therefore, any deliberate activation of the sexual function outside the proper state of marriage and the purposes noted is seriously inordinate; if done voluntarily and knowingly, it is sinful.  Within marriage such self- or mutual-stimulation is moral only when in some way it prepares for or completes a natural act of sexual intercourse.

Within the Church's teaching on human sexuality, masturbation is considered to be objectively disordered or intrinsically evil (in se malum or intrinsece malum); that is, no circumstances or intentions can render the action of masturbation "morally good."  The degree or seriousness of the moral culpability of a particular act of masturbation, however, can be judged only in light of the degree of the moral agent's knowledge, freedom, and intentions.  Full moral guilt requires a fully deliberate choice of what the person sufficiently realizes to be seriously evil, which can then be evaluated as gravely, or mortally, sinful.  If the act is performed with only partial realization or only partial choice of the will, the person is presumed to be guilty only of venial sin.  "One must take into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen or even extenuate moral culpability" (CCC, n. 2352).

Persona humana (Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics) issued by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on December 29, 1975, confirmed the traditional understanding of masturbation as disordered:

Masturbation is an intrinsically and seriously disordered act ...  The deliberate use of the sexual faculty outside normal conjugal relations essentially contradicts the ultimate purpose of the sexual faculty ...  For it lacks the sexual relationship called for by the moral order, namely the relationship which realizes "the full sense of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love."  (CCC, n. 9)
Prior to Persona humana, the Magisterium had condemned masturbation on multiple occasions.  In his 1054 letter to St. Peter Damian, Pope Leo IX censured, inter alia, the shameful deed of those who brought forth the seed "by their own hands" (propriis manibus; Denzinger-Hünermann [Denz.-H] 2010, 688). In 1665 the Holy Office referred to the sin of "pollution" — with the clear implication of masturbation (Denz.-H 2010, 2044).  In 1929 the same Holy Office rejected recourse to masturbation for obtaining a medical specimen of sperm (Denz.-H 2010, 2044).  Pope Pius XII reaffirmed the condemnation of masturbation — even when done for medical purposes — in 1953 and 1956 (cf. Acta apostolicae sedis [AAS] 45 [1953] 678 and AAS 48 [1956] 472-473).  In 1952 he also rejected the argument that sins of masturbation during adolescence do not constitute a grave matter (AAS 44 [1952], 275-276).

Masturbation is not mentioned by name in either the Old or New Testament.  Some theologians have associated it with the sin of Onan, who practiced withdrawal to avoid fulfilling his duty to his brother's widow (Gen. 38:8-10). Others have tried to associate masturbation with one of the sins listed by St. Paul in I Corinthians 6:9 (sexual immorality, idolatry, adultery, male prostitution, homosexual offenses) or in Galatians 5:19-21 (adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness). A direct prohibition of deliberately engaging in sexual fantasy is also included; in Matthew 5:28 Jesus says, "Everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart."  The act of willful masturbation virtually always involves sexual fantasy and often involves the use of pornography, thus coming under the prohibition against adultery in the heart.

The Church teaches that masturbation is driven by lust (epithumeo), and the scriptural warnings against lust are clear and unequivocal, such as in these passages:

For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you should abstain from sexual immorality, that each of you should know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in passion of lust, like the Gentiles who do not know God (1 Thess 4:3-5).

Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul (1 Pet 2:11).

Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust ...  But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts (Rom 13:13-14).

But fornication, and all uncleanness, let it not be once named among you, as becomes saints; neither filthiness.  For it is a shame to [even] speak of those things which are done of them in secret, let alone do them (Eph 5:3, 12). For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live (Rom 8:13).

Contrasting Cultural Beliefs

Masturbation has been condemned by many religions, philosophers, and physicians over the centuries, but in the late twentieth century, these prohibitions have been strongly criticized, and masturbation has often been recommended as a positive release for sexual tension and stress (cf. Kosnick et al., 1977, 227).  The Catholic Church has rejected this trend and continues to teach that voluntary masturbation is a sin.

However, with the onset of the contraceptive era in the 1960s, the Church's teaching on sexual morality, including its teachings on masturbation, came under strong criticism from certain elements within the Church herself.  Priests, Catholic educators, and parents were strongly influenced by this rebellion and essentially stopped communicating the spiritual and psychological harm caused by compulsive masturbation.  The moral theologian Rev. John Harvey, OSFS (1918-2010), responded to these errors and also described a pastoral approach to masturbation in his important paper "The Pastoral Problem of Masturbation" (Harvey 1993).  Likewise, Blessed John Paul II's writing on human love and sexuality, Theology of the Body and Love and Responsibility, are important contributions in understanding God's plan for mature self-giving love and sexuality.

Psychological Damage

The availability of Internet pornography has markedly increased the practice of masturbation to the degree that it can be appropriately referred to as an epidemic.  C.S. Lewis described accurately the psychological damage from masturbation:

"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 his own personality in that of another and turns it back; sends the man back into the prison of himself, there to keep a harem of 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 love, no demand is made of his unselfishness, no mortification ever imposed on his vanity.  In the end, they become merely the medium through which he increasingly adores himself."  (Lewis 1956, p. 168)
Masturbation fosters the growth of selfishness, a leading enemy of a healthy personality and of marital and mature love.  Selfishness fosters emotionally immaturity, undermines sacrificial giving, and predisposes individuals to overreact in anger.  Growth in mature confidence is damaged by the need to escape into a fantasy world.  The ability to trust in healthy loving relationships and to pursue them is also weakened.  It intensifies loneliness and can lead to a sexual addiction.  Also, the spiritual life within an individual with such conflicts is obviously also harmed.  Specifically, the identification and the friendship with the Lord are weakened because of the person's difficulties with healthy self-giving and receiving, and because of a sense of guilt.  It also interferes with the spiritual journey of becoming another Christ for others in one's vocation.

No evidence shows that masturbation prepares an adolescent or young adult for the complete gift of self in the vocations of marriage, priesthood, or religious life.  In fact, the self-centered, fantasy-driven nature of masturbation damages the ability to move beyond oneself and enter into mature giving.

Sexual Addictions

Advances in neuroscience have demonstrated what was long known by confessors, namely, that masturbation is highly addictive and that once a habit of masturbation is established, it is difficult to break.  This is because orgasm, whether achieved through natural relations in marriage or through solitary masturbation, produces a number of neurochemicals, including endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin.  Those engaging in masturbation can quickly become addicted to the high that they receive.  However, the sensation is short-lived and may be accompanied by feelings of strong guilt.  Nevertheless, a pattern in the brain is established, and when the person experiences an emotional trigger, the urge to masturbate may be extremely strong.  Unlike drug addiction where addicts must acquire the substances to which they are addicted, individuals addicted to masturbation have immediate access to what they believe they need. Like any addiction, the addicts often find they need to increase the stimulus to achieve the same effect and therefore seek out more extreme forms of pornography or engage in various paraphilias, fetishes, or masochistic behavior.  Although many adolescents engage in masturbation, a significant portion discontinue this activity as they mature.  Compulsive masturbation is associated with a number of pathologies including child pornography, cross-dressing, and sexual acting-out.

Psychological Origins of Masturbation

The primary psychological conflicts, often unconscious, that individuals seek relief from through masturbation are loneliness, weaknesses in confidence, and anxiety, particularly social anxiety.  The common personality conflict of selfishness is another major cause of masturbation as part of the individual's quest for ongoing pleasure, as opposed to relief from psychological pain. God's first words about the human condition to Adam related to the struggle with loneliness: "It is not good for man to be alone" (Gen 2:18).  Loneliness creates significant and, at times, disabling emotional pain and may arise from stresses in one's vocation or from unresolved sadness from childhood or young adult life.  Married men with healthy loving and sexual relationships with their wives can develop masturbation difficulties because of unresolved loneliness and sadness from the childhood relationship with a parent or from the lack of dating relationships during adolescence and young adult life.  Also, latch-key kids and children from divorced families experience intense loneliness and are highly vulnerable to pornography use and masturbation.

Weakness in confidence can result in intense anxiety in the home or workplace.  Withdrawal into the fantasy world of pornography and masturbation can be an unconscious attempt to escape from this stress.  Although masturbation provides a temporary sexual high, it is quickly followed by a sense of emptiness, futility, guilt, and a further weakening of confidence.

Males with same-sex attractions often struggle with intense loneliness in childhood and a longing for male friendships and for a secure father relationship, the absence of which can lead to weaknesses in male confidence that make them vulnerable to compulsive masturbation (Rubinstein 2010; Parkes 2011).  Growth in appreciation for one's God- given gifts, in chaste same-sex friendships, in friendship with the Lord, and in trust can contribute to the resolution of these loneliness and confidence conflicts.

Anxiety is another conflict that creates significant inner tension that can lead to masturbatory behaviors that are often an unconscious attempt to seek relief from life stresses and responsibilities.  Unconsciously, many adults develop the harmful thinking pattern of believing that they are overly responsible.  Growth in trust and in faith is effective in diminishing and resolving the anxiety that causes the urge to seek relief from worries through masturbation.

The anger associated with the hurts that give rise to loneliness, weaknesses in confidence, and anxiety need to be uncovered and addressed through growth in the virtue of forgiveness (Enright and Fitzgibbons 2000).  The process of forgiveness helps resolve these conflicts as well as the role of anger in masturbatory behaviors.

Selfishness leads to an obsession with self-pleasure and with a failure to understand the true nature of love as that of self-giving and receiving.  Also, a widespread misunderstanding about the proper use of the sexual faculty in marriage opens the door to mutual masturbation on the part of the married couple, which injures their union.  Growth in virtues of generosity and temperance and in graces received in the sacrament of reconciliation can help in diminishing this personality disorder.

Masturbation is a serious obstacle to integrating sexuality into the personality and to maintaining psychological health.  When masturbation is compulsive, the practice of the Twelve Steps and participation in support groups, such as Sexaholics Anonymous (S.A.) or The King's Men can be helpful.  Also, psychotherapy to uncover and address emotional and personality conflicts through growth in virtues should be considered.

Spiritual Direction

Numerous psychological studies have demonstrated the benefits of faith in addressing emotional conflicts such as sadness and anxiety.  Spiritual direction, meditative prayer, and the grace of the sacraments are helpful in diminishing loneliness by strengthening a bond with the Lord's love, in building the trust that diminishes anxiety, in strengthening confidence in one's God-given gifts, and in decreasing anger.

Fr. John Harvey, OSFS, recommended the act of surrendering one's life into God's hands by a decision of one's will in this struggle.  He wrote, "Masturbation can become so much a part of one's pattern of behavior that its elimination will leave a deep experiential void, which must be filled in some way.  I suggest that experience of real relationships with God in prayer, and with other persons in friendship will fill that void."  (Harvey 1993, p. 45)

The habit or compulsion of masturbation, often associated with the use of Internet pornography, is a serious problem that has often been neglected in the pastoral ministry of the Church (Kleponis 2012).  New interventions are needed to strengthen education in chastity (John Paul II 1981, n.  33) by parents, priests, and Catholic educators, and to address the psychological and spiritual conflicts in those enslaved by masturbation.


Acta apostolicae sedis.  Vatican City.


Denzinger, Heinrich, and Peter Hünermann, Enchiridion symbolorum definitionum et declarationum de rebus fidei et morum.  43rd ed. Freiburg: Herder, 2010.

Enright, Robert D., and Richard P. Fitzgibbons.  Helping Clients Forgive: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope.  Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2000.

Ford, John C., and Gerald Kelly. Contemporary Moral Theology. Vol. 1. Westminster, MD: Newman, 1958.

Harvey, John. "The Pastoral Problem of Masturbation."  The Linacre Quarterly 60 (1993): 24-49.

John Paul II. Familiaris Consortio [Apostolic Exhortation: On the Role of the Christian Family]. November 22, 1981.

John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor. [Encyclical letter on The Splendor of Truth]. August 6, 1993.

John Paul II. Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body. Translated by Michael M. Waldstein. Boston: Pauline, 2006.

John Paul II. Love and Responsibility. Translated by Grzegorz Ignatik. Boston: Pauline, 2013.

The King's Men Inc.

Kleponis Peter. The Pornography Epidemic: A Catholic Approach. Oldsmar, FL: 2012.

Kosnik, Anthony, et. al. Human Sexuality: New Directions in American Catholic Thought. New York: Paulist, 1977.

Leitenberg, Harold, Mark J. Detzer, and Debra Srebnik. "Gender Differences in Masturbation and the Relation of Masturbation Experience in Preadolescence and/or Early Adolescence to Sexual Behavior and Adjustment in Young Adulthood."  Archives of Sexual Behavior 22 (April 1993): 87-98.

Lewis, C.S. Letter to a Mr. Masson (March 6, 1956). Wade Collection, Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL. in The Broken Image, by Leanne Payne. Grand Rapis, Mi: Baker, 1995.

Loader, J.A. A Tale of Two Cities: Sodom and Gomorrah in the Old Testament, Early Jewish and Early Christian Traditions. Vol. 1, Contributions to Biblical Exegesis and Theology. Kampen: J. H. Kok, 1990.

Parkes, Alison, Vicki Strange, Daniel Wight, et al. "Comparison of Teenagers' Early Same-Sex and Heterosexual Behavior: UK Data from the Share and Ripple Studies."  Journal of Adolescent Health 48, no. 1 (2011): 27-35.

Rubinstein, Gidi. "Narcissism and Self-Esteen among Homosexual and Heterosexual Male Students."  Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy 36 (2010): 24-34.

Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Persona Humana [Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics]. December 29, 1975.




Farraher, Joseph James, Timothy Friedrichsen, and Richard P. Fitzgibbons. "Masturbation."  New Catholic Encyclopedia Supplement 2012-2013: Ethics and Philosophy. Ed. Robert L. Fastiggi. Vol. 3. Detroit: Gale, 2013: 963-966.

ISBN: 9781414482255 (1414482256) Document URL Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2762500371

Reprinted with permission of the authors and Gale, a part of Cengage Learning Inc.


Rev. Joseph James Farraher, SJ, Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology Alma College, Los Gatos, CA.

Timothy Friedrichsen, Assistant Professor, Department of Religion The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC.

Richard P. Fitzgibbons, M.D., Director, Institute for Marital Healing, West Conshohocken, PA.

Copyright © 2013 Gale, a part of Cengage Learning Inc.

Subscribe to CERC's Weekly E-Letter



Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.