"What thinkest thou? He who hath made a God of his passions, and whom God causeth to err through a knowledge, and whose ears and whose heart He hath sealed up, and over whose sight He hath cast a veil -- who, after his rejection by God, shall guide such a one? Will ye not then be warned?" (Qur'an 45:22, cited in Baha'u'llah, Kitab-i-Iqan, p. 213)
I want in this essay to talk about sex and masturbation, but I dare not put those words in the title or the whole deal will be caught in the spam filters and hung up to dry.
As Baha'is we are often asked about the position of our Faith on this subject, so it is good to know not only what the Writings say but also the latest research on the issue. I also have a very old piece of reasearch too, as you shall see.
If you are not on their mailing list, Scientific American recently put out an excellent summary of new research on sex, especially masturbation. It came out on Jun 22, 2010 in "Mind & Brain," and is called: "One reason why humans are special and unique: We masturbate. A lot," written by Jesse Bering. It is at:
As Bering points out, it has been known about fifty years that well over 90 percent of men masturbate regularly, and it was more recently discovered that when couples are sexually active (with each other) they actually masturbate more frequently than otherwise. This is contrary to what most people would expect. Evolutionary biologists speculate about the reasons for that. One idea is that the sperm of the male of the species may be made "fresher" by masturbation. "Spilling your seed on the ground," as the Bible puts it, gets rid of old, defective, dead and dying spermatazoa and gives a new generation a better shot at reaching the egg.
Like most of evolutionary biology, this is an unscientific shot in the dark that has yet to be backed up by concrete evidence. However, if this idea about masturbation turns out to be true, it has interesting moral implications. A married couple who want to conceive need the man's sperm to be as potent as possible. In that case, since making babies is central to the purpose of marriage, it would actually be ethically desirable for a husband to masturbate as often as possible, at least during the wife's child bearing years. I'm just saying.
This morning as I was looking over this issue, I gained something and lost something. Let us start with what I lost.
I had always thought that the Aqdas forbade masturbation with a statement saying, "Thou shalt not indulge thy passions." I imagined that the UHJ in a footnote interpreted this to mean "do not masturbate." This seemed pretty wise to me, in view of the above mentioned statistic about the number of men who masturbate. In other words, Baha'u'llah says in effect, do not indulge yourself, men, but if it is a question of driving yourself insane with sexual abstinence, then masturbation hardly qualifies as an indulgence. It also seemed wise in the sense that excluding ninty percent of the male sex is hardly an inclusive way of propagating a religion.
The mention of "indulging your passions" apparently is an interpretation that the Guardian (or to speak more precisely one of his secretaries writing on his behalf) made of the second paragraph of the Aqdas, and which the UHJ repeated when it was drawing up the Codification. You can read paragraph two for yourself, but my re-reading this time turned up no explicit mention of indulgence. It says, in part,
"We, verily, have commanded you to refuse the dictates of your evil passions and corrupt desires, and not to transgress the bounds which the Pen of the Most High hath fixed, for these are the breath of life unto all created things." (Baha'u'llah, The Kitab-i-Aqdas, p. 19-20)
Let me offer an observation here. Although modern parlance sometimes uses the word "passion" as a synonym for strong sexual impulses, in a strict Platonic sense "passion" is a reference to the angry emotions. Only the term "desire" signifies sexual lust. Desire is the "sheep" of growth, passion is the sheepdog who keeps the sheep in line. Passion is the wolf-like nature of the sheepdog; passion, an instinct to protect, is what in marriage usually leads to spousal abuse. Most often, abuse does not come from desire -- although of course the two often are mixed up with one another when neither is under the control of the shepherd.
In that case, Baha'u'llah's choice of words implies that He is saying that passion, or violence, is evil, because it harms others directly. The danger of desire, especially expressed as masturbation, is not an evil in itself because it does not directly harm others. It is a bad thing, however, only insofar as it tends to corrupt.
Let us follow this trail where it leads.
Unless sex is an expression of a love sanctioned by one's spouse, and by God and society, the expression does not last beyond this world. Anything exclusively of this world is not evil per se, but it can have an odour. Inordinate desire, therefore, is not conducive to life and tends to corrupt. "To corrupt," means to rot, and we know that rot is mildly communicable. Throw a rotting apple into a basket of fresh fruit and it will propagate gasses that accellerate the deterioration of good apples. That, avoidance of corruption, is why we need to limit desire.
Another passage in the Aqdas implies that the greater danger is a priggish attitude of puritans, who would make sex a sin and whose abstinence becomes extreme and makes lack of indulgence itself a kind of indulgence,
"How many a man hath secluded himself in the climes of India, denied himself the things that God hath decreed as lawful, imposed upon himself austerities and mortifications, and hath not been remembered by God, the Revealer of Verses. Make not your deeds as snares wherewith to entrap the object of your aspiration, and deprive not yourselves of this Ultimate Objective for which have ever yearned all such as have drawn nigh unto God." (Baha'u'llah, The Kitab-i-Aqdas, pp. 31-32)
This latter point is reflected in the advice of both the Guardian and the House of Justice to Baha'is who asked them about masturbation. Do not blow it out of proportion. Sex is overemphasized in this culture.
The only direct mention of masturbation that turns up in Ocean is a letter by the House written in 1981 (March 8). They start off by saying that there is no known mention of masturbation in Holy Writ. "We have found in the Holy Writings no explicit references to masturbation, but there are a number of principles and teachings which can guide a Baha'i to the correct attitude towards it." (Lights of Guidance, #1220, p. 364) They then cite the Guardian, whose secretary wrote on his behalf,
"no sexual act can be considered lawful unless performed between lawfully married persons. Outside of marital life there can be no lawful or healthy use of the sex impulse except self-control which, when exercised, undoubtedly has a salutary effect on the development of character and of personality in general..."
Balancing this, the Guardian mentions a moral imperative on the part of society to encourage people to marry young while they still have the vigour to express the sexual "instinct." If you want to see this social imperative at work, I recommend the 1956 movie "Marty," with Ernest Borgnine. This demonstrates that at the time there was a strong sense that everybody, especially elder women, should support marriage by encouraging, not to say pushing, young people to enter into the institution. This sense of duty to back marriage is all but wiped out. Few protest as gay-lesbian-bi-trans marriage is slowly legalized around the world.
The Guardian also points out that the Master often asked us to "keep our secret thoughts pure." Since masturbation requires mental fantasies, that pretty much rules this practice out, he said. Or at least it did before ubiquitous porn on the net made fantasy itself obsolete. As the above linked article in Scientific American points out, the internet has changed human sexuality forever in only two short decades. The average twelve year old is familiar with sexual acts that would have shocked the most dissolute bawdy house bounder in past centuries.
Which brings me to the re-discovery that I made this morning.
Many years ago I remember being delighted to find a brilliant point that Frances Bacon made about sexual morality. I read it and then forgot exactly where it was. For over two decades it sat on my "kitab-i-hearsay" shelf, until this morning I at last stumbled across the right keyword in Ocean. In the middle of Bacon's New Atlantis, he writes,
"The haunting of those dissolute places, or resort to courtesans, are no more punished in married men than in bachelors. And the depraved custom of change, and the delight in meretricious embracements (where sin is turned into art), maketh marriage a dull thing, and a kind of imposition or tax. They hear you defend these things, as done to avoid greater evils; as advoutries, deflowering of virgins, unnatural lust, and the like.
"But they say this is a preposterous wisdom; and they call it Lot's offer, who to save his guests from abusing, offered his daughters; nay, they say further, that there is little gained in this; for that the same vices and appetites do still remain and abound, unlawful lust being like a furnace, that if you stop the flames altogether it will quench, but if you give it any vent it will rage..."
"... as for masculine love, they have no touch of it; and yet there are not so faithful and inviolate friendships in the world again as are there, and to speak generally (as I said before) I have not read of any such chastity in any people as theirs. And their usual saying is that whosoever is unchaste cannot reverence himself; and they say that the reverence of a man's self, is, next religion, the chiefest bridle of all vices."
What Bacon says here about shutting all the vents to a furnace so that lack of oxygen will allow the fires within to go out completely reminds me of something I recently read in the science press.
It seems that many coal mining companies around the world have accidentally started fires in coal deposits underground. This is happening not in a few places but all around the world. Hundreds of underground invisible coal fires are burning all the time, uncontrolled, doing nobody any good, constantly spewing who knows how much soot and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Talk about corruption! A similar thing, shutting off the vents to our inner thoughts, is what the message of Baha'u'llah proposes to do to the underground coal fires of human lust. Shut down the vents and let the fire go out on its own.