Baptist theologian Russell Moore recently warned, "On the nightstand of a woman in your church, there's a Christian romance novel and a Bible." Yet if The New York Times is to be believed, he should have been more concerned with a vibrator on the nightstand.

Cultural mores are changing, The Times reports; once available mainly in dimly-lit sex shops, vibrators for women are now being sold in national chain drugstores, a supposed sign of women's empowerment: comfort with discussing and pursuing not just sex but that sometimes-elusive hallmark of "success," an orgasm. The Times credits this shift to many factors, but inevitably certain TV shows are said have played a role in the vibrator boom.

With the ranks of single Christian women unlikely to shrink anytime soon, it's doubtful we have entirely opted out of buying into this trend, since we navigate the same cultural milieu as women outside the church. Aren't we, too, struggling with some measure of sexual disappointment and frustration? Though many of us are likely too shy or conscience-stricken to purchase a vibrator, masturbation has been a topic of debate among evangelicals, with some concluding that it's an acceptable way to wait until marriage for sex (assuming sex requires a partner). How should Christian women respond to the vibrator trend and its broader message of sexual empowerment?

First, a few observations. A vibrator is a replacement—a simulator, if you will. It's not a man, but it's meant to resemble one. It's straightforward, makes no demands, produces fairly consistent results. And it doesn't smell, make rude noises, or wince when you cry. But neither can it hold you, stroke your hair, or make you coffee.

Given the choice between a "perfect" lover and a vibrator, most women would choose the real thing. But in many cases, the substitute must seem better than no lover or an imperfect one. And for those with an uneasy conscience, the ethics of sexual substitutes aren't entirely clear.
If we look at the few applicable biblical passages, it turns out that masturbation isn't exactly the point. The best-known example is Genesis 38, when Judah's son Onan is slain for "spilling his seed" instead of sleeping with his deceased brother's wife. But as Thomas Laqueur explains in his cultural history of masturbation (yes, one exists), the real moral issue was not the means of avoidance, but rather Onan's refusal to honor the cultural tradition of Levirate marriage, whereby he was supposed to provide Er's widow, Tamar, with children in his brother's stead.

Article continues below

The next passage people often turn to is Matthew 5, in which Jesus equates lust of the heart with adultery. Since masturbation without fantasy is rare if not impossible, the reasoning goes, it will always involve something clearly condemned by Jesus. Ergo, masturbation is sin.

I did not find this reasoning compelling when I first began to wrestle with masturbation's morality. Any time you start to justify a position based on a carefully argued interpretation of one passage or verse, I get suspicious. Surely the Bible is not meant to be treated like the Constitution or a lease; isn't that the heart of legalism? If something's wrong, wouldn't it be more clearly and frequently addressed?

For a while, such thinking seemed to provide a rationale for reading the Bible's silence as tacit permission to masturbate. But that doesn't take away the likely guilt or the shame a man once confessed to me in a quasi-counseling phone conversation. And it doesn't make masturbation any more worshipful—of something other than yourself, your desire, and your pleasure.

This is why I have ultimately reached the conclusion that masturbation is an unwise and probably sinful practice. What, after all, is one of the most fundamental themes and values of the Bible? Self-giving love. Over and over, the biblical authors stress that God's love is unconditional, sacrificial, and self-donating (John 3:16, 1 John 4:7-10, etc.). And this is not just the love He has for mankind, but the love within the Trinity that we, too, as God's image bearers, are called to imitate. There is no higher standard for human relationships.

If self-giving love is the best way we could relate to others generally, can this be any less true in a sexual relationship? Since I am presently unmarried, I can only speculate about how this plays out between a husband and wife. But to my mind, the biblical ideal of self-giving love leaves no room for masturbation or other means of sexual self-fulfillment for the unmarried. How can such a practice possibly form me into an increasingly more sacrificial person?

But not only is masturbation inherently focused on the needs of the self, it also involves trying to provide for those needs by oneself, instead of trusting God to know best whether the sexual intimacies of marriage are truly needed or best at the present stage.

There, as they say, is the rub. For therein lies the great if, the fundamental lack of control over what form that "best" might take. And the older you get, the harder the desperation and anger are to fight, never mind the curiosity and sheer physical hunger that sometimes sweep through like the desert's flash floods.

Article continues below

But masturbation fixes none of that. Instead of hope, it brings emptiness. Instead of moving you from loneliness and self-absorption to things that are excellent, praiseworthy, and encouraging (Phil. 4:8), it takes the mind to increasingly dark places. And instead of fostering greater self-sacrifice toward others, in breeds an increasing self-concern and inward focus.

The good news is, we don't need masturbation to prepare for marriage and sex—if God has those ahead for us. There are many ways to grow in loving others well without being in a romantic relationship, and the more we learn to love like Jesus, the better for all of our relationships.

The hard part is that a life without self-supplied sexual release is one in which loneliness, uncertainty, and libido can take on a starker, sharper reality. There is no escape, no cushion, no numbing device.

But a funny thing happens when you cry out to God in such places, where before you would have turned to a screen or your hand. In all those efforts to provide for yourself, there's a fundamental aloneness and isolation. But the minute you turn to God in your hunger, there's communion. That doesn't make the circumstances easy or the night shorter, but in fighting through unsatisfied sexual longing with God, it's possible to gain a measure of what so draws us to real sex in the first place: intimacy.

Anna Broadway is a writer and web editor living in the San Francisco Bay area. She is the author of Sexless in the City: A Memoir of Reluctant Chastity. She has written for Her.meneutics about Eat, Pray, Love, Christian dating, Mel Gibson and prayer in writing and on foot.