Should Christians Freely Indulge in Sexual Fantasy?

So are premarital sexual fantasies–even leading to masturbation–actually ok for the Christian? I recently read a contention to that effect made by Larry Solomon at Biblical Sexology. Read the whole thing here.

To briefly sum up Solomon’s case, he argues that it is not sexual desire itself that’s sinful. (We picked up that faulty idea from teachers in the early church who had a very negative overall view about human sexuality.) When the Bible talks about lust, it’s only talking about corrupted sexual desire. Solomon contends that a large measure of premarital sexual fantasy–including masturbation–do not fall into that category of corruption. He does so by way of an analogy to coveting property, arguing that merely finding a neighbor’s house desirable or imagining living there is not covetous, but only fantasizing about taking that house from him in some unrighteous manner. He concludes that so long as one doesn’t cross that line and so long as one doesn’t desire something that is forbidden in itself (e.g. homosexuality or bestiality,) then sexual fantasies are meet, right, and salutary.

So is it a good case? Well, not by the time he reaches his conclusions, unfortunately. Before we get there, however, there are a few important points he makes during his analysis that are both correct and worth learning from.

The first of these is that there is indeed such a thing as godly premarital erotic fantasy. Our sex drives are gifts from God that are supposed to propel us towards the marriage bed just as hunger propels us towards food. And let’s face it: humans are not designed in such a way that desire is hermetically sealed from imagination. We would never even be able to prepare food if we weren’t imagining something good to eat. The same is true of sexual fantasies whilst seeking marriage.

Likewise, it’s not an accident that God made sex pleasurable. We ought to enjoy and appreciate our spouses sexually, and it’s not as though one’s desire for that only kicks in after the ceremony. If there’s no eagerness, no anticipation, no imagination, and no curiosity about sex with a future spouse, then you shouldn’t even consider marrying one in the first place. Such a one wouldn’t even be able to fulfill his marital duties.

And yes, the practical reality of life in this world is that these fantasies are not going to be exclusively about the person you ultimately marry–and that’s ok. Only in a world of arranged marriages that have been decided very early in life could you even conceivably fantasize exclusively about your future spouse. Maybe that’s what a prelapsarian world would have looked like and maybe not, but such a world is alien to us regardless.

Solomon also correctly notices that undue condemnation of sexual desire is often stilted towards condemnation of the male sex drive in particular. Our boldness, persistence, and desire are supposed to be complimentary with a woman’s modesty, coyness, and submissiveness. That’s part of what makes romance function. And yes, all of that entails a male sex drive that is by design stronger and more easily aroused than most women’s.

But women tend towards solipsism–especially these days. So many women would prefer to control masculine desire so that she is only desired by men she approves and only when she wants them. Unfortunately, the church has often facilitated that solipsism under the guise of restraining lust. We need to discipline our appetites, certainly, but that’s not the same as restraining them to the point of being inert until called upon by a woman. So yes, we shouldn’t be trying to categorically forbid male sexual thoughts and fantasies regarding women’s sexual displays. Men shouldn’t be housebroken.

All of that said, however, Solomon is wrong on some key points that severely impact his conclusions.

First off, it’s worth pointing out the bit of sophistry that comes up when he talks about sexual relations towards the end:

But it is utterly impossible for a man to have sexual relations with a thought, a picture, or a movie he watches on a tv or computer screen. If there is no two-way interaction there is no relation. Therefore, there is no sexual relation.

He doesn’t explicitly say he means pornography here–and maybe he doesn’t–but it certainly sounds like that would be included. If he is, he’s entirely incorrect. There are real women behind these pictures and movies, and while the two-way interaction is not as immediate or personal as, say, a webcam, it is certainly still there. Producer/consumer is still a relationship, and in this case that relationship is blatantly sexual. This part really strikes me as akin to Bill Clinton’s argument that oral sex isn’t really adultery.

But secondly–and more to core of Solomon’s argument–the line between godly erotic fantasy and ungodly erotic fantasy is not nearly as clear as Solomon would like to think. He essentially lays out two criteria that distinguish desire from lust. The first of these is that the fantasy doesn’t involve adultery or fornication. He writes:

So here is where your desire for your neighbor’s house becomes the kind of desire that God is condemning in the 10th commandment and it becomes a bad desire which is lust. What if you knew where your neighbor kept the spare key for their house outside under a rock? And you knew that your neighbor was leaving for vacation for two weeks. So, you began to fantasize about taking the spare key and going and actually using their house for the two weeks they were gone and they would never know.

That thought my friends is a covetous and lustful thought. That is the kind of desire that is being condemned by God in the 10th commandment. And I would submit to you that this the same kind of desire of a man toward a woman that is being condemned by Matthew 5:28 and Job 31:1.

His second criteria comes at the end:

Am I saying that all sexual fantasies are ok as long as we do not entertain thoughts of enticing someone into sex outside of marriage? No. When we have a sexual fantasy, we must ask ourselves, is this sexual fantasy in line with God’s design of sex?

… So, the question is, does your sexual fantasy fit within God’s design of the physical acts of sex between a man and woman? In other words, would such a sexual act be allowable under any context?

If it is within God’s design of sex then your sexual fantasy is righteous before God. If it does not fit within God’s design then it is a sinful fantasy and should not be entertained.

The problem with these criteria is not that they’re incorrect per se–they do describe sin. The problem is with their collective weakness. As I’ve already said, Solomon is correct that it is corrupted desire rather than desire itself that is sinful. But fantasizing about stealing the object of your desire or a desire for something beyond male/female sex aren’t the only applicable kinds of corruption.

One (more obvious) way in which any desire can be corrupted is envy. Envy lives in our fantasies as well, and it isn’t a matter of fantasizing about sinning, but of making God’s blessings to others all about you. In terms of sexual desire, this occurs when you cease to regard your neighbor’s wife as his blessing, but something that “should” be your blessing  instead. The same could be true of your neighbor’s daughter before marriage. It’s one thing to want to have sex with her and to let that desire encourage you to seek marriage. It’s another thing to presumptively think that she should be yours to have sex with rather than anyone else’s when God has not given her to you. Jessie’s Girl was still a song about covetousness.

And envy is only one additional example of disorder. There are innumerable others like it: allowing fantasy to substitute for real-life action , allowing fantasy to draw your desire away from a wife; allowing fantasy to violate the Golden Rule (e.g. “I wouldn’t want some guy leering down my daughter’s blouse and putting it in the wank-bank for later, so I won’t do that to with someone else’s daughter either”); allowing fantasy to overwhelm our self-control; and so on. And as facets like these accumulate, we should begin realizing that “let’s make sure I check-off each item so I can finally jerk-off righteously” isn’t the appropriate attitude to have.

And that is the deeper fault with Solomon’s argument. The problem isn’t really that he’s drawing the line between desire and lust in the wrong place. The real problem is that he’s trying to draw it at all.

Yes, that line does exist in principle–but not in practice in a fallen world. We do need to allow and even encourage our sexual desire to propel us towards marriage. At the same time, we also need to restrain it from leading us into sin. As we struggle to perform that balancing act, we need to lean on grace for the whole matter because our sexual desire will always be corrupted by sin to some extent.

We are never so pure of will and intention that we ever land completely on the side of godly premarital erotic fantasy. Sometimes you’ll know for sure that your fantasies are sinful, but you’ll never really know for sure that your fantasies are pure. Therefore, when we choose to indulge our fantasy life instead of wrestling with it, it cannot help but lead us astray.

You could draw an analogy to nudity. There’s nothing inherently sinful about nakedness. Our bodies are God’s craftsmanship of which we should not be ashamed. But ever since the Fall, we have been ashamed. The solution to this is not trying to fix our errant shame so that we may finally live as nudists, but rather to wear clothing. Accordingly, we don’t cover up because our bodies are evil, but because we are. Sin isn’t just a collection of errant actions, but a corruption of our very nature.

Likewise, we don’t restrain our erotic fantasies because such fantasy is always evil, but because we are. And if we do not practice such restraint, our sinful nature will gleefully embrace the opportunity to drive us off the rails. Despite our best efforts, erotic fantasy is never going to work exactly the way that it was supposed to before mankind’s fall into sin. Our fantasies will not be sinless.

This is the reality that the early Church recognized concerning human sexuality, and in that sense, they were correct. Our desire is corrupted even its nature, and cannot truly be subdued in this life.

Now, I agree with Solomon that many of their solutions to this fact were also errant. Many of them encouraged the removal of passion from the marriage bed, and thereby slandered God’s good creation of sexual pleasure and intimacy. Many of them tried to purify themselves by rejecting their sex drives through monasticism, vows of celibacy, and so forth. But in doing so, they rejected God’s mandate to be fruitful and multiply and encouraged others to believe that this defiance was actually holier than obedience. If you want to seek sinlessness in such ways, you might as well go with Origen’s solution and emasculate yourself in response to Matthew 5:30.

But Solomon’s solution isn’t really better. Instead of escaping the struggle against sin through monastic rituals, he is trying to minimize God’s Law into something we find easier to keep. When it comes to erotic fantasy, Solomon seems to want to purify it by making “imagine yourselves married instead of imagining yourselves fornicating” to be the rule of thumb. But the real rule of thumb should be “either translate your desire into some action besides pure self-gratification or else let it go.” (After all, if we’re looking to God’s design for sex as a guiding principle, then solitude isn’t really part of it.) And that rule-of-thumb isn’t there to make us sinless before God, but merely to direct our energy into appropriate God-given vocations.

Neither can we escape our struggle by wantonly indulging in sin, for the Christian knows that he is to control himself and resist temptation. Every man knows that his sexuality frequently imposes a sense of urgency on him, and I doubt any man apart from Christ has remained perfectly patient in response to that urgency. Our sex drives are powerful, and they frequently spill over. We need that powerful appetite to motivate us because successfully forging romantic relationships that might lead to fruitful marriage is extremely difficult–especially today. But freely indulging in masturbation (especially with the aid of the pictures, movies, and so forth that Solomon also blesses) defuses and subverts the sex drive before it can move us to fruitful action.

So the Christian cannot end his struggle against sin by crafting a perfect behavioral flowchart that he follows at all times as many monastics attempted. Neither can he end that struggle by trying to reconstruct God’s Law until it’s possible for him to finally keep it. And, of course, he cannot end his struggle against sin by surrendering to it. The paradox of the Christian man’s life on Earth is that he cannot end his struggle against sin at all.

Christians need to realize that Romans 7:18-23 is business as usual for their lives in a fallen world. If you think it’s not, then you’re not taking God’s Law seriously enough. We also need to remember that Romans 7:24-25 is the only solution to that. Even as we struggle to avoid sinning, we do not strive to make ourselves sinless by obedience to the law, for that is Christ’s work. Ours is to pursue the work God has given us within the boundaries he has given us–and then trust the Blood of Christ for all the times we stray or fail.

At the end of the day, that’s why Christian men don’t need to constantly beat ourselves up over beating ourselves off. Not because we can make our fantasies holy with a few tweaks, but because Christ has declared us to be holy on account of his own righteousness. Sometimes our fantasies and consequent actions might be pure; sometimes they are absolutely sinful. But we escape the daily cycle of condemnation that Solomon mourns by embracing the Gospel–not by modifying the Law to match our capabilities and habits.

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