Question: "Is it ever not a sin to masturbate?"

Answer: We often receive questions that essentially defend masturbation or explain why it is not always a sin to masturbate. None of the justifications are especially convincing, but two specific situations do raise questions about its being a sin to masturbate.

The first situation is this: a husband and wife are separated for a long period of time, due to military service, for example, and they give each other permission to masturbate. The masturbation might occur during phone sex or a video chat with the spouse. In any case, there is no pornography involved, and neither spouse has lustful thoughts about others. The focus is solely on the spouse. Is it a sin to masturbate in such a case to relieve sexual tension and to better resist sexual temptation?

The best answer we can give is “perhaps.” Having the permission of one’s spouse would mean the principle of 1 Corinthians 7:4 would not apply. The absence of pornography and lustful thoughts about others would remove two clearly sinful aspects often associated with the act. But, in the situation of the separated spouses, we should not overlook an important question: is sexual release absolutely necessary? To say that, apart from masturbating, one is incapable of resisting temptation is to neglect the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit (1 John 4:4). The Bible instructs us to flee sexual temptation (1 Corinthians 6:18; 10:13; 2 Timothy 2:22). The Bible does not tell us to find ways to make the temptation less powerful.

The second situation is this: a husband and wife, in enjoying their time together in the bedroom, practice “mutual masturbation.” The husband and wife are together, and one or both of them self-stimulate as part of their love-making. This might be done with or without sex toys. Is it a sin to masturbate in this case, if it is consensual and does not interfere with either spouse’s sexual fulfillment?

The answer to this question is, again, “perhaps.” The biblical focus of sex is the other person, not oneself. It is a giving of one’s body to the spouse (1 Corinthians 7:4). Masturbation, even when done in tandem, is a focus on self. At the same time, what a married couple does in their bedroom by mutual consent is ultimately between them and God.

So, it might not be a sin to masturbate in the above situations. Helping married couples decide what to do is Romans 14:23, which says, “Everything that does not come from faith is sin.” And Romans 14:5 indicates that we are to be “fully convinced” before we do or not do something. In asking, “Is it still a sin to masturbate in this case?” a person might be giving evidence of not being “fully convinced.”

Without seeking loopholes in what are otherwise solid standards, we should search the Scriptures, pray, and follow the leading of the Holy Spirit. And, of course, we need to communicate with our spouses. Regardless of whether it is a sin to masturbate in the specific situations here addressed, we have these clear commands in Scripture:

“The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband” (1 Corinthians 7:3).

“Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again” (1 Corinthians 7:5).

“Brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it” (Romans 8:12).