Beliefs Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

The “Mormon war on masturbation” video

A "war on masturbation" video that isn't actually about masturbation.
A "war on masturbation" video that isn't actually about masturbation.

A “war on masturbation” video that isn’t actually about masturbation.

The Progressive Secular Humanist blog at Patheos is making this claim:

A recently released video by Brigham Young University–Idaho compares masturbators to wounded soldiers, and encourages students to identify to religious officials friends they think are masturbating.

Here is the four-minute video. What do you see?

Having watched it twice, I agree the video is flat-out weird. The quality is also grainy enough that it’s hard to believe it was officially produced by BYU-Idaho and not some student’s pet project, but the tag at the end attributes its creation to the student housing office.

The voiceover talk by the university president is over the top by itself (“He stops going to church and there is darkness in his eyes”), but the militarism of the video’s footage takes it to a whole new level: Sexual sin is war, and there will be casualties.

But this video is about porn addiction, not masturbation, which is not even mentioned. The video does not “compare masturbators to wounded soldiers,” though it does refer to porn addicts in that  way. So why is the piece going viral as a “war on masturbation”?

And why is something that was created for students at one notably conservative Mormon-owned university being regarded as representing the religion as a whole?

There are many problems with the messages in this video, including these three:

  1. Students should turn roommates in to their bishops if they  so much as suspect someone they’re living with has a problem with porn. That’s hardly the main point of the president’s message, which is about helping friends who have a porn addiction, but it’s a disturbing undercurrent.
  2. “Addiction” seems to be defined here as “any guy who looked at porn EVER while in college.” Conflating experimentation with addiction is hardly helpful to people who actually do suffer from addiction.
  3. There’s no indication that women might ever have problems with porn—that’s all manly guy soldier stuff, of course.

A final observation. Noting that this particular video is not actually about masturbation, or that Mormonism is being treated unfairly, doesn’t mean the LDS Church has developed a healthy approach to the topic. Masturbation has gone from being something that was expressly forbidden by the LDS hierarchy to something that is now largely ignored, its censure having dropped out of the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet and the bishop’s handbook.

But as family therapist Natasha Helfer Parker points out in this 2012 post — the best thing I have ever read on the subject of Mormonism and masturbation — that omission doesn’t go far enough in removing the culture of shame. After having several teenage Mormon clients tell her that they felt their exploratory masturbation was a sin on the same level as murder (!), Parker has called for a stop to what she considers an abusive practice of bishops asking teenagers about self-touching.

If there’s any positive fallout from the BYU-Idaho video and the inaccurate reportage about it, maybe it will be that Mormons have a much-needed conversation about the ethics of masturbation — and the ways we discuss it with youth.

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.


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  • Yikes. So many issues with that video I don’t know where to start. I think I am most bothered by the militaristic metaphors–I really don’t like them in hymns, either. Our culture of shame just makes things worse (and thinking your roommate is going to rat you out is not going to help with that.) And I know sometimes a pool cue is just a pool cue, but come on!

  • While “For the Strength of Youth” does not call masturbation by name, it does describe and proscribe behavior that would be classified as masturbation. “Do not do anything else that arouses sexual feelings. Do not arouse those emotions in your own body.” That statement is followed shortly by “The Spirit of the Lord will withdraw from one who is in sexual transgression.”

    I wish the Church would truly ignore it or even sanction it as a normative part of human behavior.

  • I have to say that the blog site that posted such a misleading headline (to get readers?) is not being fair about this video. Masturbation is not mentioned, even if it can be implied. It seemed to me that the video at least showed a “caring for the wounded” approach, which is much less judgmental than a “shun the evil sinner” message. It also did not show me a roommate coercively “informing on his roommate,” but rather a young man having a heart to heart private talk with his roommate and then supportively accompanying him to the bishop to get the help the roommate apparently desired. Having said that, the video did seem to send messages that I worry about. I think a healthier discussion about the subject is overdue, especially about the sexual shaming and fear tactics sometimes used on our teenagers (and adults). I have big concerns about the pervasive and damaging preaching that seems to make no distinction between a little experimentation and hard-core addiction, either in regards to masturbation or pornography. By mashing all these different sized pieces of different things together in the same pot of evilness (a pot that may already have mashed together portions of perversion, fornication, adultery and murder) you could easily make a poisonous brew. If natural and normal feelings (even of little children) can so easily awaken curiosity and a little experimentation, what chance does a person who is trying hard to be good have when they infer from well-meaning messages that their actions are on par with those of nymphomaniacs, hard-core addicts, or even criminals? How could some of the more sensitive ones not feel that once they have indulged, all is lost–that even though they have tried, they feel hopelessly incapable of controlling such despicable desires, and therefore the Atonement could not possibly apply to them. Along with that, if they were hoping to serve a mission, they would feel completely unworthy, and if the bishop had the same mindset, the applicant would have to choose between guiltily lying to the bishop or forfeiting a lifelong dream. Creating such rigid and, in my opinion, unnatural boundaries, just brings too much unnecessary suffering. If we are appalled by the medieval practice of self-flagellation, why are we still encouraging its modern-day counterpart?

  • Sharman, if you think it’s acceptable to compare masturbation to self-flagellation, you’re doing it all wrong.

  • Outside the message, the delivery method is highly flawed. By posting a video on YouTube with masturbation and “lend a hand” in the title, YouTube suggests all sorts of videos that are the EXACT opposite of what the video is wanting to accomplish.

    Maybe its a statement to there being far fewer “anti” masturbation videos available on YouTube.

  • Edgy, unless you’re just choosing to misconstrue my meaning to get in your little joke, maybe I need to clarify. I am most certainly not comparing self-flagellation to masturbation! The two are opposites. Self-flagellation is an attempt to punish oneself or do penance for the sins of the flesh. The modern-day counterpart is to feel terrible guilt and to expect overly harsh punishment for relatively minor sins or weaknesses.

  • Religion is primitive, superstitious nonsense.

    They think they can stop masturbation!?
    How arrogant an ambition!

    If the energy could be harnessed it would replace oil!

  • The introduction to the video by one of your staff was totally misleading to the intent of the video. The point: love your neighbor and if a friend has challenges seek to assist him/her. Isn’t that the spirit of the Gospel of Jesus Christ? I am getting sick and tired of news commentators who who attack my faith with misleading information!

  • Bob McIntosh,

    The first delusion sells you the idea of a ‘great war’ – a spiritual battle – and anyone who leaves church is necessarily on the wrong side.

    The second delusion – by using compassion you can not only help them repress their rebellious thoughts but repress your own in the bargain and get the army ready for more ‘battle.’

    This is a slander against non-believers and an attack on individuality as well as privacy. It is creepy the way the video suggests that ‘others know’ what you are up to! It plays on the fears and the guilt of every masturbator – meaning EVERYONE!

    Religion ruins everything. For no reason.

  • Atheist Max,
    I was going to ask you the definition of a “troll.” But compassion overcame me and I wonder if someone or some people have hurt you deeply and you are blaming religion. Have you been ruined by religion? If so, may God fill your heart with love and forgiveness.


    Yes, I was hurt very badly. By religion itself.
    I believed in Jesus Christ for 44 years. I was told that God was real. And found out it isn’t true.

    And I hope to prevent others from ever going down this road.

    “TROLL – is a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a forum, chat room, or blog), either accidentally or with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.”

    I am not a Troll.
    I am deeply worried about ‘FAITH’ and religion more broadly and its dangerous effects on humanity.

    I am trying to understand why ‘faith’ is considered a legitimate method of discerning what is true when it is crystal clear that people like myself are being destroyed by it all around the world.

    RELIGION NEWS NETWORK displays a steady stream of horrors done in the name of religion – some worse than others. Just when I think there is nothing more to say, some new seemingly benign story of religious manipulation raises its ugly head.

  • After the ‘devastation’ I spoke of, I could see
    religion for what it is:
    delusional, wrong-headed and very interested in controlling others.

    I am much happier without religion now that I have begun to sort it out.

  • Unless he is into that sort of thing 😉

    Frankly the idea that religious views have any place in the bedroom among 1-2 consenting adults is absolute silliness. Anyone who claims they have not engaged in self-love at one point in their lives is either lying or repressed beyond the point of normal understanding of human living.

    There is no transgression in self-pleasure (within some limits). Only an attempt by religious types to control people in their most intimate of activities.

    Sure some are addicted to porn. Some are addicted to coffee or cupcakes. It doesn’t make the object of addiction wrong a priori. It just means people engage in excessive behavior.

  • The church really drive me nuts when they equate occasional usage of porn (or any other vice) with addiction.

    Elder Bednar has instructed young women to run away from any man who has seen pornography. So, turn in your roommates! Bishops – annotate the membership records of these young men! That way future Bishops can help these young women steer clear of these menaces. Do your part!!!

  • Dean Bender,
    Your reply to AtheistMax is typical of many others who play dishonest games with words because they really don’t have the character of thier alleged conviction. Like those who start a sentence with “Not to be rude”, or “With all due respect” but then go on to be rude, or disrespectful, you’re not really the compassionate, caring person you want others to belive you are.
    This doesn’t surprise me though. Religion teaches people to say they believe in things that they know through thier own inate logic that just can’t be true. They develope dishonesty as they learn to lie to each other so they will be accepted in the micro society of ther religion.
    Agree or disagree, it seems that Atheist Max has shed the dishonesty that religion teaches and speaks honestly, and that is a great thing, now it could be your turn.

    Religion is poison!!

  • ” may God fill your heart with love and forgiveness.”

    A derivation of “I will pray for you” which in fundamentalist-speak means “up yours!” in their typical passive aggressive style of dealing with those not of their fold.

  • Reading this thread reminds me why I generally choose not to participate in on-line discussions.

    First, shame on most of you for the absence of caring and thoughtful sharing and discussion in this thread. What is it going to take for us to get to a point where we can loving and openly share without stabs and jabs at each other?

    And shame on most of you (and apparently the rest of those who have viewed this) who look beyond the mark, who do not focus on the message and who read more into it than is intended. Where is there any encouragement to “turn others in”? (I read the “talk to your bishop” scene as “go to your bishop for counsel on how to help and reach out to a roommate.”) Where is there any militarism? If you don’t like the symbol of the a wounded soilder, don’t be so immature as to let the signifier get in the way of the signified. You are all more descerning and educated than that.

    Finally, as a practicing Mormon bishop now working with 18-30 year olds (and previously as a bishop of a traditional ward), I applaud this, not because I want spies. I applaud it because I see first hand how pornography has “ruined” the lives of too many boys and grown men. I know all about the shame and stigma that has been imposed on this problem. We LDS bishops are not a vengeful lot seeking retribution of the sinner. Most of us are well-intentioned shepherds who sincerely want what’s best for our sheep. I am NOT militaristic. My friend Jana can attest to that. But this IS a war. It is devasting; it is destructive. And the best way to win is for caring and loving people to reach out to those who are struggling, who are wounded, who want and need help.

    Please do your part to help. Help me keep the wolves away from my fold.

  • Tom, this is exactly what I feel about the pornography rhetoric that makes no distinction between brief encounters and hard core addiction. I have seen the effect of this rhetoric on someone I love, and it has been devastating to his trust in the institutional church and now Western religion in general. It can lead to unnecessary rejection, divorces and shattered lives. This black and white thinking gets in the way of compassion and wise judgement.

  • Bishop Michael,

    “Most of us are well-intentioned shepherds who sincerely want what’s best for our sheep.”

    Tells you everything you need to know right there.
    How many layers of delusion does it take to say that sentence?

  • 3 true stories about turning people in:

    Person A turned in her home teacher when she opened the door to his truck and a few porn magazines fell out. The Bishop told her to mind her own business.

    Person B turned in her husband for sexting. Her Bishop told her, after talking to the husband, that there was nothing he could do if her husband didn’t confess what he was doing.

    Person C, a single mother, let other single mothers stay/live in her home each summer so that neither had to pay for a sitter and they could cut costs. When a picture of a naked woman was found, both mothers blamed the other’s sons but told the Bishop they thought it was their son that did it. The person I knew went for a temple recommend interview shortly after this and the Bishop refused to ask him if he obeyed the law of chastity. When the young man asked why this question wasn’t asked, he was told by the Bishop that because the young man’s father had cheated on the boy’s mother, the sin was passed down to the boy so the question was not needed, as the young man “inherited” his father’s sin.

    These true stories tell me three things: 1. tattle tales aren’t saving souls 2. sins are personal and 3. our leaders are untrained and don’t always know what they are doing.

  • Earold Gunter, I think I read the same Psychology Today article that you must have about people who say things like, “with all due respect”. And they lie to themselves when they do it.
    That wasn’t me especially since I had just read the article. My statement followed my thought pattern. First, I wanted to counter-attack, then I thought better of it and tried my best to validate feelings. I chose to leave in the “troll” comment in hopes he would realize that some would see him that way.
    Yes, I think it could be time for you be more honest, too. When you say, “Religion is poison” there is the implied “all”. Because you did not have a qualifier as you so nicely did when you used the word “could” in sentence suggesting I could learn to be more honest (no sarcasm in that). The sociological statistics deny your statement. Do you want to see some?

    Some religions may be poison to some people but God is not poison!

  • Larry,
    If you interpret, “may God fill your heart with love and forgiveness” as “up yours” you just might be a little too cynical. Max said in another post that he did not deny the existence of God with a big “but” after that. And I am not an “up yours” kind of guy. But I will call you on your crap.

  • Dean Bender,

    I was a Christian for 44 years. I appreciate and understand the sentiment when someone says they will pray for me. I know they mean well.

    I only regret that I cannot shake people such as yourself out of your delusion.

    My posts are not for the benefit of me only, but as one who escaped Alcatraz and show everyone else how to escape also.

    And That is MY way of saying “I’ll pray for you.”

  • “Wounded on the Battlefield” has been interpreted as an anti-masturbation video, but a BYU-Idaho spokesman said that was not the intended message.

    “We regard addiction to pornography as a harmful and destructive vice. We also regard each other as brothers and sisters and believe we have a Christian obligation to watch out for the spiritual and physical well-being of those around us,” a statement from BYU-Idaho’s media relations office said. “The sole purpose of the video is to illustrate those principles for BYU-Idaho students as well as to encourage them to reach out in a spirit of love and concern if someone they know is struggling with any form of addiction. Any other interpretation of the video is inaccurate and unwarranted.”

    ~Fox News:

  • Dean,
    I cannot disprove God in a general sense.

    But I am certain that the Holy Books we have today are destructive to humanity.

    Would men and women masturbate less if they didn’t have God? Where is the evidence that less masturbation is good for people?

    Just think for a moment about how absolutely ridiculous and trivial this entire question is!

    Masturbation harms nobody, is probably the best way to avoid using other people for sex for selfish purposes, has been show to be very healthy for mind and body.

    It is the height of trivial to attempt to change the frequency of such an inevitable, healthy and unstoppable practice!

  • It is extremely ironic that the same people who tried to sink
    THE AFFORDABLE CARE ACT are desperate now to ‘reach out’ and help the ‘wounded’ all of a sudden!

    As long as Jesus is part of the ‘healthcare’ package we can all feel good about our self-righteousness!

    Oh, how I hate religion.

  • Dean Bender, I’ll have to reply on my own comment as there is no reply button below yours.

    First, I have not read any articles about being honest in what I say or write. However I am curious so please provide a web address for the article and I’ll go read it, if it exists, as I have doubts that your recent perusal would have been so sufficiently influential that you immediately changed your behavior.

    I also don’t think you’re being honest in your response either. You wanted a counter attack and thought better of it, but left it in your comment? Is your keyboard lacking a backspace key? Be honest, you left it their on purpose.

    Perhaps the troll comment is applicable to many of us, you included. It is yet another method to stop people from saying what they want, through social intimidation. However one has to be willing to be intimidated in order for it to be affective.

    Perhaps I can help you to comprehend what you read better. Try this one out and see if it gives you as strong of an understanding as your psychology today article. Water is wet!! Do I need a qualifier for you to comprehend this? It their ambiguity in what it means?

    There is no dishonesty in my choice of closing statement, religion is poison. Religion poisons the mind by making things that in any other circumstance would be completely unacceptable to humans, acceptable. It is the scourge of mankind and needs to be eliminated from all societies.

    Religion is Poison!!

  • Seriously, what can you expect from a church that teaches it’s teens that they would rather have them come home in a coffin than lose their chastity? This video holds no surprises for me.

    Since they film makers were trying to film this in the style of “Saving Private Ryan”, I have nicknamed it “Saving Ryan’s Privates”.