The Frustrated Penis vs. The Frustrated Imagination: Thomistic Natural Law Sets up a War Between Body and Brain, Countryside and City

If you’re a Thomistic-style theorist of natural law, you look at an organ like the penis and say that, obviously, its form and function are directed to reproduction, and thus, if you put a condom on it, you are (and this is in the words of an actual advocate of natural law) “positively frustrating a natural faculty.”

Poor, frustrated penis.

But what about the poor, frustrated human imagination? In other words, evolution has not just acted on the penis, giving it its form and function, but on the human brain, giving it its form and function.

And that function is to exercise imaginative routes around the natural course of things. That’s the human superpower; not to act on instinct–on the given–but to imagine alternative futures. Thus does Thomistic natural law drop the context of the human organism as a whole, setting the evolved organ of the brain against the evolved organs of reproduction. Like the libertarian ideologue who only focuses on freedom, but never equality, the natural law theorist doesn’t address the balancing of competing goods–of competing organs.

Thus a man who masturbates does this so as not to frustrate his faculty for fantasy–his brain. In masturbation he “positively frustrates” his penis’s reproductive function, to be sure, but it pleases and fulfills both the brain and penis in other ways.

Likewise, a woman may regulate her fertility with contraception so as not to frustrate her graduate school education–the brain’s desire for knowledge. She makes a decision about competing goods pursued by competing organs (brain and reproductive organs) that cannot be proscribed in advance.

The environmental context of the organism is also important. Rural agricultural life (such as that lived by an Amish hausfrau) and city life (such as that lived by a single woman in NYC) entails a different weighting of competing goods (how much time devoted to education, how much to child-bearing, etc.).

So the nostalgia here is that Thomistic natural law can provide substantial (non-trivial) guidance to both the rural and city woman by reading off the function of their sex organs in decontextualized isolation.

Thus the virgin Thomas Aquinas’s notions about women and sex belong to a pre-Darwinian agricultural era when females were married off at fifteen, and when advanced education and the holding off of marriage for young women was unthinkable.

Life expectancy, after all, was under forty. It was a different world.

Now it’s eighty. And demographers tell us that 90% of all human beings on the planet will live in cities by the end of the 21st century. The concrete jungle does not support the sexual mores being advocated by contemporary natural law Thomists, and where they’re seriously tried there it leads to ludicrous ordeals for married women (such as attempting to regulate fertility by the rhythm method).

So if you want to talk about frustration, think of the time-consuming monitoring, mental distraction, and aggravation of married women practicing the rhythm method–which largely doesn’t work anyway.

Thomistic natural law theorizing thus sets at war brain and body, city and countryside. It is a way of thinking about humans that is sympatico with special creation and authoritarianism, but not evolution by variation and the democratic exploiting of contingencies.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
This entry was posted in atheism, edward feser, God, philosophy, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

35 Responses to The Frustrated Penis vs. The Frustrated Imagination: Thomistic Natural Law Sets up a War Between Body and Brain, Countryside and City

  1. Anonymous says:

    Masturbation topic again. Seems to your favorite.

  2. Zia says:

    Interesting topic. Seems worthy of a book. However, I am bit confused about what you meant by “democratic exploiting” in your last line “…but not evolution by variation and the democratic exploiting of contingencies”. Would love to see your explanation.

    As for the Anonymous post above (I usually don’t feed the trolls) but seriously, read a book once in a while and try to come out of your cave too. It is nice outside.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Sorry you thought I sounded like a troll Zia.

    It’s just that I’ve read a lot of Santi’s posts and it seems that masturbation comes up really often, especially when he makes up stuff about A-T philosophy. If there is a book in the works, it will certainly be fiction.

    But let me ask Santi a question.

    When a man masturbates, is he thinking of Thomism or perhaps a young woman.

    If a young woman, then isn’t this just treating her as a sexual object and isn’t it an affront to her human dignity? Wouldn’t she be offended or repulsed if she found out?

    Is the man thinking of his wife? Does he discuss the object of his masturbation with his wife?

  4. Anonymous says:


    Is there a response in our future?

  5. Santi Tafarella says:

    Hi Zia:

    I was contrasting Thomistic authoritarianism, which is top down, with secular democracy, which is bottom up. Evolution and democracy are both sympatico, in my view, because they are not sky hooks (to use Dennett’s term). Democracy, like evolution, has a down-to-earth, hive quality to it; information is distributed throughout the system. And democracy, like natural selection, is also highly sensitive to historical contingencies, adjusting to new cultural and environmental circumstances (gay marriage, global warming, etc.).

    By contrast, Thomism is like a machine that runs without reality testing along the way. It has its range of motion and possible maneuvers, but cannot evolve. It can’t adjust to women’s equality, birth control, gay marriage, etc.

    • Zia says:

      Thank you. To be honest that is one of the best explanations I have seen. The bottom up analogy is spot on. Change on genetic level influences phenotype and selection does the rest. Of course there is also Genetic Drift that is random and i have not yet been able to mesh that with democracy. I think this will be an excellent flex presentation. Are you in 😉

  6. Santi Tafarella says:


    Your questions about masturbation are odd. Isn’t it a given that masturbation is accompanied by fantasy? And I suppose a man who has a good relationship with his wife can talk about all sorts of sexual matters, including fantasies and masturbation. Are you suggesting that, if one masturbates, it’s shameful and has to be kept hidden from mates? Isn’t that dishonest?

    As for why I bring up masturbation in relation to Thomism, I do so because it is so obviously a harmless behavior–and yet Thomists nevertheless attach a ban to it–and for ridiculous reasons (among them, it’s not what the penis is “for”). Masturbation prohibition provides a simple and straightforward example of the wrong-headed reasoning that accompanies appeals to natural law.

  7. Anonymous says:


    “Are you suggesting that, if one masturbates, it’s shameful and has to be kept hidden from mates? Isn’t that dishonest?”

    Yes, I agree that if you hide the reason you are masturbating from your wife that is dishonest. I will assume then that you have these discussions with your wife. I congratulate you for your integrity in stating that there is absolutely nothing wrong with masturbation and no one should be ashamed of it, and living out your beliefs. There are probably a lot of wives who would feel betrayed, at least. How does your wife respond when you tell her you are fantasizing about having sex with another woman?

    I’m looking forward to your response of your obligation to the person of the young woman you fantasize about having sex with. First of all, does this not objectivize her and demean her as a person and reduce her to a mere sexual object? And secondly, if you do so without her permission, isn’t this a sort of mental rape?

    Finally, since you hold that there is absolutely nothing wrong with masturbation, then why not do it in public? Yes, there are laws now, but they should be repealed don’t you think? How can we pass laws against something that is not wrong?

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      I don’t mind you trolling the blog, but not my private life. I can’t answer the sorts of questions you pose in a public forum. And the assumptions you’re making about what I do or don’t do in private are unwarranted, as I’ve said nothing about it. So that’s a pretty low place for you, as a “Christian,” to go. It’s hard to see morality (or even decency) in your making the discussion so personal (and all on one side). You get to comment here anonymously, and I haven’t asked you to do otherwise, but you are showing a lack of fairness with me (as someone who blogs in my own name).

      As for public masturbation, I assume it has never caught on for good evolutionary reasons–among them that people in cities are making money for survival, or gathering goods and services for survival, and so when they are out and about in public, they need to focus on things other than sex. We seem to want privacy in sexual behavior, but not in eating behavior (which can entail similar levels of pleasure). That’s a contingency of our evolution that, in a democratic society, we seem to be content with keeping in place.

      Why does moral justification need to go beyond democratic negotiation and evolutionary investigation and reflection–especially when theistic metaphysical systems are, at bottom, speculative?

  8. Anonymous says:


    I’m sorry if you think the questions I’m asking are indecent. I assumed since you frequently discuss masturbation and how it is not shameful, that you were open to discussing your personal experiences. Thank you, I now know where the boundary is on this subject with you.

    My intent was not to insult you or provoke you, or Zia, but to explore the moral implications of your stance.

    It seems to me that a wife would normally not approve of the behavior, but you disagree. Do you really think most wives would agree with you? Regardless, I am curious of the thought process for those wives who do approve.

    It is precisely because of your choice of topics that I want to remain anonymous. Today, if a person has an unpopular view, there are those who would make sure they lose their way of making a living. I consider my views unpopular here, so I’m sure you understand.

    It seems though that you have now twice ignored the question about a person’s moral duty toward a woman’s personhood. Is it moral for a man to not only think about a woman as a mere sexual object, but act out on that thought? What then of feminism?

  9. Santi Tafarella says:


    Now that you are back in the realm of discussion, and not trying to make it personal, I’m happy to discuss the details with you.

    You are asking an extraordinarily complicated and nuanced question that deserves thought, for it intersects biology, gender, temperamental variation (how much truth a couple can tolerate, etc.), psychology, and culture, and these might not be easily negotiated to the total satisfaction of all the competing interests involved. We may be in the realm of Freud’s price for civilization: some degree of dissatisfaction and unhappiness.

    What might seem straightforward from one vantage poses difficulties from other vantages (such as when Isaiah Berlin discusses the conflict of equality with liberty, and the difficulty–and even impossibility–of really holding both of them in a single vision).

    So, for example: take the teen male who masturbates, say, to a high school yearbook picture of a cheerleader in his math class. Does that set back feminism, objectifying the girl?

    The first problem here is defining the nature of objectification. It seems inescapable in any encounter with the other, that, in relation to the self as SUBJECT, everything is OBJECT. Even your past selves cannot escape objectification. For example, you objectify yourself in MEMORY when you recall who you were, say, five years earlier. That person is an object in your attention, no longer a living subject. You, right now, are the living subject that retains an object-trace of that person that you were five years ago.

    So I don’t know how one would measure the consequences of the act of the teenager with the yearbook, good or bad. Has he objectified the girl? Well, yes, but all perception and imagination objectifies. Does he have a simplifying model of the girl in his head, toward which he projects–hopefully with empathy–emotions and thoughts akin to his own. Well, yes, but he does this with his own self in memory.

    So right off, objectification is itself problematic as to whether it’s good or bad to do that. Certainly the consequences of objectification are as varied and unpredictable as any other action we send into the world. It’s thus very hard to prescribe behavior or thought in advance of context, and even when we know the context, we cannot know distant contexts, which always have the joker’s potential of flipping the results of the action. There is therefore irony in discussing what we should or should not do. For instance, wouldn’t it have been better, in retrospect, for Hitler’s dad to have jerked off on the morning of Hitler’s conception, rather than doing the “right thing” and making sure his seed ended up in a fertile vagina?

  10. Anonymous says:


    What stands out to me in your reply is that you seem to consider things only from the point of view of the masturbator. You seem to treat the girl as if she is some specimen in a scientific experiment, incapable of letting us know her point of view.

    You say:
    “Has he objectified the girl? Well, yes”…..and then go about filling the room with smoke.
    Why don’t you advocate asking the girl? Isn’t that the honest thing to do? Just like a husband should discuss it with his wife.

    Without approval, it looks like the masturbator is in fact de-humanizing and thereby degrading the girl and her personal dignity (and his own dignity to boot). If he is married, he is also degrading his wife by violating their vow of exclusivity.

    I suspect if he starts to actually seek approval, he will start to accumulate restraint orders ( and probably get invited to less parties too). Society will start viewing him with the same “evolutionary” eyes as the public park masturbator.

    “As for why I bring up masturbation in relation to Thomism, I do so because it is so obviously a harmless behavior–and yet Thomists nevertheless attach a ban to it”

    So for a man who does this privately, he demeans the personhood of the women involved. For proof of this, all he has to do is ask and watch what happens. With this in mind, do you still call it harmless?

  11. Santi Tafarella says:


    Your argument is premised on the idea that sexual gratification demeans the personhood of the one you’re fantasizing about–but why would this be the case? You can fantasize not just about enjoying someone’s body, but also their person, and that the person is enjoying you and your body as well. A fantasy of raping or murdering somebody, and reaching orgasm to that, would be demeaning (and the sign that the person is a psychopath). That’s not, however, what is typical of a masturbation fantasy.

    And women masturbate. Let’s keep that in play. They look at porn and masturbate. They fantasize about the mailman, the ex-lover, or experiences they’ve had (or wish they had). Some women don’t bring imagination to their masturbation, focusing only on their bodily states, but other women fantasize.

    Perhaps you’ve never seen the classic book of women’s sexual fantasies (written, I believe, in either the 1970s or early 80s): My Secret Garden. It’s a very hot, very beautiful and fascinating, reciting of surveyed women’s sexual and masturbation fantasies.

    I simply don’t see the practice of masturbation as harmful. It is natural and healthy–and fine to keep private. You don’t have to tell people you’ve masturbated to them. That’s just silly to suggest that one has some sort of obligation to inform. The human mind loves to rehearse scenarios–including with sex. I don’t think it’s a zero-sum game where you can’t have a fantasy life and a good relationship with one’s real-life lovers.

    Also, let’s not forget habituation in behavioral psychology. Perhaps you’ve heard of the Coolidge effect–which entails diminishment of interest over time, absent variety. The Coolidge effect is derived from an incident in which the President is touring a farm with his wife, and is told the rooster copulates a dozen times a day. Coolidge’s wife says in response, “Tell that to Mr. Coolidge.” Coolidge then asks whether the rooster fucks the same hen all day, to which the tour guide’s reply is, “No. Different hens”–to which Coolidge replies, “Tell that to Mrs. Coolidge.”

    If you deny the pursuit of variety, even in masturbatory fantasy, I think you’re not acknowledging something central to mammalian evolution (variety spices life and is among the evolutionary strategies that brought us to this human moment in the first place).

  12. Anonymous says:

    Ha ha! Never took you for a Coolidge supporter.

    But you see, it kind of proves my point. Mrs. Coolidge would disapprove of Mr. Coolidge’s violation of the pledge of exclusivity they made to each other.

    “A fantasy of raping or murdering somebody, and reaching orgasm to that, would be demeaning”

    Having sex with someone without her permission is generally called rape. If you fanaticize about having sex with someone without their permission you are fantasizing about raping that person. Some rapists fantasize that their victims have given permission don’t they?

    If it’s wrong to debase a person’s dignity, then the fact that women can be guilty of it also does not excuse it.

    “I simply don’t see the practice of masturbation as harmful. It is natural and healthy–and fine to keep private. You don’t have to tell people you’ve masturbated to them. That’s just silly to suggest that one has some sort of obligation to inform. The human mind loves to rehearse scenarios–including with sex. I don’t think it’s a zero-sum game where you can’t have a fantasy life and a good relationship with one’s real-life lovers.”

    Let me address this as if you had said it in the third person.

    Let me re-phrase this and let you tell me if I understand the view correctly. Of course it is a hypothetical person I’m referring to:

    “I don’t know and I don’t want to know what my target thinks about how I view her personal dignity. The same goes for whether my wife approves of my mentally cheating on her. It’s going to happen regardless and it’s all perfectly natural (but I don’t want anyone to find out about it.)”

    It would be hypocritical of someone to hold this position and consider himself to be empathetic.

  13. Santi Tafarella says:


    Excuse me if I smile at this thread. Masturbation is rape. That’s your position. Perhaps it’s also your position that it’s murder as well–for, after all, a child might have been conceived of the ejaculate (had it been released into a vagina). God, after all, in the Bible, slays Onan for spilling his seed outside of a vagina.

    So many mortal sins committed in America before breakfast tea!

    But I’d like to shift gears here and ask a competing goods question–or, rather, a competing evils question. Let’s say that I concede that there is something wrong with masturbation (which I don’t). But let’s say that I did. Is the behavior competing with another evil?

    I say: Yes, obviously.

    The evil that masturbation is in contention with is a great evil, indeed: telling children and teens not to masturbate, and scaring both young and old with hell for masturbating.

    Is the issue of hell part of this for you, Anonymous? Do you believe that hell exists?

    I think it’s a great evil to combine sexual prohibition with threats of hell; that this is far more damaging than any private masturbation behavior. It can turn a teen’s home and church life into the Stockholm Syndrome (getting love and threat from the same source).

    Put another way, the psychological and emotional effects of laying a prohibition on masturbation (accompanied by punishments both temporal and in hell) are far worse than any harm one can imagine from the act of masturbation itself–which is, in fact, a source of sexual liberation, and a godsend to many, many people.

    The question is thus not–“Should one masturbate?”–but “Should one tell people not to masturbate?”

    An obvious outcome of repressing sex with threats of hell, and treating sex, the body, and sexual fantasy as in some sense dirty, is the syndrome of pedophile priests in the Catholic Church–a problem that besets something like 4% of Catholic clergy (1 in 20 priests globally).

    Not making a big deal of masturbation, gay marriage, and priest marriage would probably go a long way toward defusing sexual confusion in aspiring virgin priests–and the inevitable train-wrecks that accompany their vows of chastity in the name of “holiness.”

    Masturbation is part of healthy sexual development. I would never say to a child, “Don’t masturbate,” or lay any trips on them for masturbating. And I certainly would not tell a child they are at risk of going to hell for masturbating. How about you?

  14. Anonymous says:

    “Excuse me if I smile at this thread. Masturbation is rape. That’s your position.”

    I learned something new today that may interest you and those following along. It seems that arguing against a position that your opponent does not hold is called an “Aunt Sally” in the UK. Check it out:

    Good day, Aunt Sally, but we were actually discussing what constitutes “a fantasy of raping or murdering someone” (as you noted) and whether that was wrong (you said yes). I’m wondering why someone would have to call on you (all the way from the UK) while exploring the mechanics of these fantasies?

    “Let’s say that I concede that there is something wrong with masturbation (which I don’t)…..etc”

    In summary, the gist is ‘it may be bad but there are worse things, so it’s not really so bad’, This type of tactic is known as the fallacy of Relative Privation.

    Please refer to:
    Or for those who prefer RationalWiki:

    The remainder of the smoke generated smells like Red Herring. I think everyone knows what that means.

    But I notice that you didn’t contest my re-phrasing of what I take to be your position. Does that mean I got it right? I don’t want to be accused of introducing my Aunt Sally into the discussion.

  15. Santi Tafarella says:


    No need to restate or straw man my position with loaded words like “target.” I think it’s perfectly fine for human beings to think things in their heads in private, to touch their genitals in private, and to not subject their private fantasy lives to the scrutiny or permission of priests in confession, state authorities, gods, or other humans.

    Mental disclosure is up to the individual. It is in keeping with his or her own sense of self-dignity (and desire to disclose). I don’t believe a masturbation fantasy should constitute a thought crime in need of self-loathing, emotional guilt, and confession. It just feels too totalitarian to treat fantasies and one’s own body as the rightful property of either God or others, and subject to their approval or permission.

    So, for me, empathy goes to the individual first, and the emotional and temperamental capacity of that individual for self-disclosure–which varies enormously among people.

    Now, having said that, I think it’s great if husbands, wives, boyfriends, and girlfriends can have frank and open discussions about their fantasy lives, their porn lives, their sexual experiences, whether they want to be polyamorous or monogamous, their masturbation lives, etc., but each couple works out its own negotiations and determinations (in terms of how much truth partners can hear–or want to hear). I don’t need to prescribe adult relations at this level.

    And I don’t need to prescribe that children and adolescents disclose masturbation and masturbation fantasies to parents, teachers, priests, classmates, etc. either. I think there’s real evidence that you can harm children if you regulate private sexual exploration of their own bodies and imaginations.

    Monotheist priests and parents have, for millennia, laid hell terrors on youthful masturbators, and I think this is far worse than any harm the act itself could supposedly generate, don’t you agree?

    And taking the harms of prohibition into account is not a “relative privation” fallacy (‘it may be bad but there are worse things, so it’s not really so bad’). It is, rather, treating competing goods (or evils) as actually competing goods (or evils). It is keeping the nature of both things in play, giving them both full contextual attention, and evaluating whether, in this case, the prohibition is worse than (what you take to be) the “crime.”

    So what is your take on what one should tell kids about touching their genitals–and having sexual fantasies while doing so? I say, Leave the issue alone with kids. Don’t trip them out.

    What say you? Would you really lay adult trips on children exploring their bodies for the first time? Would you tell them it’s sinful to masturbate, and that they could be punished in hell for it?

    And as for the contexts for adult masturbation, they are so many and varied that to lay a blanket disapproval over them is ludicrous. For example, some men masturbate before, say, a first date so that they can be more gentlemanly for the evening, and not try to rush their date into bed. It would certainly throw the date if the first thing out of the person’s mouth over dinner was, “I masturbated with you in my mind, and I’m feeling really guilty about it. I do hope you’ll forgive me.”

    Your position, in other words, shows very little common sense. You are setting people into relational traps with one another in which there is this constant element of being the guilty petitioner, confessing “naughty” private thoughts or behaviors related to sex to someone who can withdraw love.

    So the masturbation-before-the-first-date confession is something you might tell a lover a year into the relationship, and the two of you have a good laugh over it. It’s not the sort of thing you spill–pun intended, I suppose–on day one, out of a ridiculous felt obligation to disclose and confess.

    Mature adults, male and female, understand how people’s sex lives develop, and that most people masturbate and fantasize, and they leave it be until the level of intimacy is sufficient that conversations about such matters can be had with empathy, good humor, and common sense.

    • Anonymous says:

      “No need to restate or straw man my position with loaded words like “target.” ”

      So from this, I’m going to assume that the only complaint you have of my restatement is the single word “target”. I’m OK with using a different word…how about “person”? But isn’t your real complaint is that my way of stating it takes into account the personhood of other individuals and the human dignity due to them?

      Maybe that woman in the porn movie is a mother that is just trying to feed her children, or someone who is a victim of sex trafficking. Would it be wrong for the masturbator to click or buy the movie then? What if she was just a naive young girl that was talked into it and now has to live with this for the rest of her life and explain it to family and children. Is it moral for a man to pay people to exploit that woman merely for his own pleasure?

      You ask what I would tell my children?
      I would tell my children to always think of all humans as fully human, deserving of the same human dignity that they have for themselves and their family members. If they dehumanize others, they are essentially denying their own human dignity too. Something like “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

      “And taking the harms of prohibition into account is not a “relative privation” fallacy (‘it may be bad but there are worse things, so it’s not really so bad’). It is, rather, treating competing goods (or evils) as actually competing goods (or evils).”

      This is simply ignoring the definition of the the “relative privation” fallacy while inventing a new defintion of “competing goods” philosophy. Once again your claim was that although masturbation may be bad, prohibition was worse concluding that masturbation is OK. There are simply no goods competing here, only evils.

  16. Santi Tafarella says:

    Here’s Travolta talking to himself in the mirror, deciding he’ll be a gentleman toward Mia, not try to get her in bed, and instead masturbate when he gets home (from Pulp Fiction):

  17. North Charlton says:

    “Anonymous says:
    March 4, 2016 at 8:59 pm


    What stands out to me in your reply is that you seem to consider things only from the point of view of the masturbator. …”

    Strange how the crux of Tafarella’s pattern of argument, always locates on the same imaginary point: the presumptive privilege or right, or call it what you will, of the pleasure or affirmation seeking organism to not only engage in these “self-expressive” behaviors, but to receive social affirmations and protections from other parties for and while doing so.

    Yet there is no good reason to think that it is in the interest of these others to be so tasked and burdened … especially since per the Tafarellian scheme, there is no objective commonality of interests significant enough to compel or even persuade, say, a kid interested in working on auto engines to sit in an audience and applaud a boy who likes to dress up in women’s clothes climb up on a stage and pretend he is belle of the ball.

    Frankly my dear, there is no reason why the young auto enthusiast should give a damn.

    That one-eyed squint posing as liberated thought, is typical of Tafarella’s moral “equations”; and perhaps goes quite some way in explaining his own obsession with the theme of entropic self-gratification.

    The girly-boy just gotta dance we are told; the flouncing act just gotta be appreciated it’s implied; the nihilistic behavior just gotta be provided a forum for safe and sympathetic expression: but before whom, appreciated by whom, and enabled by just who at what cost to an unwilling participant’s own interest in being free (their own liberation) of the particular nonsense and dysfunction savored by the just-gotta-actor, is completely ignored.

    The equation doesn’t balance. In fact one whole side is missing. There is nothing really there to be deduced at all.

    I guess that is where “imagination” comes in, what?

  18. Santi Tafarella says:


    By asking–“What do you tell kids?”–I’m giving you an opportunity to grapple (anonymously, at that!) with intrusion on the fantasy lives of others, and in application to a specific instance–but you’re declining this for the scoring of a debating point (you say you would just make unspecific generalizations about respect).

    So that’s a dodge. Try again. Would you tell a child or adolescent not to masturbate and indulge in sexual fantasies? That’s a yes or no. If you say yes, do you think that constitutes good parenting to do so? And would you teach the child that hell exists (as motivation to avoid the sin of masturbation)?

    Two other issues I think need to be kept in play here: (1) the brain’s modularity; and (2) the fact that sexual fantasy probably precedes even speech in evolution, and reveals itself in the dreams and nocturnal emissions of teenagers. Sexual fantasy probably precedes our own species.

    Put another way, the healthy human psyche has “rooms” to which very ancient agendas are enacted in ways that are driven by contingent biological imperatives, and to which conscious repression is likely to prove ineffectual and unhealthy.

    One can imagine, for instance, that prior to language itself, ancestors of ours going back perhaps 300,000 years had nocturnal emission dreams.

    Part of our mental equipment, after all, is the power to imagine scenarios in our imaginations–and these scenarios play out both when we are awake and when we dream. What you seem to be advocating is the repression of this power to imagine and scenario generate when it comes to sex, and to affirm attitudes akin to Numbers 15:38-40 in the Bible, in which the mind is strictly regulated surrounding image and imagination–and accompanied by terror in the breach.

  19. Anonymous says:


    I gave you an honest answer. I’m not sure how you can read my response and not understand that I’ve answered that 1) it is immoral, so 2) naturally it is the parent’s duty to teach morality and 3) I would not mention hell specifically in this regard. If the discussion was stealing, lying or cheating, I would cover basically the same ground.

    If someone has the urge to steal, lie or cheat (they do, don’t they?), it doesn’t make it morally right. At least not if that person wants to honestly claim that they care about the human dignity of others.

    We expect animals to behave according to their urges without restraint and without consideration of other’s dignity. If someone behaves the same, what does that say about that person’s concept of his own dignity, not to mention his concept of the dignity of others?

  20. Santi Tafarella says:


    I hope you’re absorbing the full implication of your answer. You’re saying that, in a discussion with a child, scenarios in the head, in which the fantasy of two (or more!) people EXPLORING, PLAYING, LUSTING, and CARING for one another (equally enjoying and pleasuring one another) is akin to stealing, lying, and cheating.

    By getting in a kid’s head in this way, you said you would bypass threats of hell in the discussion–perhaps you would let the child fill in the blanks on that one–but what about evolution?

    Where does evolution enter the conversation with the child? You’ve completely dehistoricized the child’s brain and body in relation to their evolution.

    Think, for example, of the seven primal emotional areas that evolution has placed in the modular mammalian brain. Rats have these systems, cats have them, humans have them. Your “no masturbation” prohibition disrupts no less than four of them. Four of them. Here they are (based on neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp’s list):

    (a) Seeking system (sometimes called the reward system, which manifests in affect terms as desire; enthusiasm; curiosity; excitement to discover the truth and learn or get new things)
    (b) Rage system (manifestations of affect: aversion; anger; being “pissed off”)
    (c) Fear system (anxiety)
    (d) Lust system (horniness; activates the opioid reward system)
    (e) Care system (tenderness; love; empathy)
    (f) Panic system (loss, grief, mourning, frustration, loneliness, sadness)
    (g) Play (joy, imagination)

    When you tell a kid not to masturbate, and allow the child to perhaps fill in the blanks of prohibition with threats of hell–for you did not say, after all, you would tell the child that hell doesn’t exist–you basically leave the child with only their rage, fear, and panic systems in full working order (which include mourning, inner loneliness, sadness, frustration, anxiety, and anger). Not good. Sounds like you’re making a Trump voter.

    So I don’t think you want to get children–children–into habits of frustration where they don’t touch their genitals or fantasize about sex.

    This is why masturbation is so liberating for adolescents in general. It goes, as it were, with their Lockean development of independence and liberty–nobody, at such an intimate level, is going to tell them what to think or do–and so is as American as apple pie.

    And it gives children a sense of power, autonomy, privacy, and pleasure at the very moment in their lives when it’s better for them to be in school as opposed to satisfying their sexual needs through marriage.

    Masturbation and fantasy thus function as part of the compromise of city life and delayed marriage, where girls and boys are not married off at fifteen (or younger, as in medieval rural communities!), but delay marriage until after college.

    Here’s Jaak Panksepp, in a TED talk, discussing his list of the seven primal emotional systems in the mammalian brain. This, not that hell exists, is what I would share with children in any discussion surrounding masturbation (were I to discuss the subject at all).

    And I’m curious. Would you tell children hell does not exist? What would you say about hell–to a child? At what age would you tell her or him about the existence of hell (if you think it exists)?

    I’ll share what I’ve already told my own children about hell after you’ve shared your views on this. This post is already too long on my side.

  21. Anonymous says:


    I agree that this thread has gone on long enough. It seems that you want the direction to turn to the topic of Hell, which while interesting, doesn’t pertain to the question of whether masturbation is moral or immoral (the original topic). Perhaps you should start another thread about Hell then.

    It is pretty clear to me that you consider masturbation to be some sort of sacred cow and that it is incomprehensible to you that anyone could have any objection against it. In fact objections are not even heard or acknowledged. Perhaps you think those who teach their children to always think and act with “Love your neighbor as yourself” as a guiding principle are immoral. It certainly seems that way.

    So I will summarize my position to those who are willing to consider the “Love your neighbor” position as a worthy moral goal.

    First even Santi agrees that there can be immoral thoughts with rape and murder are examples. Feminists and I argue that thinking of women as sexual objects is immoral. I further argue that this is what the masturbator does during his act as Santi agreed, at least at one point. But perhaps it could be argued that the woman being masturbated to would permit or enjoy the masturbator thinking of her in this way. How could the masturbator ever know?

    Luckily, there is a way to reality check the answer to this. The masturbator could ask the woman if she minded. If he loved her as a person, fully deserving of human dignity, a masturbator would want to know. However, most normal people already know the answer to this and would feel silly and ashamed to ask the question (at least the second time). Put another way, if there is nothing to be ashamed of and it’s perfectly natural, then why not share it with the women and your wife? In fact why not share it in public like the bonobos?

    In addition to disrespecting the person of the women being masturbated to, and the personal dignity of the wife, the masturbator contributes materially to the abuse of the women in the porn industry and ultimately the human sex trafficking trade. The masturbator has made a personal choice to block out all thoughts of his duty to the personal dignity and well-being of others or perhaps just doesn’t care.

    If we all lived and practiced “love your neighbor as yourself” we wouldn’t consider them as less than human, contribute to their abuse or degradation, we wouldn’t lie to or about our neighbors, we wouldn’t steal from them or try to cheat them. If we want to argue that we should follow our urges without consideration of others, then it could easily be argued that all of the vices listed above are virtues.

  22. Anonymous says:


  23. Santi Tafarella says:


    You write: “Feminists and I argue that thinking of women as sexual objects is immoral. I further argue that this is what the masturbator does during his act as Santi agreed, at least at one point. But perhaps it could be argued that the woman being masturbated to would permit or enjoy the masturbator thinking of her in this way.”

    Anything available to consciousness is an OBJECT of consciousness. It cannot be other than an object of consciousness. Objectification is what subjective consciousness, in the present, does. It cannot do otherwise. Even in relation to itself, present awareness of what you were ten minutes ago is now an OBJECT to your memory. Your very brain schematizes you into an object of memory.

    But if you combine an object of consciousness with EMPATHY, then the object of consciousness can be imagined to have a subjective experience like you are having right now–though you, personally, only experience an object relation to it, him, her–or one of your own memories of yourself.

    Thus when you IMAGINE a sexual encounter with another person, you can imagine it in terms of two subjective consciousnesses taking pleasure from one another–not of one using the other like a piece of meat. I submit that most people, male or female, masturbate to a mutual intimacy fantasy–one in which pleasure is given and received (loving one’s neighbor as one’s self). The private fantasy is almost never exploitative.

    Therefore most people would actually be quite delighted to learn that they were the OBJECT of someone else’s fantasy in this way–though such confessions are rare. The permission is implicit–and even hoped for.

    So one could turn this around and imagine someone offering up the following confession: “I wish you were so turned on by our interaction today that it made you go home and fantasize we were lovers. I’d love to be the object of your fantasies.” But that sort of confession might entail a greater commitment–to say such a thing to a stranger or acquaintance–and so almost never gets said. But when people are dating, such things often do get confessed–the hope that when the couple is, say, separated in different cities, that they are fantasizing from long distance.

    If masturbation was inherently exploitative, lovers wouldn’t hope for this.

    Having said this, I don’t think that masturbation treated just as an object relation is of necessity bad or unhealthy. Indeed, it may be important to the working out of some people’s unconscious energies. There are people, after all, who get off on sado-masochistic play, where inhuman demands are play-acted, and this may be a trope for God’s relation to human beings and their suffering (as Zizek theorizes). Like God, the Dark Lady makes random and unreasonable demands without explanation, and plants a metaphorical high heel into your flesh. Such playing out of this divine, sado-masochistic, theater, either in private fantasy or in payment to a dungeon mistress, may be cathartic in a healthy and important way for some people. Sex shouldn’t be treated as this always serious and business-like thing for making babies. Sometimes–even often–it can be translated into theater without the least harm to others.

    What, after all, does so much of religious practice entail–in its compulsive rhythms, tears, bowing, submission, swooning, worshiping, and begging–but sublimated sexual behavior, sado-masochism, and ecstatic longing?

    What is religion but a type of fantasy acting out, a mental masturbation, to a god that isn’t there–or at least to a deity that shows no signs of being in the room? Despite God’s absence, the AS IF play of God’s presence is enacted as catharsis. “Father’s not speaking back, but we will speak to ‘Our Father, which art in heaven…'”

  24. Anonymous says:

    Got it.
    So listen up girls. That creepy little guy masturbating in the bushes under your window is really paying you a great compliment. Sort of like a silent serenade. He really loves you, except he wants nothing else to do with you because “that sort of confession might entail a greater commitment–to say such a thing to a stranger or acquaintance”. Love is funny that way.

    I’m sure Bill Cosby thought his “dates” were being paid a compliment too. In his mind at least, he IMAGINED they would have accepted this compliment. No need to ask and really find out.

    I’m beginning to think I’m talking to someone who uses the words empathy and love but cannot actually feel them. Lust yes, love no.

    But as you say, in the end, you admit that you really don’t care about the target at all (I’m using that word again since you started to talk of “inhuman demands”) since you approve of those who fantasize about hurting others.

    Since you bring up sado-masochism unexpectedly and favorably in a discussion regarding consent and empathy and also use this as a platform to mock God (who you say doesn’t exist or isn’t speaking) I wonder if you actually favor the philosophy of the Marquis de Sade. Do you see anything wrong with his conclusions?

    As an aside, I wonder if you noticed the large number of strange recent comments on the “How Many People Could the Ancient Colosseum in Rome Hold?” thread. Do you know who is posting those?

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      No clue on the posters at the Roman Colosseum thread–probably teenagers sassing back and forth. When I used to post a lot on the Holocaust under the title, “Bearing Witness to the Holocaust,” accompanied by images and observations, you should have seen the threads those generated: out came the antisemites.

      As for the way you frame masturbation, it’s telling that you have to make the masturbator into Bill Cosby or a predator trespassing on property and lurking in bushes to heighten the “politics of disgust” (Martha Nussbaum’s term). It illustrates my point that run-of-the-mill fantasizing in private is actually no big whoop–and much more difficult for you to raise rhetorical outrage over.

      As for inhuman demands, it tends to be men, not women, who seek out domination play, placing themselves in the role of masochist, not sadist.

      See my Zizek post here for my discussion of this:

      These enactments, when paid for, tend to get directed masochistically at the man, not the man toward the woman (in bondage fantasies in which a dungeon mistress enacts the sado-masochistic fantasies).

      I personally would not encourage sado-masochistic play or fantasy that actually harms the bodies or psyches of men or women, as the sado-masochistic play of religion so frequently does in laying before individuals the terrors of hell as if they are real (as in Halloween Hell Houses), and allowing for such behaviors as crucifixion and self-flagellation on “holy days,” and the wearing of the cilice (as is practiced by some Catholics).

      As for Sade, his novels are morally awful on many, many levels, but I share Camille Paglia’s views, in Sexual Personae, that they are important to think about as literature, psychology (including gender psychology), and the relation of the body to Nature and God. Sade can be read as ironically enacting the sado-masochism and logic of domination and submission that God has instituted into Nature writ large. The novels function as critiques of how God set-up the cosmos. (God doesn’t intervene to prevent decapitations, lightning strikes, etc.–so why should we?)

      And the philosopher Susan Neiman, in her book, Evil in Modern Thought, reads Sade as an important thinker in the history of human grappling with the problem of evil.

      And one other thing: you act as if a woman (or man) is unlikely to feel complimented were she (or he) to learn that someone imagined her (or him) as a lover, and took pleasure in the fantasy of that. But wouldn’t this be an act of mercy, to give another person this level of comfort? Especially if the person, say, was disabled or otherwise unavailable for a flesh-and-blood real relationship with another human being?

      In other words, there are a lot of people in the world–the widowed elderly, the morbidly obese, etc.–who may never have any sexual pleasure or contact, save in fantasy. Why deny this grace to someone–or be insulted if you discovered you were a character in someone’s inner theatre–especially someone who knows a great deal of loneliness?

      Flirtation or frisson that leads to fantasy or masturbation later in the day is hardly a cause for alarm. Indeed, the alarm is if this never happened.

      To expect celibacy extending even to the imagination itself is the inhuman demand–far more inhuman than enacting, say, some consensual sado-masochistic play. Have you seen, for instance, the Academy Award winning film for Best Picture this year, “Spotlight”?

      One can make the argument that married clergy (gay and straight marriage), allowing for female priests, and allowing for masturbation and fantasy without shame, would, in combination, help reduce the complex of perversities that psychologists now recognize as besetting so many (supposedly) virgin priests in the Catholic priesthood (one out of every twenty priests are estimated to resort to pedophilia for sexual release, and no telling how many have secret relationships going with adults, heterosexual and homosexual).

      There is so much hypocrisy surrounding sex–and so little compassion for the expression of it. It seems to me that perversity emerges out of loneliness, unhealthy forms of repression and taboo (no masturbation; no fantasizing), and cruelty–including the cruelty of Nature and God, mirroring their theatre of pain and powerlessness, domination and submission, indifference and inhuman demands, in the bedroom, etc.

  25. Anonymous says:

    The Colosseum barrage looked like it all came from the same person, but wanted it to look like multiple people since the postings were a minute apart even though the apparent posters had different names. You may want to keep an eye out for strange behavior.

    “As for the way you frame masturbation…..for you to raise rhetorical outrage over.

    I’m merely repeating back to you (or mirroring) the assumptions you’ve built into your hypothetical masturbator. He thinks that women should be grateful for the compliment he bestows upon them. No need to reality test by asking them what they think, because it’s just so obvious and oh, by the way, it would be embarrasing too somehow. So you’re missing my point in assuming he is tresspassing, he is delivering a (silent) serenade under her window in my metaphor. Now that she understands, she will be grateful, no? Just saying….sounds like Bill Cosby logic to me.

    Now if the mirror reflects something disgusting, don’t blame the mirror. If you want make up a silly story about a loving masturbator that doesn’t care to interact with the person he supposedly loves, you should expect to be made fun of.

    But I don’t intend to raise outrage, I’m merely raising awareness.

    Maybe readers haven’t considered that masturbation necessarily causes them to view other people as less than fully human persons. Maybe once they’ve been numbed to disregard other’s human dignity, it’s easier to close their eyes to the exploitation in the pornography industry and how they are materially supporting things as bad as human trafficing and slavery by buying or viewing it. I’m sure many readers would avoid certain brands and stores due to their unfair labor practices, but what about human trafficking and the sex trade?

    Now all of this is only a big whoop if you want to be a certain kind of person. If you want to be a different kind of person, then of course, no big whoop. In any case, we are choosing the way we want to be by the way we choose to think about things and act on them. We can hold tight to selfishness and lose the love of others and our happiness to boot, or see the wonderful human dignity of others, give them our love and find true happiness.

    I don’t suppose you are disabled, obese, widowed or elderly, so I wonder why you would consider them incapable of living a selfless life? If you think this is all there is to life, then have you considered that you have an addiction?

    • Santi Tafarella says:


      People’s motives and fantasies surrounding sex and masturbation are numerous and widely varied. One-size-fits-all moral prescription on this matter ignores the unintended consequences and complexities of the psyche. You are right that issues surrounding sex entail choices, but you are confused as to the simplicity of those choices.

      So you write as if the discovery of the unconscious and of the brain’s modular systems never occurred. You write as if the repression of sexual energies does not entail its own bad consequences. And you fail to consider the relation of sexual guilt to religious proscription, and the monotheistic terrors of hell.

      Your strongest argument is the feminist one. I’m not saying it’s not complicated.

      • Anonymous says:


        It really is simple if you want to be a loving person. It’s also really that simple if you don’t want to be a loving person.

        If you want to be a loving person, you will refrain from degrading them in thought, word and action. Otherwise you won’t care.

        You wrote:
        “So you write as if the discovery of the unconscious and of the brain’s modular systems never occurred. You write as if the repression of sexual energies does not entail its own bad consequences. And you fail to consider the relation of sexual guilt to religious proscription, and the monotheistic terrors of hell.”

        I’ve ignored these things because they are red herrings. Unless you hold that:
        1) Our brains force us to degrade others.
        2) If we don’t degrade others, we may do something really bad.
        3) Somehow talking about hell forces us to degrade others.

    • Santi Tafarella says:


      One other issue at stake here is Puritanism. What, for instance, is the consequence of your position for theatre in general?

      In other words, why do people enjoy, not just sex in film, but murder mysteries, horror flicks, and war films? Isn’t it obvious that we all take, with our big, prefrontal cortexes, a profound pleasure in modelling and enacting in imagination alternative futures, and that we also have a need to do these things in ways that feel SAFE to our other primal emotional systems (deeper in the more primitive parts of our brains)?

      Put another way, the SEEKING, CURIOSITY, IMAGINATIVE, and PLAY systems are vital to our mental health, and yet you’re saying that where these intersect with lust or violence–or other morally questionable emotions–we should shut them down. But this, it seems to me, amounts to killing much of human creativity and the pleasure we take in variety and drama (enacted from an ironic distance).

      For example, what is a rock concert, but an outlet for mostly sexual and aggressive collective energies? As Zizek notes, it is better to make space in culture for rock concerts over torchlight rallies for fascists. One discharges energies relatively safely, the other quite dangerously.

      What say you? Is our discussion troping old debates surrounding Puritanism and the theatre?

  26. Anonymous says:


    “What say you? Is our discussion troping old debates surrounding Puritanism and the theatre?”

    Nope. We were discussing whether degrading others was right or wrong.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s