"Maybe we can't have sex, but we can do this."
Nothing makes a Christian pubescent boy rationalize his beliefs quite like a raging erection.
“Maybe we can’t have sex, but we can do this,” I and surely billions of others have told ourselves over the centuries. But unlike many, rather than following a gradual regression deeper into compromised sinfulness, I was able to establish a set of boundaries that made sense to me and abided by it. What I'm talking about, of course, is mutual masturbation.
I matured pretty early, both spiritually and physically. I took an active role in my church’s youth group, was reading Christian self-improvement books, and was having theological discussions with my older sister by middle school. Socially shy and modest, reconciling my beliefs with a sex drive that started revving itself in the 4th grade wasn’t too difficult until my first relationship at 13.
I had already cleared my spiritual conscience for masturbation by then — the Bible, after all, made no mention of anyone jerking off and ejaculating flames or anything so definitive. To make sure I had all my bases covered, though, I scoured the internet for information. I even willed myself to have an indescribably awkward one-on-one with my youth pastor about it. The verdict: lust is bad, J’ing O is bad when it makes you lust. Lucky for me, I didn’t “lust” when I jerked off, just stared blankly into the bathroom tiles and focused on the task at hand.
My relationship with Jess escalated quickly. Within the first few days we had already talked about our masturbation habits (stumbling upon my brother’s porn in 6th grade made me endlessly fascinated with female masturbation). Before the end of our first week together, one of those discussions escalated into a jarring silence on the other end of the phone.
"Jess? You there?"
[Pause. Abrupt gasp followed by more silence.]
"Are you… uh, doing something?"
"…I — I’ve gotta go. I’ll call… I’ll call you back."
By the next day, this turned into a constant routine of masturbating together from our bedrooms, moaning and fumbling around dirty-talking with each other over our landlines (I had to grab the extension every time she called). Sometimes multiple times daily. Inexplicably afraid that coming more than a few times a week would damage my body irreparably, I would keep up with her until just before completion again and again, probably actually damaging my body irreparably in the process.
We made out pretty hard on our first date to the bowling alley. On our second date, we groped each other behind a video game booth. It wasn’t long before we outgrew the bowling alley, though it got worse from there.
We started spending Saturday afternoons at our town’s mostly deserted athletic complex, petting each other and masturbating together in the public racquetball courts which anyone could have waltzed into at any time. Occasionally we moved to the very dugouts I sat in during baseball season, once releasing my load in broad daylight into the on-deck circle.
A couple months in, we finally started hanging out at her house on Saturdays. Her mom would let us keep the door closed, which basically turned her bedroom into a soft-core porn set. It wasn’t uncommon for the same visit to start with naked spooning, escalate to some petting that led into watching each other masturbate, subside into eating lunch after a couple orgasms on her part, and then resume with an identical session ending with my week-old backed-up semen on her chest.
Whatever didn’t result in oral sex, penetration, or “lust” was fair game. My research brought me to define lust as the explicit desire or fantasy of sexual intercourse — I was already getting everything I could handle without it, so those specific desires and fantasies never seemed necessary, were never a threat. This is called rationalization.
The first six months or so of our relationship went by in a blur of flesh and fluid, a static of moaning and vulgarities I haven’t voiced or heard since. The thrill of exploration, discovery, and decadence felt enough like love to convince us that’s what it was — until we finally had time to realize that this was our communication, this was all we had.
Our immaturity was standard for middle-school relationships: celebrating “month-iversaries,” pet names, daily love notes, and even a fake marriage ceremony in my bedroom.
When your conception of love is so thin, so ungrounded, you define it by whatever you can conceptualize from limited experience. Jess and I had almost nothing in common, my family didn’t like her or our relationship, she made me do a lot of things I pretended didn’t embarrass me, and I secretly resented how demanding our relationship was of time and energy I would have preferred to devote to my friends (who also didn’t like her).
By no means was this a relationship that should have lasted for 14 months, nor is it one I would ever pursue again. But love was an obsessive infatuation inseparably bound to the gratification of biological impulses, making our relationship itself as perfunctory and thoughtless as biology itself.
And it was over long before it ended. We argued almost daily for the final few months, only stopping for long enough to lapse back into that mutual habit that had bound us over a year earlier. After we broke up, we spent the next few months acting like we always had, both afraid to really let go of those occasional phone sessions and library meet-ups to “help her study.”
What finally led me to officially break it off was just as petty, just as illogical as our relationship had been. I had been praying about it while walking through the mall, when I suddenly looked up and saw a men’s t-shirt hanging up on the front of a rack in the women’s section. My size, it read: How to Break Up with Your Girlfriend and listed suggestions with stick-figure illustrations.
The God I believed in was sending me signs through a misplaced gag T-shirt in a JC Penny. And even though I definitely shouldn’t have told her the exact details, it was, oddly, the impetus for the firm decision we needed.
It’s only in retrospect I understand these complexities, only in spending years assessing them that I can assemble them into a healthier framework that facilitates my far healthier relationship of over six years with my fiancée, who doesn’t masturbate (that I know of), and has never seen or heard me do it. Sometimes it feels like there’s a part of me that sees that as a sort of lack, a missing aspect of an intimacy I once defined as healthy. Until I remember all this and rationalize it away with whatever wisdom there is to find in the irrationally dependent bodies of 13-year-olds defining sex together.
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