The Pope Says Masturbation Hurts "True Sexual Expression." These Christians Disagree.

In the new Disney+ documentary "The Pope: Answers," Pope Francis answers a group of young people's questions about many different hot-button issues, including one that has been historically fraught for the Catholic Church: sexuality. Perhaps to some people's surprise, he stated that "sex is one of the beautiful things God gave to human beings." However, he seemed to be referring only to partnered sex.

"Anything that diminishes a true sexual expression diminishes you as well, it renders you partial, and it diminishes that richness," he responded to a question about masturbation, per NBC News. "Sex has a dynamic of its own. It exists for a reason. It's an expression of love."

However, many people — including some Christians — think masturbation can actually enhance "true sexual expression" and be an "expression of love" for oneself or even the divine.

"Masturbation is the highest form of devotion to the self," says sex therapist Alexandria Saunders. "It is taking the time to treat yourself with the highest form of pleasure, offering a prayer to the body. It is precious moments of 'I deserve this.' It is tuning into the deepest reverence for the body."

Some spiritual traditions acknowledge this. Sexologist Carol Queen believes in elements of Wicca, neo-Paganism, and goddess spirituality, which all view masturbation as a way to commune with a higher spiritual power.

"It can be hugely meaningful to connect with yourself, to bring yourself pleasure, to connect with pleasure-positive spiritual ideals," Queen says. Neo-Pagans view masturbation as a way to raise one's personal power, and Queen believes masturbation is threatening to the Church because it holds this very power. "Masturbation has the potential to connect us to a cosmic erotic space . . . unless it is controlled," she says.

Despite the complex relationship Christianity in particular has with non-marital sexual expression, some Christians take issue with the Pope's statements on masturbation, believing such stances reflect modern Christian leaders more than the actual Bible. "There is no Biblical mandate against masturbation," says minister Lyvonne Briggs, author of "Sensual Faith: The Art of Coming Home to Your Body."

Reverend Beverly Dale, founder of the Incarnation Institute for Sex and Faith, goes as far as to say that "any view that restricts the moral autonomy of the individual to engage in (non-coercive) sexual pleasure is not Biblical."

The Pope is "continuing the 2,000-year-old fictional narrative that heterosexual marriage is the only place to encounter 'richness,'" Dale adds. "He is making the problematic assumption that self-pleasuring does not happen during coupled sex and also assuming the partner knows our own body better than we do ourselves. But especially problematic is that by making marital sex the only legitimate avenue for 'richer' and 'deeper' experience, the church has made the spouse the supplier of our pleasure and violates our own moral autonomy over our own body."

Rather than masturbation and partnered sex existing in opposition, some argue that getting to know one's body through masturbation can pave the way for satisfying partnered sex. "We need to understand our anatomy, or else the satisfaction — or 'beautiful' experience — the Pope is suggesting doesn't make sense," says Christian feminist Meghan Farnsworth, founder of the Faith is Feminist blog.

Not only that, but masturbation can help people avoid partnered encounters that are not beautiful or loving. "For Christian women, masturbation can be a spiritual tool of reclamation of agency after suffering harm and even a way to deter connections to sexual partners who are misaligned or ill-suited," Briggs says. "Instead of sending that 'WYD?' text at 2 a.m., you can rub one out, roll over, and go to sleep, avoiding the potential heartbreak of being connected to someone simply because they give you sexual pleasure."

Dr. Kres Snyder, PSYD, NCC, LCPC, owner of Metro Sex Therapy and Minds Empowered Counseling in Chicago, finds the Pope's philosophy on masturbation particularly harmful to women, citing research showing that women are more likely to orgasm during masturbation than partnered sex. "It is possible to have an orgasm with a partner, yes, but pleasure is not exclusively owned by couples," she says. "If pleasure is our birthright, then pleasure should be afforded to singles as well."

Still, some see the Pope calling sex "beautiful" as a big step in the right direction — if there's one thing to take from his comments, it's that overall sentiment. "Even the Pope is telling us that our time to get and stay free is now," Briggs says. "Shame comes from people; shame doesn't come from God. And now with the Pope co-signing, we get to accept this invitation to come home to ourselves. And what's holier than that?"

The concept of masturbation as a spiritual experience may nevertheless sound alien to many people, religious or not, who are accustomed to seeing solo sex as a means for physical release. However, masturbation can be approached in a mindful and spiritual manner regardless of your religious beliefs. People who want to explore the spiritual dimensions of self-pleasuring should "take their time, savoring each moment of blissful connection," Saunders suggests. "Take a shower, light candles, put on soft music, and get super cozy."

It helps to have the intention of connecting with the divine — or even just yourself — in mind before you start self-pleasuring. "Say a prayer to yourself, honoring the pleasure within," Saunders adds. "Look into a mirror and eye-gaze for five minutes to allow integration of the moment and to connect with your soul." You can then caress and massage your face, scalp, and shoulders before moving downward, breathing deeply as you imagine that your breath is moving pleasure through your body.

"Touching in this way is a devotional practice and can take time to unlearn the lessons of rushing and friction," Saunders says. "Honoring the moment for pleasure without racing to a finish line is the key. Your body is sacred. This time is sacred. Start slow and have fun. It's all about welcoming the divine pleasure of the moment."