How does a high schooler find themselves in a Christian Anti-Masturbation Cult, you ask?
Its a good question. One I’ve asked myself for years.
For me, it was a combination of living inside a Christian bubble, a tragic lack of sexual education, and a balding older man who chose to spend his nights in a hot tub, listening to teenage boys talk about jerking off.
I first heard about masturbation on TV. I was in eighth grade and my dad and I were watching Seinfeld before dinner. The characters where joking in vague terms about masturbating… and I didn’t catch any of it.
Now eighth grade may seem pretty late. But I was late to the puberty game, and on top of that I went to a very, very conservative Christian school.
I was taken out of public school in 2nd grade after my second grade sex-ed class. It was a VHS tape of a chicken laying an egg, cartoon sperm swimming in a cartoon vagina, a creepy old man handing out candy from a large white van, and a teenage boy asking his cousin to play doctor. The little girl did not like playing doctor, and we were told to tell an adult if anyone asks us to get in a van or touch our private parts.
Unfortunately, these this VHS was the beginning and end of my formal sex education.
That night I went home and told my parents about my sex-ed class. My dad insisted the sex cartoons were ridiculous, and my mom agreed 2nd grade was too young to worry about sex.
Before the next sex ed lesson, my teacher made an announcement in front of the whole class that “Nathan’s parents don’t want him to see this video so he is going to the library.” I stood up, embarrassed, and spent the next hour in the library.
My parents put me in a Christian private school shortly after. Now, I don’t blame them. Our church told parents not to let their kids go to sex-ed classes, that sex should be talked about at home and from a Christian perspective.
And to their credit, my parents did try to talk about sex. But talking about sex with their child proved to be a difficult task. Neither of them grew up talking about sex with their parents and our church wasn’t much help either. So they read me a book about how babies were made and talked about the importance of waiting till I was married to have sex. The central message being: sex was something I didn’t need to worry about til I was an adult.
But after the Seinfeld episode I guess my dad figured it was time to talk to me about the masturbation.
So after dinner that night my dad told me to come into the bathroom. Now this might sound weird, but it was normal in our one-bathroom house. After dinner my dad always took a long bath.
He would sit in the tub and do his Bible Study homework. Yes – we went to a church that gave homework. So if you needed to use the toilet or needed any help with Math, you would go into the bathroom and my dad would slide open the frosted glass shower door. So I would talk to him as he sat in the bathtub, a Bible propped on his knees, and a hand towel over his privates.
That night my dad slid open the shower door and asked me, “Do you know what they were joking about on the TV show tonight?”
“They were joking about touching their privates.”
That’s when I realized that I was getting the sex talk from my father, while he was butt ass naked in the bathtub, with a Bible propped on his knees. It was a bit jarring.
“Just make sure you use some lotion if you do it. And don’t let the dog lick you down there.” And with my two sentence sex ed talk complete, my dad slid shut the shower door. Through the blurred glass I could see him pick up his pencil and start working on his Bible study homework.
It was stunning in its simplicity. No guilt, no shame, no religious lectures. Just use lotion…and no bestiality.
The next day I suddenly noticed that there were bottles of lotion and Kleenex in each bathroom and in my bedroom. And for the next two years I explored my body and my new superpower… with lotion and no bestiality.
This went on until one day a traveling youth pastor came to my church and ruined everything.
The 10th grade boys and girls at church were divided up into two separate rooms. In the boys room, a short, slightly overweight, older, balding man told us, “Jesus doesn’t want you to lust after women.” He then proceeded to explain that when boys think about girls and masturbate – that Jesus knows what we are thinking about and Jesus doesn’t like it. Jesus didn’t like boys thinking about girls and touching themselves.
My stomach panged with shame. This was all new information. Jesus was my best friend. And it killed me that he didn’t like me masturbating. I realized that I had made my best friend watch me do something that he really didn’t like.
To be honest, I had never even thought about Jesus when I was jerking off. I guess if I would have thought about it, I would have realized he was everywhere so of course he was in my bedroom too. But I had never put it together.
The short bald man pointed at a room full of teenage boys, who from the looks on most of their faces, were also masturbating about girls.
“But I can help you,” he smirked. “I lead Bible studies for boys at my house and we can help you quit masturbating.” He pointed at himself, “I personally haven’t lusted after a woman in years. And if you join my lust free living group you can stop too. Just show up at 7 and bring your swimsuit.” He smiled.
Yes. As I type this I realize how this all sounds. There are so many red flags here. I’m a pastor now and I have been to hundreds of trainings and this guy was a textbook case of crossing the line. It reads like the opening of an episode of “To Catch a Predator.”
But I was at church. And until that point church was a place where I had felt safe and cared for. I was also told that Christians told the truth when they were at church. So if a man at church told me masturbating was bad, then it was bad.
If they told me Jesus wanted me to stop, then I was going to do my best to try and stop. When someone at youth group told me to come to his house and bring a swimsuit… I brought my swimsuit.
I drove over to this older man’s house and was led by a teenager through a suburban house and into a dark back yard. There were a dozen teenagers with various amounts of chest hair soaked in a hot tub smoking cigars. The older man was sitting with his arm around two of the boys. I took off my shirt and slid my hairless chest into the hot tub. The man handed me a cigar and offered to light it.
I actually felt really cool sitting in a hot tub with a bunch of other teens smoking a cigar. Smoking cigars was something the men at my church joked about doing when “the Mrs. wasn’t around.”
“Who wants to go first?” the man smiled, blowing a plume of smoke into the dark night air.
A boy across from me proceeded to tell the story of masturbating in his bed two days prior. “I tried to do what you said. I tried to think about cars and baseball, but I kept thinking about this girl from my math class.”
It was clear that the teenager had really tried to think about something else. As the boys went around the circle retelling the story of masturbating in graphic detail, I realized that this wasn’t really a Bible study. It was a sort of AA group where everyone had to tell the group leader how they masturbated and what they thought about.
The man always encouraged the boys to not think about girls. Apparently it wasn’t a sin if you masturbated while thinking about baseball or trucks. It was always very masculine things that he wanted us to think about.
After each boy shared, the older man reminded them, “Satan is prowling around like a lion trying to get boys to stumble into sin. But you’ll do better next week.” The old man nodded at all of us as he sat bare-chested in the hot tub smoking his cigar.
When it came time for me to share, I felt my stomach turn. I had so much to confess. I didn’t know where to start. I explained that sometimes I thought about a girl from my school. After I shared, the leader told all the other boys to get out of the hot tub so he could talk to me alone.
He moved right next to me and put his arm around my shoulder. “You did really good sharing tonight.” I could smell the cigar on his breath. “If you come to these meetings you will be able to quit lusting after women.” He squeezed by shoulder and I winced. “I’m proud of you. Most of the boys don’t let me put my arm around them on the first night.” I tried to make myself small. “How does this make you feel?” he asked.
I took a deep breath and said, “Honestly, I’m getting kind of a gay vibe from you.” I was raised in a homophobic church and I thought it would get him to back off.
But he moved closer. “That’s Satan putting that thought in your mind,” he said. “Satan is trying to keep me from helping you.”
So I prayed out loud that Satan would stop trying to make me feel uncomfortable.
That night I went home and felt disgusting. The experience left me I feeling ashamed by my sexuality. All week I wrote in a journal each time I masturbated and what I thought about. And week after week I sat in the hot tub and told this old man as my stomach twisted with guilt and shame as I recounted my week.
Throughout the next two years, I wrote in my journal and went to this man’s house where I sat with other teenage boys and recounted my thoughts and deeds.
I only recently told my parents about what happened. In high school they asked where I was going and I just said it was a guys group from church.
Part of why I never told an adult is that he never “crossed” the lines I had been told about. He never touched my private parts. He never played doctor. He never kissed me. He just sat and listened to me talk about my solo sex life. And over the years, I learned out about many similar groups with teens and on my Evangelical college campus (some were affiliated with the same older man).
After I moved away to college. I left the group and started healing my mind and heart. I saw a therapist and re-learned healthy sexuality. But even as a 33 year old, the old shame and guilt lingers. I still feel embarrassed even as I write this article.
I’m a pastor now. I work in churches and in schools. And I know that he crossed so many lines, violated so many boundaries, and made me feel so horrible about myself and my sexuality. But my church invited him in, so I assumed that he was safe.
I didn’t know any better. No one told me about how to be a sexual person. I picked up things here and there from TV and movies. But the only direct sex-education I had was chickens had eggs, don’t get in vans, don’t play doctor, use lotion, and no bestiality.
I want to tell you that I have done a lot of work and I’m doing fine. I am a well-adjusted person and I didn’t give up on church or Jesus. I’m a pastor and I wanted to share my story because I think it is important to teach our children, youth, women, and men that sexuality is a gift. And solo sex is a complicated gift, but it is a gift. And complicated as it is, we can’t just not talk about it and hope kids figure it out.
Young people need more information than “use lotion and don’t let the dog lick you down there.” I mean those are a good start, but I think we can do better. We have to do better.
If you are wondering where to start The United Church of Christ: Our Whole Lives Sexuality and Our Faith is an amazing curriculum for K – 12 that I have been trained in and really appreciate.