Why is Masturbation an Uncomfortable Fact of Life?

July 9, 2017

The anonymous author of the pamphlet Onania (1716) was very worried about masturbation. The ‘shameful vice’, the ‘solitary act of pleasure’, was something too terrible to even be described. The writer agreed with those ‘who are of the opinion, that… it never ought to be spoken of, or hinted at, because the bare mentioning of it may be dangerous to some’.

There was, however, little reticence in cataloguing ‘the frightful consequences of self-pollution’. Gonorrhoea, fits, epilepsy, consumption, impotence, headaches, weakness of intellect, backache, pimples, blisters, glandular swelling, trembling, dizziness, heart palpitations, urinary discharge, ‘wandering pains’, and incontinence – were all attributed to the scourge of onanism.

The fear was not confined to men. The full title of the pamphlet was Onania: Or the Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution, and all its Frightful Consequences (in Both Sexes). Its author was aware that the sin of Onan referred to the spilling of male seed (and divine retribution for the act) but reiterated that he treated ‘of this crime in relation to women as well as men’. ‘[W]hilst the offence is Self-Pollution in both, I could not think of any other word which would so well put the reader in mind both of the sin and its punishment’. Women who indulged could expect disease of the womb, hysteria, infertility and deflowering (the loss of ‘that valuable badge of their chastity and innocence’).

Another bestselling pamphlet was published later in the century: L’onanisme (1760) by Samuel Auguste Tissot. He was critical of Onania, ‘a real chaos … all the author’s reflections are nothing but theological and moral puerilities’, but nevertheless listed ‘the ills of which the English patients complain’.

Tissot was likewise fixated on ‘the physical disorders produced by masturbation’, and provided his own case study, a watchmaker who had self-pleasured himself into ‘insensibility’ on a daily basis, sometimes three times a day; ‘I found a being that less resembled a living creature than a corpse, lying upon straw, meagre, pale, and filthy, casting forth an infectious stench; almost incapable of motion.’ The fear these pamphlets promoted soon spread.

The strange thing is that masturbation was never before the object of such horror. In ancient times, masturbation was either not much mentioned or treated as something a little vulgar, not in good taste, a bad joke. In the Middle Ages and for much of the early modern period too, masturbation, while sinful and unnatural, was not invested with such significance. What changed?

Religion and medicine combined powerfully to create a new and hostile discourse. The idea that the soul was present in semen led to thinking that it was very important to retain the vital fluid. Its spilling became, then, both immoral and dangerous (medicine believed in female semen at the time). ‘Sin, vice, and self-destruction’ were the ‘trinity of ideas’ that would dominate from the 18th into the 19th century, as the historians Jean Stengers and Anne Van Neck put it in Masturbation: The Great Terror (2001).

There were exceptions. Sometimes masturbation was opposed for more ‘enlightened’ reasons. In the 1830s and 1840s, for instance, female moral campaign societies in the United States condemned masturbation, not out of hostility to sex, but as a means to self-control. What would now be termed ‘greater sexual agency’ – the historian April Haynes refers to ‘sexual virtue’ and ‘virtuous restraint’ – was central to their message.

Yet it is difficult to escape the intensity of the fear. J H Kellogg’s Plain Facts for Old and Young (1877) contained both exaggerated horror stories and grand claims: ‘neither the plague, nor war, nor smallpox, nor similar diseases, have produced results so disastrous to humanity as the pernicious habit of Onanism; it is the destroying element of civilised societies’.

Kellogg suggested remedies for the scourge, such as exercise, strict bathing and sleeping regimes, compresses, douching, enemas and electrical treatment. Diet was vital: this rabid anti-masturbator was co-inventor of the breakfast cereal that still bears his name. ‘Few of today’s eaters of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes know that he invented them, almost literally, as anti-masturbation food,’ as the psychologist John Money once pointed out.

The traces are still with us in other ways. Male circumcision, for instance, originated in part with the 19th-century obsession with the role of the foreskin in encouraging masturbatory practices. Consciously or not, many US males are faced with this bodily reminder every time they masturbate. And the general disquiet unleashed in the 18th century similarly lingers on today.

We seem to have a confusing and conflicting relationship with masturbation. On one hand it is accepted, even celebrated – on the other, there remains an unmistakable element of taboo.

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