As you may well know and as I have recently discovered, there are endless publications concerning themselves with sex. However, finding sources that deal with the subject of masturbation are few and far in between. I first began by gaining access to the Internet to begin my research under the notion that I couldn’t go wrong using a tool containing such a wealth of information. After having initiated a search of the word “masturbation” and finding that nearly all of the results directed me to sites dedicated to pornography, it became obvious that I was heading in the wrong direction. I then decided to take the more traditional route by utilizing the San Francisco State University Library and Bookstore, where after much mental strain, I was able to successfully conduct a thorough research of the topic. However, much of the text I was able to find, seem to quote each other, all stemming from the works of just a few scholars from centuries past. Very little “new” ground seems to be covered, and it is almost impossible to find anything that didn’t either make me yawn, or that offered me a fresh or interesting perspective. As a result, I have taken what I feel to be the most beneficial and engaging segments from the sources that I have gathered and pieced them together to create this report: The Criminal History of Masturbation. Hopefully, what little information I was able to find will be of interest to those of you who already consider yourselves experts on the subject.
Masturbation, as you might suspect, is a purely solitary form of sexual behavior, and as such can tend to be regarded as even more personal and intimate than sex itself. As such, it gains a status as a taboo subject, even among people like myself who consider themselves among the sexually liberated. But, these attitudes concerning masturbation are quite recent, shifting considerably in the last 50 years or so. Historically, masturbation was not a subject that you would so kindly label as “taboo” but, for example, as “a self-polluting sin against nature that threatens all that is Godly….remedied only by condemning such sodomites to their deserved fate of eternal damnation.” Even to the most closed-minded and modern traditionalists, those who endeavor to protect their own believed concepts of decency and decorum, this may seem to be a bit harsh. My goal in this report is to explore the subject matter of masturbation and the attitudes surrounding it throughout our history. I hope to divulge to the reader an overview of these negative connotations, hopefully forming an understanding of how nonsensical and absurd they may seem, especially to individuals like myself who endorse the “normality” of autoerotic pleasure. As an artist, I have decided to include some examples of medieval art, which portray negative connotations of masturbation. I will then form a conclusion to my report that will include a summary of my findings and an explanation of my reaction to a subject that has historically been considered as criminal.
There are no clear answers as to the origin of the word “masturbation”, but an educated guess and a little help from Paula Bennett M.D., author of Solitary Pleasures, gives its entomology to the Latin language, manus (hand) – stupro (to defile). However many scholars believe it to have a Greek beginning, mezea (genitals), with the original meaning, “to arouse the genitals”. The lack of certainty as to the origin of the word stems from the fact that both the Romans and the Greeks mentioned the subject of masturbation very rarely. However, Hippocrates noted that he believed excessive loss of semen caused spinal consumption. And even though several Christian and Judaic followers consider the act of masturbation sinful, the Bible has no clear-cut stance on the subject. (The story of Onan [Genesis 38:9-11], is often sighted as proof of the Bible’s stance. God condemned Onan to hell for having spilt his seed on the ground rather than conceiving a child, which the law demanded. However, it seems biblical scholars believe that it is instead, a reference to coitus interuptus [the act of pulling out the penis from the vagina before ejaculation]). As a result, masturbation was more commonly known as “onanism” well into this century.
The negative connotation associated with masturbation can be traced back to a Swiss physician, S. Tissot (1729-1797). Tissot believed that all sexual activity was dangerous because it forced blood to rush to the head, leaving the rest of the body dangerously low. As a result the nervous system degenerated, causing insanity. S. Tissot presented his research to the scientific community, making masturbation not only a sin, but an illness as well. Tissot concerted his efforts on prevention and cure of masturbation. Tissot believed it to be especially dangerous because it was convenient and could be started during the formative years of childhood. Benjamin Rush (one of the signers of the “Declaration of Independence” and a leader in early American medicine) published several pamphlets supporting Tissot’s work.
Parents searched desperately to keep their children from masturbating and doctors were only to willing to help. Much money was spent trying to prevent children from “defiling themselves”. At first doctors tired to restrict both the behavior and diet of there patience. Items like eggs, ginger, oysters, alcohol, salt, pepper, fish, and chocolate were denied to masturbators. Other doctors believed that “tight britches”, bed sheets, touching of the genitals by nursemaids, as well as touching during urination, stimulated masturbation. As time progressed and doctors found that masturbatory practices did not subside, several other tactics were tried. Straight jackets, tying hands to the bedposts, and warping the patient in wet bed sheets (to “cool” their desires)! Still masturbation continued, and more drastic measures were tried. Several devices were constructed to prevent masturbation. Most of them could be aptly described as medieval. One device that I learned about in a human sexual variations class stood out in my mind, and for very obvious reasons. The device was designed so that the penis was placed into a tube lined with spikes….. Yes, spikes! As the penis became erect, the spikes pricked, causing the erection to immediately subside. I believe that this technique most likely proved to be extremely effective but also inhumane and torturous to all that had to endure it. Still other “revolutionary” physicians placed leaches on the genitals of their “self-polluting” patients to keep them from touching themselves without experiencing great pain. The most drastic measures that I could find that were used to “cure” those who continued to masturbate after all else failed, was castration. A medical journal of the mid 1800s described castration (both male and female) as a proven cure for this form of insanity (confession: if masturbation is indeed a form of insanity, I desperately need to either get some help or be taken away).
I found that the common practice of circumcision in newborn males is in large part a carryover from Victorian times. It was thought that by removing the foreskin, the penis would require less maintenance. By reducing the amount of maintenance needed to clean the penis, the temptation to play with it in ungodly ways was thusly reduced.
Thankfully, by the beginning of the 20th century, the American medical community began to realize that masturbation did not cause insanity. Some doctors even recommended masturbation to their female patients to relieve hysteria, and that males masturbate instead of picking up prostitutes (and there for an STD). However, there were still a number of holdouts. In an article in a medical journal (dated 1930), onanism was thought to still be “lurking” in activities such as rope climbing, bicycle riding, and (for the life of my I couldn’t find a reason why…) the operation of a sewing machine. Examples like the previous go to prove just how jaded and desperate the individual was who go so far as to make such a claim. It is even harder to conceive the reasoning of the individuals who would decide to believe it.
Around the middle of this century, the public opinion of masturbation finally began to experience a major shift toward acceptance. And many medical texts and journals removed it from the list of neurological disorders and as a cause for disease and death. However even today, there are a significant number of people that half jokingly state that masturbation is a cause for certain ailments. For example, I read in Solitary Pleasures :an excerpt from a medical journal from the early 20th Century which stated that, masturbation causes blindness, and also that it can cause hair to grow uncontrollably from the hands, making it obvious to anyone and everyone of your own personal practices of “defilement” (I, for one have 20/20 vision and silky smooth hands…….I must be lucky). Unfortunately, It seems to me that some doctors are only slightly more informed about this subject, than the population at large. It would seem that it was the doctors who had much to do with the criminalization of masturbation anyway.