Human beings (and many animals) can very well become sexually aroused and reach orgasm without partners. Such self-stimulation is possible at any age. It may be brought about voluntarily by masturbation, or it may occur involuntarily while the person is asleep. In short, our bodies are always capable of sexual responses regardless of whether we are in the company of others or alone with ourselves.
In ancient times, it was often thought that involuntary orgasms occurred when an angel of the night, a spirit, or a demon visited people in their sleep. During the Middle Ages, it was believed that the devil himself could seduce good Christians at night by appearing as an incubus (i.e., lying upon a woman) or a succubus (i.e., lying under a man). It is interesting to note, however, that Jewish and Christian religious authorities were usually much less concerned with the spontaneous orgasms of women than with those of men. One reason for this was undoubtedly their conviction that male semen was not meant to be "wasted" in nonproductive activities. Some medieval physicians also declared that semen was an essential, life-sustaining fluid, more precious than blood, and that too many ejaculations therefore weakened the body. A loss of semen was healthy only under special conditions, just as forced bleeding was beneficial only as a treatment of certain diseases. Since women do not ejaculate any semen, none of these considerations applied to them, and, as a result, not much attention was paid to their orgasms.
The Judeo-Christian concern over the possible "waste" of semen also led to a general disapproval of male masturbation. While it is true that masturbation is never mentioned in the Bible, traditional rabbinical teaching always considered it a grave sin, and for at least one Talmudic authority it was a crime to be punished by death (Niddah 13a). The Christians later simply adopted the negative Jewish attitudes.
Still, in medieval Europe masturbation was not seen as much of a problem. While it was condemned in various penitentials, the other theological and pastoral writings of the time hardly mentioned it at all, or referred to it in a rather oblique fashion. Even the popular catechisms that began to appear in the 16th century contained nothing on the subject. This omission may appear strange at first glance, but it becomes understandable when we remember that the medieval concept of sexuality was still relatively narrow. Indeed, the very term was unknown. Instead, people spoke of love, desire, or Venus, and they recognized only one kind of activity as being strictly sexual: coitus among adults. It seems, therefore, that at least women and children had no great feelings of guilt about masturbation, but simply thought of it as a way of relieving physical irritations, comparable to scratching.
All of this began to change in the 18th century. In 1710, an anonymous pamphlet appeared in England under the title, Onania, or the Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution and All Its Frightful Consequences in Both Sexes, Considered with Spiritual and Physical Advice. The author Bekker was a former clergyman turned quack who offered his readers an embellished rehash of older theories about the dangers of "wasting" semen. He called this behavior onania in reference to Onan, a biblical character who was punished by God for refusing to impregnate his brother's widow. As required by custom, he engaged in coitus with her, but prevented any possible pregnancy by practicing the withdrawal method of contraception (Genesis,38:8-10). Unfortunately, Bekker's absurd ideas and his misleading term soon found wide acceptance. The pamphlet was quickly translated into several European languages and eventually went through more than eighty editions.
In 1760, a respected Swiss physician by the name of Tissot published an even more influential book entitled, Onanism, or a Treatise Upon the Disorders Produced by Masturbation. The author claimed that masturbation was not only a sin and a crime, but that it was also directly responsible for many serious diseases, such as "consumption, deterioration of eyesight, disorders of digestion, impotence, ... and insanity." Tissot's success was spectacular. He was widely quoted as the greatest authority on the subject of masturbation, and he was universally praised as a benefactor of mankind. Within a few decades, his views became official medical doctrine. Physicians all over the Western world began to find masturbation at the root of almost every physical problem.
By 1812, when Benjamin Rush, known as the father of American psychiatry, published his Medical inquiries and Observations Upon the Diseases of the Mind, the harmful effects of masturbation were taken for granted everywhere, and their number had greatly increased. According to Rush, "onanism" caused not only insanity, but also "seminal weakness, impotence, dysury, tabes dorsalis, pulmonary consumption, dyspepsia, dimness of sight, vertigo, epilepsy, hypochondriasis, loss of memory, manalgia, fatuity, and death."
As these examples indicate, the first modern fighters against the evils of masturbation were physicians, and their arguments were mostly medical. Very soon, however, they found themselves supported by "enlightened" educators who feared for the moral health of their students. The churches, on the other hand, at first showed little interest in joining the crusade. Some clergymen pointed out, for example, that they could not find a single reference to masturbation in the Holy Scriptures, and that they were therefore unable to condemn it. It seemed that the only solution was a new, much broader interpretation of the biblical commandment against adultery. However, in the long run this procedure could easily make matters worse. It would require a great deal of detailed sex education, and particularly the young and innocent would suddenly have to be told about sins of which they had never heard before. Moreover, the exact definition of masturbation appeared far from easy. After all, the term had first been applied only to adult males. The notion that women and children also masturbated was new. Indeed, it is evident from the antimasturbation pamphlets of the time that the authors had great difficulty explaining to the public exactly what they were talking about. Nevertheless, after some initial reluctance even the clergy became "progressive" enough to recognize the dangers of masturbation, and soon everybody was convinced that these dangers demanded the most drastic and extraordinary measures of protection.
Here again, the medical profession pointed the way. First of all, it knew how to discover the masturbators. General apathy and laziness, dim or shifty eyes, a pale complexion, a slouching posture, or trembling hands were symptoms of secret "self-abuse." Whenever these symptoms were found, a thorough investigation was in order. Fortunately, a sudden confrontation with the evidence often prompted the culprits to make a full confession, and once the facts had been established, the "therapy" could begin.
In the 18th century, a confirmed masturbator was usually given a special diet. (Different doctors recommended different diets, not unlike their modern colleagues who fight obesity.) It was also believed that a hard mattress, a thin blanket, frequent washing with cold water, and generally low room temperatures were helpful in breaking the habit. In addition, simple and practical clothing was considered essential. (There was even a campaign to introduce skirts for men and to abolish trousers, "because they are too warm and irritate the sex organs".) Finally, it was obvious that the "patient" needed constant supervision.
This relatively harmless treatment became much more elaborate and cruel in the 19th century. Psychiatrists found that the insanity caused by masturbation was of a particularly disagreeable kind. As explained in 1867 by Henry Maudsley, the greatest British psychiatrist of his time, it was "characterized by ... extreme perversion of feeling and corresponding derangement of thought, in earlier stages, and later by failure of intelligence, nocturnal hallucinations, and suicidal and homicidal propensities." In other words, masturbators were mad potential killers, and it seemed only prudent to have them locked up in an asylum.
To make matters worse, in its later stages "masturbatory insanity" was considered incurable. All medical science could really do was to concentrate on the prevention and early detection of the disease. Parents were therefore advised to tie the hands of their children to the sides of the bed, or to make them wear mittens spiked with iron thorns. Special bandages and "chastity belts" were to render the sex organs inaccessible. Doctors with a knack for mechanics invented ingenious contraptions that would "protect" people from "abusing themselves". (One of the more bizarre of these inventions was an "erection detector" which rang a little bell in the parents' bedroom as soon as their son had an erection in his sleep.) Finally, if everything else failed, surgery was recommended. The most popular surgical treatments were infibulation for males (i.e., putting a metal ring through the foreskin, thus preventing an erection) and clitoridectomy for females (i.e., cutting out the clitoris). However, cauterization and denervation of the sex organs and even castration were sometimes also deemed necessary.
Needless to say, all of these mechanical devices and surgical procedures constantly focused attention on the sex organs and their functions. Thus, it became nearly impossible for the "patients" to forget their "problem" even for a moment. Small wonder, then, that for many the concern with masturbation turned into a complete obsession.
One cannot help but feel that the authorities who administered these painful, dangerous, and useless "treatments" were not so much interested in preventing masturbation as in punishing it. Their unfortunate victims, on the other hand, often seemed curiously eager to accept this punishment. Indeed, some guilt-ridden individuals punished themselves by mutilating their bodies or committing suicide.
Today, we may wonder how intelligent men and women could ever develop such attitudes. After all, a little common sense and the simple observation of humans and animals could have told them that masturbation is a universal and harmless practice which cannot possibly be more unhealthy than sexual intercourse. Furthermore, even if one believed, contrary to all evidence, that the loss of semen somehow weakened the male body, there could never be any such danger for women and children. In short, the medical arguments against masturbation were illogical and invalid from the start. The fact that they were nevertheless believed obviously demands some explanation.
It seems that the real reason for the antimasturbation campaign was simply a growing sexual prudery. It is hardly a coincidence that the doctors, educators, and clergymen who figured most prominently in this campaign were all members of the middle classes. We have pointed out earlier in this book how the rise of the middle classes in Europe and America affected the treatment of children and adolescents, and how it changed the general attitude toward the human body and its functions. (For details, see the introductions to "The Human Body.", "Infancy and Childhood." and "Adolescence.") In the middle-class view, the body was, above all, a machine, an instrument of labor which had to function in the most efficient and economical manner. Inefficiency, idleness, and waste, which had been of little concern to the ancient and medieval mind, now came to be seen as the supreme vices. Sexual activity was permissible as long as it produced children and thereby increased the labor force. Pure sensuality without purpose, however, was subversive and dangerous. Solitary masturbation posed a particular threat because it did not even require the cooperation of a partner. Moreover, it was always available to males and females of all ages and social classes, reminding them that their bodies could also be used as instruments of pleasure. Such a use was frivolous and could not be tolerated. Thus, the pseudoscientific theories about the dangers of masturbation were nothing more than rationalizations and excuses for the increasing repression of nonreproductive sex in general.
This repression was apparently also linked to the beginning industrialization of the West and the resulting demand for disciplined, docile labor. Not surprisingly, therefore, we find that the persecution of masturbators reached its greatest extent and intensity in Victorian times. It was only toward the end of the 19th century, when most Western societies had become fully industrialized and started to enjoy the fruits of their new affluence, that a slow process of sexual liberalization began to set in.
Thus, over the last hundred years we can observe a gradual softening of the original harsh psychiatric attitude toward masturbation. First, some psychiatrists began to wonder whether it might not be the result rather than the cause of a person's insanity. Then it was doubted that any connection existed at all. "Self-abuse" was perhaps only a "bad habit" or a symptom of "arrested development". Still, it remained potentially harmful, at least for males. Some doctors insisted that a young man's proper physical growth depended on the preservation of his semen and that he could therefore weaken his body by wasting it prematurely. Naturally, soon even this theory had to be abandoned for lack of evidence. It therefore became fashionable to warn only against "excessive" masturbation, and, for a while, this proved to be a comfortable fallback position. Since the "excess" was never clearly defined, no scientific proof had to be offered, and any prospective masturbator was nevertheless deterred. However, modern sex research finally succeeded in demonstrating the obvious: Masturbation as such cannot do any physical or mental harm, and "excess" is a relative term. While some people never masturbate at all in their entire lives, others masturbate several times a day for decades, and the one behavior is just as "natural", "normal", or "healthy" as the other.
Unfortunately, it takes more than the simple presentation of facts to overcome centuries of negative propaganda. Even today, many people still have their doubts and fears about masturbation. They may be unable to give any valid reason for these fears, but somehow they just cannot get rid of them. Thus, certain educational writers still denounce masturbation as a "nonproductive", "noncreative", and "parasitic" habit. They admit that it cannot do any physical harm, but continue to warn that any "excess" will turn it into a "false lead", like alcoholism and compulsive gambling. Some writers also hint vaguely that masturbation might lead to egoism, loneliness, or a hatred of the opposite sex.
These and similar superstitions survive only because our society has not yet fully freed itself from the sexual repression of the past. However, it seems that in the future more and more people will learn to see masturbation simply as another form of sexual activity which can help them in developing their erotic potential, and which can greatly enrich their lives.