I Can See Clearly Now, But Boy It Was Funner When My Vision Was Blurring

by Rachel Maines


Bénigne Gagneraux. “The blind Oedipus commending his children to the Gods,” (1784). Oil on canvas. 48 x 64 inches.


In most circles today, masturbation is both medically sound and politically correct: it’s “liberating,” “safe,” and “healthy.” Yet it took doctors 300 years to arrive at these enlightened conclusions, and humanity’s relationship with masturbation has been a dynamic, and fluid one. According to masturbation’s most erudite historian, Thomas Laqueur, masturbation in Greek and Roman antiquity was treated as a laughable pastime for those unable to get a date. Rubbing your genitals was portrayed as a strategy of sexual desperation in Greek erotic art, pornography, and Latin satire.

The early Christians on the other hand, took a moral example from the biblical figure of Onan—spill your seed on the ground and a vengeful God will strike you dead. Fortunately for history’s premodern masturbators, this rarely occurred—lightning bolts cleaving the sky to smite masturbators being a less common occurrence in the era before the invention of golf—and thus divine retribution was such an infrequent circumstance, it deprived the moral threat of much of its persuasive force. However this infrequency has not prevented the propagation of Christian prohibitions on masturbation as sin, indeed the Vatican inveighed against the practice as recently as 1982.

The medical community, however, was much more effective in scaring prospective and/or practicing masturbators, especially after the publication of an early 18th century tract (c 1712), of unknown authorship, called Onania: or, the heinous sin of self-pollution, and all its frightful consequences (in both sexes) considered: with spiritual advice. The pamphlet created a sensation, and was published in more than 20 English editions as well as dozens more in translation. The Francophone Swiss physician Samuel-Auguste Tissot (1728-1797) wrote a longer and much more medicalized treatise on “onanism,” published in Latin in 1759, in French in 1760, and in English in 1766. Like its predecessor, Tissot’s book was a hugely successful publication, and was widely accepted as gospel by mainstream doctors in Europe, Britain, and the United States. Tissot and his followers attributed an impressive list of human woes to self-abuse, including: “melancholia, hysteria, convulsions, stupidity, imbecility, and insanity […] weakening or total loss of sight and hearing; progressive loss of smell and taste […] rachitis, gibbosities, stunting of growth, articular rheumatism, and gout.”  The list goes on to include impotence, sterility, and death.

The "mechanical and iniquitous excitations" of masturbation were, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, thought to cause all manner of diseases and disorders in both sexes. Doctors thought they saw serious somatic symptoms of the practice: sunken eyes with black bags under them, pallor, general weakness, and a host of sexual manifestations that one physician, S. Cooke, described as necessarily culminating in a massive, spasmodic system failure, a sort of death by orgasm.

Of female masturbation, Cooke exclaims "Alas, that such an expression is possible!" and goes on to cite the practice as the chief cause of nymphomania. Sewing machines, particularly the kind with two foot treadles operating alternately, were thought by many nineteenth century physicians to be either the cause or the means of masturbation in women, a concern also expressed about the bicycle. Thomas Low Nichols considered masturbation a major source of pregnancy complications. We actually have little data on how frequently 19th century women masturbated, but we have ample evidence that their physicians devoted considerable thought to the issue.

E. H. Smith, for example, writing in the Pacific Medical Journal of 1903 was so concerned about the possibility of his colleagues failing to diagnose masturbatory diseases in their female patients that he published a guide to detecting masturbation by examination. A woman with one labium longer than the other, he asserted, had caused this "hypertrophy" by masturbating on that side. Since the relative sizes of the labia, like those of hands, feet, ears and testicles, are usually determined by laterality, Smith must have discovered multitudes of female masturbators by this method. Passing a "mild faradic current" through the urethra was another method of determining whether women were more sexually sensitive than Smith thought was good for them.

With readers of medical treatises and patients thoroughly terrified by these dire prognoses, a number of devices were patented in the United States and elsewhere for the prevention of them via mechanical means of masturbation, or even through causing orgasm during sleep. Parents of children suspected of taking erotic experiments in hand were a major market for these diabolical devices. Most were designed for men, included gings that responded to an erection by digging sharp points into the shaft of the penis, mittens of abrasive steel mail (for both sexes), anti-masturbation suits of rubber, iron, and leather, and even a device that detected expansion of the penis and forestalled any sleeping miscreant that dared to enjoy an erotic dream, by drenching their offending parts with cold water.

In the early twentieth century, the medical profession began to realize that, although it was certainly true that the vast majority of sick people masturbated, it was also true that the vast majority of healthy people were doing the same. The Kinsey, Masters & Johnson, Hite and other twentieth century studies of sexuality eventually gave masturbation a clean bill of health, and the pendulum has now swung so far in the other direction that some researchers have suggested that masturbation, especially in males, contributes to the health of sperm, and may even have evolutionary advantages. Nowadays, the diabolical devices in sex toy stores are designed to encourage eroticism—with or without a partner—and doctors routinely recommend masturbatory devices for patients who just want an uncomplicated solitary orgasm. Self-abuse has, so to speak, come a long way.

Written by Rachel Maines