From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Masturbation refers to sexual stimulation, especially of one's own genitals and often to the point of orgasm, which is performed manually, by other types of bodily contact (except for sexual intercourse), by use of objects or tools, or by some combination of these methods. Masturbation is the most common form of autoeroticism, and the two words are often used as synonyms, although masturbation with a partner (mutual masturbation) is also common.
In history and society
There are depictions of male masturbation in prehistoric rock paintings around the world. Most early people seem to have connected human sexuality with abundance in nature. A clay figurine of the 4th millennium BC from a temple site on the island of Malta, depicts a woman masturbating. However, in the ancient world depictions of male masturbation are far more common.
From the earliest records, ancient Sumer had a relaxed attitude toward sex, and masturbation was a popular technique for enhancing potency, either alone or with a partner.
Male masturbation became an even more important image in ancient Egypt: when performed by a god it could be considered a creative or magical act: the god Atum was believed to have created the universe by masturbating to ejaculation, and the ebb and flow of the Nile was attributed to the frequency of his ejaculations. Egyptian pharaohs, in response to this, were at one time required to masturbate ceremonially into the Nile.
The ancient Greeks had a more relaxed attitude toward masturbation than the Egyptians did, regarding the act as a normal and healthy substitute for other forms of sexual pleasure. They considered it a safety valve against destructive sexual frustration. The Greeks also dealt with female masturbation in both their art and writings. One common term used for it was anaphlan, which roughly translates as "up-fire".
Diogenes, speaking in jest, credited the god Hermes with its invention: he allegedly took pity on his son Pan, who was pining for Echo but unable to seduce her, and taught him the trick of masturbation in order to relieve his suffering. Pan in his turn taught the habit to young shepherds.
As late as the seventeenth century in Europe the practice was commonly employed by nannies to put their young male charges to sleep. That tolerance was soon to change. The first use of the word "onanism" to consistently and specifically refer to masturbation appears to be Onania, an anonymous pamphlet first distributed in London in 1716. It drew on familiar themes of sin and vice, this time in particular against the "heinous sin" of "self-pollution". After dire warnings that those who so indulged would suffer impotence, gonorrhea, epilepsy and a wasting of the faculties (included were letters and testimonials supposedly from young men ill and dying from the effects of compulsive masturbation) the pamphlet then goes on to recommend as an effective remedy a "Strengthening Tincture" at 10 shillings a bottle and a "Prolific Powder" at 12 shillings a bag, available from a local shop.
One of the many horrified by the descriptions of malady in Onania was the notable Swiss physician Samuel-Auguste Tissot. In 1760, he published L'Onanisme, his own comprehensive medical treatise on the purported ill-effects of masturbation. Citing case studies of young male masturbators amongst his patients in Lausanne, Switzerland as basis for his reasoning, Tissot argued that semen was an "essential oil" and "stimulus" that, when lost from the body in great amounts, would cause "a perceptible reduction of strength, of memory and even of reason; blurred vision, all the nervous disorders, all types of gout and rheumatism, weakening of the organs of generation, blood in the urine, disturbance of the appetite, headaches and a great number of other disorders."
Though Tissot's ideas are now considered conjectural at best, his treatise was presented as a scholarly, scientific work in a time when experimental physiology was practically nonexistent. The authority with which the work was subsequently treated – Tissot's arguments were even acknowledged and echoed by luminaries such as Kant and Voltaire – arguably turned the perception of masturbation in Western medicine over the next two centuries into that of a debilitating illness.
This continued well into the Victorian Era, where such medical censure of masturbation was in line with the widespread social conservatism and opposition to open sexual behavior common at the time. There were recommendations to have boys' pants constructed so that the genitals could not be touched through the pockets, for schoolchildren to be seated at special desks to prevent their crossing their legs in class and for girls to be forbidden from riding horses and bicycles because the sensations these activities produce were considered too similar to masturbation. Boys and young men who nevertheless continued to indulge in the practice were branded as "weak-minded." Many "remedies" were devised, including eating a bland, meatless diet. This approach was promoted by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (inventor of corn flakes) and Rev. Sylvester Graham (inventor of Graham crackers). The medical literature of the times describes procedures for electric shock treatment, infibulation, restraining devices like chastity belts and straitjackets, cauterization or – as a last resort – wholesale surgical excision of the genitals. Routine neonatal circumcision was widely adopted in the United States and the UK at least partly because of its believed preventive effect against masturbation (see also History of male circumcision). In later decades, the more drastic of these measures were increasingly replaced with psychological techniques, such as warnings that masturbation led to blindness, hairy hands or stunted growth. Some of these persist as myths even today.
At the same time, the supposed medical condition of hysteria—from the Greek hystera or uterus—was being treated by what would now be described as medically administered or medically prescribed masturbation for women. Techniques included use of the earliest vibrators and rubbing the genitals with placebo creams.
Medical attitudes toward masturbation began to change at the beginning of the 20th century when H. Havelock Ellis, in his seminal 1897 work Studies in the Psychology of Sex, questioned Tissot's premises, cheerfully named famous men of the era who masturbated and then set out to disprove (with the work of more recent physicians) each of the claimed diseases of which masturbation was purportedly the cause. "We reach the conclusion", he wrote, "that in the case of moderate masturbation in healthy, well-born individuals, no seriously pernicious results necessarily follow."
Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of The Scout Association, incorporated a passage in the 1914 edition of Scouting for Boys warning against the dangers of masturbation. This passage stated that the individual should run away from the temptation by performing physical activity which was supposed to tire the individual so that masturbation could not be performed. By 1930, however, Dr. F. W. W. Griffin, editor of The Scouter, had written in a book for Rover Scouts that the temptation to masturbate was "a quite natural stage of development" and, citing Ellis' work, held that "the effort to achieve complete abstinence was a very serious error."
The works of Sexologist Alfred Kinsey during the 1940s and 1950s insisted that masturbation was an instinctive behavior for both males and females, citing the results of Gallup Poll surveys indicating how common it was in the United States. Some critics of this theory held that his research was biased and that the Gallup Poll method was redundant for defining "natural behavior".
In 1994, when the Surgeon General of the United States, Dr. Joycelyn Elders, mentioned as an aside that it should be mentioned in school curricula that masturbation was safe and healthy, she was forced to resign, with opponents asserting that she was promoting the teaching of how to masturbate. Many believe this was the result of her long history of promoting controversial viewpoints and not due solely to her public mention of masturbation.
- See also Religion and sexuality for broader coverage
Immanuel Kant regarded masturbation as a violation of the moral law. In the Metaphysics of Morals (1797) he made the a posteriori argument that 'such an unnatural use of one's sexual attributes' strikes 'everyone upon his thinking of it' as 'a violation of one's duty to himself', and suggested that it was regarded as immoral even to give it its proper name (unlike the case of the similarly undutiful act of suicide). He went on, however, to acknowledge that 'it is not so easy to produce a rational demonstration of the inadmissibility of that unnatural use', but ultimately concluded that its immorality lay in the fact that 'a man gives up his personality … when he uses himself merely as a means for the gratification of an animal drive'.
Subsequent critics of masturbation tended to argue against it on more physiological grounds, however.
The legal status of masturbation throughout history has varied from virtually unlimited acceptance to complete illegality. In a 17th century law code for the Puritan colony of New Haven, Connecticut "blasphemers, homosexuals and masturbators" were eligible for the death penalty.
- Nocturnal emission
- Die große Nacht im Eimer (painting)
- Chastity belt
- Seedbed (performance piece)