Medieval moral authorities – which is to say, the church – tended to take a pretty dim view of self-love. Masturbation, non-standard sexual positions, oral sex and more were considered no-nos in the penitentials. Medieval texts advised priests on what penances were appropriate to give sinners who confessed these acts. For instance, the Canons of Theodore, a collection of penitential material dating to around 700 AD, states that a man who “pollutes himself” is to do penance for 40 days. While a woman who “has sex with herself” has to do penance for three years. That's a pretty striking double standard. It also says that if you come in someone's mouth, you have to repent until the end of your life, so it's not exactly what you'd call a sex-positive document.
The medieval view – at least the official one – was that masturbation was a moral evil. Sex was meant to produce children and to signify God's love for the church; having it for pleasure was missing the point. But as medieval faded into modern and some traditional beliefs were abandoned, the official position on “self-abuse” didn't change as much as you might think.
Early modern writers tended to abandon the medieval view that masturbating was a sin. At least, they didn't make that the central plank of their argument. Instead of arguing that masturbation was just bad this new generation of hands-off advocates tried to persuade their readers that masturbation was bad for your health.
And how they persuaded! Probably the first great anti-masturbation text is (draws breath) Onania, or the Heinous Sin of self-Pollution, And All Its Frightful Consequences, In Both Sexes, Considered: With Spiritual and Physical Advice To Those Who Have Already Injured Themselves By This Abominable Practice. An 18th-century book that outlines in lurid detail all of the terrible stuff that can happen to you if you play with yourself too much:
"In Men as well as Boys, the very first Attempt of it has often occasion'd a Phymosis in some, and a Paraphymosis in others; I shall not explain these Terms any further, let it suffice that they are Accidents which are very troublesome & painful, and may continue to be tormenting for some time, if not bring on Ulcers and other worse Symptoms; especially if manag'd by raw unskilful People, whom to employ, it is most commonly the Fate of young Men, who being conscious of their Guilt, have not the Assurance to address themselves to Men of Worth and Experience. Whoever wants to know the Signification of those Words, any Surgeon will imform him."
It goes on to explain that it can lead to disorders of the penis and testes, as well as gonorrhea. In women, it's bad for the complexion, causes Fluor Albus, whatever that might be, and, oh yeah, can kill you.
But Onania isn't happy just to focus on the medical effects: masturbation is also bad for the soul and leads to all kinds of “Instances of Lewdness.” Also, God is watching you when you wank. So here we have what we might think of as a hybrid. It's part religious screed against the sin of masturbating and part medical text.
The medical approach continued to be the dominant one through the 19th and into the 20th centuries. One common argument against male masturbation comes up throughout the centuries, as in the 18th-century French text Onanism, or, A treatise on the disorders produced by masturbation. According to this theory, masturbation weakened men by draining the body of healthy, life-giving semen. No corresponding viewpoint on homosexuality seems to have existed.
1847's The Silent Friend argued that masturbation could cause (another deep breath) “exhaustion of the system,” nervous excitement, irritation, impotence, shrinking of the penis, indigestion, trouble breathing and “hypochondriac melancholy,” although if you're not in a state of hypochondriac melancholy after reading that list I salute you on your fortitude.
This being the case, people sought to curb masturbation through a variety of means from the ingenious to the horrible. 19th-century health guru John Harvey Kellogg – of corn flake fame – wrote in his highly entertaining but slightly terrifying Plain Facts for Young and Old that masturbation could cause everything from consumption and heart disease to bad posture. As a treatment, he recommended, among other things, electric shocks to the genitals, abdominal bandages, cold baths, corn flakes, enemas and giving up smoking.
Which is all pretty humorous, although maybe not so fantastic for the young man whose health-conscious parents force him to give up spices, meat, milk, eggs, fish, coffee, alcohol and tobacco while sitting in a cold bath and eating corn mush. But there are worse ways to cure the masturbating habit. Take, for instance, the case of Doctor Isaac Baker Brown, who attempted to treat masturbation (which he regarded as the cause of a whole host of illnesses) by the simple expedient of clitoridectomy. His 1866 monograph on the subject is ugly reading. Baker Brown was expelled from the Obstetrical Society for his generally loose attitude toward informed consent, but while his case is extreme it isn't absolutely bizarre within the context of Victorian medicine.
The consensus that masturbation causes every disease known to medical science and probably crime as well is long gone. In fact, doctors now think that there are a lot of health benefits to a reasonable number of solo dates. And masturbation for women is no longer such a taboo subject – although it isn't talked about in polite conversation, it's much more accepted, and even seen as fun and empowering. Masturbation by men (straight men, at least) is still mostly seen as lonely and contemptible, which is a bit harsh, but who knows? Maybe we'll be able to talk frankly about it soon. Assuming we don't all die from it first.
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