To be fair, Western society has had a love-hate relationship with sex for the last millennia. To be ascetic or not be ascetic, that is the puritanical question which has followed us all the way to the New World. To surrender completely to sexual impulses, including exploring our own bodies, has been demonized as a source of disease, sin, and mental disease.
Anti-masturbation rhetoric as a whole has largely been directed toward men rather than women, it’s source located in the Old Testament. ‘Onanism’ is a reference to the Biblical Onan, who spilt his sperm instead of impregnating his wife, and died from God’s wrath.
[Genesis 38:6-10] Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn; her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah's firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the LORD, and the LORD put him to death. Then Judah said to Onan, "Go in to your brother's wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her; raise up offspring for your brother." But since Onan knew that the offspring would not be his, he spilled his semen on the ground whenever he went in to his brother's wife, so that he would not give offspring to his brother. What he did was displeasing in the sight of the LORD, and he put him to death also.
To make sense of this, first one has to realize that the way succession worked during this time was that if a the eldest son was unable to claim his birthright, the next eldest married his brother’s widow - but once impregnated, it would be as if the eldest brother impregnated his wife to begin with. The speculation behind this is that Onan’s mistake was in “spilling his seed” rather than impregnating his brother’s widow, thus linking “wasted seed” to masturbation. This argument lasted for another millennium, but the real modern struggle with masturbation began in the late 17th century with the advent of cities, movable-type publishing, and Protestantism.
As early as 1716, when a notorious pamphlet labeled Onania: Or the Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution, and all its Frightful Consequences (in Both Sexes) was published, masturbation has been linked to a variety of ailments including—but not limited to—headaches, epilepsy, pimples, dizziness, gonorrhea, heart palpitations, infertility, impotence, and consumption (tuberculosis). Kellogg’s built an empire by making special cereal made from corn as a ‘diet’ to treat chronic masturbators. Male circumcision became popular as a way to reduce the sensitivity of the glans.
Even until the turn of the 20th century, women and men were committed to mental institutions because of some sexual disorder (usually hypersexuality or excessive masturbation). The Vagina Monologues states, “In the United States, the last recorded clitoridectomy for curing masturbation was performed in 1948—on a five year old girl.” This five year old girl would have been in her sexual prime by the ‘60s Sexual Revolution, and an old woman (if still alive) today. It’s really only in the last forty years that some reform and forward-thinking toward masturbation has come into play, with most of the progress made in the 1970s.
Now for some popular misconceptions and myths on masturbation:
Like I said before, masturbation has been blamed for everything from pimples to tuberculosis. Modern medicine and common sense now tells us that can’t be so. Why are these ideas about masturbation threatening? Partly because it is such a private act (and therefore more likely to be misunderstood) and partly because sex has been an uncomfortable subject for polite society (Thanks, Victorians.)
1. Masturbation is the Devil
There is a lot of shame attached to masturbation due to a few factors: most of Western civilization owes the cultivation of language, education, and creativity to religion, which historically has used social dogma to control populations for its own political devices. This doesn’t mean that the religious founders premeditated or even anticipated the ripple effects of their decisions; to them, they translated a story and tried to make sense of the same as we would today. When Onan was put to death for “spilling seed”, it couldn’t be decided for fact if it was because he was subverting a sacred responsibility (giving a child to his brother’s widow), or because of his spite against it, or if it simply was “wasting” his “seed.” That’s where Onanism came from: spilling seed translates to masturbation. Note, this word has nothing to do with women whatsoever.
2. Masturbation is harmful.
Blindness. Hairy palms. Dead kittens. Where does the carnage end with masturbation? Truth is, nowhere—as in, it never causes these things to begin with. If anything, it gives “a healthy dose of dopamine, endorphins and oxytocin” according to the 2009 University of Michigan study. For women especially, it increases blood flow to vital organs which helps soothe menstrual cramps and headaches.
3. It causes infertility.
It actually increases sperm count for men. Of course, frequent masturbation may ultimately decrease sperm count (some studies have shown “optimum semen quality occurs after two to three days of no ejaculation” - MayoClinic). However, for women it has no effect on fertility; if anything, it primes a woman for sex (see point 5).
4. It is shameful.
It’s a secret activity that starts when you’re young. Any secret has a certain amount of shame attached to it, precisely because it is a secret. There is fear of judgment or even being mocked. When you think about it, it takes a lot to open up to a lover, let alone friends or strangers when it comes to what gets you off. Any amount of shame felt during this act correlates to your perception of how big of a secret it is, how much fear you associate with anyone finding out this secret. Men and women who masturbate and don’t shame themselves for it actually have better self-image, make better relationship decisions, and are better lovers for knowing their bodies so well.
5. It decreases your sex drive.
This could be true—to an extent, if you were a man. Erections could be harder to maintain if done frequently (like, say six times in a day.) Or it could ramp up to hypersexuality (sexual addiction, chronic masturbation). It doesn’t have to be a set of extremes, however: a moderate dose of masturbation, even if it happens twice a day (or sometimes three!), can absolutely be the best thing for your sex drive.
There’s a lot of things wrong in this world. Masturbation is not one of them, as long as it’s done in a healthy, moderate way. In case you’re curious, here’s a woman’s guide to loving yourself! (coming soon - check back November 28th!)
Images via Wikimedia