1st century CE: The Romans began to use the
words "masturbor" and "masturbator." The origins of these words
4th century CE: A passage in the Jewish Talmud notes: "every hand that
'checks' [the genitals] frequently â€" if by a woman, it is praiseworthy, but if
by a man it should be cut off."
13th century CE: Christian philosopher Albertus Magnus recommended
that pubescent girls rub their clitorises in order to reduce temptation to
engage in intercourse, and thus preserve their chastity.
17th century CE: An early English dictionary defines "mastuprate"
as "dishonestly to touch oneâ€™s privates."
18th century opinions:
Circa 1712 CE, Dutch theologian Dr. Balthazar Bekker published a monograph
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." He said that
masturbation leads to "Disturbances of the stomach and digestion, loss of
appetite or ravenous hunger, vomiting, nausea, weakening of the organs of
breathing, coughing, hoarseness, paralysis, weakening of the organ of generation
to the point of impotence, lack of libido, back pain, disorders of the eye and
ear, total diminution of bodily powers, paleness, thinness, pimples on the face,
decline of intellectual powers, loss of memory, attacks of rage, madness,
idiocy, epilepsy, fever and finally suicide." 10
Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) wrote about several incidents in his book "Confessions, "
which was published in the 1780s after his death.
He viewed the "vice" of masturbation when coupled with sexual fantasies as a form of mental
rape. He said that it "has a particular attraction for lively imaginations. It allows them to
dispose, so to speak, of the whole female sex at their will, and to make any
beauty who tempts them serve their pleasure without the need of first
obtaining her consent." 11 He warned his readers that: "Once a young person gets the
habit, there is no breaking it short of death." 10
"...an English quack published a pamphlet
denouncing "Onania" in 1715; Swiss physician Samuel-August Tissot followed suit
in 1760 with Lâ€™Onanisme. Their preoccupation snowballed until
the mid-1870s, when a handful of doctors questioned the prevailing view that
masturbation was a sin akin to suicide and a drawn-out method of [the] same." 1
In the late 18th century, a Swiss physician named Tissot believed that alterations
blood flow during any sexual activity can lead to nerve damage, insanity, and
blindness. He believed that
masturbation was especially hazardous in this respect. 2
physician of that era, Benjamin Rush, also viewed the practice of masturbation as dangerous to mental and physical
health. He wrote several widely read articles on the subject. 3
19th century opinion:
One writer called masturbation the "shameful vice which
decimates youth." 1 In the 19th century, Kellogg
invented cornflakes as one part of a diet that he felt would lessen the sex drive and
diminish the practice of masturbation -- which he called a "crime doubly
abominable." Dr. Graham invented the Graham Cracker for the
According to Thomas Laqueur, a Berkeley history professor and author of "Solitary Sex: A Cultural History Of Masturbation," there was a huge market
for devices and medication to control masturbation by the mid-19th century.
These included "erection alarms, penis cases, sleeping mitts, bed cradles to
keep the sheets off the genitals and hobbles to keep girls from spreading their
legs." A book published at the time sold more than a half million copies.
described masturbation as "man's sin of sins, vice of vices [which had
caused] incomparably more sexual dilapidation, paralysis and disease as well as
demoralization than all the other sexual vices combined." 4
A popular home health manual from 1871 described masturbation as:
"...a very degrading and destructive habit...There is probably no vice which is more
injurious to both mind and body...it retards the growth, impairs the mental faculties and
reduces the victim to a lamentable state. The person afflicted seeks solitude, and does
not wish to enjoy the society of his friends; he is troubled with headache, wakefulness
and restlessness at night, pain in various parts of the body, indolence, melancholy, loss
of memory, weakness in the back and generative organs, variable appetite, cowardice,
inability to look a person in the face, lack of confidence in his own
abilities...[Eventually] there will be an irritable condition of the system; sudden
flushes of heat over the face; the countenance becomes pale and clammy; the eyes have a
dull, sheepish look; the hair becomes dry and split at the ends; sometimes there is pain
over the region of the heart; shortness of breath; palpitation of the heart; symptoms of
dyspepsia show themselves; the sleep is disturbed; there is constipation; cough;
irritation of the throat; finally the whole man becomes a wreck, physically, morally and
"Some of the consequences of masturbation, are epilepsy, apoplexy, paralysis, premature old
age, involuntary discharge of seminal fluid, which generally occurs during sleep, or after
urinating, or when evacuating the bowels. Among females, besides these other consequences,
we have hysteria, menstrual derangement, catalepsy and strange nervous symptoms." 5
This passage totally conflicts with current medical opinion about
masturbation. One can only
vaguely imagine the stress that this and similar books added to people's lives in the
Other supposed dangers from excessive masturbation were believed to be insanity,
nervous disorders, hair growth on the palms, and damaged eyesight. [The latter gave rise to
the famous question: "Can I do it just until I need glasses?"] More
recent false rumors are that masturbation will cause acne, shorten a bout with the flu,
reduce the size of a male's penis, etc.
Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scout movement that if masturbation
(which he described as "beastliness") became "a habit, it quickly
destroys both health and spirits; he becomes feeble in body and mind and often
ends in a lunatic asylum."
On another note, in the 19th century, some physicians concluded that
hysteria among women was caused by sexual deprivation. As a treatment, they
would stimulate a woman to have an orgasm in the doctor's office.
Eventually, "a doctor invented the vibrator so women could 'treat'
themselves at home." 13
20th century opinion:
Prior to the 20th century, physicians' conclusions were hopelessly biased due
to their personal opinions and prejudices and the lack of objective research. It was only in the 20th century that
double-blind studies became common. In this type of investigation, a large
number of subjects are usually divided into two groups: one receives a
medication or treatment; the other groups receive a placebo medication or no
treatment. The researcher who looks for
positive outcomes in the subjects is kept unaware of which subjects received the
medication or treatment. As much as poissible, the subjects themselves are
similarly kept unaware of who is part of the test group and who is part of the
control group. This design of experiment drastically reduces personal
bias on the part of the researchers. Results are generally far more meaningful and
A widely used textbook "Diseases of Infancy and Childhood"
described masturbation in its "Functional and Nervous Disorders"
chapter as late as 1940. A watershed was reached in 1966 when William Masters and Virginia Johnson published a
ground-breaking study: "Human Sexual Response." Thomas Laqueur
comments that shortly after this date: "the solitary vice of the imagination
and of fantasy that had so terrified ... had been transformed into a virtue:
self-pleasuring was the path to self-knowledge, self-discovery and spiritual
Psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, who called masturbation "the primary sexual
activity of mankind", once observed that "in the 19th century it was a
disease; in the 20th, it's a cure." 4 A fascinating study in Australia, reported in
mid-2003, seems to indicate that it can also prevent prostate cancer.
R. Jandl, "Ask the Doctors"
column on masturbation was once located at: "http://www.tripod.com/ This is currently a dead link
Judy Gerstel, "Masturbation has come a long way to be okay. Ejaculation
a day may keep prostate cancer at bay. Once a reviled practice, it's now
valued as a virtue," The Toronto Star, 2003-JUL-18, at: http://www.thestar.com/
"Our Family Physician: A Manual for Home Usage; Allopathic, Hydropathic,
Eclectic, & Herbal", Published 1871, Pages 288-89.
Ornella Moscuci, "Male masturbation and the offending prepuce,"
at: http://www.cirp.org/ It is an excerpt from "Sexualities in Victorian Britain."
Go Ask Alice! is an interactive question and answer service from
Healthwise, the Health Education division of Columbia University Health. She has some
questions and answers about masturbation at: http://www.columbia.edu/
Slinger, "Benefit of revisionist science is within your grasp," The
Toronto Star, 2003-JUL-24, Page A2.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (translated by J. M. Cohen), "The Confessions,"
Penguin Books, (1979), Pages 108-109.