Sex for One: The Art of Self-Stimulation

What is the history of masturbation?

Autogratification (self-stimulation or masturbation) was condemned as an evil taboo in many cultures and throughout many historical eras. It was seen as a cause of medical illness and viewed as an activity that weakened the soul and the mind. However, during the ancient period of Greek hedonism, sexual enjoyment and expression were encouraged and advocated. Masturbation was regarded as a natural activity if men could not find other copulation opportunities. This philosophy was in contradiction to the emerging 18th-century preoccupation with self-pleasure and anti-masturbatory doctrine. Victorian intellects quoted the Bible and asserted that masturbation was self-abuse. The medicalization of the Judeo-Christian view of masturbation, viewing it as an illness, became prevalent in the 18th century. Physicians became moral leaders and attempted to tackle controversial issues masturbation.

The concept of masturbation as an illness was first described in an anonymous 18th-century English document in Holland, "Onania": The Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution. Spilling semen through masturbation was viewed as the cause of a wide range of medical and psychological illnesses: skin ailments like pustules and acne; digestive diseases including nausea, vomiting, constipation; deteriorating eyesight, hearing, and sense of smell; and various nervous conditions. James Graham (1745-1794), a self-proclaimed sex therapist, also depicted masturbation as the primary cause destroying the mind and body. Masturbation was unnatural, and autoerotica became synonymous with medical pathology, madness, mania, dementia, and melancholy and could lead to suicide. Masturbators were thought to have frail offspring. Children were often victims of the masturbation policy; their self-exploration and discovery of their genitals were hindered, often with force and sophisticated gadgetry, to prevent auto-stimulation.

In 1860, articles in American medical journals discussed a therapy to cure masturbation invented by a prominent British physician, Isaac Brown-Baker, who pioneered the operative procedure of clitorectomy (removal of the clitoris) for female neuroses, hysteria, and epilepsy. Although many American and European medical professionals condemned this procedure, it was still utilized in many instances in a gallant attempt to treat many for their bizarre ailments. Others advocated the blistering of the vulva and thighs and the lyses of clitoral adhesions or female circumcision[1] to prevent female masturbation. Male masturbators were not exempt from therapy; they were locked in straightjackets, genital cages, and penile rings with sharp points on the inside to inhibit nocturnal emissions.

It was not until Kinsey's revolutionary 1948 study that the philosophy of masturbation changed. This study of sexual behavior revealed that close to 92% of men and close to 58% of women masturbate to orgasm as some point in their lives. Masturbation was reborn; it was systematically disconnected from perversion, insanity, impotence, and medical or psychological illness. Many still believe that masturbation is a necessary step in developing into a normal, sexual, orgasmic being. Masturbation was even regarded as an acceptable activity in a marital relationship; it was seen as individual exploration of one's own sexuality and a highly personal outlet.

Although society has progressed in many ways, the philosophy and social taboos associated with masturbation are still prevalent. For instance, in 1970 Mark Peterson of the Council of the Twelve Apostles wrote The Mormon Guide to Overcoming Masturbation, a 21-point manifesto to help Mormons keep their hands out of their pants. The position today of the Roman Catholic Church remains that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action. The sexual guilt and fear associated with being found out as a masturbator can in fact cause psychological and emotional damage, the Church believes.

Although society has progressed in many ways, the philosophy and social taboos associated with masturbation are still prevalent.

In our present day, in the face of sexually transmitted diseases, masturbation can be advocated as the safest form of sexual activity besides celibacy. Masturbation has become an essential outlet for sexual tension and frustration and can help curb risk-taking behavior. Masturbation is often a man's first sexual activity and his most frequent activity; it can relieve psychological stress. Masturbation is sanctioned as an individualistic experience that can fulfill many varied needs for different people (the young, the old, and the timid may have no other sexual outlet). A pro-sex group in San Francisco has even declared that May be known as National Masturbation Month; May 7 was designated as Masturbation Day.

In one generation, masturbation moved from an abnormal behavior that results in madness and medical illness to a healthy activity that can promote sexual well-being and normal development. Prior to Kinsey, masturbation was a sin that made hair grow on the palms of boys and on the faces of girls. By dispelling the myths about masturbation, it can be promoted as an erotic activity that can promote a positive sexual self-image. The ecstasy of solo sex is ubiquitous and will continue to enhance human beings' sexual, erotic, and sensual repertoire.

Bodily exploration and enjoyment of personal autoerotic behavior may be an important step in your sexual health and wellness.

  • [1] Any form of ritualized genital cutting or excision or destruction of parts of the female genitalia.
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