A Brief History of Masturbation

History of the Masturbation Taboo

Almost everyone masturbates, but all too few of us are willing to admit to enjoying this simple pleasure — mostly because of the taboo against masturbation in our society, which has its roots in historical misconceptions that have survived to the present day. Concerns about masturbation tend to fall into two general categories: that masturbation is dangerously wasteful or that it’s immature. The notion that masturbation is wasteful springs from the widespread misconception that men have a finite allotment of sperm and that every ejaculation depletes precious semen, resulting in exhaustion and weakness. Although women don’t produce semen, it was once believed that masturbation was similarly destructive and debilitating to them. The belief that masturbation is such a dangerous drain on energy that it can lead to enfeeblement, illness and ultimately insanity was so persistent in 18th, 19th and even 20th century Europe and America that treatments for preventing masturbation became something of an obsession.

Turn-of-the-century magazines featured advertisements for penile rings which were spiked on the inside so that if the wearer experienced an erection during the course of the night, he’d wake from the pain. Bondage belts, restraints, straitjackets, cauterizing irons and even clitoridectomy (the surgical excision of the clitoris) were all methods used to prevent young women from masturbating. American health reformers of the 19th century preached, as in these words from John Kellogg, that masturbation was “the vilest, the basest and the most degrading act that a human being can commit.”

Although most men and women today are aware that masturbation isn’t a “degrading act,” many are still constrained by the notion that it’s a selfish, immature activity or a second-rate substitute for partner sex. We live in a society in which sexual expression has always been legislated and restricted and the pursuit of pure pleasure is frequently condemned as selfish and childish. A lot of people who consider themselves free of sexual hang-ups have simply rewritten the equation “sex is only good if it involves procreation” to “sex is only good if it involves two loving people.” The fact that masturbation is a pleasurable end in itself gets short shrift in mainstream sex manuals, which focus on masturbation as a useful tool in the building of a better sex life with one’s partner. While it’s certainly true that masturbation provides valuable information about your own and your partners’ sexual responses, masturbation is much more than a means to the exalted end of better partner sex. Masturbation is our first sexual activity, a natural source of pleasure that’s available to us throughout our lives, and a unique form of creative self-expression. Each time you masturbate, you’re celebrating your sexuality and your innate capacity for pleasure, so give yourself a hand!

Masturbation Today

While giving yourself pleasure may seem as natural as taking a breath, masturbation is by no means a widely accepted form of sexual activity. Today, in many parts of the world (including the U.S.) children are punished if they are caught masturbating, which can affect their sexuality for the rest of their lives. Adults in cultures across the globe are presented with heterosexual marriage as the only acceptable form of sexual expression. Masturbation is not honored as an important form of safer sex, much less as a way a person can love herself, learn about himself, or exercise, as one wonderful Chinese euphemism puts it, “self-comfort.”

Masturbation can be a radical act, and the culture that suppresses masturbation may suppress many other personal freedoms as well. While celebrating National Masturbation Month and doing your part to bring self love out of the closet, keep in mind that erotic freedom is essential to true well-being, everywhere.

Dr. Charlie Glickman

Charlie Glickman is the Education Program Manager at Good Vibrations. He also writes, blogs, teaches workshops and university courses, presents at conferences, and trains sexuality educators. He’s certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, and loves geeking out about sex, relationships, sex-positivity, love and shame, communities of erotic affiliation, and sexual practices and techniques of all varieties. Follow him online, on Twitter at @charlieglickman, or on Facebook.

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