A Brief History of Masturbation

We are living in an unprecedented era of sexual liberation; sex toys, masturbation, open conversations and unapologetic self-fulfillment. Or are we?

For centuries, we have created stigmas around masturbation that have had a powerful impact on the way that humans mentally and physically engage with their sexual selves. Those stigmas are undeniably shifting, but we’re not quite there yet. Masturbation is actually a fascinating topic with a rich history. In some communities, it is viewed as dirty, or is forbidden; while in others, it is considered to be a healthy, ‘normal’ and encouraged act. But even then, guilt and shame still seem to be synonymous with self love, and we may not even understand why. One way to navigate those feelings is by questioning the source of them, and how relevant that source is for our own bodies today.

Many of our society’s laws, attitudes and standards have been shaped over many years by the influence of the Bible. The Christian expectation that sex must be Church-sanctioned and only for the means of pro-creation, and that we should otherwise remain abstinent and pure, has been widely preached over the last two millennia. 

However it was at the beginning of the 18th Century that masturbation began to be more broadly stigmatised as having pathological origins and negative physical and mental health consequences, creating a “nearly universal engine for generating guilt, shame, and anxiety”[1].

 In 1712 an anonymous text named “Onania; or, The Heinous Sin of Self Pollution, and all its Frightful Consequences” was famously published and widely circulated openly condemning masturbation. It named this “new disease” Onania (masturbation) as a morally abhorrent act.

In the following centuries, many writers, philosophers and doctors would argue that masturbation was a serious threat to mental and physical health.

In the 1830s, Benjamin Rush, a renowned physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence, argued that masturbation caused tuberculosis, memory loss, and epilepsy. J.H. Kellogg, medical writer and creator of breakfast cereal, believed signs of masturbation included acne, weak back, and convulsions. Noted 19th-century physician and early sex research pioneer Richard von Krafft Ebing linked masturbation to homosexuality and other types of what he considered deviance and illnesses. 

It is around this point in history where anti-masturbation devices, or ‘penis torture objects’, were invented in order to control sexual desire. Vaginal genital mutilation was also practiced in America in an attempt to “redirect women’s sexuality to the only culturally acceptable avenue: vaginal intercourse within marriage[2]”.

It wasn’t until the 20th Century that the myths and guilt were starting to unravel. In the 1940s and 50s, Alfred Kinsey published his research findings that “90 percent of men and 62 percent of women masturbated”. In the 60s and 70s, there was a significant movement to normalise female masturbation, with sex educator Betty Dodson’s masturbation workshops, the female sexuality pamphlet Our Bodies, Ourselves, and feminist sex toy shops[3].

At long last, in 1972, masturbation was deemed “neither physically nor mentally harmful” by the American Medical Association, and in 1994 American Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders suggested that masturbation be covered in sex ed curricula. Then in the 1980s, masturbation was even being publicly encouraged as a tool in the fight against HIV/AIDS[4].

Now we live in an age where the taboo has been significantly loosened, though masturbation is still not a simple topic. Many sex therapists suggest masturbating regularly, whether you’re single or partnered, but for some people it is uninteresting, feels uncomfortable, or goes against their belief system. There remain societal stigmas around masturbation, and it is common to experience feelings of guilt, anxiety, shame, or self-loathing while stimulating yourself. Many have grown up in communities or families where it is discouraged, hushed or ignored, and have internalised the idea that to perform acts of love on your body is unnatural.

So, yes, sure. We are in the midst of something of a sexually freeing revolution and embracing a new era where the enlightened self is the pleasured self. More and more people are choosing not to abide by the cis-male leaders of the Church and their attitudes, and we are - slowly but surely - shedding the long-held and historically ingrained shame of self-pleasure.

But while we step into our freely masturbating futures - if we want to! - it’s also probably a good idea to be talking to a therapist about releasing negative attachments, reading more, or just making sure we’re being very kind to ourselves on the journey, because looking at all these sources, that’s a whole lot of centuries of repression that we’re carrying in our bodies.


[1] Laqueur, T. (2004) Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation

[2] Lieberman, H. (2017). Buzz: The Stimulating History of the Sex Toy. United States: Pegasus Books.

[3] Stengers J & van Neck A (2001): Masturbation: the history of a great terror, Palgrave [4] Das A (2007): Masturbation in the United States. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy 33:301.


Image source: @pmagazine.co

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