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Why We’re Scared of Masturbation

...Most people associate anti-masturbation views with religious fundamentalism, and there are, of course, somewhat ambiguous passages in the Bible that can be read as denouncing masturbation, as well as religious communities that view masturbation as a sin to this day. But according to Thomas Laqueur, a historian at UC Berkeley and the author of Solitary Sex : A Cultural History of Masturbation, it would be a mistake to view Western fears about masturbation as an ancient line of thought stemming from Judeo-Christian religious texts.

That’s because for the vast majority of recorded Western history, Laqueur writes, masturbation was not seen as a serious problem — the subject of the occasional joke, maybe, or mild concern about sexual energy being misspent on a non-procreative activity, but by no means a major concern. This all changed around 1712, when a tract with a mouthful for a title was published in London: Onania; 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. And seasonable Admonition to the Youth of the nation of Both SEXES…

You can check out a PDF with excerpts from the tenth edition of the pamphlet here — it’s the equivalent of the longest, coldest shower in the universe (I cleaned up some janky spacing a bit):

THIS Practice is so frequent, and so crying an Offense, especially among the MALE YOUTH of this Nation , that I have Reason to imagine, a great many Offenders would never have been Guilty of it, if they had been thoroughly acquainted with the Heinousness of the Crime, and the sad Consequences to the BODY as well as the SOUL, which may, and often do ensue upon it. This was the chief Motive that induc’d me to write on this Subject.

According to the author of Onania (“a surgeon of sorts who wrote soft-core medical pornography,” according to Solitary Sex), masturbation can bring great tragedy upon those whom it seduces — among other symptoms, it can stunt growth, cause epilepsy, and, perhaps most alarming, lead to the contraction of “Gonorrhea’s, more difficult to be cur’d, than those contracted from Women actually labouring under foul Diseases.”

It’s hard to overstate the tract’s impact. As Stephen Greenblatt wrote in aNew York Review of Books essay on Solitary Sex, despite its utter reliance on quackery, Onania “served as the foundation stone of a serious medical tradition that transformed cultural assumptions that had been securely in place for thousands of years.” (The reasons why the tract hit such a nerve are complicated, but Greenblatt sums them up nicely in his essay.) In the decades and centuries that followed, masturbation went from being mostly ignored to being highly pathologized — suddenly, it was an extremely dangerous, corrupting activity, and all sorts of treatments and punishments and laws emerged as a result of this belief...

Read entire article at New York Magazine