It was spurred by Kathleen telling me about a sexuality talk she gave some 'tween girls, based on the excellent book Changing Bodies, Changing Lives. Armed with some notes* and pads of paper for the girls to doodle on (secret real purpose: to give them a place to pretend to stare at if things got too embarrassing) brave Kathleen laid it all out for these girls--including the hows of orgasms, the phases of sexual response, and the role of masturbation in a healthy sex life. Kathleen even talked to them about sexual fantasies and told them different ways that girls might want to touch themselves. The eminently sensible idea being: people armed with knowledge are better able to make smart and responsible decisions about sex.
It was completely revolutionary to me. The one hour of sex education class I got in the 1970s contained quite a bit of information--an excessive amount, to my mind--about vas deferens, fallopian tubes and the like, but nothing in the way of practical information about sex. That is, the $%$# you actually wanted to know. I mean, my teacher described the doing of "IT" as "the sperm meeting the egg," as though a cotillion was somehow involved. There was no fucking way she was going to talk about the emotional and physical benefits of jerking off.
When I had my first self-given orgasm, I thought I had probably broken myself. I might have asked someone about it, but I was somehow aware that this was the sort of activity one didn't speak of. (Later I worried that I might have become pregnant after an interesting experiment with a pool water jet.** I was perhaps not the brightest of children.)
This kind of masturbation shame/ignorance is, fortunately, a fairly recent development. Throughout most of history, masturbation was considered natural, good, a sign of fertility and such. There are spurts of masturbation references throughout art, mythology and history. The ancient Greeks approved of stoking one's own fire, considering it a healthy outlet for both men and women. And in Egypt, the god Atum was thought to have brought forth the universe by ejaculating during what must have been a rather interesting session of beating off. ("Atum! You're still in the bathroom? What are you doing in there, young man?")
So accepted was the practice that nannies in 17th century Europe would masturbate young males who couldn't get to sleep(!) This is perhaps what people mean when they complain they can't get good help anymore. Dear Carmen, the lady who used to clean my house before I became poor, never once offered to give me a handjob, even after I pointedly mentioned I was having trouble sleeping.
How did we get from there to here? I mean, what sort of crazy-ass mind control propaganda could get people to turn against such a pleasurable activity? It was an influential pamphlet, of all things, circulated in 1700s America. It explained that semen held the Life Force and, as such, should not be squandered in the handkerchiefs of the day.
Soon, a variety of health and moral problems were added to plain ol' life force squandering. In "A Solemn Appeal," Sister Ellen G. White lists a host of old-timey ails caused by "the practice" including the dreaded "dropsy." The alarmed Sister warns, "The mind is often utterly ruined, and insanity supervenes." This perhaps explains why I have been known to stare blankly when someone asks me my cell phone number.
In Daniel Hack Turke's 1892 A Dictionary of Psychological Medicine, he described a habitual masturbator thusly:
The face becomes pale and pasty, and the eye lusterless. The man loses all spontaneity and cheerfulness, all manliness and self-reliance. He cannot look you in the face because he is haunted by the consciousness of a dirty secret which he must always conceal and always dreads that you may discover. He shuns society, and has no intimate friends, does not dare to marry, and becomes a timid, hypersensitive, self-centered, hypochondriac.
Obviously such a fate was undesirable and young masturbators needed to be saved lest they, too, become pale and pasty in the face. According to Mary Roach in Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, "Little hands were tied to headboards, and trousers fashioned without pockets. Hobbyhorses were taken away, and climbing ropes removed from school gymnasiums." And in 1914's Scouting for Boys: A Handbook for Instruction in Good Citizenship, scouting founder Robert Baden-Powell urges boys stricken with the forbidden urge to literally run away from temptation until presumably the boy would be so physically exhausted he would no longer have the energy to reach for his member.
This kind of hysteria fed on itself, and at a certain point, anti-masturbation advocates sound less concerned with the moral health of our youth and more like completely insane sadists. John Kellogg, the cereal guy, claimed that the "solitary vice" caused a host of health problems, up to and including death. "Such a victim literally dies by his own hands," Kellogg wrote, perhaps chuckling to himself over his wit. I knew Kellogg was wack--I mean, the dude invented a high-powered enema machine for personal use--but I didn't realize just how much of a nutter he was until I saw this in Wikipedia's History of Masturbation:
He recommended, to prevent children from this "solitary vice", bandaging or tying their hands, covering their genitals with patented cages, sewing the foreskin shut and electrical shock. He also recommended burning off the clitoris to prevent masturbation in girls.
Enterprising Americans wanted in on this action and dutifully invented all sorts of dreadful devices to stop people from ravishing themselves. (For lots of scary pictures, see also: Stephenson Billings' The Anti-Masturbation Movement's 14 Greatest Inventions on ChristWire.) There were penis fans to keep one's member from undue warmth, full body suits to prevent lustful wandering hands, and alarm systems designed to alert parents to their children's nocturnal erections (not quite sure what the parent is supposed to do once alerted). Penis cages and trusses locked the guilty organ up or tied it down to physically prevent erections. And when those didn't work, physical pain was employed.
"The Timely Warning" (pictured at left) prevented "night emissions by arousing the wearer." "Arousing" is, at the very least, a curious choice of words. I guess it's an 1800s adman's best try at a positive spin on what would more accurately be described as: "being rudely awakened from your sweet dreams and pleasantly swelling erection by the sharp stab of a ring of metal teeth cutting into your wang."
It's madness, obviously, but plenty of people are still afraid of masturbation (see also: The Dreaded "M" Word by former U.S. Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders, who was fired--I can still scarcely believe it!--for merely mentioning masturbation.) This article, for example, Freedom From Masturbation, offers guilty onanists a religious approach to stopping, including specific anti-monkey-spanking prayers to recite and the advice to "pray intermittently in tongues as the Lord leads you." (I would much less disturbed by walking in on some guy jacking off than some guy not jacking off while sporting a huge hard-on and speaking in tongues, but that's just me.)
The good news is that, in general, things seem to be finally turning around. Viva Changing Bodies, Changing Lives and people like brave Kathleen teaching girls how to wank it! As Dan Savage says in Savage U, "Girls should be encouraged to experiment, masturbate, learn how their bodies and orgasms work before moving on to partnered sex. Partnered sex would be less intimidating and disappointing out of the gate if more women arrived knowing how to get themselves off."
*If you'd like me to send you a copy of Kathleen's notes so you can corrupt a new generation with the dual evils of wisdom and self-reliance, email me.
**I'm pretty sure that this is how Aquaman was conceived.