Wednesday, November 15, 2017

How Wanking It Created the Universe and Other Theories on Masturbation

I am thinking of masturbation this morning. Not in the sense of putting it on today's "to do" list (although--what the hell--maybe I was, you don't need to know every damn thing), but in a more general, historic context way.

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."

The fetish gear-looking contraption shown at right is from US Patent 745,264, filed May 29, 1903, by one Albert V. Todd, for a device designed to prevent masturbation and nocturnal emissions. It features "a lockable belt with a tube for inserting the penis." If the errant penis were to rise while its pious owner was innocently sleeping, the device would employ spikes, an alarm bell, and an electric shock to get things back under control.

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."

Go forth and create a universe.


*I'm pretty sure that this is how Aquaman was conceived.

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Gia said...

True! Love that you quoted Savage U. That guy gives great advice.

5 Things About Nothing Important said...

I am so impressed that somebody actually took the time to explain to those girls that masturbation is acceptable and healthy.

One of the biggest rages I ever went into was when my ex-husband going through a severe fanatical religious phase told one of my boys that "masturbation is wrong". In this day and age, with all of our awareness about STD's and all of the unplanned teen pregnancies! I could not effing believe the stupidity of telling teenage boys this.

Unfortunately, my poor boys have had to listen to some frank embarrassing talks from mom due to their father's uselessness on this topic. I've discovered that while driving with everyone staring out the window and nobody able to walk away works.

mjs said...

Important fact about this bit of masturbatory history:

When heiroglyphics first were on the scene Greeks described Egyptians as "living in bliss" there was tremendous social freedom, women could own property and could choose sexual partners.

Egyptians could all interpret hieroglyphs. They were smart but illiterate. But they had to use both sides of the brain to interpret these images of the glyphs. The mythology of the time was that a male and female god mated and made the world come into creation.

The invention of hieratic script happened about two generations before Atun. With this shift the society became more brutal especially towards women. They lost most of the freedoms they had had for long before very quickly.

This script essesntially made the glyphs into an alphabet and suddenly fewer people could read them any more. With the rise of this script the mytholgy changed. God became male, invisible, and didn't need a female to generate. Images of Atun were outlawed (no graven images). As a concession to the population that had a long standing relationship with feminine gods Atun was given the consort of Truth...who doesn't love the dripping hot pussy of abstract truth.

Leonard Shlain makes a fascinating case in his book Alphabet vs. The Goddess that the rise of literacy has tremendous fruits but one of the hidden effects of it is that the status of women and feminine values drops when alphabetic literacy rises.

you are great.

read it.

amazing history. very readable.

in bed with married women said...

Gia--Dan Savage is a fucking genius. And funny as well. I so wish that show would have been on MTV back in the day. Instead I saw the a-HA video "Take on me" approximately 8 million times, which offered much in the way of how to deal with life if I turned into a cartoon guy, but little about sex.

5 Important Things--I once dated a guy who revealed that he thought masturbation was a sin. I couldn't believe it. Esp. since pre-marital sex was apparently a-ok with him. ??

mjs--"the drippy hot pussy of abstract truth" is most definitely the most entertaining phrase I've read all day.

Unknown said...

I had a witty, intelligent comment to go here, and then you ruined it with the Aquaman quip. Now all I can think about is "they did an 'origins' movie for Wolverine... now I want to see an 'Aquaman: Origins' movie..."

Jack and Jill said...

Dan Savage is our hero. We've referenced him on our blog, adopted some of his terminology such as "monogamish", and I even got a retweet from him a couple months ago. I've never encountered anyone who consistently makes as much sense as he does. Coolest thing about him? We frequently listen to his podcast in the car, and our two-year-old - who is starting to repeat everything she hears, so maybe we should stop listening with her present until she understands the context of what she hears - always vocalizes along with the opening theme. It's really rather cute.

The Aquaman line made us laugh. :)

katsidhe said...

The bear trap attached to the penis is pretty terrifying, but then so is growing hair on your palms.

I WISH that I'd known more about self-love before I'd assumed that I could never orgasm. I, too, thought that I had broke something.

dirtycowgirl said...

Just wow !
I KNOW that people had attitudes like this (my mother was one of them) but it still beggars belief. Religion and the Victorians have an awful lot to answer for when it comes to messing with minds.
I can still remember as a young teenager having sexual feelings, without really understanding what they were. My early attempts at getting off are laughable now - because in all honesty I had no clue how or what I needed to do. I just knew I needed to do something. If only we had this kind of education then.

You might find this interesting too - it's kind of relevant.

deeman said...

My mother was a nurse and could speak with authority on bodily matters. When she caught me having sex with myself when I was about ten, she told me if I kept it up my foreskin would grow together over the head of my penis and I would have to have an operation to open it up. The operation would leave my penis horribly deformed. All the boys in the locker room would see that I was a pervert and no decent girl would have anything to do with me. I would ruin my life. As you can imagine, that lent a certain extra excitement to my self love sessions for the next year or so. Of all the so-called evils of masturbation, the real evil has been all the things done to stop it. As your blog showed, those things include devices of medieval torture, but also simple things such as foods by Kellogg and Graham. When you make your next Graham Cracker crust, know that you are helping to stamp out masturbation, or so Mr. Graham hoped.

Anonymous said...

More info: midwives, prior to the 1700's and the hysteria therein, would teach girls to masturbate, or take care of it for them, so there would be a harmful buildup of "superfluities", and cause the humoral system to unbalance.

in bed with married women said...

Brandon--the origins movie featuring the scene "Why is that girl standing in that same part of the pool all the time?"
Jack and Jill--it is a good way to teach her her GGGs i suppose.
Kat--seriously, how could we be so clueless? so glad for the kathleens out there so no one else has to think, "oh crap, NOW i've done it."
dirtycowgirl--love your post. anyone else, hie on over there at once. i must insist.
deeman--look how horrible that scenario was and STILL you persisted. the urge seems to overcome even the more dire of threats.
betty--is that seriously true? because i definitely think i have too many superfluities this very second. or possibly dropsy. not quite sure...

Anonymous said... many of your readers I was told (from strict damn catholics) that I would go blind ( i didnt know jizz was essential to eyesight) and that my hands would grow hairs and that I would be cast aside from the table of god for my onanistic practices..
ha..well i can see, my hands are baby smooth and i dont realy want to sit at the table of some make believe bunch of people...
my self abusive practices shall continue til the day i there! ;)

Cagey-C said...

There's plenty to think and say about all this, but as a reader who remains religious within the broad family of Christianities, the primary thing that comes to mind is: God dammit. If there actually is a period of answering-fors, there's going to be a hell of a lot to answer for all the stupid shit said and done to make people fear and hate their bodies by people who fear and hate their bodies.

Cagey-C said...

I love that this has cycled through again. Ellen White! For those not in the know: she was the prophet of Seventh Day Adventism, which did so much to screw up my mother. (Okay, though, to be fair: my grandmother did more than anyone else to screw up my mother, and my grandfather was a devout SDA who was also one of the world's Most Lovely Human Beings Ever.) Also, as we (some of us who care, at least passingly, about such things, at least) are now noticing that it's been 500 years since the Protestant Reformation was sparked by Martin Luther's spurting his Theses onto the Wittenberg cathedral's door, it's worth sharing a pertinent quote from the cranky ex-Catholic himself: "Nature never lets up; we are all driven to the secret sin. To say it crudely but honestly, if it doesn't go into a woman, it goes into your shirt."