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Lesley A. Hall

Masturbation is usually regarded as an asocial, even antisocial act, normally conducted in private (or at least under conditions of some furtiveness) by an individual, without engaging with another person as sexual partner—except perhaps as the object of voyeurism or fantasy. However, because of the social loading with which all sexual acts are freighted, and thus the social implications of even the most solipsistic act of sexual gratification, masturbation (self-abuse, onanism, the solitary pleasure, defilement with the hand, the secret vice, bashing the bishop, squeezing the lizard, spanking the monkey, jerking off, wanking, etc.) has significant claims to be discussed among other manifestations of the sexual urge.

It is probably the most universal of all sexual practices, at least among men. Surveys on the subject since the nineteenth century suggest that well over 90 percent of men masturbate at some time during their lives. However, the figures for women are significantly lower, though different surveys give a much wider range of variation. Women tend to start at a later age than men, and their frequency of masturbation is around half that of men. The practice has not been the subject of legal regulation, though an 1896 British case of a man arrested for "procuring an indecent act with himself " (presumably in public) is on record (R. v. Jones and Bowerbank).

Masturbation is of particular interest to the historian since it quite suddenly became the subject of a medico-moral panic early in the eighteenth century. Although this panic underwent mutations over the course of time, it did not disperse until well into the twentieth century. Its repercussions are still making themselves felt.

Allusions to masturbatory activity can be traced back into antiquity, although the most famous ancient example, the crime for which Onan was struck dead (Genesis 38:9), was not masturbation at all but coitus interruptus, when Onan refused to impregnate the widow of his deceased brother according to the levirate requirement. A rather more positive vision was perhaps conveyed by Egyptian myths of origin crediting the creation of the universe to masturbatory acts by divine beings: Ra of Heliopolis, for example, emerged from the primeval swamp, masturbated, swallowed his semen, and impregnated himself with the god Shu and the goddess Tefnut. However, it would appear that in the case of humans, for whom the act was not procreative as it was for deities but rather the inverse, masturbation was, if not completely stigmatized, not approved or recommended. The Greek Cynic philosopher Diogenes is purported to have masturbated publicly, remarking that it was a pity that the pangs of hunger could not be assuaged as easily as the pangs of lust, simply by rubbing the affected part. In classical antiquity masturbation was largely framed within wider discourses of decorum, propriety, and avoidance of excess that were generally applicable to manifestations of sexual desire.

Within Christianity masturbation, which was largely believed to be particularly the vice of the celibate and the young, was included under the heading of sins of the flesh and considered to contravene natural law. However, it was not the subject of particular scrutiny in the confessional, and unlike other sins of the flesh (such as sodomy), it was not penalized under secular law within Christendom.

For many centuries the Western medical tradition considered it to be no more deleterious than any other manifestation of lust—that is, if not indulged to excess. Indeed, within the Galenic humoral system of medicine, excessive continence causing retention of semen was regarded as almost equally damaging.


These attitudes changed some time around the first decade of the eighteenth century, for reasons that are still the subject of considerable historiographical debate. The immediate cause is well known. Sometime during the first two decades of the century an anonymous volume entitled Onania: or, The Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution, and All its Frightful Consequences, inBoth Sexes, Consider'd, with Spiritual and Physical Advice to those, Who Have Already Injur'd Themselves by This Abominable Practice. And Seasonable Admonition to the Youth of the Nation, (of both Sexes) and Those Whose Tuition They Are Under, Whether Parents, Guardians, Masters, or Mistresses was published in London. Its pathbreaking message about the uniquely disastrous consequences of the solitary vice was disseminated throughout Europe. Its claims for the physical deleteriousness of masturbation seem the stranger, given that the anonymous author—possibly a Dr. Bekkers, an obscure figure—appears in fact not to have been a doctor but a clergyman, or at least at one time in orders. Certainly he gave more attention to the sinfulness of the practice than its harmfulness, even while proffering a patent quack remedy. The work probably deserves a place in the history of advertising as an early example of creating anxiety about an alleged affliction while holding out a remedy for it. At this stage, masturbation, besides having terrible spiritual consequences, was presented as the cause of a plethora of physical (rather than mental) ailments, affecting not only the genitals themselves (with stranguries, or the slow and painful emission of urine; priapism, a painful persistent state of erection; impotence; and discharges) but the entire bodily system (with epilepsy, consumption, fainting fits), and causing infertility in both sexes.

The book went into many editions. Letters purportedly from grateful readers (and replies) were published in the later editions. Its actual impact is hard to gauge, but at the very least it was presumably profitable enough to be kept in print promoting the advertised medicines. It was very much part of a subculture of quackery and did not figure in serious medical discourse, although there were a number of imitations as well as counterattacks. In 1724, Bernard de Mandeville, in A Modest Defence of Publick Stews (i.e., public brothels), perhaps a satire on the onanism panic, argued that fornication with prostitutes was preferable to masturbation.

Critics argued that naming and describing the loathsome practice was itself a vicious action likely to deprave and debauch. Earlier silence on the subject may have been due to the feeling that it was not for public discussion. The author of Onania and his successors, however, claimed that the habit was so widespread, and so deleterious, that outspokenness was the only remedy. Innocence was not its own best preservation; it was better by far to warn the young against this pervasive danger. They advanced the "public interest" argument for speaking about forbidden practices: this was an educational enterprise warning against vicious habits and offering remedies for their consequences. Some historians have argued that, under the guise of an apparently high-minded agenda of social responsibility, tracts on onanism were in fact a new kind of pornography, inciting the sins they claimed to deplore. While it is hard to imagine luridly gothic accounts of the evils of self-abuse as a turn-on, the existence of the literature may have brought the possibility of the practice to the attention of some who had never previously considered it.

The permeability of the boundaries between commercial quackery, orthodox medicine, and popular anxieties, which is a noticeable theme in the history of this "great fear," as Jean Stengers and Anne Van Neck have called it, is demonstrated by the appearance of a work on the subject by the respectable and reputable Swiss physician Samuel Tissot. Initially published as Tentamen de morbis ex manustupratione in 1758, it was reissued in French two years later in 1760 as L'Onanisme, ou Dissertation physique sur les maladies produites par la masturbation (Onanism, or a treatise upon the disorders produced by masturbation). It was rapidly translated into English, German, Dutch, and Italian and remained current for nearly a century. It was heavily indebted to Onania, in particular relying on a detailed if critical analysis of the letters from supposed sufferers published in successive editions of the latter.

Tissot constructed a respectable theory on the cause of the disease of masturbation by careful and selective citation from texts of the ancients and Renaissance physicians about the evils of excessive lust in general. The effects he described were pervasive, afflicting the digestive, respiratory, and nervous systems, creating debility and pallor, and affecting the faculties and memory. In women it caused hysteria and a plethora of uterine problems. Unlike the anonymous author of Onania, Tissot produced physiologically based arguments consonant with current medical theories for the reasons why masturbation had such evil consequences. On the one hand he drew on humoral theory for an explanatory model, making the suggestion (which became an enduring tradition) that the loss of one ounce of seminal fluid was equivalent to losing forty ounces of blood. On the other he proposed that the activity was a damaging expenditure of nervous energy in an artificially caused convulsive spasm, upsetting the natural balance of the bodily mechanism. He did not propose any patent remedy for the affliction, preferring to make recommendations for a regimen, such as cold baths, a healthy life-style, exercise, regularity of the bowels, moderate amounts of sleep, and an endeavor to keep one's thoughts pure. However, quinine, iron water, and other strengthening medicines were also mentioned.

Masturbation became universally reprobated in Europe. There seems to have been little difference in response between Catholic and Protestant cultures, although there were local variations. The question that fascinates the historian is why, at this particular juncture, a previously largely ignored sexual practice came to be seen as the root of a massive amount of physical harm. It has been argued that the new view of masturbation provided an explanation for a variety of bodily ills that existing medical science was ill equipped to account for, at a time when an increasingly rationalist climate of thought was rejecting supernatural causality. But this argument does not account for the staying power of the belief in masturbation's ill effects; that belief persisted well beyond the rise of alternative explanations for many of the diseases attributed to the practice, although the catalog of its alleged consequences often altered.

With the development of urbanization, a growing emphasis on privacy, and changing social patterns (for example, increasing differentiation and stratification between family members and servants), old community forms and mechanisms of control were breaking down. Thus self-abuse, it may be argued, threatened social and community ties already seen as precarious. Masturbation may have actually increased during the mid-eighteenth century as a result of the rise of a bourgeoisie promoting repressive sexual morality and foreclosing traditional options for sexual gratification among the unmarried. A rise in the age of marriage also may have contributed. Contemporaries occasionally attributed it—or its increasing prevalence and malignance—to the luxurious habits of new urban affluence, novel reading, tea drinking, and other pernicious manifestations of modern life. It is a curious fact, and possibly not coincidental, that the eighteenth century saw a massive production of erotica, in particular printed pornographic texts, very different from productions of earlier folk traditions of carnivalesque bawdiness.

A psychoanalytically influenced perspective argues that, as the idea of hierarchical authority was subjected to serious erosion in the period between the Protestant Reformation and the French Revolution, individuals were faced with greater responsibility for themselves and their families. The anxieties thus generated fostered the development of phobic and compulsive processes—for example, the panic over this "least controllable, least harmful" manifestation of the sexual impulse—as a psychic barrier against pervasive sexual guilt and anxiety. The shift from a culture of externally imposed "shame mechanisms" of social control to one of internally generated "guilt" during this period might also be invoked. However, the panic was not coterminous with the most obviously Protestant and modernizing cultures of northwestern Europe but was far more wide-ranging.

The relationship between masturbation and what might seem a far more pressing cause of concern regarding sexual conduct, venereal diseases of epidemic prevalence, is convoluted. Many of the symptoms attributed to masturbation—genital discharges, lassitude and debility, sores, rashes and spots, uterine disorders—could well have been those of syphilis, gonorrhea, or a range of other unidentified venereal afflictions. Alternatively, perhaps the prevalence of venereal diseases led some individuals to take the logical step of resorting to masturbation as a substitute for potentially dangerous copulation for the relief of sexual desire. Yet for well over a century promiscuous intercourse (at least for men) was seen as a lesser danger than masturbation, and resort to prostitutes was sometimes recommended as a "cure."

It has also been suggested that fears about masturbation in children in particular were generated by the greater value being attached to children and childhood and increasing anxiety over their moral and physical welfare. A concern for the problem figures in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's programmatic text on progressive child rearing,Émile (1762). Yet the cause and effect of this argument could almost be inverted: that is, it could be said that much of the attentive surveillance of the young by parents or within the pedagogic context was being advocated precisely on the grounds that without stringent attention children might fall into "secret habits" of self-abuse.

The changing status of servants within the household fostered growing concern about entrusting them with the care and upbringing of the children of their social superiors. Anxieties about the possible "corruption" of children by social inferiors who might teach them habits of masturbation were pervasive. The extent of the horror around the issue of children not merely falling through ignorance into a deplorable habit but being inducted into it by adults entrusted with their care was demonstrated (but with a very different social and class slant) in the accusation against Marie-Antoinette in the Revolutionary Tribunal that she had taught and encouraged the dauphin (Louis XVII) to masturbate. Thus, the practice could also be subsumed under a rhetoric of "aristocratic debauchery."


Tissot remained the leading medical authority on masturbation well into the nineteenth century. There was no advance in medical thinking on the subject, although it continued to be a topic of medical concern and pedagogic intervention and the basis of a flourishing industry in quack remedies. The next major shift took place around 1840, as various evolving specialties within medicine took an interest.

Several authorities had already expressed the opinion that masturbation played a significant role in the etiology of insanity. As early as 1816 the French physician Jean-Étienne Esquirol wrote that "masturbation is recognized in all countries as a common cause of insanity." In 1839 Sir William Ellis, in his Treatise on Insanity, asserted that "by far the most frequent cause of fatuity is debility of the brain and nervous system . . . in consequence of the pernicious habit of masturbation." However, views among physicians were not monolithic, and a number of German authorities in particular expressed some caution about the actual causal relationship of masturbation to insanity, suggesting that the habit might follow upon the onset of the latter rather than lead to it.

While the above writers assumed that masturbation might provoke various kinds of mental disorder, by the 1870s, predominantly in Britain, the category of actual "masturbatory insanity" was defined. Authorities such as David Skae, T. S. Clouston, and Henry Maudsley argued for a particular form of mental disturbance brought on by self-abuse. While some association between masturbation and insanity, especially in adolescents, was believed to exist, there was a relatively rapid retreat from this extreme position: both Clouston and Maudsley conceded a few years later that the connection was far from clear. But masturbation was still not regarded as innocuous. If not the cause of actual insanity, it was indicted for generating "neurasthenia" and nervous disorders.

No simple shift occurred from the idea that masturbation produced physical symptoms to the notion that it caused insanity. Effects on the brain and nerves were mentioned in the eighteenth century, while the physical debilitation threatening the masturbator remained prominent during the nineteenth century. There were shifts of emphasis rather than radical changes.

One of the works most influential on the perception of masturbation throughout Europe in the nineteenth century was Claude-François Lallemand's three-volume Des pertes seminales involuntaires (On involuntary seminal discharges; 1842). He was more concerned with the pathological loss of semen—"spermatorrhoea"—through involuntary causes, which could be brought about through the irritation of the genital organs set up by habitual masturbation. "Spermatorrhoea" was seen as being at least as deleterious as masturbation, with the additional horror that it could not be terminated by exercising willpower and self-discipline. It was a godsend to quacks. The imprimatur of Lallemand's name gave it credence within the medical profession, but doctors were careful to differentiate themselves from "advertising quacks" and their often spurious diagnoses of this complaint.

By the last quarter or so of the nineteenth century a few physicians in several European countries were beginning to question the role ascribed to masturbation in the etiology of so many disorders, and some even pronounced it harmless. Sir James Paget, in Britain, suggested during the 1870s that, although a filthy and unmanly habit, it was no more deleterious than sexual intercourse. Like intercourse, it could be debilitating in excess, and because no partner was needed, it was easier to pursue it recklessly.


History has paid a good deal of attention to the brutal prescriptions advocated by the medical profession for the eradication of masturbation (not always adequately differentiated from treatments for spermatorrhoea); around the middle of the nineteenth century, these replaced previous recommendations of lifestyle and dietetic changes. For two or three decades—roughly speaking from the 1850s to 1870s—surgical solutions were proposed to eradicate the peril.

This ruthless agenda may have been the result of the rising belief in the relationship between masturbation and insanity. It may also have been influenced by the advent of the concept of public health and the desirability to the state of a healthy populace. A number of epidemic diseases had been, if not totally eradicated, at least severely curtailed in their effects by programs of sanitary engineering and the enforced quarantine of infectious individuals, while compulsory vaccination schemes seemed to offer the end of the dangerous and disfiguring disease of smallpox. It was also an age of heroic surgery as antisepsis and anesthesia enabled surgeons to go boldly where no scalpel had gone before, a development that may have encouraged belief in surgical cures for previously incurable and intractable conditions.

Most interest has been shown in the relatively rare and unusual operations inflicted on women and girls. The clitoridectomies performed by the British surgeon Isaac Baker Brown during the 1860s in an attempt to alleviate the various disorders in women that he attributed to self-abuse are often cited. Baker Brown's procedures, both operative and in the promotion of his theories, raised an enormous furor within the medical profession, and he was expelled from the London Obstetrical Society after an acrimonious meeting. He subsequently went mad and died shortly afterward. The operation seems to have fallen into more or less total disrepute in Britain. Contemporaneously in France, the eminent French medical scientist Paul Broca argued in a debate at the Société de Chirurgerie de Paris in 1864 that infibulating a girl of five (fastening the sexual organs with a clasp), while a drastic solution to onanism, was preferable to the last resort of clitoridectomy, which nevertheless featured in discussion as a possible expedient.

What gives such cases a possibly undue prominence is their relative infrequency. Masturbation in the male was the object of far greater social anxiety and medico-moral and pedagogic policing throughout the nineteenth century, but it was a constant factor rather than the begetter of scandalous causes célèbres. Such cases as did arise largely affected quacks rather than legitimate doctors: in Britain following the Medical Act of 1858, some members of the medical profession and moral reform organizations made a concerted effort to prosecute profiteering quacks who drummed up fears of the consequences of masturbation and the dangers of spermatorrhoea and then offered expensive "remedies" (sometimes conjoined with blackmail).

Contemporary accounts suggest that it was very hard for men to avoid the vast amount of propaganda put out by the industry in spurious remedies—posters, handbills distributed in the streets, advertisements in newspapers—even if they managed to spurn the allurements of "anatomical museums," which, with their luridly realistic waxwork representations of the horrific consequences of self-abuse, offered a mix of enlightenment and titillation as a come-on for the sale of patent remedies. In the upper and middle classes public schools provided both a hotbed for the dissemination of masturbatory and homoerotic practices and a source, via schoolmasters' sermons, of more or less explicit horror-mongering about these practices.

There was thus a widespread climate of fear among men about masturbation. This fear-mongering did not just apply to children or young boys but was also aimed at young men, as the increasingly late age of marriage in the middle and upper classes led to concerns about how they managed their sexuality before it achieved a legitimate outlet. Many men were reluctant to take their anxieties to their medical practitioners, fearful of moral condemnation and, perhaps, of the remedies that might be applied. The leading British medical journal The Lancet in 1870 mentioned the deployment of caustic preparations and cauterization to render erection painful and guard against improper manipulation, as well as correcting any oversensitivity of the organ in question. Blistering and penile infibulation were also recommended and applied. John Laws Milton's much republished medical tract On Spermatorrhoea (1875) included illustrations of toothed and spiked penis rings and electrical alarm systems intended to prevent erection, and thus nocturnal emissions, in sufferers from this dread disease. While similar devices were sold by quacks, they usually purveyed less painful and drastic treatments, such as herbal compounds and "galvanic belts" (which seem to have deployed electricity as a magic revitalizing power, rather than giving electric shocks to the wearer). The topic was also addressed by the proponents of alternative health systems such as phrenology (which held that mental faculties were indicated by the shape of the skull), herbalism, naturopathy (a system of treatment that eschewed drugs and surgery in favor of natural remedies and a healthy regimen), and hydrotherapy.

Parents and teachers were exhorted to employ rigorous surveillance of children (the constant repetition of such exhortations may suggest that this was less practiced than promoted). Corporal punishment and threats of "cutting it off," as well as emphasizing the potential long-term damage to health of playing with the genitals, were recommended. Restraints might also be imposed in cases where the undesirable habit was already established.


During the later decades of the nineteenth century a new campaign against the dangers of self-abuse was mounted. Largely directed against the adolescent boy, and initially focusing on the upper and middle classes, it was fed by anxieties about national fitness and the capacity of the existing elite to continue to rule in the face of challenges from rival nations and rising social groups within the nation. The constant subtext of venereal disease, in a period during which clinical observation and investigation were increasingly revealing the long-term and congenital effects of syphilis, was also a factor.

While similar manifestations occurred in other European countries, possibly the most coherent form of this new mutation of masturbation panic can be seen in the "social purity" movement that arose in Great Britain. This movement represented an alliance between feminists who had fought against the regulation of prostitution under the Contagious Diseases Acts of the 1860s, religious interests (provincial non-conformists in particular), public health advocates (medical and nonmedical), and educators.

While "social purity" cannot be reduced to its campaign to purify the nation through the eradication of masturbation, this was a significant element of its strategy. For the feminists within the movement, male lust and its concomitant, the double moral standard (sexual laxity in the male was a peccadillo, in women grounds for social excommunication), was at the root of much that was wrong with society, both on the moral level and in the propagation of disease. It was therefore argued that, since lust was already ineradicably ingrained in the majority of adult males, the target should be youth. Social purity campaigners believed that children should be provided with the clean, pure, true facts about sex and reproduction at an early age, preferably by their mothers, as a counterweight to any misinformation they might acquire from servants or "corrupt companions."

For adolescent boys, however, it was recognized that further warnings were necessary, in particular in the social class in which boys were traditionally sent away to school. This view fit in with the agenda of educators who saw themselves as preparing a new generation of the ruling class of an imperial nation, who needed to be inculcated with the values of self-discipline, self-control, and mastery over the instincts.

Exactly how masturbation endangered the future leaders of the country was not clear-cut. On the one hand, indulgence in self-abuse was seen as fatally eroding habits of self-discipline and resistance to carnal temptation: ultimately the sufferer would be unable to resist the temptations of later life, such as solicitations to fornication and the associated risk of contracting venereal disease. On the other, the traditional discourse of the debilitating effect of masturbation itself was still present, and its ghastly effects on health, sanity, future sexual functioning, and the capacity to father healthy children featured prominently in the growing genre of advice literature.

The awful warnings of social-purity sex educators differed, however, from those of the commercial quacks, who continued to flourish. The social purity campaigners offered the possibility of redemption, condemning the despair created by quack literature so that profit could be made from spurious "cures." The problem was to some extent remoralized, with religion being advocated as a fortifying resource against the habit and prayer commended as a weapon against temptation. The traditional lifestyle prescriptions were made: cold baths, hard beds, early rising, physical exercise, the avoidance of rich and highly seasoned foods as well as alcohol, the distraction of the mind from impure thoughts. In particularly difficult cases, consulting a genuine doctor was recommended.

A vast amount of literature was produced by the social purity movement. In addition to books such as the age-graded works of the American clergyman Sylvanus Stall in his "Self and Sex" series, What a Young Boy [or Young Man, Young Husband, Man of Forty-Five] Ought to Know (1897–1907), widely disseminated in Europe, a plethora of pamphlets was produced both by individuals and a range of organizations, distributed free or at a cost of a few pence. These pamphlets found probably their largest outlet in the various youth organizations being established to cope with the newly defined problem of adolescence.


Toward the end of the nineteenth century, a new science of sexology endeavored to investigate sexual behavior, initially in its more anomalous manifestations. Richard von Krafft-Ebing, the Austrian psychiatrist and forensic medicine expert, noted "onanism" as well as degenerate heredity in many cases in his encyclopedic compilation of sexual deviations, Psychopathia sexualis, first published in 1886 and subsequently in much expanded editions. However, other writers, notably the British doctor and man of letters Havelock Ellis, drew on anthropological and animal studies to suggest that "auto-erotism" was an almost universal practice. Far from being a uniquely human vice, many animals resorted to analogous behavior, and it was found even among the "primitive" races, contradicting the notion that it was a malign by-product of civilization.

Gradually a somewhat more humane attitude to masturbation emerged. If it was still regarded as reprehensible and not to be encouraged, the horror-mongering of earlier epochs, it was argued, had done much to cause the neurotic sufferings attributed to the practice itself. This new view, however, took quite some time to influence general opinions on the matter. Sir Robert Baden-Powell's Scouting for Boys (1908) and Rovering to Success (1922) threatened dire outcomes if "beastliness" was practiced, and these texts were published with relevant passages unchanged until well after the Second World War. Leading childcare manuals of the interwar period advised tying children's hands at bedtime to prevent them from masturbating, even as the idea of gently distracting the child's attention, as opposed to threats and punishment, was creeping in as the best mode of handling the "problem." The most progressive works even came to define it as a natural stage in childhood and adolescent development (though "neurotic" in adults).

Marie Stopes, the British birth control advocate and author of the best-selling, widely translated marriage manual, Married Love: A New Contribution to the Solution of Sex Difficulties (1918), became a prototypical agony aunt (or advice columnist) for her sexually troubled contemporaries; letters from her male readers suggest that anxieties about the possible damage done by masturbation remained exceedingly prevalent throughout the interwar period. Men of all ages and social classes feared they had affected their health, their ability to father children, and their capacity to function sexually by sometimes very fleeting episodes of adolescent self-abuse. Some of the letter writers specifically cited works such as Stall's and similar social purity literature, but most seem to have picked up their fears as part of the general atmosphere of the time. Occasionally there are faint hints of counterdiscourses—that it was part of the passage to manhood (the social purity literature sometimes suggested that wicked older men might impart this view to boys), that it was preferable to going with prostitutes or ruining good girls. However, in general masturbation for men seems to have become the focus for a range of inchoate anxieties about their own sexuality and sexual functioning, about male desire and "manliness."

What is striking is the lack of any similar anxiety expressed by Stopes's numerous female correspondents. Very few indeed expressed the kind of hysterical fear of ruin characteristic of so many male correspondents. This suggests that whereas male contact with the idea of masturbation was assumed to be almost inevitable, thus requiring the torrent of warning, girls were deemed much less imperiled, and therefore warning them about a vice they had never thought of and were unlikely to come across would be counterproductive. Stopes herself, though reassuring to male fears about lasting damage, was not entirely positive about male masturbation; however, she conceded in correspondence, if not in published works, that masturbation was a possibly permissible expedient for the resolution of sexual tension in the unmarried mature female.

Like a number of her contemporaries, Stopes suggested that masturbation unfitted a person for marriage by accustoming its practitioner to forms of sensation and stimulus unlike those of conjugal sexual intercourse, for the man as well as the woman. Those who were influenced by and sympathetic to psychoanalytic thinking also suggested that the role of fantasy in masturbatory acts might be psychologically deleterious to sexual adjustment. Others suggested that the practice, if overindulged, led to antisocial solipsism. The view, based on a somewhat bastardized popular Freudianism that became prevalent in the 1950s, that clitoral excitation in the woman prevented the transition to the "mature" vaginal orgasm does not seem to have enjoyed much currency outside actual psychoanalytic circles in the interwar period.


One might imagine that with the increasing spread, via medical, pedagogic, and child-rearing literature, of the notion that masturbation did no harm, the gruesome history of the "great fear" must have ended about 1950. This was far from the case. While "old-fashioned" fears were scorned, well into the 1970s works of sex education stated that it was much better to try not to masturbate. Older texts with their much less benign messages continued to circulate. The masturbator might not be seen as headed for an early grave or the lunatic asylum, but the British pejorative "wanker" still suggests, at best, a sad loser unable to find a suitable partner. Fears about masturbation long ago took on a life of their own as part of popular culture and urban folklore.

In 1961 Belgian students were questioned about the effects of masturbation. They believed that it retarded growth, weakened the will, and caused blindness, baldness, impotence, sterility, and the procreation of abnormal children. In the early 1990s a group of health-care professionals and educators in Hungary gave "masturbation" as the cause of tabes dorsalis (a spinal disorder caused by tertiary syphilis). No questions on it were included in the British survey Sexual Behaviour in Britain: The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (1994) because of the distaste and embarrassment the subject caused in respondents. In 1994 the United States surgeon general, Joycelyn Elders, was dismissed for advocating the teaching of masturbation in the context of AIDS prevention. While this concession by President Bill Clinton to the "moral majority" was condemned in European journals, such as The Lancet, most European countries were not exactly promoting the practice.

Within the specialty of sex therapy, masturbation has found a medically licit niche. However, while "self-pleasuring" may be recommended to develop responsiveness and familiarize the individual with his or her genitals, in most sex therapy this practice is implicitly a prelude to taking the knowledge and skills thus learned into partnered sex. In the European context, there is no real equivalent to the American Betty Dodson. In 1974, influenced by the sexual revolution and the second wave of feminism, Dodson wrote Liberating Masturbation: Celebrating Self-Love. Over twenty years later, her Web site celebrated masturbation's potential for engendering an "erotic renaissance."

The vast proliferation of pornographic Web sites, phone sex lines, and other erotic media suggests masturbation is widely practiced in Europe, but that it is still a "secret vice" exploited for commercial gain—though in rather different ways from those of the advertising quacks of the nineteenth century. After nearly three centuries, Onania continues to cast a long shadow.

See also other articles in this section.


Comfort, Alex. The Anxiety Makers: Some Curious Preoccupations of the Medical Profession. London, 1967.

Dodson, Betty. Liberating Masturbation: A Meditation on Self-Love. New York, 1974.

Duffy, John. "Masturbation and Clitoridectomy: A Nineteenth-Century View." Journal of the American Medical Association 186 (1963): 246–248.

Elia, John P. "History, Etymology, and Fallacy: Attitudes towards Male Masturbation in the Ancient Western World." Journal of Homosexuality 14, no. 3/4 (1987): 1–19.

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Gilbert, Arthur N. "Doctor, Patient, and Onanist Diseases in the Nineteenth Century." Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 30 (1975): 217–234.

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Hall, Lesley A. Hidden Anxieties: Male Sexuality, 1900–1950. Oxford, 1991.

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Hunt, Alan. "The Great Masturbation Panic and the Discourses of Moral Regulation in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Britain." Journal of the History of Sexuality 8 (1998): 575–615.

MacDonald, Robert H. "The Frightful Consequences of Onanism: Notes on the History of a Delusion." Journal of the History of Ideas 28 (1967): 423–431.

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"The Politics of Masturbation." The Lancet 344 (1994): 1714–1715; 345 (1995): 454. Leading article and subsequent correspondence.

Porter, Roy, and Lesley Hall. The Facts of Life: The Creation of Sexual Knowledge in Britain 1650–1950. New Haven, Conn., 1995.

Spitz, René A. "Authority and Masturbation: Some Remarks on a Bibliographical Investigation." Yearbook of Psychoanalysis 9 (1953): 113–145.

Stengers, Jean, and Anne Van Neck. Histoire d'une grande peur: La masturbation. Brussels, 1984.

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