In 1994, Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders was invited to speak at the United Nations conference on AIDS. While there, she was asked if educating students about masturbation was a viable approach to promoting safer sex practices, and she replied: "I think that it is part of human sexuality, and perhaps it should be taught." This sentence is what led to her firing by the Clinton administration. The irony is that it is indeed probably one of the safest forms of sex one can have. While the measurably failed approach of abstinence only education is still insisted upon by various groups and institutions, this is not what the outrage was about. Had she supported the promotion of condom use as a safer sex practice—as is already taught in many schools—I believe there would have been no controversy. The firestorm was uniquely about the issue of masturbation and the inability of our society to discuss it with transparency, especially in the context of sex education in the classroom.
In response and in protest to Ms. Elders' termination, iconic sex-positive sex toyshop - Good Vibrations (And one of Jellywink Boutique's forerunners) –declared a National Masturbation Day on May 7 (or May 28) in honor of Joycelyn Elders. This soon lead to the entire month of May being declared International Masturbation Month. (Don't fret, though. You're allowed to masturbate the other 11 months out of the year, too.) So in observing May as International Masturbation Month, I'll spend this whole month writing about Masturbation! (And you can observe it however you see fit ;))
Some Historical Views
Masturbation can possibly be considered the world's oldest hobby. There are depictions of masturbation in pre-historic rock paintings. Ancient Sumerians allegedly had a pretty relaxed attitude about masturbation as a potency enhancing activity and the ancient Egyptians believed the universe came into being through the ejaculate of the masturbating god, Atum. The quantity and frequency of his masturbatory ejaculate influenced the flow of the Nile River. The ancient Greeks, too, had a pretty positive attitude regarding the activity believing that it was a pretty effective way of relieving the destructive forces of sexual frustration.
There are countless depictions and interpretations of masturbation throughout different continents and throughout time- some attitudes were that masturbation was positive, healthy, and creative; and some attitudes treated it a little more ambiguously as an activity performed by "weaker" or "lesser" individuals. However, it seems like it wasn't until the 18th century in Europe and America that some of these views got pretty negatively alarmist- in both a religious and medical way.
The first time "Onanism" was a term consistently equated with masturbation was in a pamphlet published in 1716 by Dutch theologian Dr. Balthazar Bekker. For those of you not up on your bible study, Onan was a character who defied his social and familial duty to impregnate his dead brother's wife, Tamar, so that his brother can have an heir even after death. However, Onan wasn't keen and giving his brother an heir because it would hedge in on his own inheritance. As a result, he used the pullout method and "spilled his seed on the ground". Consequently, in this tale, God struck him down. How this came to mean masturbation is bad requires a little mental gymnastics. It makes more sense to interpret this story as a cautionary tale against blowing off your familial responsibilities. However, Dr. Bekker's pamphlet- titled "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." (He could probably have used a good editor in regards to the title)–was a wild success: especially for Dr. Bekker who took the opportunity to sell "Strengthening Tincture" for 10 shillings a bottle and a "Prolific Powder" at 12 shillings a bag as advertised in his pamphlet.
Why would you want to buy these tinctures and powders? Because if one indulged in masturbation, they would suffer "Disturbances of the stomach and digestion, loss of appetite or ravenous hunger, vomiting, nausea, weakening of the organs of breathing, coughing, hoarseness, paralysis, weakening of the organ of generation to the point of impotence, lack of libido ... and finally suicide."
So he was not the only one to purport such dire consequences of self-pleasuring. Plenty of theologians, philosophers, nutritionists, physicians and medical treatises throughout Europe and America "documented" horrors upon horrors of the effects of masturbation. Masturbation was a valid cause of rheumatism, bloody urine, epilepsy, cancer, insanity, blindness, poverty, drug-use, and death. As a matter of fact, those corn flakes you ate for breakfast exist as an anti-masturbation remedy! Dr. John Harvey Kellogg created them for that reason—along with tying up of children’s hands, genital cages, electrical shock, and genital mutilation. Corn flakes sounds the best of all those options.
These alarming views of masturbation lasted until ... well ... I'm not so sure it's entirely ended. Join me next week for a discussion of why masturbation may feel so threatening to so many, but why it's really not a threat at all!
Ally Booker is a pleasure activist. She is passionate about educating herself and others on cool sexuality related things like communication skills, creating and respecting boundaries, sexual self-determination, destigmatization, gender and sexual expressions, sex toy use and safety, and all the other mechanics of pleasure. You can often find her milling around her Tucson shop, Jellywink Boutique, 418 E. 7th St., (888) 874-6588.