Today we are re-running an oldie, but so very goodie: Fosgood’s history of masturbation post. Enjoy!
Masturbation has a long and colorful history. According to some ancient Egyptian myths, the god Apsu created the Milky Way when he copulated with his fist. (This certainly gives star gazing a new twist!) Greek men and women both were known to masturbate and saw it as a gift from the gods. They believed the god Hermes taught his son Pan how to masturbate to help heal his broken heart when he was rejected by the nymph, Echo.
Some took it a bit too far: the philosopher Diogenes masturbated in public stating that no human activity should be seen so shameful that it must be done in private; his fellow citizens disagreed. The physician Galen felt that the retention of semen is dangerous and leads to sickness while Hippocrates cautioned that loss of excessive amounts of semen could result in physical damage, such as spinal cord deterioration.
Women in ancient Athens commonly purchased dildos known as olisbos, made of padded leather or wood. Greek men saw masturbation as a sign of poverty and if you had the money, you would pay someone to do it for you. A few centuries later, Roman boys were encouraged to deplete their sexual energies through philosophy and gymnastics, the Roman equivalent of a cold shower.
Many of the negative attitudes about masturbation are attributed to the Bible, but no mention of masturbation is found; actually, what is referred to is the story of Onan, who protested God’s commandment to impregnate his brother’s widow, whom he did have sex with but pulled out and “spilled his seed.” From here, things went way downhill. An early Christian bishop taught that masturbation was a worse sin than adultery, rape and incest because it was “unnatural” and a form of contraception. On and on the debate went for many centuries. By 1729 the “post-masturbation disease” came with a long list of serious and debilitating symptoms and charlatans made a killing selling cures for this dreaded affliction.
Things became so extreme that be the turn of the 20th century parents were encouraged to have their sons circumcised so as not to be aroused when cleaning their foreskins and daughters to have clitoridectomies (removal of the clitoris). Parents were encouraged to place their children in straightjackets, or wrap the child in cold wet sheets and apply leeches to remove blood and congestion, or burn genital tissue with hot irons to make sure their child had no access to their genitals at night where the evil deed was likely to happen.
There has been much improvement in the attitudes about masturbation, but there is still a long way to go. On a regular basis, health educators today still hear very negative responses about masturbation. (Female masturbation, in particular, is often greeted with something like, “Eww, that’s nasty!”) I’ve frequently asked parent groups concerned about masturbation if they would prefer their child masturbate or be out having sex, possibly causing a pregnancy or contracting a STI. That gets them thinking – though many would just prefer their child have no sexual feelings at all.
We know masturbation is an important way for people to discover their own sexuality, prevent infection (as long as their hands are clean), and prevent a pregnancy – and we would sincerely hope it’s sex with someone you love!
Edit: Historical facts come from the Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s white paper publication, Masturbation, From Stigma to Sexual Health.