‘But Onan, knowing that the seed would not count as his, let it go to waste whenever he joined with his brother's wife, so as not to provide offspring for his brother. What he did was displeasing to the Lord, and He took his life also.’
‘When a boy injures his reproductive powers so that when a man his sexual secretion shall be of inferior quality, his offspring will show it in their physical, mental and moral natures, shaping the history and destiny of the nation.’
Dr. Sylvanus Stall
Before the early eighteenth century, neither the scientific community nor the church had paid very much attention to the private, yet presumably common practise of masturbation. This was to change dramatically in 1712 with the appearance of an anonymous tract entitled ‘Onania; or, the heinous sin of Self Polution, 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’. The unnamed author was probably an English surgeon called John Martyn, who has been described by later historians as ‘a profit-seeking quack doctor cum pornographer’. Martyn, who had been prosecuted in 1708 for obscenity, linked the sin of ‘wilful self abuse’ to the sin of the biblical Onan who had decided, perhaps understandably, to spill his seed on the ground instead of impregnating his dead brother’s widow. Despite the dubious track record of the author, Onania was written with a strong tone of moral outrage. In the preface Martyn warns his reader that there are:
‘lascivious People of such corrupt Minds, that at no time excepted, they may be rais’d to impure Thoughts by bare Words without Coherence, and the Names of Parts, even when made use of in the Description of Calamitous Cases and Nauseous Diseases..therefore I say, I beg of the Reader to stop here, and not to proceed any further unless he has a Desire to be chast, or at least be apt to consider whether he ought to have it or no’
Having filtered the perverts out of his readership Martyn proceeds to denounce the practice of self defiling in these terms, even going so far as to give guidelines for its elimination in schools.
‘Self-Pollution is that unnatural Practice, by which Persons of either Sex may defile their own Bodies, without the Assistance of others, whilst yielding to filthy Imaginations, they endeavour to imitate and procure to themselves that Sensation, which God has ordered to attend the carnal Commerce of the two Sexes for the Continuance of our Species....Would all Masters of Schools have but a strict Eye over their Scholars, (amongst whom nothing is more common, than the Commission of this vile Sin, the Elder Boys teaching it the Younger) and give suitable Correction to the Offenders therein, and shame them before their School-fellows for it; I am perswaded it would deter them from the Practice, and by that means save them from Ruin’.
The tract then went on to outline the terrible medical consequences of Onanism; this aspect of the work was to have far reaching effects over the course of the next two centuries.
‘In some it has been the Cause of fainting Fits and Epilepsies; in others of Consumptions; and many young Men, who were strong and lusty before they gave themselves over to this Vice, have been worn out by it, and by its robbing the Body of its balmy and vital Moisture, without Cough or Spitting, dry and emaciated, sent to their Graves. In others again, whom it has not kill’d, it has produc’d nightly and excessive Seminal Emissions, a Weakness in the Penis, and Loss of Erection, as if they had been Castrated.’
Onania was to become tremendously successful and enjoy widespread popularity. In his one of his works on the history of sexuality Thomas Laqueur describes it as ‘one of the first books to be extensively advertised in the nascent country press’. The meteoric rise of masturbation ‘to prominence’ wrote Laqueur, ‘constitutes ones of the most spectacular episodes of intellectual upward mobility in literary annals’. In just fifty years, it rose up from an obscure provincial publication to become included in the Encyclopedie of the Philisophes; the enlightenments great compendium of learning.
One of the most important factors in this rise to fame was a book by the famous Swiss physician Samuel Auguste David Tissot, a man described in glowing terms as ‘the physician of the enlightenment’. This work was entitled ‘Onanism; or, a treatise upon the disorders produced by masturbation’, and it was to become a literary sensation throughout Europe. Tissot taught that one of the basic causes of illness and death was the wasting away of the body’s energy and that the most dangerous of the wastes was that brought on by masturbation. Having observed that the body became flushed during and after sexual intercourse, Tissot concluded that all sex was potentially dangerous because it caused the blood to rush to the head, starving the nerves and leaving the person vulnerable to the onset of insanity. Those that performed masturbation, and would therefore ejaculate excessively, would suffer a cloudiness of ideas, a decay of their bodily power, be afflicted with pains in their head and pimples on their face, eventually even losing the ‘power of generation’. Females who indulged would suffer hysterical fits, cramps, ulceration of the matrix and uterine tremors. One man, according to Tissot, was so addicted to self-abuse that his brain dried out and could be heard rattling in his head. Masturbation, he concluded, was more dangerous than smallpox.
Marten, Tissot, and the Encyclopaedists who embraced their ideas were to have a profound cultural impact. Their popularised writings were read and passed on by figures such as, Rousseau and Kant; they also filtered down into the populace and the professions. Over the years, the hysteria multiplied.
In the first American psychiatry textbook, Benjamin Rush claimed that masturbation would inflict upon its victim
“...impotence, ...dimness of sight, vertigo, epilepsy, ...loss of memory, ...fatuity and death.”
By the middle of the 1800s, it was standard to blame masturbation for a bewildering variety of symptoms. If masturbation were widespread in the population, disasters could occur. The brain would wilt, the sex organs would shrivel up and die. Insanity, syphilis, blindness, deafness, cancer, afflictions of the female reproductive organs, nosebleeds, heart murmurs, sterility, acne, undesirable odours of the skin, epilepsy, headaches, infantile paralysis, infantile rheumatism, pederasty, and homosexuality were only a few of the conditions thought to be the direct result of masturbation and the bodily traumas it produced. In publications and popular discourse, lack of cleanliness, nervousness, sitting cross-legged or for long periods, spanking, corsets, straining of the memory, erotic reading, play, pictures, perfumes, solitude, fondling, rocking chairs, pockets, feather beds, horseback riding, and bicycling were all considered to encourage the practice of ‘self pollution’. An illustration from The Silent Friend of 1853 showed a bleary-eyed, slack-jawed, imbecile with his tongue lolling and oozing with drool; this was the grim fate that met the persistent self polluter.
When this phenomenon was documented by later historians, some tended to stress the continuity with earlier patterns of thought in the classical, Jewish or Christian traditions. But this obscures the fact that what had emerged in the early 18th century was radically different and widely popular. The ‘Sin of Onan’s’ rise from obscure biblical passage to cultural phenomenon happened -perhaps could only have happened- because it was backed by the best minds of the age and the most fervent advocates of 'unshackling the chains of unreason'. They conceptualised masturbation in scientific and rational terms, as a vice of individuation, a threat to the enlightenment, a medically reckless pursuit which was in danger of ushering in a world of solipsism; a denial of moderation, real autonomy and reason. In doing so they created a monster which was to haunt the Victorian imagination.
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