Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The Sin of Onan

A commenter on my previous article has asked me whether masturbation was considered sinful in the Judeo-Christian tradition before the release of the 'Onania' tract in the 18th century and the mass public hysteria that followed. The answer is yes, but the issue received far less attention than is commonly thought. It was a peripheral issue in a wider moral dialogue about human sexuality and the rights and wrongs of non-procreative sex.

According to the seminal work on the subject, Thomas Laqueur’s’ Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation’, polemics against the practice are nearly impossible to find in the ancient Jewish tradition. This was because the sin of Onan, when read in its original context by the rabbis, was for his refusal to procreate in defiance of his creator. Some commentators, attempting to find a condemnation have pointed to the pronouncement by Rabbi Eliezer (Eliezer ben Hurcanus) that ‘anyone who holds his penis while he urinates is as though he brought the flood into the world’, which looks like a rebuke against the wastage of semen which might otherwise be used for purposes of procreation.

Once we move into medieval theology a clear concept of masturbation as a sin was identified, but it was not one of particularly intense interest. Theologians were more concerned with ‘perversions of sexuality as perversions of social life, not as withdrawal into asocial autarky’; these constituted sins such as incest, bestiality, fornication and adultery. The monastic focus was on sodomy rather than masturbation, although masturbation was sometimes condemned in some texts as a form of sodomy. When theologians commented on Onan, it was for what he refused to do. Thus Saint Augustine speaks of Onan as one who refuses to help those in need. This interpretation was necessary because Augustine was approaching the text from the viewpoint of the Christian tradition which rejected the strict rabbinic obligation to procreate and had adopted monastic chastity and an escape from the whole cycle of intercourse.

Masturbation was not permitted, but as part of a wider attempt to overcome sexuality, not just non-reproductive sexuality, so without any particular focus. There were exceptions such as the fifth century abbot John Cassian and Raymond of Penafort (pictured in the top right). Raymond warned married men against touching themselves but only because arousal would make them want to copulate more with their wives. A solitary early-fifteenth-century text of three pages entitled ‘On the Confession of Masturbation’, attributed to the chancellor of the University of Paris, Jean de Gerson, instructed priests on how to elicit confessions of this sin. This does not appear to have been circulated widely and it appears to assume the practice is widespread.

With the appearance of the Reformation the conception of masturbation did not change but it was used in different contexts. Protestants accused Catholics of creating monastic institutions which undermined and denigrated marriage and resulted in prolific masturbation. This was part of the broader argument that sexual pleasure in marriage, provided it was not conduced for sinful purposes, was an acceptable byproduct of the divine purpose of procreation. The masturbation resulting from enforced chastity was condemned for the wastage of seed and the refusal to procreate.

The most infamous example of ‘the unnatural practice’ from the 17th century is that of Samuel Pepys who jotted down in his diaries the times at which he engaged in it; usually documenting the act with the use of a special symbol. What is surprising to the modern eye is that these did not seem to him to be shameful or worthy of self-reproach; instead he seems to have felt triumphant. For example Peypes managed, while in a boat trip up the Thames to have ‘had it complete’ by the strength of his imagination alone. He goes on to descibe how just by thinking about a girl he had seen that day to pass a ‘trial of my strength of fancy.... So to my office and wrote letters’.At High Mass on Christmas Eve in 1666 the sight of the queen and her ladies led Peypes to masturbate in church. This does seem to have bothered him but only a little.

The release of Onania in the 18th century therefore marked a seismic shift in attitudes to masturbation; before this it was decried as sinful but received little attention. The change occurred because the practice was conceived in scientific terms as medically harmful; a thesis which was popular amongst both the intellectual elite and the general populace. Religiously based moral sanctions against non-procreative sex were thereby converted into a secular system that removed the divine and substituted "nature" as its justification. The formerly sinful Onanist was now re-conceptualised as the victim of a process of moral disease, one that created false pleasure and undermined reason. In many ways, it was a disease of the Enlightenment.

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Anonymous said...

The seminal work, eh?

Humphrey said...

Oh dear....

That looks like a really bad pun, but I swear it wasn't intentional!.

Anonymous said...


That's okay - it gave me a laugh yesterday, and I really needed it. I'm one of those base sorts who finds a really bad pun to be highly entertaining.

For example, I am utterly unable, if someone stubs there toe in my presence, to ask them if I should call a "toe truck".

Sad, I know.

Anonymous said...

I should have said "utterly unable . . . NOT to ask . . .