The Curse of Self-Abuse

Three hundred years of worry over that most personal of acts.


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Masturbation’s bad rap can be dated with surprising accuracy. Around 1712, a short, anonymous pamphlet called Onania began to circulate around the 2,000-odd coffee houses of London, published by the private press of one P. Varenne. Little did anyone know it would become history’s most successful advertorial. The pamphlet made the sensational claim that masturbation was responsible for a whole range of illnesses — from headaches to rheumatism, short-sightedness, bowel disorders, and gonorrhea — and that, left unrestrained, the habit would inevitably lead to a lonely and agonizing death. Up until this time, the world had been blissfully indifferent to the health risks of self-pleasuring; the habit elicited a few tut-tuts from the Church, but it was considered an insignificant and harmless vice. In fact, doctors since the Roman Galen had argued that the retention of sperm by males was physically dangerous and that females could also avoid hysteria and madness through auto—erotic release. But thanks to Onania, “self-abuse” would now and for centuries afterward be identified as European society’s most pernicious public health threat, a cancer that was eating away at the bodies of its youth.

In the best tradition of pop medicine, Onania identified both the disease and its instant cure: Concerned parents were advised to buy two miracle drugs from the publisher at the sign of the Seneca’s Head pub – “Strengthening Tincture” and “Prolific Powder.” It comes as no surprise to learn that these medicines, which would deaden any dangerous nocturnal urges, were rapaciously expensive at 10 shillings a bottle and 12 shillings a bag, respectively. (The price of about 300 cups of coffee at the time.)

The identity of Onania’s creator remained a mystery until 2002, when Berkeley scholar Thomas W. Laqueur traced the authors who had worked with the publisher Varenne before and fingered the unsavory London quack John Marten (1670-1737). This shadowy figure was a self-educated surgeon and medical huckster who had been clapped in irons for obscenity over a fanciful book on venereal diseases. Emerging undaunted from prison, he evidently knocked out his magnum opus Onania at the age of 42. (Marten took his title from the Biblical figure Onan, who “spills his seed on the ground” instead of procreating with his wife and is struck dead by a vengeful God. Although Onan’s sin might well have been coitus interruptus, or the withdrawal method, the pamphleteer insisted it was really masturbation.) Marten must have been a little surprised to find he had penned a bestseller; London was already flooded with pseudo-scientific claptrap, but his work tapped into 18th-century fears that the unbridled imagination, especially among children, could become a destructive force. He quickly expanded Onania into an 88-page tract, padded with soft-porn “testimonials” from readers that seemed mostly to involve attractive young women feverishly pleasuring themselves. Typical was the report from distraught parents of a comely village girl who had taken to self-abuse while alone on the farm at age 14, fell ill, then turned into a nymphomaniac. The harlot evidently died in hysterics at age 19 from an infected “gland” in her clitoris.

It was a winning formula. Onania went into 28 editions and was widely translated in Europe. The first pirated U.S. edition came out in 1724 in Boston, where an enterprising printer named John Philips lifted the text and sold it — no doubt along with the tincture — from a shop in his town house; a copy worked its way into the Monticello library of Thomas Jefferson, amongst other high places. In London, Onania stayed in print for 75 years, but its bleak influence would last far longer, provoking guilt and hypochondria for the next two centuries. In 1760, the celebrated Swiss doctor Samuel Tissot expanded on Marten’s ideas in his hugely successful book L’Onanisme, arguing that semen is “an essential oil” — one precious ounce is worth 40 ounces of blood, with terrible effects on the body if wasted — and that young women were in just as much danger from the deadly disease of “vulvovaginitis” as young men were from “spermatorrhea.” The fear of self-abuse provoked hysteria well into the early 20th century and produced some relics still with us today: Both graham crackers and the cereal Corn Flakes — concocted in 1894 by frenzied anti-masturbation campaigner, John Harvey Kellog (1853-1943) — were invented as a non-stimulating foodstuff to reduce the sex drives of the young. • 10 March 2008

SOURCES/FURTHER READING: Laqueur, Thomas W., Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation (New York, 2003); Stengers, Jean and Van Neck, Anne, Masturbation: the History of a Great Terror (New York, 2001). (The full title of Onania is unwieldy, if bracingly blunt: 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. And seasonable Admonition to the Youth of the Nation of Both Sexes…)

Tony Perrottet's book, Napoleon's Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped, is a literary version of a cabinet of curiosities (HarperCollins, 2008; He is also the author of Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists and The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games.