active maas

The blog of thriller writer Robert Maas

The great wank panic

Having talked about ‘the other hand’ in an earlier post, I feel compelled to get my own hand out and give it a good close scrutiny. Any hairs in that palm?

It’s not so much curious that I might dare ask the question, but that I should bother. Before the Christians became all hot and bothered about it, masturbation didn’t have much of a profile. That doesn’t mean it didn’t exist. It’s just that nobody cared about it. Neither the Egyptians, Chinese, Greeks, Romans or Persians gave it a name.

But then the Church, looking to rid the world of the last traces of ungodly human pleasure, found it a moral degeneracy ripe for heavy sermonizing. Religious prohibitions can’t be justified without the word of god to support them, and the Church found one which was close enough in Genesis. It goes like this:

Onan and Er were brothers, the sons of Judah. Er married Tamar, but Er died, so Judah told Onan to take Tamar himself and produce a child in Er’s memory. Onan wasn’t happy with this arrangement. Every time he had sex with Tamar he withdrew at the vital moment, spilling his seed on the ground. This was offensive to the god Yahweh, who killed him too.

Based on this sad tale, the unmentionable act was christened onanism.

Actually, Onan didn’t do the unmentionable act at all. He practiced safe sex—what we’d call coitus interruptus—and he was really punished by Yahweh for failing to provide the child his father demanded of him. But onanism it remained, justified and condemned by the holy word of god.


In the 16th century, Benedicti declared that masturbation was a sin because in order to spill your seed all by yourself you need to think about someone else. If you think about a married woman, you’re guilty of adultery. If you think about a virgin, you’re guilty of debauchery. If you think about a nun, it’s sacrilege. Whoever you think about, you’re damned if you do.

Benedicti did, however, concede that it wasn’t a sin if it was the result of ‘the action of evil spirits which trouble our imagination during sleep.’ Wet dreams aren’t your fault. He even praises them if they’re produced ‘by too great abstinence.’ But doing it yourself is an outrage.

Not everyone agreed. Pope Innocent XI commented: ‘If God had not forbidden it, it would often be good, and might occasionally be obligatory, under pain of mortal sin.’ In other words, if getting relief from thinking about nuns and virgins meant you didn’t go out and actually fornicate with nuns and virgins, that had to be an improvement.

Fallopius decided that it was a good thing since vigorous manipulation and stretching would strengthen the penis, increasing manliness and the power to procreate. Conversely, Vettori even condemned wet dreams, suggesting that before you go to bed you should tie a string around your neck, looped down to the head of your penis. Any unbidden erection in your sleep would cause the string to tighten, strangling you and waking you up for a brisk cold shower.


In 1715 an anonymous pamphlet hit London, purporting to have been written by a priest and physician. Onania, Of The Heinous Sin Of Self-Pollution not only agreed that it was an ‘abominable practice’ but blamed it for madness, epilepsy, consumption, gonorrhea, impotence, convulsions and ulcers.

It claimed that if you indulged in it as a child you were destined to grow up weak and withered. Worse still, if you actually managed to conceive a baby it would be so sickly it would die in childhood. If you were a woman who indulged you would become sterile or suffer miscarriages.

Respectable doctors lined up to support Onania. Masturbation as the root cause of disease and madness was a pretty neat way of dealing with all those niggling problems they had no other means of explaining. Clearly something had to be done to protect the children of the world.


An industry in anti-wank literature was born. The German priest and teacher Salzmann published On The Secret Sins Of Youth in 1785 to alert parents to the tell-tale signs of transgression and to make them aware of the dangerous activities that might cause their child to stray from the path, including any physical exercise inducing friction in the sensitive parts, horse-riding, and the reading of naughty books including dictionaries and parts of the Bible.

Salzmann advised that classrooms should be arranged so that the teacher can see under the pupil’s tables at all times, just in case the forbidden urge came over a child during a lesson. School toilets should be closely monitored in case the transgressor sneaked in for a little self-exploration. If all else failed, there was always mutilation.

Yes, mutilation. The preferred German method for dealing with boys was infibulation, which involved pulling the foreskin as far as possible forward over the glans, piercing two holes in it and attaching an iron ring through the holes. For girls it was hacking off the clitoris. The fact that the girl would never feel pleasure again, even during godly marital sex, wasn’t of much concern.

These mutilations continued into the 19th century, by which time they included cauterization of the girl’s urethra (in other words, burning off the lips), narrowing the opening of the foreskin to prevent erection, circumcision, chastity belts, equipping the child with penis-rings rimmed with spikes around the inside and castration.

To be doubly sure nothing untoward would happen at night, the child could also be dressed in a straightjacket. As masturbation was seen as the cause of madness, it’s no surprise that the straightjacket became the uniform of choice for incarcerated lunatics, the Bedlam equivalent of enforced cold turkey.


Amputation of the clitoris was elevated to a medical procedure in the 1850s, pioneered by Dr. Isaac Baker Brown, later to become president of the Medical Society of London. His counterpart in the Royal College of Surgeons declared that the ‘shameful habit’ could be cured by severing the dorsal nerves of the penis in boys and removing the ovaries of girls.

As late as 1888, self-professed experts cried: ‘The sin of self-pollution is one of the vilest, the basest, and the most degrading that a human being can commit. It is worse than beastly. Those who commit it place themselves far below the meanest brute that breathes. A boy who is thus guilty ought to be ashamed to look into the eyes of an honest dog.’

This is not the same as a ball-licking dog, or any of the other animal species known to indulge in masturbation, which must have looked up at the ravings of that child-mutilating naked ape with a mixture of bewilderment and pity.


To his credit, Sigmund Freud refused to believe that masturbation led to insanity or suicide and suggested that it could have health benefits by releasing sexual tension and avoiding venereal disease. Unfortunately he also devised a whole new set of fictional horrors for the enlightened scientists of his day to support: neurotic disorders which could only be cured by an expensive session on the psychotherapy couch.

According to Freud, masturbation is ‘the one major habit, the “primal addiction.” It is only as a substitute and replacement for it that the other addictions—for alcohol, morphine, tobacco etc—came into existence.’ Presumably, as a cocaine addict, he knew what he was talking about.

Baden-Powell ranted against it in Scouting For Boys (1914), though he could bring himself only to refer to it as ‘beastliness’: ‘The reading of trashy books or looking at lewd pictures are very apt to lead a thoughtless boy into the temptation to self-abuse. This is a most dangerous thing for him, for should it become a habit, it quickly destroys both health and spirits. He becomes feeble in body and mind, and often ends in a lunatic asylum.’

His remedy is cold baths, and plenty of them.


Throughout the first half of the 20th century, parents would still preach to their children about the dangers and sin of self-pleasure, threatening them either with the vengeance of demons or with the idea that they themselves would cut off the boy’s penis or sew up the girl’s slit.

If evidence of transgression was uncovered, there would be lectures about disease and withering, madness and idiocy, deformed babies and all the rest.

The experts of the day advised parents to restrict their children’s sleep and make sure they got plenty of exercise, so that they were too tired to do anything, avoid soft beds, and to tie their hands to the bedposts.

For serious offenders, there were always the new mutilations of drug treatments, electric shocks and lobotomies, still used on our lunatics today.

Mercifully, unless you live in certain fruitcake parts of the world where nocturnal straightjackets are still prescribed and your hairy palms are due more to your father marrying his sister than to you stroking your wick in the hayloft, the panic has lifted. Jerking off is okay again.

Even if it’s still a social taboo, it’s now accepted that male masturbation is normal, commonplace and beneficial, whereas among girls (who do it just as much) it’s positively encouraged with all manner of fancy devices and Good Wank Guides.

You might be relieved to find we live in enlightened times on this subject at least, and you’re right. It’s been a long pull out of the darkness.


Hemisphere-S

Robert Maas’s latest novel Hemisphere is available to buy in six installments at Amazon. For details and links, see the Hemisphere page.

Advertisements

Single Post Navigation

Comments are closed.