Some people who marry do so in part ‘to contain’, to quote the Apostle Paul. But, for various reasons, many people end up in a sexless, or virtually sexless, marriage. Even if sex does take place, it may not be satisfying or satisfying enough. Sex surveys are notoriously unreliable, but the top complaint about marriage on Google is lack of sex, with ‘sexless marriage’ entered into the search box eight times more often than ‘loveless marriage’. And then, of course, there are all those who are single, divorced, widowed, travelling, and so on. Many of these people have recourse to masturbation; but even within a fulfilling sexual relationship, masturbation is, if anything, more common still.
Masturbation, or onanism, is the stimulation, often manual, of the genitals for sexual gratification. Masturbation is depicted in prehistoric cave paintings and has been observed in many animal species. In Egyptian myth, the god Atum created the universe by masturbating, and every year the pharaoh of Egypt ritually masturbated into the Nile. In some traditional cultures, masturbation is a right of passage into manhood, although there are some groups, notably in the Congo Basin, that lack a word for the activity and are confused by the concept. Alternative and divergent sexual practices such as masturbation and same-sex love are associated with periods of peace and prosperity. In unstable times with high infant mortality, the spilling of semen may be perceived as unnecessary, extravagant, or wasteful: although ejaculation is a rite of passage for young men of the Sambia tribe in New Guinea, it is brought about by fellatio so that the semen can be ingested rather than spilt. The Ancient Greeks regarded masturbation as entirely normal, if more the province of the common man, since the elites had a duty to further the family line, and, beyond that, had slaves for their relief.
The Christian tradition adopted an altogether different view of masturbation, rooted in an obscure passage of the Book of Genesis. When God killed Er, Er’s father Judah told his second son Onan to marry Er’s widow Tamar and ‘raise up seed’ to his brother. But when he lied with Tamar, Onan spilt his semen on the ground— no doubt because he knew that fathering a son in his brother’s line would have cost him the larger part of his inheritance. This displeased God, ‘wherefore he slew him also.’ This episode is largely responsible for the bans on contraception and masturbation.
In his Medicinal Dictionary (1743), the physician Robert James, a friend of Samuel Johnson, wrote of masturbation that ‘there is perhaps no sin productive of so many hideous consequences’. More subtly, in the Metaphysics of Morals (1797), Immanuel Kant argued that ‘a man gives up his personality… when he uses himself merely as a means for the gratification of an animal drive.’ In his influential treatise on education (1762), the philosopher and Romantic trailblazer Jean-Jacques Rousseau advised that a tutor should not leave his pupil the slightest opportunity to engage in masturbation:
Therefore, watch carefully over the young man; he can protect himself from all other foes, but it is for you to protect him against himself. Never leave him night or day, or at least share his room; never let him go to bed till he is sleepy, and let him rise as soon as he wakes … If once he acquires this dangerous supplement he is lost. From then on, body and soul will be enervated; he will carry to the grave the sad effects of this habit, the most fatal habit which a young man can be subjected to.
This seems to be a case of ‘do as I say, not as I do’. In his Confessions (1782) Rousseau divulges that he discovered masturbation in Italy, returning ‘a different person from the one who had gone there’:
[There I] learnt of that dangerous means of cheating Nature, which leads young men of my temperament to various kinds of excesses, that eventually imperil their health, and sometimes their lives. This vice, which shame and timidity find so convenient, has a particular attraction for lively imaginations. It allows them to dispose, so to speak, of the whole female sex at their will, and to make any beauty who tempts them serve their pleasure without the need of first obtaining her consent.
In the 19th century, Jean-Etienne Esquirol, an eminent psychiatrist and physician-in-chief at the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, declared in his classification of mental disorders (1838) that masturbation is ‘recognized in all countries as a cause of insanity’, and it is not until as late as 1968 that it finally fell out of the American classification of mental disorders. In 1972, the American Medical Association pronounced it to be normal, but the guilt, shame, and stigma still live on to blight people’s lives. In 1994, the Surgeon General of the United States Joycelyn Elders had to resign after opining, in the context of preventing young people from engaging in riskier forms of sexual activity, that masturbation ‘is part of human sexuality, and perhaps it should be taught’. More tragically still, in 2013, a 14-year-old American boy took his life after a classmate filmed him touching himself in the changing rooms.
There is no doubt that masturbation can present a problem if it becomes distracting or distressing, undermines relationships, or is carried out in public; but it does not make people go mad, blind, impotent, or anything else. On the contrary, masturbation is associated with a number of important benefits:
1. Pleasure and convenience. Upon being challenged for masturbating in the marketplace, the ancient philosopher Diogenes the Cynic replied, ‘If only it were so easy to soothe hunger by rubbing an empty belly.’ According to Diogenes, the god Hermes, taking pity on his son Pan, gave him the gift of masturbation, which Pan then taught to the shepherds. Masturbation has no need of special equipment, sexual intercourse, or even a partner. Although it is often looked upon as the poor relative of sexual intercourse, many couples engage in mutual masturbation, either alongside or instead of intercourse, to simplify, improve, or enrich their sexual lives and arrive at orgasm.
2. Fewer complications. Masturbation is safe as well as convenient. Unlike sexual intercourse, it is very unlikely to lead to pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases such as human papilloma virus, chlamydia, gonorrhoea, syphilis, herpes, and HIV/AIDS.
3. Stronger, more intimate relationships. Contrary to the popular perception, there is, at least in women, a positive correlation between frequency of masturbation and frequency of intercourse. People who masturbate more are more sexually driven, and mutual masturbation is likely to increase the frequency and variety of sexual contact. Both in the performance and in the observation, masturbation can teach partners about each other’s pleasure centres, proclivities, and particularities. If one partner is more sexually driven than the other, masturbation can provide him or her with a balancing outlet.
4. Better reproductive health. In men, masturbation flushes out old sperm with low motility and reduces the risk of prostate cancer. If practiced before sexual intercourse, it can delay orgasm in men suffering from premature ejaculation. In women, it increases the chances of conception by altering the conditions in the vagina, cervix, and uterus. It also protects against cervical infections by increasing the acidity of the cervical mucus and flushing out pathogens. In both women and men, it strengthens the muscles in the pelvic floor and genital area and contributes to extending the years of sexual activity.
5. Faster sleep. Masturbation invites sleep by reducing stress and releasing feel-good hormones such as dopamine, endorphins, oxytocin, and prolactin. Orgasm in particular brings on a state of stillness, serenity, and sleepiness, sometimes called ‘the little death’ (Fr. la petite mort), which can usher in a deeper sleep.
6. Improved cardiovascular fitness. Masturbation is, in effect, a form of light exercise. Compared to regular exercise, it is more effective or efficient at reducing tension and releasing feel-good hormones. The muscles and blood vessels relax, improving blood flow and lowering heart rate and blood pressure. No surprise, then, that there is an inverse correlation between frequency of orgasm and death from coronary heart disease.
7. Brighter mood and other psychological benefits. Masturbation reduces stress and releases feel-good hormones, which lift mood and reduce the perception of pain. It promotes better, more restorative sleep, locking in sleep’s myriad benefits. It enables younger people in particular to explore their sexual identity and master their sexual impulses, leading to a happier, healthier sexuality, as well as greater self-awareness, self-control, and self- esteem. It offers an escape from the demands and limitations of reality, an outlet for the imagination in fantasy, and a medium for the memory in nostalgia. And it culminates in a transcending experience that unites mind with body and life in death.