This is an excerpt from "Solosexual: Portrait of a Masturbator" by Jason Armstrong. It is reprinted here with permission from the author.

Around 300 years ago, a new sin was invented. Touching yourself formally became off-limits. As odd as it seems, masturbation as a concept is a relatively modern idea. Throughout most of Antiquity, masturbation is barely mentioned. If it is, it is brief, fairly benign, with no apparent effect on pre-eighteenth century societies. It was not part of consciousness. Rather, the writings of Antiquity were concerned with fornication, adultery, homosexuality, incest. Masturbation, not so much.

However, evidence points to the year 1712, or thereabouts, when a London tabloid journal printed a tract written by an anonymous doctor entitled Onania; or, 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 ...—a mouthful (handfull?) indeed. Onania was a new term at the time and referenced the story of Onan in the Old Testament who apparently spilled his seed and was punished by God. Scholars haggle over what really happened, one theory being that Onan pulled out before ejaculating into the widow of his dead brother—coitus interruptus—and the sin being the disruption of the family bloodline.

The anonymous writer of Onania (scholars would haggle too over who really wrote the piece) would claim that he only had moral reasons for speaking out against “self-pollution”. How many people, he reasoned, might be damaging their souls without realizing they were doing anything wrong? But it wasn’t just the soul that was in peril—so was the body. An enterprising physician who had the funds to market “cures” for masturbation got on the band wagon. These funds were funnelled into ads in the tabloid press noting the dangers of this secret sin, but for which there were cures available—at a price.

The only way to control a vice is to name it, and it was so named—Onania. The use of the word “masturbation” appears in English literature as early as the first half of the 17th century, but it wasn’t until Onania that fear of masturbation grew like wildfire. Ads for cures for masturbation revealed the illnesses that could beset unsuspecting self-polluters: spinal tuberculosis, epilepsy, pimples, and insanity to name but a few. It stands to reason then that people exhibiting these medical conditions were viewed as suspected masturbators—why else would they show traits of these illnesses? Cartoons began to appear of what a person who succumbed to self-pollution would eventually come to look like: hunched over, wasted, decrepit.

The physical ramifications of masturbation were only part of the problem. As the modern world was dawning, as society became more intricate in its interdependencies, anything as private and secret as masturbation was seen not just as morally wrong, but counterproductive to the culture of the society being formed. Masturbation, it was argued, contributed nothing to society. Even prostitution was preferable, as it held up capitalistic aspirations. If other areas of human sexuality had been brought under control by the church, and by society’s norms and mores, it was high time that masturbation was addressed. A few brave individuals attempted to publicly refute the idea that masturbation was morally and physically dangerous, but their efforts were in vain. This newly-named danger to self and to society, first mentioned in a tabloid rag, would in only fifty years be written about in scathing terms by physicians for medical dictionaries and encyclopedias of the day.

For the next two hundred years, popular writers and philosophers contributed to the zeitgeist through fiction and non-fiction that attempted to dissuade readers from masturbating. These same writings sometimes, inadvertently, had the opposite effect as they spurred curiosity. As reading grew in popularity among the general population, books took a hit in some circles for being what we would call today “bate fuel”. Novels were lambasted and considered often scurrilous aphrodisiacs that could lead to only one thing. (Could they ever have imagined on-line porn?)

As I researched the conceptual origins of my favourite activity, I was startled by how well these early writers understood masturbation. Using different language, they understood the batehole. They understood the near delirious state that some self-polluters achieved. They knew that the power of the imagination often trumped the real-life stimulation that could be found with a partner. Onania was an eighty-eight page document that trumpeted the alarm about the potentially excessive nature of masturbation, where nothing stood in the way of masturbating for hours on end in an unquenchable thirst. Is this not edging being described? A French medical dictionary from 1826 likens self abuse to alcoholism, as a potential addiction in and of itself.

For Sigmund Freud, masturbation was a clear focus of his studies on sexuality. The dawn of the twentieth century saw medicine finally, in fits and starts, begin to consider masturbation as physiologically benign. But Freud left an important stamp on the subject, positing that masturbation might be a normal part of adolescence but should it continue into adulthood, it would be indicative of a person who had failed at growing up, failed at becoming the person society meant for him or her to be. Thus masturbation remained an ethical quagmire, if not a physiological one, for decades into the twentieth century.

As I read through the history of masturbation, I wondered then about Onania, the first written piece in history to describe in sometimes lascivious detail all that was wrong with masturbation: Was the author writing from experience? Like the physicians hawking so-called cures, did he see a money-making opportunity? Could he ever have imagined that his Onania, and the many, many editions that followed would send shock waves not just among the working poor who made up his readership, but eventually among the cognoscenti as well? And what would the people of the early 1700s make of the sexual revolution of the 1960s, when masturbation began to be considered more than benign but even healthy? Onania created for us an activity that was subsequently controlled through guilt, shame, commerce, medicine, philosophy, religion and cultural mores. From the secret, solitary vice of 1712, we fast forward to today and the Internet, where on some sites one can create a profile and charge viewers for the pleasure of watching one engage in an act fraught with three hundred years’ worth of historical drama.

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