By Bruce McFarland
[JackinWorld Assistant Editor Bruce McFarland has practiced Taoist erotic techniques for years and continues to study the intricacies of human sexuality.]
IT seems likely masturbation has always been the most common and universal of human sexual experiences – but only in recent decades have attitudes toward sexuality in general, and masturbation in particular, begun to improve. There never has been a "golden age" of sexual freedom and tolerance, though specific taboos have always varied widely. The frequent condemnation of masturbation apparently stems from a suprisingly simple mandate: there's safety in numbers. For centuries, all forms of sexual pleasure unlikely to result in population increase have routinely been denounced as wrong.
In order to understand current attitudes, it helps to examine earlier human cultures. Before history, which is defined by the existence of written records, the evidence proves sketchy. Our closest living primate relatives, the Bonobo chimpanzees, share 98.4% of our DNA. The Bonobos are notable for their lack of sexual inhibition, engaging almost constantly in the full variety of sexual acts humans do, including frequent masturbation. Significantly their social order is amazingly harmonious; the regular sexual satisfaction among them seems to minimize conflict and aggression. Bonobo behavior may indicate how we ourselves could function if our belief system's distorting abstractions and concepts did not exist.
For centuries, all forms of sexual pleasure unlikely to result
in population increase have routinely been denounced as wrong.
Prehistoric petroglyphs and rock paintings from around the world evidently depict male masturbation, though these are entirely matters of interpretation. Most early people seem to have connected human sexuality with abundance in nature. A clay figurine of the 4th millennium Before Current Era [i.e., B.C.], from a temple site called Hagar Qim on the island of Malta, depicts a woman masturbating. However, in the ancient world depictions of male masturbation are far more common. A figure of a masturbating male from a Neolithic cemetery in Greece is roughly contemporary with the Malta image and likewise suggests fertility rites. From the Sumerians, who invented the first written Western language, we find references to the Mesopotamian god Enki masturbating, his ejaculation filling the Tigris River with flowing water.
Male masturbation became an even more important image in ancient Egyptian cosmology. When performed by a god it could be considered a creative or magical act, but a mortal human masturbator might not receive such approval. According to one major creation myth the god Atum appeared on the Primordial Mound out of the void of Nu. As the first "thing" in the midst of nothingness, Atum relieved his loneliness by masturbating. His ejaculation resulted in the appearance of the first god and goddess, Shu and Tefnut, who became the parents of all other elements of the world. An alternate version indicates that the god Ptah, architect of the universe, maintains cosmic order through continual masturbation. The yearly flooding of the Nile, on which Egypt depended entirely, was also said to flow from the secretions of the Nile god Hapy. Min, the god of male potency, was always shown standing with an immense erection, often held in his own hand. The vegetative god Osiris, King of the Dead and Lord of Eternity, resurrected himself through an act of sacred masturbation, an association with seed-force and cyclic regeneration. Osiris conceived his son Horus, Lord of the Living and the Falcon of Light, in this way.
In another mythic sequence, the goddess Isis condemns her brother Set and her son Horus for engaging in mutual masturbation. She cuts off the hand of her son to punish him, but then immediately reattaches his hand and masturbates Horus herself in order to fully restore him to function. This typifies the contradictory attitudes of the Egyptians on this subject: Masturbation could be considered a creative act, or a waste of procreative potential. Egyptian terms for the act are connected with the word netchem, meaning pleasure, as well as tata, meaning pollution or defiling. In the "Papyrus of Ani," in order to defend his purity, the dead man's soul denies engaging in masturbation "in the temples." Yet the phallic god Min or Menu represented the sexual potency of the Pharaoh, the Great House, an aspect of the Good God considered necessary to the fertility of the Nile valley. During the annual festival of Min men engaged in public acts of masturbation, but otherwise such exhibitionism would not have been tolerated. So even in that pleasure-loving culture the attitude toward masturbation depended entirely upon context.
Far Eastern cultures are sometimes viewed as more sexually tolerant, but this may often be a case of social cosmetics. "Out of sight, out of mind" can mean that human nature (including sexual behavior) is tacitly accepted, so long as it is kept private or unseen. A Hindu myth from India described the phallic god Shiva being masturbated by Agni, the god of fire, who swallowed his semen. Agni then gave birth to Skanda, a god of male beauty. But the Hindus, like later Buddhists, often denounced attachment to sexual pleasure as a cause of human suffering. The oldest Chinese traditions of Taoism equated certain forms of sexual pleasure with generating chi, or life force. As "cultivation," prolonged masturbation without ejaculating was believed to enhance health and well being. At the same time, frequent ejaculation was considered a waste of this same precious chi.
The ancient Greeks had a more natural attitude toward masturbation than the Egyptians did, regarding the act as a normal and healthy substitute for other forms of sexual pleasure. They considered masturbation a safety valve against destructive sexual frustration. Numerous vase paintings depict male masturbation as a regular part of daily life, neither a virtue nor a vice. Greek culture was extremely phallocentric, meaning the erect penis was a major object of veneration, both spiritually and in daily life. Women did not enjoy a high status in the male-dominated culture, being primarily confined to roles of breeding and motherhood. The society was largely segregated by gender, men spending most of their time with men and women with women – yet the Greeks considered procreation and the family unit of supreme importance. They tolerated male masturbation in daily life only to the extent that it did not interfere with the stability of the family or protection of the state.
In a wonderful Greek myth, Hermes invented masturbation. He taught the practice to Pan, so that the woodland god no longer suffered his habitual frustration. Thereafter Pan learned to give pleasure to others as well as to himself.
More unusual for the ancient world, the Greeks also dealt with female masturbation in both their art and writings. Having ample reason for frustration, Greek women were often depicted using dildos or artificial phalluses made of leather, wood, or ivory for their self-satisfaction. The city of Miletus in Asia Minor was well known as the source of the best such instruments. A comic dialogue from the third century BCE records the exchange between two young women: Metro wants to borrow Coritto's dildo, but Metro has loaned it to another woman. Coritto's rapturous description of her dildo inspires Metro to order a dildo of her own from a fine craftsman.
When the Roman Empire began dominating the Western world, an obsession with distinguishing virtue and vice became increasingly important. Though we often consider the Romans decadent, in fact they practiced a kind of prudish hypocrisy. The Latin term masturbari was only one among half a dozen terms they used for the act. Originally it meant only to rub by hand or to agitate, without negative connotations. Over time, however, the term gained associations of disturbance and defilement. Some authors came to associate the term with manus sinistra, meaning the left hand, indicating uncleanliness, since the Romans linked the left hand with elimination functions. The cosmopolitan civilization of Rome had no consistent attitudes toward sexuality, only a growing intolerance for diversity and concern over distinguishing virtue and vice.
Sexuality began to suffer a stigma with the growing influence of the Christian Church. Such figures as the apostle Paul (of the first century Current Era), Augustine (354-430 CE), and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) contributed to increasingly negative attitudes toward the human body and all forms of pleasure in general. Paul fostered misogyny, or anti-female sentiments, starting a trend of condemning all forms of sexuality other than heterosexual intercourse for the purpose of reproduction. This continued an existing philosophical trend of separating the physical and the spiritual, considering them as conflicting opposites. Augustine institutionalized the religious distaste for sexual union itself, while Aquinas particularly vilified homosexuality. An early medieval manual of punishments to be bestowed by priests prescribed severe penalties for men over 20 who engaged in mutual masturbation. Men under that age were punished less severely, and boys under 14 engaging in solo masturbation were punished the least. Other writers on JackinWorld have dealt with the fact that the Bible itself never mentions masturbation specifically: the "sin" of Onan was clearly coitus interruptus, or early withdrawal to prevent conception. Still, this misconception persists.
Islam and Judaism share common roots with Christianity, yet both of these religions deal with masturbation quite differently. They maintain their own rigidly prescribed attitudes toward sexual behavior, advocating only heterosexuality within the context of marriage. Yet neither religion consistently condemns masturbation as Christianity has, in practice taking a more Eastern approach of tacitly accepting some aspects of human nature. On a more encouraging note, some Native Americans call masturbation by their young people "warming the heart."
Cereal magnate John Harvey Kellogg declared
"sex for anything but reproduction" to be "sexual excess."
Unfortunately in the Western world attacks on masturbation grew increasingly irrational. A 1710 work titled Onania, or the Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution, blamed venereal disease on masturbation. By the 19th century the cereal magnate John Harvey Kellogg declared "sex for anything but reproduction" to be "sexual excess." Kellogg and others began advocating routine circumcision of males as a deterrent to masturbation. Sylvester Graham invented the Graham cracker, believing it would diminish male sexual desire. A variety of awful devices were employed in attempts to forcibly prevent masturbation. Much worse, female circumcision, or the removal of the clitoris, was sometimes advocated by the Victorians, preventing many females from ever experiencing orgasm. In 1864 Ellen G. White published a book claiming that the "solitary vice" led to everything from retardation to insanity and cancer.
As late as 1940, a pediatric text titled Diseases of Infancy and Childhood proclaimed masturbation to be harmful. My research suggests an overall agenda behind such anti-pleasure sentiments, the deeper motive being to increase population at all costs by controlling and denying non-reproductive erotic outlets. The more of "us" there are, the less we need to feel threatened by "them." Until the last century, this kind of reasoning made at least some partial, rudimentary sense. But in our times of runaway overpopulation, when sexuality no longer remains tied to reproductive imperatives, it makes no sense at all.
Beginning with the Kinsey Report of 1948, masturbation has finally been demystified and even discovered to be beneficial. In 1966 Masters & Johnson revealed the practice to be virtually universal in North America, cutting across all boundaries of sex, age, race, and social class. In 1971 Goldstein, Haeberle & McBride determined masturbation to be the most common form of sexual activity among humans. Dr. Joycelyn Elders was far ahead of the political establishment in her 1993 suggestion that masturbation be taught in our schools. She is now being vindicated: Accurate information is being widely disseminated to autonomous learners through the "school" of the Internet.
Though ignorance and superstition linger, healthy and accepting attitudes toward masturbation are increasing. The eminent neuropsychologist James W. Prescott has said: "Deprivation of physical affection in human relationships...constitutes the single greatest source of violence in human societies." We might want to take a cue from our close relatives the Bonobos and consider the social benefits of increased sexual satisfaction.