In this final post of the series, we turn to one of those elephants in the room. There’s nothing on masturbation in the LLF book, although it must surely be the most common form of sex. It’s also something on which Christians have had ‘views’ for a long time. A text box seemed like a good way to mention the subject. But others didn’t agree.
One area of sexual experience which we don’t talk about is masturbation. Yet ‘the solitary vice’, ‘self-pollution’ – or, as Woody Allen put it in the film Annie Hall – ‘sex with someone you love’ – is the most common sexual activity of all. It doesn’t have to be ‘solitary’ and it is often part of a sexual relationship, and it carries minimal risks of pregnancy or of catching a disease.
Like everything else, masturbation has a history. It used to be called ‘onanism’. In Genesis 38, the Bible includes the story of Onan, who was told by his father to marry his brother’s widow, Tamar, to ‘raise up seed’ for his brother. This responsibility of a man to father children on his brother’s behalf is common in many ancient societies. Onan slept with Tamar, but spilled his seed on the ground because he didn’t want his dead brother to have any children as this would affect his own inheritance. God was angry, and killed Onan.
But that story is about contraception – about what would be called ‘the withdrawal method’ – and not about masturbation. Despite not being mentioned in the Bible, masturbation became a sin or, at the very least, something to be resisted by Christians. The eighteenth-century book Onania, or the Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution, And All Its Frightful Consequences, In Both Sexes, Considered made masturbation into a medical disorder. The main aim of the book, which went into many editions and translations, was to sell products: the ‘Strengthening Tincture’ and ‘Prolifick Powder’ which would cure the perceived problem. More respectable medical treatises picked up what quickly became a popular obsession. They argued that masturbation – ‘self-abuse’ – would cause a huge range of physical problems ranging from vomiting to pimples, and would even lead to insanity, premature old age or suicide. These diagnoses only died out at the end of the nineteenth century.