Masturbation in Literary History


Jerkin' off." Are there any words sweeter than these? The act itself gives rise (no pun intended) to many imaginative gerund-noun combos, such as "scrubbing the cucumber," "strangling the sandworm," and "polishing the bedpost." But whence ariseth the word 'masturbation?' Etymologists quibble over its origin: The Greek mezea means 'genitals,' but the Latin manus (hand) wraps quite snugly around turbo (to agitate). Roget's Thesaurus lists several synonyms, ranging from the sleek and sporty (autoeroticism) to the innocent-sounding (playing with oneself) to the undisputed king, a term so brilliantly guilty that both Jews and Catholics use it, "self-abuse."

Yet allusions to masturbation aren't confined to dry reference books. World literature spurts forth in thick, rude dollops of masturbatory data. Next time you're in a scummy motel room, steal a Gideon's Bible. It comes (not a pun, either) in the King James Version, definitely the most sexually repressed of all Bible translations. Turn to Genesis, chapter 38, and read about Judah, who had a habit of going "in unto" his wife Shuah whenever he felt frisky. Shuah had three sons, the first of whom was "wicked," so God slew him. Judah ordered his second son, Onan, to screw his dead brother's wife so he could, y'know, "raise up seed to thy brother."

Here's where it gets hot: "Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother's wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother [emphasis added]." The Holy Scriptures don't specify whether or not Onan wiped it up with a napkin.

Some biblical scholars say that Onan preferred buttering his bialy to bonging his sister-in-law; others say he merely pulled out early, aiming his goo at the floor. Fairly or not, many regard Onan's airborne wad as history's first recorded masturbation. Onanism' is a word in the dictionary; roughly, it means "squeezing the toothpaste." Anyway, God got pissed and slew Onan, too.

Compared to the Hebrews, other cultures' gods were party animals. One Babylonian god "fertilized the fertile crescent" with only his hand and a hard-on. Egyptian mythology's Usiris formed the Nile with the "continuous manipulation and regurgitation of his gushing genitory," while Atum-Ra "frigged with his fist and took the pleasure of emission." Now those are gods worth believing in.

People remember Diogenes as the Greek dude with a lamp, looking for an honest man. What they probably don't know is that he liked fingering his winkie in broad daylight preferably in open marketplaces. Greco-Roman literature oozes with candid, unashamed references to self-stimulation. "I suffer, dear Donatus, from so frightful an erection, I am fearful for my penis," wrote Ramusius of Rimini in a tear-jerking letter to a friend. "Being wounded, my right hand can do nothing...."

In the Middle Ages, Judaism's "Book of Splendor," the Zohar, called jerkin' off the worst possible sin. It claimed that ejaculated "seeds" allow evil spirits to incarnate themselves. Catholics likewise taught that every puddle of misfired cum was a wasted chance to fill the earth with more Catholics. Theologians from Augustine to Aquinas condemned it as a sin contra naturam (against nature). Tissot (1728-1797), a faithful papist, said it led to insanity, claiming that it force's a violent flow of blood into the brain. So that's why I've been getting those headaches.

During the 1800s, sexual ignorance spread like crab lice across Europe and the U.S. in the words of Benjamin Rush, a man who signed the Declaration of Independence and wrote about jerkin' off, it caused "seminal weakness, impotence, dysury, tabes dorsalis, syphilis, pulmonary consumption, dyspepsia, dimness of sight, vertigo, epilepsy, hypochondriosis, loss of memory, manalgia, fatuity, and death."

It was also thought to cause zits, foul breath, and (of course) corrupted morals. "It despoils the unfolding bud of perfume and beauty," wrote Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing in 1886's Psychopathia Sexualis, "and leaves behind only the coarse, animal desire for sexual satisfaction."- Is this a bad thing or a good thing? Sigmund Freud wasn't sure, but he did know this-if you dream that you're playing an instrument or knitting...well, it's obvious.

Girls do it, too, a fact one nineteenth-century writer found "too horrible to contemplate." You might call the late 1800s the Golden Age of Female Masturbatory Creativity. The era throbs with accounts of women initiating friendships with coffee grinders and jacking themselves to the sound of marching troops. "Girls sometimes form a habit of handling their sexual organs because they find a certain pleasure in so doing," wrote Mary Wood-Allen and Sylvonus Stall in their helpfully titled 1897 tract What a Young Girl Ought to Know. "It is called the solitary vice.... It leaves a mark upon the face so that those who are wise may know what the girl is doing.... She will manifest an unnatural appetite, sometimes desiring mustard, pepper, vinegar, and spices." Mustarbation?

Native American gals were particularly resourceful, especially with cacti. The Apaches told of a frustrated woman who found more fulfillment with the prickly desert plant than with her husband. The Hopi Indians wove weenie-wacking into their folklore, as revealed in this steamy passage "When they became amorous they resorted to artificial means to satisfy themselves. The women used sticks and cactus, and the men used liver of deer and squashes and gourds."

But enough of nature. Society's grown up. We have home computers, beautiful missiles, and-best of all-ATM machines at the 7-11. Masturbation keeps pace with the bold new technologies


A geneticist living in Delft/

Scientifically played with himself/

And when he was done/

He labeled it: Son/

And filed him away on a shelf.

-Author unknown


Hey-don't write off jerking off. For one thing, your hand isn't likely to leave you. It won't demand alimony payments. It eliminates everything that's lousy about romance phone bills, restaurant tabs, and bullshit like flowers or weekend getaways. It also provides the cheapest safest sex you can get. Go 'head, play some soft music, unzip your fly, and seduce yourself. Then full asleep, hand at your side, and dream about knitting.

Back to ANSWER Me! #1 Menu