Sunday, 10 November 2013


Attitudes toward masturbation have generally changed historically from revulsion to acceptance. The severity of the older taboo was such that the early words were strongly condemning, such as pollution or self-abuse, or religious in origin, notably in the case of Onanism.

 These have generally given way to comic or ironic metaphors like jerk, which have in some cases become terms of personal denigration. Engrained myths about masturbation causing insanity, blindness, and deafness, are articulated in the early recorded uses of the term, such as Onania, or the Heinous Sin of Self Pollution and all its Frightful Consequences, in both SEXES, the title of a highly successful anonymous collection of salacious case histories published in 1712, after which were added numerous supplements.

 In the same vein was A. Hume’s study Onanism, or a Treatise upon the Disorders produced by Masturbation(1766). Chambers Cyclopaedia of 1727–1741 referred to Onanism more severely as “the crime of self-pollution,” yet Jonathan Swift makes obvious jokes in the first chapter of Gulliver’s Travels (begun in 1719): “Mr. Bates my master” and “my good master Bates.” The word seems first to have been used in 1708 (Laqueur 2003, 29). A scientific study in 1874 maintained that“Onanism is a frequent accompaniment of insanity and sometimes causes it.” Walt Whitman referred to “The sick-gray faces of the Onanists” in Leaves of Grass (1855, v. 70), and D.H.Lawrence, who broke the modern taboo by referring to “the dirty little secret,” declared in pornography and Obscenity that “the masturbation self-enclosure produces idiots,” asserting that“This is perhaps the deepest and most dangerous cancer of our civilization” (1929, 316).

 In earlier centuries it was generally assumed that masturbation was an exclusively male practice: the choice of the term Onanism clearly reinforced this myth (just the derivation of hysteria from Greek hysteros, “the womb,” served to create the false notion that hysteria was an exclusively female complaint). In the Book of Genesis 38: 8–10, Onan broke the Levirate law by refusing Judah’s command to marry his brother’s widow, and in the King James version,“spilt his seed upon the ground,” which “displeased the Lord: wherefore he slew him.”

The offence thus lay more in the violation of the law than in the act itself. The earliest term for a lesbian, namely a tribade, recorded from 1601, is derived from a Greek verb meaning “to rub,”which itself had a slang sense of “masturbation” recorded from about 1599. However, some underground literature, such as Thomas Stretzer’s New Description of Merryland(1741), described the female genitalia in coded allegory: “Near these forts is the metropolis,called CLTRS . . . the chief palace or rather pleasure seat of the Queens of Merryland.” Others were more open, writing of “the uncommon Exercise of the clitoris” (cited in Laqueur, 2003,28).

Indeed, the theme of female masturbation became a staple of Grub street in the eighteenthcentury and even of increasingly explicit cartoons by French artists, as well as by IsaacCruikshank (“Luxury” 1801) and Thomas Rowlandson (“Lonesome Pleasures” 1812). Becauseof its biblical origin and condemnatory overtones, Onanism is becoming obsolescent, although George Steiner revived it in his provocative essay “Night Words,” referring to “the recent university experiment in which faculty wives agreed to practice onanism in front of researchers’ cameras ” (1967, 98). There is, however, no exclusively feminine term. A turning point in attitudes was Philip Roth’s scandalously successful novel Portnoy’s Complaint(1967) with its comedy, detailed treatment, and varied metaphors. In recent decades, as permissiveness and the pursuit of sexual pleasure have become social imperatives, a newer vocabulary of acceptance has appeared, including neutral terms such as self-stimulation, self-arousal, and positives like self-pleasuring. Upscale Sunday newspapers in the United Kingdom now regularly carry book-club advertisements with titles like Sex for One. Thomas Szasz commented wryly in The Second Sin: “In the nineteenth century [masturbation] was a disease; in the twentieth it's a cure.”

The assumption that masturbation is a solitary activity is still dominant. The principal slang terms in British English are surprisingly old. Recorded from the restoration is frig, which has its own entry. Similarly, toss off is listed in Francis Grose’sclassincal Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) and defined as “manual pollution,” but seems to have become obsolete until it made a surprise reappearance in the Victorian pornographic magazine The Pearl in this awkward rhyme: “I don’t like to see, though at me you might scoff, / An old woman trying to toss herself off” (1879–1880, 280). As these words have lost specificity and faded away, a new term, wank has come into play, recorded only from about 1950. It generated wanker, a term of unknown origin that was originally specific, but has taken the common semantic route of generalization, now meaning “an objectionable or stupid person.” The agent noun tosser has shown the same development. All these words are exclusively male in application.In American English, the principal slang terms have been jack off and jerk off, the latter being first listed in Farmer and Henley’s compendious British dictionary Slang and Its Analogues(1890–1896).

Both terms are used, occasionally, of women. Jerk itself has an early verbal sense of “to masturbate” recorded from 1888, some three decades before the common MEDIEVAl PERIOD noun sense of “an offensive or worthless person.” It has become widely used as a noun of general contempt. Similarly, the noun jerk-off in the sense of an “act of masturbation” also precedes that of a “dolt or worthless person.”Among the more picturesque and humorous British metaphors are “to beat the bishop”and the earlier “box the Jesuit,” the latter recorded, surprisingly, in Grose (1785) with the gloss “A crime that is said much practiced by the reverend fathers of that society.” This is an interesting instance of mild xenophobic malice.

In South African slang the Afrikaans idiom meaning “pulling the wire” is often used, while the Australian terms are more jocular, notably“jerkin the gerkin.”However, the word itself seems to be what Frank Rich called “The Last Taboo” in a column commenting on President Clinton’s firing of the Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders for articulating views on masturbation (New York Times, December 18, 1994).

Laqueur concludes that “masturbation is that rare thing in modern talk about sexuality: something best left unspoken and so discomforting that it can only be broached under the protection of a joke. If there is a taboo topic in our culture, this may be it”.