Why Masturbation Matters

People...it’s May. I’m telling you this a) to remind you once again that you missed my birthday and b) while it might feel like every month is now attached to some kind of awareness campaign or other, May is attached to one of my favourites. Welcome to Masturbation Month!

First, some brief history. It’s 1994, a year we shall forever hate as the one that inflicted Justin Bieber on us and stole Bill Hicks and Kurt Cobain (seriously universe, was just one of those things not punishment enough). President Clinton is in office and the magnificent Jocelyn Elders is the Surgeon General and is invited to speak at the United Nations World AIDS Day. An audience member asked her opinion on masturbation as a method of curbing risky sexual behaviour in teens. Elders responded “I think it is something that is part of human sexuality and a part of something that perhaps should be taught.”

Clinton fired her.

Yeah, I know. Clinton.

As a result, the emporium of awesome also known as Good Vibrations decided to honour Elders and create a public awareness campaign for masturbation. What started out as National Masturbation Day is now International Masturbation Month and is making leaps and bounds towards informing people about the amazing health benefits of good old fashioned onanism.

So guess what kids? Today we’re going to be waxing lyrical about wanking!

Masturbation has a long and heartbreaking history of repression and punishment. Despite having archaeological evidence of its existence from as far back as 4000 B.C.E, and records of almost all ancient civilisations considering the act not only healthy but in some cases the reason behind existence itself, humanity has seemed hell bent on convincing itself that masturbation is just the worst.

The church, by which I mean pretty much all organised religion, has uniformly opposed masturbation throughout history. My favourite summary of the religious argument against wanking comes from St Thomas Aquinas (#notmysaint), who eloquently advised that masturbation was a worse sin than rape, incest, and adultery, because in these other sins procreation is a possibility. To this day Catholic, Jewish and Muslim doctrines all formally consider masturbation to be a moral disorder and even the super chill Buddhists generally disapprove of the act.

The anti-onanism crusade hit a high point around the 18th Century, that lasted through to the Victorian era (although on that note, onanism is technically coitus interruptus, not masturbation). A Dutch theologian going by Dr. Balthazar Bekker, which clearly makes him next year’s comic book villain to watch, advised that those who succumbed to the “heinous sin of self pollution” could expect to suffer:

Disturbances of the stomach and digestion, loss of appetite or ravenous hunger, vomiting, nausea, weakening of the organs of breathing, coughing, hoarseness, paralysis, weakening of the organ of generation to the point of impotence, lack of libido, back pain, disorders of the eye and ear, total diminution of bodily powers, paleness, thinness, pimples on the face, decline of intellectual powers, loss of memory, attacks of rage, madness, idiocy, epilepsy, fever and finally suicide.

During the Victorian era the list was expanded to include impaired morals, depression, social failure, tuberculosis, blindness, insanity, and early death. To combat this, many physicians and entrepreneurs conceived of a vast number of anti-masturbatory devices to help aid individuals in their moral quest to keep their hands off their fun bits. These devices wouldn’t have been out of place in Guantanamo Bay, with such delightful contraptions as spermatorrhea rings, straightjacket pyjamas, erection alerts and tiny little suits of armour designed to fit over the penis and testicles.

From the Prague Sex Museum collection

From the Prague Sex Museum collection

From your Sears catalogue you could order rings to fit along the base of the penis, with spikes along the inner lining to prevent erections. In truly desperate cases, chronic masturbators would simply have their foreskin stapled shut, or were castrated. John Kellog came to the rescue with his invention of Cornflakes (yes, you read that correctly). He believed the cereal would lessen the sex drive and therefore diminish the practice of masturbation, which he described thusly, “Neither the plague, nor war, nor small-pox, nor similar diseases, have produced results so disastrous to humanity as the pernicious habit of onanism.” Which is why to this day I insist on staring at a box of Cornflakes while I rub one out.

In 1859 a physician called George Taylor came along and told the public that almost 25% of women suffered from “female hysteria”. It was the first mental disorder attributed solely to women and helped to pave the way for the stereotype of “bitchez be crazy” that we’re still dealing with today. Apparently caused by a “wandering womb”, physicians used female hysteria as a catchall to explain away pretty much any ailment that could be conceived of. Physician George Beard catalogued over seventy-five pages of symptoms and considered it an incomplete list.

Here’s where it gets interesting though, because apparently the treatment for this heinous malady was to masturbate female patients until they orgasmed.

Oh sure they dressed the treatment up in any manner of fancy words, but essentially a large percentage of physicians at the time became glorified gigolos, getting paid to manually satisfy their female patients. As a woman who only gets hysterical when she sees spiders, I can only imagine how complicated my relationship with arachnids would have gotten if I was being masturbated each time I ran across one.

The only problem with this whole wanking solution was that the doctors couldn’t keep up with the demand and spent many of their nights icing their wrists and trying to stave off RSI. So ten years after his clinical diagnosis of a quarter of the female population, Dr. Taylor returns with a solution to societies ails. Enter “The Manipulator” (which I can only assume doubled as Taylor’s WWE alter ego).

The Manipulator was the world’s first steam powered vibrator. Rather than being designed to help women orgasm, it was borne of a desire to save men’s wrists. If this piece of history was on a literary comprehension test, you’d be forgiven for drawing the conclusion that the only time women’s sexuality became important was when it was linked to their inherent fragility and mental failings*.

Thanks to the magnificent Alfred Kinsey, the 1940’s and 50’s saw a little more light shed on human sexuality and masturbation. Despite proving to the American people that the majority of them masturbated and that they did so in a wide variety of ways and thus far no one had died from it, Kinsey’s reports still did little to change the social stigma associated with it on a grand scale.

Which leads us to today. We live in a complex and multicultural society, where all of the history behind masturbation comes into effect in a big way. We have religious figures who insist all sex acts are inherently shameful and should only be engaged in to create children, we have sexually repressed governments who feel masturbation and proper sex education is an inappropriate thing to teach teenagers and we have a population of people who lack the information and the social support to ask about masturbation and to educate themselves on the topic, let alone their children.

So let me give you a piece of advice; if you’re new to the art of self love or have so far been unsuccessful in it, it’s important to take a moment to acknowledge your baggage and then abandon it. With such a long history of hatred for the past time, very few of us were given anything even vaguely resembling an education about the topic. This lack of information coupled with a social impetus to stay silent on the subject and even shame it, can leave most people genuinely believing that masturbation is a bad thing. So take a second to consider how you actually feel about the act. Then remind yourself that you're not doing anything wrong. As long as your method of masturbation doesn’t involve the non-consensual involvement of other people, then you’re not hurting anyone and you should enjoy it and celebrate it.

If you’re religious, remember that the sinfulness of masturbation comes from a lack of procreation, so unless you’re in a hetero marriage and constantly breeding, you’re technically already violating church law, so why not enjoy yourself in the process? And that’s keeping in mind that most religious texts don’t actually even refer to masturbation at all, let alone condemn it. So let go of your guilt.

If, like me, you’re already a wanker then know that you’re doing the best possible thing for your body. You’re learning about how your anatomy feels, how it responds to different stimuli and most importantly you’re getting an understanding of what ‘normal’ feels like, so you’ll be well placed to notice if anything changes on your body and catch it before it becomes something serious. So fuck Dr. Balthazar Bekker and his villainy!

Nowadays we know that sexual arousal produces oxytocin, which acts as a pain reliever, we know that masturbation helps to relieve tension and stress as well as reducing headaches, muscle aches and insomnia. Studies have shown that penis owners who regularly masturbate are statistically less likely to develop prostate cancer, not to mention it can help with premature ejaculation. We know that masturbation can release endorphins, similar to exercising, which will help to improve your mood and even help with depression. So no, you’re not going to go blind or get epilepsy or die a horrible and untimely death just because you rubbed one out. In fact, much like red wine, having it in moderation is more likely going to improve your health overall.

Don’t let anyone make you feel bad about masturbating. If you’re single, that’s awesome, wank away. If you’re in a relationship, go to town. If you partner is uncomfortable with what you’re doing, sit down and ask them why. Some people can feel rejected if their significant other appears to prefer solo sex to intercourse. If this is the case, it’s important to have a conversation, because there’s probably a lot more going on in the relationship than just someone having a fiddle. As a partner, you need to understand that your significant other's decision to masturbate almost certainly isn't a reflection on their attraction to you. It is its own act, separate to sexual intercourse and separate to a relationship dynamic. It's about self. 

Remember that masturbation is about getting to know your body; learning in your own time, with no pressure from anyone else, what you enjoy and what feels good and where. This in turn can improve your sexual relationship with existing or future partners. It gives you the confidence to know what you want and how to guide them around your body, rather than feeling uncomfortable if they’re trying to get you off and you don’t want to tell them they’re failing miserably. Understanding how your body responds to different things will also give you an idea of what your partner might enjoy, and can give you more confidence to try new things with them. Don't be ashamed to talk about it. Talk to your partner about what you do to yourself, what you've learnt that you enjoy. And don't shame people who mention that they've been wanking, don't judge people you suspect have been quietly rubbing one out. So they've had a fiddle? Who cares!

Most importantly, don’t let anyone tell you that you’re doing it wrong. Masturbation isn’t porn, you’re not doing it for someone else’s pleasure, you’re doing it for you. If there’s someone in your life making you feel bad for the way you wank or how long you take or what you use to get the job done, tell them they can go fuck themselves…literally. Masturbation is about you, there's no right or wrong way to do it, as long as you're enjoying it. Masturbation is important. It’s healthy. And we need to be talking about it. We need to be throwing off the shackles of history that are still dictating our education standards and keeping us uninformed about our bodies and our needs. We need to remember that loving ourselves is okay, because we are worth it. 


That is all.


You may go now.

*[Addendum] The theory that doctors masturbated female patients to relieve hysteria, and that this led to the invention of the vibrator is one put forward by Rachel Maines. The theory has been disputed by a number of historians who argue that even if it were the case, it would only have been in a very small demographic. Maines has since clarified that her theory should be treated as a hypothesis only.