The Rehabilitation of Onan

By Sked, Alan | The Spectator, June 5, 1999 | Go to article overview

The Rehabilitation of Onan


Sked, Alan, The Spectator


THE Vatican's recent change of mind on masturbation has not been widely commented on in the British press. The subject, let's be frank, has never been a popular one in polite conversation, and even literary allusions to it have generally been censored. Thus the collected editions of the works of Mark Twain, for example, usually omit his after-dinner remarks on the Science of Onanism, delivered to the Stomach Club in Paris in 1879. This was a typically tongue-in-cheek performance, which started by twisting a number of famous quotations and ended by condemning the subject the speaker had chosen to address: `As an amusement it is too fleeting. As an occupation it is too wearing. As a public exhibition there is no money in it. It is unsuited to the drawingroom.' If members wanted to `gamble sexually', Twain advised them against `playing a lone hand'. (One presumes he was not in favour of jeux a deux.) Few of his contemporaries, however, took the subject quite as light-heartedly.

By 1879 the Western world was in a medical and moral panic about masturbation and had been for at least 100 years. The original medical scare had been started by an English quack called Bekker who in 1710 published anonymously a pompous tract entitled Onania, which went through 19 editions by the early l9th century. The causes of the solitary vice were given as `ignorance, the secrecy in which the sin can be indulged and the apparent immunity from punishment'. Its consequences included retarded growth, priapism, gonorrhoea, fainting fits, epilepsy, consumption, loss of erection, premature ejaculation, and infertility; in women it could cause, hysteria, imbecility and barrenness. The furore over Onania led the eminent Swiss physician, Tissot, in 1764, to publish his own bestseller, L'Onanisme: ou dissertation physique sur les maladies produites par la masturbation, according to which the body was in a state of continuous decay; any activity caused further decay, but sexual activity was the most harmful. Man's semen was in such short supply that the loss of one ounce of sperm was equal to the loss of 40 ounces of blood. Semen, therefore, had to be expended only in moderation. A pleasure that could be indulged in repeatedly and that was not in some sense balanced by being part of a creative act was suicidal. Tissot listed a host of illnesses it caused, and frightened readers with medical casehistories of youths who had destroyed themselves. Yet his remedies were simple: clean living, healthy exercise, cold baths and light meals, all of which would be promoted at English public schools.

Tissot's teachings were to be repeated in medical and pseudo-medical tracts for the next century-and-a-half in every European language. New medical theories reinforced his warnings and fears arose that the ill-effects of masturbation included hereditary insanity. (It was noted that lunatics often masturbated. Therefore, the conclusion was drawn that those who masturbated would themselves become lunatics. Today, in similar fashion, it is often pointed out that paedophiles and psychopaths read pornographic magazines and watch pornographic films.) Sexologists at the end of the century also condemned masturbation. Freud believed it produced neuroses (what didn't?); while Krafft-Ebing wrote that it produced neurasthenia (nervous exhaustion), paranoia and manic depression. He also believed that it caused homosexuality by 'fixating' the minds of young men on their own genitalia.

Needless to say, authoritarian guardians of morals invented cures rather more robust than those recommended by Tissot. …

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