The 18th Century - Solo Sex & Insanity

Vitruvian Man, 1492, Leonardo DaVinci’s sketch of a naked man.Around 1712 a publication hit society with the full destructive force of a hurricane. In that year in the city of London a short tract with a very long title: Onania; or, The Heinous Sin of Self Pollution, and all its Frightful Consequences, in both SEXES Considered, with Spiritual and Physical Advice to those who have already injured themselves by this abominable practice. And seasonable Admonition to the Youth of the nation of Both SEXES.... declared masturbation to be a symptom, not of moral decay, but of illness. And what illnesses it caused, everything from infertility, impotence, gonorrhoea, to deformed offspring. Prior to this there is no record of anyone in medical circles believing that solo sex was any more harmful to one’s health than heterosexual sex. But now masturbation was regarded as not only a sin against God, but also devastation to ones health.

But there is a cure! First, a much needed revival of Christian morality and ethics to halt the spread of this dread “disease.” But if that was not enough, in the back of this nefarious publication readers are advised to purchase "Strengthening Tincture" at 10 shillings a bottle, and the "Prolific Powder" for 12 shillings a bag.

Onania; or, The Heinous Sin of Self Pollution.This work was published anonymously but believed by one historian to be authored by a John Marten, a swindler surgeon who had also published some other quack publications. In 1711 he had written Treatise of Venereal Diseases about his patients who suffered from "post-masturbation disease.” “With meager jaws and pale looks, seldom without scabs and blotches, those loathsome relicts of their odious vices, with limber hams, and legs without calves, feeble at mature years, as rickety children, weak and consumptive, when they should by nature be most hail and vigourous; rotten before they are full ripe, and fit for nothing in the prime of their years but to be lodged in an hospital.” But it was Onania, the work devoted entirely to the subject, that became most popular and did the most damage. It began as a pamphlet handed out for free, to drum up business for his patent medicines, but by 1730 it had been published in fifteen editions until, bound with the Supplement, it was over 344 pages long.

Onania also crossed the ocean and was published in the USA. It found such a wide audience that other publishers came out with imitations: Onania Display'd (1717), Of the Crime of Onan or the heinous vice of self-defilement, with all its dismal consequences sated and examined in all those who may ever misfortunately have injured themselves by this abominable practice (1720), Onania examind and detected, or the ignorance, error impertinence and contradiction of a book entitled Onania discovered and exposed (1723), Eromania, or the misusing of the marriage bed by Er and Onan . . . or the heinous crime of self-defilement, with its nine miserable consequences in both sexes, laid open to all those who may ever have been guilty of its ill action (1724). As we well know today, sex sells, even if done so with a ridiculously long title.

The medical profession became rife with certainty about the devastating effects of this supposed "post-masturbation disease." Joseph Cam, in his A Practical Treatise: or, Second Thoughts on the Consequences of the Venereal Disease (1729), described the sufferers who had “... pains in their heads, necks, joints, and muscles, so that they can hardly bend themselves forward, where much and thin seed flows forth upon going to stool, or making water, also whilst asleep, with or without dreaming; where the body wastes, the breath shortens, and the head grows heavy; where, in fine, the appetite fails, the legs swell, and blindness ensues.”

Sadly, these quacks and charlatans, motivated by a strong desire to get rich quick, profoundly affected the thinking of generations, and turned a natural, healthy, pleasurable, private activity into a stigmatized disease. But, they succeeded. They sold lots of books, as well as the useless patent medicines.

And so it begins, and quickly gets worse. Much worse.

Samuel Auguste David Tissot

Samuel Auguste David Tissot (1728–97).Samuel Auguste David Tissot (1728–97) was a renound Frence doctor. In he 1760 wrote L'Onanisme, ou Dissertation Physique sur les Maladies Produites par la Masturbation, in which he agreed that masturbation was a grave and serious illness. Now the fact that Tissot was a legitimate medical doctor and not a quack like the author of the 1712 Onania took this anti-masturbation movement beyond the lunatic fringe and into legitimacy. Hence the damage done was more severe. This authoritative work declared poor eyesight, epilepsy, memory loss, pulmonary tuberculosis, rounded shoulders, weakened backs, paleness, acne, gonorrhea, and syphilis were among the myriad diseases caused by solo sex. Soon, the whole of the medical establishment was diagnosing wanking as the cause of spinal tuberculosis, epilepsy, pimples, madness, general wasting, and even early death, sometimes at their own hand as Tissot also claimed that masturbators so hated themselves for what they were doing that they often committed suicide. Tissot even declared that masturbation was more serious and “much the more to be dreaded" than the deadly smallpox! By the time he was finished there was a new kind of diseased person, the masturbator.

L'Onanisme, first written in French, was translated into English and several other languages, and 80 editions. In England it appeared in a number or translations with such titles as “Onanism, or a treatise upon the disorders produced by masturbation, Or the dangerous effects of secret and excessive venery” (translated by a Dr. A. Hume), and “A treatise on the crime of Onan: Illustrated with a variety of cases, together with the method of cure.” Its influence went far and wide.

The interesting thing is that Tissot’s L'Onanisme, and even the previous Onania, were so salacious they were sure to provoke arousal and the very thing against which they warned. So, the readers often became stimulated, masturbated, but were left terrified of the consequences of their behaviour - that is if they believed the nonsense the book was promoting.

The medical profession
looked upon it in horror,
as a false pleasure,
and a dangerous perversion
of the real
that must be stopped
at all costs.

Tissot, in trying to prevent people from suffering from this dread disease, described the terrors that happened to masturbators. “... I went to his home; what I found was less a living being than a cadaver lying on straw, thin, pale, exuding a loathsome stench, almost incapable of movement. A pale and watery blood often dripped from his nose, he drooled continually; subject to attacks of diarrhea, he defecated in his bed without noticing it; there was constant flow of semen; his eyes, sticky, blurry, dull, had lost all power of movement; his pulse was extremely weak and racing; labored respiration, extreme emaciation, except for the feet, which were showing signs of edema. Mental disorder was equally evident; without ideas, without memory, incapable of linking two sentences, without reflection, without fear of his fate, lacking all feeling except that of pain, which returned at least every three days with each new attack. Thus sunk below the level of the beast, a spectacle of unimaginable horror, it was difficult to believe that he had once belonged to the human race. . . . He died after several weeks, in June 1757, his entire body covered in edemas.”

“The troubles experienced by women are just as explicable as those experienced by men. The humor they lose being less precious, less perfected than male sperm, its loss does not perhaps weaken them as quickly; but when they indulge excessively, their nervous system being weaker and naturally more inclined to spasm, the troubles are more violent.”

From this moment on, until more reasonable thought prevailed, each person who indulged in self-pleasuring did so with the knowledge that he might pay for it with severe medical consequences, even with his life. The medical profession looked upon it in horror, as a false pleasure, and a dangerous perversion of the real that must be stopped at all costs. It was the 18th century version of smoking, or obesity.

The Books Birth a Movement

And sadly, many other esteemed persons contributed to the anti masturbation movement, people like Voltaire and Rousseau and Immanuel Kant, even some of the men who signed the American Declaration of Independence, all warning the populace of the dread consequences of the "post-masturbatory disease." They were trying to stop the suffering they believed would come to masturbators, but ultimately they themselves became the authors of much fear, dread, and misery.

Dr. Benjamin Rush, concerned about the masturbator’s "state of degeneracy"' prescribed "a vegetable diet, temperance, bodily labor, cold baths, avoidance of obscenity, music, a close study of mathematics, military glory, and, if all else failed, castor oil."

Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), in his book "Confessions, " said masturbation "has a particular attraction for lively imaginations. It allows them to dispose, so to speak, of the whole female sex at their will, and to make any beauty who tempts them serve their pleasure without the need of first obtaining her consent." So powerful did he consider the “disease” that "Once a young person gets the habit, there is no breaking it short of death.”

And finally Dutch theologian Dr. Balthazar Bekker wrote that solo sex leads to "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."

(Dear Lord, and I just thought I was getting older!)

How sad it is to think that such an unnatural prohibition should be imposed upon something so normal and natural.

Three Reasons

In Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation the historian Thomas W. Laqueur suggests that there were three reasons why masturbation came to be seen as perverse and unnatural.

  • First, this sexual act was solitary while all other means of sensual gratification were social, involving at least one other person. And even if you masturbated in the presence of anther, the resulting pleasure was still private.
  • Also, since solo sex did not involve another warm human body, it usually meant having a fantasy, or an illusion. And fantasies were dangerous.
  • And finally, masturbation is an “addiction” that can never be fully satisfied. You kept wanting and coming back for more. "Every man, woman, and child suddenly seemed to have access to the boundless excesses of gratification that had once been the privilege of Roman emperors." (Yippee!)

So, for some strange reason that escapes my understanding, the aspects of privacy, fantasy, and insatiability gave rise to the idea that solo sex was a horror beyond all others. Some would allow that moderate masturbation was a good means of satisfying oneself when highly aroused, but the very act was so pleasurable that, having been experienced, true moderation became almost impossible.

Things were changing socially and economically and even philosophically, and people were becoming much more individuated, seeking more personal fulfillment and autonomy, and what symbolized these things any more than masturbation? The fears of where this new found individual liberation would lead resulted in a need to keep something, anything, under strict control, and solo sex became that thing. It is indeed strange, because you would think that masturbation could have become the ultimate symbol of individuation, rather than the focus of all the fears concerning it. Rather than condemn the practice, philosophers could have sung its praises!

Economists and Philosophers

Even economists and philosophers like Adam Smith, David Hume, and Bernard Mandeville got in on the act. They praised the self-regulating quality of the emerging market, pointing out that even individual acts of self-indulgence and greed were transformed into the general good. But they found it necessary to condemn masturbation. It was not a self-regulating act. The more you did it the more you wanted to. Mandeville regarded it as unstoppable, unconstrained, unproductive, and (how horrible!) absolutely free of charge. In his Defense of Public Stews (1724), he suggested that it was better for a young man to visit a brothel than to commit "rapes upon their own bodies."

Not only were people becoming financially and philosophically individuated, they were enjoying solitary reading, of novels none the less. They were alone, actually enjoying moments of privacy, and while alone were experiencing all kinds of exciting emotions provoked by the thrilling things they were reading. Jean-Jacques Rousseau remarked in his "Confessions" that some of these novels were “written to be read with one hand!” And be warned, a plain old absorbing, exciting story could lead to excitement and in that heightened emotional state the reader’s mind and idle hands could wander into forbidden territory.

At that time moralists regarded the theatre as a breeding ground for all kinds of sexual excess, such as fornication and adultery, due to the emotions being aroused in a social setting. But the reading of fiction was personal and private and could lead to something even worse - the solitary vice.

John Wesley

John Wesley.Sad to say, rather than the church correcting the ills of society, once again society polluted the church with its foolishness. One person who was strongly affected by Tissot and his book on Onan was John Wesley.

Wesley began his ministry as an idealist and strong advocate for celibacy and singleness. He felt that they freed one for greater service in the Kingdom of God. Which would have been ok, but in Wesley’s mind, masturbation was definitely not a good way for single people to deal with their sexual frustrations. His ardent followers were not permitted the luxury of using it to make their singleness easier and more pleasant.

Wesley strongly believed that good health was an important part of the gospel message, and he was an avid student of the medical books of his day. With his Thoughts on the sin of Onan: Chiefly extracted from a late writer (1774 and 1779), Wesley took Tissot’s 232 page book and radically reduced it to a 20 page manuscript that he felt was suitable for his followers. Tissot’s book itself received strong criticism as being too filthy for moral people to read.

He extracted 31 sections from Tissot’s book, introducing it with a two-paragraph preface, and wrote 3 sections himself. Like others he believed that a person could become sick and even die as a result of masturbation. It was to be avoided at all costs. Wesley believed that solo sex was both physically and spiritually a snare of Satan, but proper devotional disciplines would help the “sufferer” avail himself of the grace of God to overcome.

". . .unholy desires
and inordinate affections:
which I never did
entirely conquer . . ."

Eventually John Wesley did come to see the benefit and blessings of marriage, and wed Molly Vazeille in 1751. I suspect that he never did quite obtain what many Believers call “victory” over solitary sex. He wrote of his wife, “She is and would be a continual defence (under God) against unholy desires and inordinate affections: which I never did entirely conquer, for six months altogether, before my intercourse with her.”

His is a familiar story among those who think that masturbation is sinful. There is the long struggle to abstain, with the desire for pleasure and release growing every day until eventually one relents and does what comes so naturally. And by that time it takes very little stimulation to bring the orgasm and ejaculation. This is then so often followed by “repentance” for the terrible “slip” into “sin” and another period of “victory” until it happens all over again.

Wesley joining the anti-masturbation brigade is significant because not only did this revivalist start his own religious movement, which continues today as the Wesleyan church, but his theology also provided the spiritual foundation for many other “holiness” movements. Many Evangelical and Pentecostal churches can trace their heritage and approach to Christianity to Charles Wesley. His opposition to solo sex became part of the culture. It affects Born Again Christians to this day.


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