The 20th Century – Progress & Enlightenment

Vitruvian Man, 1492, Leonardo DaVinci’s sketch of a naked man.Considering all of the fanciful and fearful ideas about masturbation promoted in the 18th and 19th centuries, it is amazing that we have come as far as we have. Moral, spiritual, and scientific ignorance take a long time to go away. But, thanks be to God, progress has and is being made.

At the turn of the 20th century things did began to change, dramatically. In fact, scientific study itself changed. In previous times doctors made diagnosis based on their personal opinions and prejudices. Widespread objective research is an invention of the 20th century, when double-blind studies became common. This greatly reduced the effect of any bias on the part of the researchers, and results are generally far more meaningful and reliable. Sexuality itself became a topic of much more level-headed scientific study.

As science and social mores began to emerge from the solo sex dark ages the hysteria of previous centuries began to wane, as did the need to control every private moment and action of the young lest they masturbate themselves into insanity, illness, or the grave. Block by block the wall of fear and shame surrounding this most primal and private act began to be demolished.

As I chronicle come of the advances of the 20th century it is good to remember that even though the people involved were flawed, and some of their conclusions were imperfect, those making even moderately positive statements about solo sex were going against opinions strongly held for centuries. They were a brave and adventurous lot.

Dr. Havelock Ellis

Dr. Havelock Ellis, Sexologist.At the turn of the century sexology came to be seen as a legitimate medical discipline. This is when the pioneer British sexologist, Dr. Havelock Ellis, began to wrestle with the issue of masturbation. At first he regarded it as physically harmless and not amoral, but perhaps psychologically harmful. He felt it could even hinder human progress. People should channel their sexual energy into more creative avenues, and not waste it in self-pleasuring. Too much and you could develop “neurasthenia” — a generalized psychological, emotional, and physical weakness.

However, the more he studied the more he came to see that solo sex is an almost universal practice, so common as to be considered normal with numerous benefits. In 1899, he published the second part of the first volume of Studies in the Psychology of Sex: The Evolution of Modesty, the Phenomena of Sexual Periodicity, & Auto-Eroticism. So strongly did he come to believe that masturbation was a normal and healthy practice he coined the term “autoeroticism” to replace the words masturbation and “onanism” which still carried a stigma. Ellis said that Tissot and those who agreed with him were responsible for “the mistaken notions of many medical authorities, carried on by tradition, even down to our own time; the powerful lever which has been put into the hand of unscrupulous quacks; the suffering, dread, and remorse experienced in silence by many thousands of ignorant and often innocent young people . . . During the past forty years the efforts of many distinguished physicians . . . have gradually dragged the bogy down from its pedestal, and now . . . there is even a tendency today to regard masturbation as normal.”

Dr. Sigmund Freud

Dr. Sigmund Freud.The psychoanalyst Freud, for all of his problems and shortcomings, eventually came to see that the proclivity to solo sex was just a part of the human condition. Even though he thought it to be something we do when young and move on from as we become sexually mature, at least he did not consider it fatal - disturbed, but not fatal. By disturbed I mean he saw it as linked to dangerous fantasy that separated desire from satisfaction and thus disconnected a person from the external world. It was therefore an antisocial act that could lead to other problems. He felt that fantasy could spoil a person for the realities of life, especially married life, which so often falls short of a person’s imaginary world. It may prevent them from being able to have normal sexual relationships with real human beings, who they come to distain because they do not measure up to imaginary partners.

From 1910-12 he took part in a series of meetings of the Psychoanalytic Society of Vienna in which masturbation was studied seriously, especially its potential psychological and psychological effects. The very act of attempting to look at the matter objectively was a step in the right direction.

Wilhelm Stekel.

Magnus Hirschfeld and Wilhelm Stekel

The In fact the debate on the positive and negative effect of solo sex went on for some years. Magnus Hirschfeld published Sexualpathologie (1917), and Wilhelm Stekel published Onanie und Homosexualität. Both authors plainly declared that at no time had anyone scientifically demonstrated that masturbation had any negative effect on any aspect of a person’s health. And in time more and more scientists came to agree with Ellis’ groundbreaking conclusions.

More Progress

For 50 years the Larousse had published anti-masturbation warnings, but then in 1924 the company presented the reading public with Larousse Medical Illustré, which advised, "Parents are wrong to be alarmed at a habit which, most often, has no serious drawbacks. . . . Onanism does not merit the importance that some families wrongly give it.” Wonderful! Amen!

The Encyclopedia of Sexual Knowledge (1937) pointed out the futility of trying to prevent masturbation because the patient "spends his whole time thinking of masturbation, wanting to masturbate, fighting against the temptation, at last succumbing to it, and then suffering from remorse until the cycle is completed once more." This cycle is so unnecessary because it "is much better to explain to the patient that masturbation will not do him any harm at all, and that he can masturbate as often as he wants to.”

This certainly described the cycle so many Christians have endured, until we came to see that masturbation is natural, normal, and a wonderful gift from God. How I wish as a youth I had known that I could masturbate as often as I wanted to, and not displease God in any way.

Diseases of Infancy and Childhood (1940) went so far as to say the only problem with masturbation was the unnecessary and excessive worry and guilt experienced by masturbators.

More and more studies were published that showed what most of us already know. Young adolescents begin exploring their sexuality through masturbation, no matter how stigmatized it may be. Boys think about it, talk about it, do it, do it alone, and some even do it together.

In 1950 Stekel's book, Autoeroticism, was translated into English. Stekel declared that solo sex is normal, universal, and good, and that the act of repressing it was the source of harm.

A year later the U.S government did a strong about face and in Infant Care advised "wise" mothers that saying "'No, no,' to children who masturbate may confuse them.” This was after a half century of the same publication giving strong warnings against the dreaded “post-masturbatory disease.”

Marcel Proust

Marcel Proust.Soon positive mention of masturbation crept into literature, music, and movies. Novelists and philosophers began to treat it as a normal part of human existence. Here is a literary description by Proust in Swann’s Way (1923). “With the heroic misgivings of a traveller setting out on a voyage of exploration or of a desperate wretch hesitating on the verge of self-destruction, faint with emotion, I explored, across the bounds of my own experience, an untrodden path which for all I knew was deadly—until the moment when a natural trail like that left by a snail smeared the leaves of the flowering currant that drooped around me.” Ah, the pure, simple delight of that “untrodden path!”

Proust dealt with the modern dilemmas of conquering shame and embarrassment, exploring our inner self, and discovering the truth about our own sexuality. Any such discussion, for any of our lives, must explore the significance of solo sex, if it is to be honest and complete in any way.

By the 1950s and 1960s, with general attitudes toward sex loosening, and more and more medical research into masturbation, it finally became accepted thought that solo sex has no real relationship with medical and mental illnesses.

Kinsey Report, 1948

Dr. Alfred Charles Kinsey.In the Kinsey Report of 1948, masturbation was demystified and even discovered to be beneficial. The notorious Alfred Kinsey and his colleagues spent 15 years researching human sexual behaviour, masturbation included. An extremely important aspect of this study was that it both normalized masturbation, and helped to remove the stigma. After all, Kinsey proved that more of us masturbate than do not. When it is proven that between 92 and 97 percent of all men, and 62 percent of women (58 percent to orgasm) have engaged in solo sex, it makes it hard to continue to stigmatize the act. And he showed that more women climaxed through masturbation than through sexual intercourse.

It was his study and descriptions of female masturbation that got Kinsey into trouble. Society could accept that men regularly enjoyed solo sex, but to say that women were masturbating, having orgasms, and engaging in all kinds of non-marital sex, well, that was going too far. Church people were horrified (and rightly so about the non-marital sexual sin.) Billy Graham wrote, "It is impossible to estimate the damage this book will do to the already deteriorating morals of America." And (I can hardly write this with a straight face) Senator Joe McCarthy denounced Kinsey’s study as part of the Communist conspiracy to destroy America. Newspapers even did a brisk business selling ads to people named Kinsey who wanted to let the world know they were not related to him. And the Rockefeller Foundation, which had funded his work, withdrew its support.

After Kinsey's death other social scientists continued to prove him right. In 1969 German researchers asked men to masturbate every few hours over a period of two years. The men who happily complied (Hey, I’m just doing it for science!) helped the scientists prove that it resulted in no physical or mental diseases or disorders. And come 1975 another study of U.S. college students showed that 84 percent did not believe that masturbation caused emotional or mental instability, which was the complete opposite from the one done four decades earlier.

Masters and Johnson, Time Magazine Cover.

William Masters and Virginia Johnson, 1966

In Human Sexual Response(1966), William Masters and Virginia Johnson revealed the practice of solo sex to be virtually universal in North America, cutting across all boundaries of sex, age, race, and social class. This groundbreaking study did much to influence current positive attitudes. The historian Thomas Laqueur remarked that after 1966 "the solitary vice of the imagination and of fantasy that had so terrified ... had been transformed into a virtue: self-pleasuring was the path to self-knowledge, self-discovery and spiritual well-being." Now, that is a radical change!

Wardell Pomeroy, 1968

Wardell Pomeroy, a colleague of Kinsey wrote Boys and Sex (1968) and Girls and Sex (1969). He told his young readers about masturbation, and assured them that "no physical harm can come of it, contrary to the old beliefs, no matter how frequently it is done." He described masturbation as "a pleasurable and exciting experience. . . . It releases tensions, and is therefore valuable in many ways. . . . It provides a full outlet for fancy, for daydreaming, which is characteristic of adolescence. . . . In itself, it offers a variety that enriches the individual's sex life. . . . it is not only harmless but is positively good and healthy, and should be encouraged because it helps young people to grow up sexually in a natural way.”

Haeberle & McBride, 1971

In 1971 Goldstein, Haeberle & McBride determined masturbation to be the most common form of sexual activity among humans. (Like we didn’t already know that!)

Then, in 1972, the American Medical Association publication, Human Sexuality declared masturbation to be normal and healthy.

Dissenting Voices

Even though the 20th century has seen great strides forward regarding solo sex, not every voice was one of reason and scientific advancement. There have been some dissenters.

G. Stanley Hall, 1904

The well-known psychologist G. Stanley Hall was the first president of Clark University and the founder of the American Journal of Psychology. So needless to say he had some influence. In Adolescence (1904) he wrote that masturbators introduce others to the great vice and this becomes a major cause of "sexual perversion." He also claimed that masturbation causes "early physical signs of decrepitude and senescence.”

Robert Lord Baden-Powell, 1907

Robert Lord Baden-Powell.Robert Lord Baden-Powell had a very low view of masturbation, which he shared in the early Boy Scout manuals (1907). “Smoking and drinking are things that tempt some fellows and not others, but there is one temptation that is pretty sure to come to you at one time or another, and I want just to warn you against it. It is called in our schools "beastliness," and that is about the best name for it. Smoking and drinking and gambling are men's vices and therefore attract some boys, but this "beastliness" is not a man's vice; men have nothing but contempt for a fellow who gives way to it. Some boys, like those who start smoking, think it a very fine and manly thing to tell or listen to dirty stories, but it only shows them to be little fools. Yet such talk and the reading of trashy books or looking at lewd pictures, are very apt to lead a thoughtless boy into the temptation to self-abuse. This is a most dangerous thing for him, for should it become a habit, it quickly destroys both health and spirits; he becomes feeble in body and mind, and often ends in a lunatic asylum. Sometimes the desire is brought on by indigestion, or from eating too rich food, or from constipation. It can therefore be cured by correcting these, and by bathing at once in cold water, or by exercising the upper part of the body by arm exercises, boxing, etc. It may seem difficult to overcome the temptation the first time, but when you have done so once it will be easier afterwards. If you still have trouble about it, do not keep a secret of it, but go to your scoutmaster and talk it over with him, and all will come right.” Makes me glad I never joined the scouts!

Walter Gllichan, 1930

Walter Gllichan, in Sexual Antipathy and Coldness in Women (1930) said that women should not masturbate because it "tends to blunt the finer sensibilities for coitus in wedlock, and the practice is often preferred to normal gratification.”

As late as 1937 studies showed that ninety percent of parents still chastised their children if they caught them masturbating, fearing for their health and morals. And 82 percent of college freshmen still believed that masturbation was dangerous. (Fun, but dangerous.)

Surgeon General Jocelyn Elder.

Surgeon General Jocelyn Elder, 1994

As hard as it is to imagine, in 1994 President Clinton immediately dismissed the Surgeon General of the USA, Dr. Jocelyn Elder, after she stated that masturbation “is something that is part of human sexuality and its part of something that perhaps should be taught.” (I am sure there were times that Bill Clinton wished he had just masturbated!)

And Then We Come to the “Church” . . .

Thank God that almost no one today sees masturbation as a social ill, or as an endangerment to one’s health. Most regard it as a safe, common, and normal practice for anyone of any age. There may still be some stigma, but most of the dissenting voices were before 1950. Sadly I can only say “most” because there is one strong holdout. Some religious groups present what is, in my opinion, an unbiblical and unnecessary prohibition. There may be many good things about these churches, but their stand on solo sex is not one of them. Some of them began to be against masturbation in the fourth century, and continue to hold the exact same view.

The Roman Catholic Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly known as the Inquisition, in its Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics (1975), stated, “The traditional Catholic doctrine that masturbation constitutes a grave moral disorder is often called into doubt or expressly denied today. It is said that psychology and sociology show that it is a normal phenomenon of sexual development, especially among the young. . . . This opinion is contradictory to the teaching and pastoral practice of the Catholic Church. Whatever, the force of certain arguments of a biological and philosophical nature, which have sometimes been used by theologians, in fact both the Magisterium of the church — in the course of a constant tradition — and the moral sense of the faithful have declared, without hesitation that masturbation is an intrinsically and seriously disordered act. . . . whatever the motive for acting in this way, the deliberate use of the sexual faculty outside normal conjugal relations essentially contradicts the finality of the faculty.”

The next year the Vatican issued a Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics (1976), which described masturbation as an "intrinsically and seriously disordered act.”

And some Protestants are no better. There are many websites that declare the practice of solo sex to be wrong due to mistaken notions concerning lust. Others hammer away on the idea that a person should only experience an orgasm within the confines of marriage, and never when alone. They have no scripture upon which to base their opinion. In fact, some religious leaders talk as if masturbation is a modern “problem” “invented” in 1953.

Hugh Hefner and Playboy

Hugh Hefner.Mind you, 1953 was a significant date in the history of solo sex. That was the year when in December Hugh Hefner published the first issue of the notorious Playboy magazine, complete with extensive articles, interviews of famous persons, humour, and of course, the centrefold and other nudes. Many men said, “I only buy it for the articles,” but then in private they enjoyed it for the part where the lady had on not an article of clothes. No matter what you may think of the Playboy nude, it had a profound effect on masturbation in the 20th century. Once a month men of all ages Playboy Magazine, First Issue.would get a new set of sexually exciting pictures, find a place of privacy, become easily aroused, and pleasure themselves to orgasm. Hugh Hefner managed to make masturbation easier than it ever was before. No need to use just your imagination, to sometimes less than satisfactory results. Just look, get aroused, and enjoy.

For all of the original scandal of a magazine with naked females, the early nudes were extremely tame compared to what is readily available today. It wasn’t until 1956 that Playboy even showed pubic hair, and the first full frontal nude centrefold didn’t come until 1971. So popular and publicly acceptable did Playboy become that many celebrities (singers, actresses, models, etc.) have posed for Playboy over the years, fulfilling the fantasies of many a man.

The Floodgates Opened

Once Playboy opened the door there eventually was a floodgate of both erotica, and porn. For a time every newsstand carried a dozen or more magazines. In the name of freedom of speech and freedom of the press almost everything became acceptable.

Then came sexual videos, and DVD’s. Soon anyone could go to someplace close to home, spend a few dollars, bring home an “adult” movie, and see everything from simple nudity, to erotica, to the most graphic sexual acts imaginable. And now there is no need to even leave home. You are reading this on the Internet. As I am sure you well know, within minutes you could access many a site that would cater to whatever your tastes may be. (I am not commenting on the morality of erotic materials, just noting their place in the recent history of solo sex.)

In the lives of some all of this has been too much to bear. Not everyone becomes addicted, but when they do porn has had a devastating effect on many men, and their families. Its very existence challenges the Church of Jesus Christ to give a righteous response in line with Biblical principles.


But here we must exercise caution. As in anything that becomes problematical, we must warn against the bad without overstepping the mark and forbidding the good. By that I mean just because some men develop a serious problem and go beyond the use of simple nudity, or erotica, and into the depths of disgusting porn, and use it to masturbate, does not mean that masturbation itself is wrong. And no matter what one thinks of simple nudity, or even erotica, not everyone moves beyond them and develops a dependency on depictions of depravity.

We Have Come a Long, Long Way

So, we have come a long way. It is my prayer that during the 21st century the Church of Jesus Christ comes to a clearer Biblical understanding concerning solo sex. How wonderful it would be if more Believers would be able to more fully enjoy the gift of sexual pleasure with which God has blessed them. For sure, all other expressions of sexual play are strictly and absolutely forbidden, but both spousal sex and solo sex are legitimate delights.

I like what Psychiatrist Thomas Szasz said when he declared that masturbation is "the primary sexual activity of mankind," and that "in the 19th century it was a disease; in the 20th, it's a cure." Hey, that is a cure that I can really enjoy.


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