Pleasuring Yourself

MIRANDA KAUFMANN finds out more about our oldest and most controversial habit

Ann Summers has become a high street store, a similar outlet in America called Good Vibrations sponsors National Masturbation month, and the act is central to the plot of films such as the American Pie trilogy and episodes of Sex and the City. We could be forgiven for thinking that sex with someone you love (Woody Allen) is widely tolerated, even accepted.

In South Africa, the Government recently ran a campaign to “Join the Arm Struggle and stop raping our mothers, sisters, wives and children: Masturbate, Don’t Rape”. It may be, however, that masturbation is the last taboo. In 1995, the US Surgeon-General was fired after suggesting at a press conference that masturbation should be taught in schools. When the Clinton administration was asked for the official policy on the matter, a spokesman replied that any young people who required a practical lesson in masturbation would be below the IQ requirement to enter school. I spoke to many people while researching this article. None of them wished to be credited with “additional research”.

In 1921 Dr Ernest Jones wrote: “Modern Clinical psychology has definitely established that autoeroticism is a normal and quite universal phase of human development, and not, as used to be thought, an abnormal perversion of the sexual instinct”. “Self abuse” had previously been regarded as a disease. As late as the early Fifties a US Public Health Service pamphlet warned “self-abuse may seriously hinder a boy’s progress towards vigorous manhood”. It was thought to be the cause of many other health problems.

These attitudes can be traced back to the early 18th century, when a certain quack doctor published Onania, in order to persuade the reading public to purchase his remedies. He lists the following frightful consequences: hindered growth, ulcers, consumptions, loss of erection as if they had been castrated, impotence… and in women: relaxes and spoils the retentive faculty, occasions the Fluor Albus (literally white flux), an obnoxious as well as perplexing illness attending that sex, turns complexion pale, swarthy and hagged, hysterics, consumptions and barrenness – at length a total Ineptitude to the Act of Generation itself.

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Some women, he goes so far as to claim, from the “Lustful and Excessive Abuse of themselves, have this Propension of the Clitoris, and are thus brought into a Resemblance of the Male Sex”. Early doctors were concerned that masturbation literally drained a man of his vital humour. By 1924 JFW Meagher concluded that “the somewhat popular lay idea that masturbation may cause imbecility, consumption, etc., is not only without foundation, but is ridiculous…to falsely tell a suggestible patient that he will surely die or go insane as a result of the habit does no real good”. So what cures were to be found for this vile disease?

The author of Onania recommended his Strengthening Tincture (10 shillings) to combat discharge, or his Prolifick Powder (12 shillings) to cure infertility and impotence. Between 1856 and 1919 the U.S. Patent Office granted patents for forty-nine anti-masturbation devices. Thirty-five were for horses and fourteen for humans. The human devices, made for boys, consisted of sharp points turned inward to jab the penis should he get an erection during the night. A possible solution was marriage. Even Sheikh Ar-Tameeny agrees here. “Hasten towards marriage, the door to all goodness, success and richness”. It was not until the 1880s, with the advent of electricity, that doctors and midwives found help in the form of the vibrator. This was an improvement on the dildo, which had been known in ancient times: LYSISTRATA: … Since the day the Milesians betrayed us, I have never once seen an eight-inch gadget even, to be a leathern consolation to us poor widows…” (Aristophanes, ’Lysistrata’ 410 BC). Early models were developed in the 1880s.

By 1906, the appliance looked rather like a hairdryer, and came with an impressive array of attachments. Between 1900-1920, vibrators were marketed in American periodicals such as Home Needlework Journal, Women’s Home Companion and Modern Priscilla. Slogans included “all the pleasures of youth…will throb within you”, “Such Delightful Companions”, “Aids That Every Woman Appreciates”, and aimed at the male consumer “A Gift That Will Keep Her Young and Pretty”. Sadly once these devices began to appear in certain films, they were taken off the market. Men have appreciated other aids in this field. In the 4th century BC, Praxiteles unveiled the Knidian Aphrodite – the first naked female statue.

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Pliny records that her derrière bore the stains of her appreciative male audience’s lust. Apple pie was not the first edible aid either. He had invented a new stunt, so he put it. “You take an apple and you bore out the core. Then you put some cold cream on the inside so as it doesn’t melt too fast. Try it some time. It’ll drive you crazy at first. Anyway it’s cheap and you don’t have to waste much time”. This is Philip Roth’s rendition : “Oh, shove it in me, Big Boy’, cried the cored apple that I banged silly on that picnic. ‘Big Boy, Big Boy, oh give me all you’ve got,’ cried the empty milk bottle that I kept hidden in our storage bin in the basement, to drive wild after school with my vaselined upright”.

While Truman Capote was right when he said the nice thing about masturbation is “you don’t have to dress up for it.” If you prefer staying in to getting dressed up and going out, you may be in danger of practising auto sexual masturbation, a perversion for which no interaction with a lover can provide a substitute. This is by contrast to deprivation masturbation, which occurs as a social necessity, because society does not allow the unlimited expression of eroticism.

I shall leave you with the words of Mark Twain. “To the lonely it is company; to the forsaken it is a friend; to the aged and impotent it is a benefactor; they that are penniless are yet rich, in that they still have this majestic diversion”.

ARCHIVE: 0th Week MT2003