History of Single Life

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History of Single Life

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Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend
Upon thyself thy beauty’s legacy? . . .
For having traffic with thyself alone,
Thou of thyself thy sweet self dost deceive.
— Shakespeare, "Sonnet III"

Don’t knock masturbation; it’s sex with someone I love.
— Woody Allen


Whether you refer to it as whacking off, rowing the little man in the boat, or flying the Millennium Falcon with Hand Solo and the Wookie, the purest form of single life is the self as sex partner. Still, despite the fact that masturbation’s something that we all do, it’s still something we believe we can’t talk about. This doesn’t only apply to the fundamentalists who had Jocelyn Elders fired for daring to suggest that teasing the weasel, like eating enough fiber, could be part of a healthy lifestyle: Hostility to meat-beating is deeply embedded in our culture. The etymology of the common insult "jerk" is "one who jerks off" (try telling that to network censors), and even the young, urban and sexually permissive think you should have something better to do on Friday nights. Then there’s basic neurosis: I once had a friend tell me that she feels betrayed whenever her boyfriend polishes his helmet because "he should be completely satisfied by me." (To which I replied,"Are you sure you should be dating men?")
     But not every culture was so hostile to masturbation. The ancient Egyptians believed that the god Atum created the world by spanking his monkey and that the Tigris River was formed by a Mesopotamian god’s money shot. While the Romans thought falling on one’s own sword was a somewhat pathetic activity for a free man, given the ready supply of prostitutes and slave boys and girls, satyrs were comically pictured holding their engorged organs. And despite Onan being struck down by a vengeful, voyeuristic Old Testament god in Genesis 38, both the Torah and early rabbinic tradition say very little about masturbation.
     The medieval clergy were a little harder on self-abusers, albeit in the general context of overcoming the flesh. For instance, the Synod of the Grove of Victory, a confessional manual written in Wales around 567 A.D., prescribed two years of penance for the act. Later, people in the Middle Ages didn’t devote too much energy to worrying about weaknesses of the flesh; they just wanted those who submitted to deposit their seed in the proper receptacle. Even the pre-eminent Protestants Luther and Calvin regarded preaching your own sermon more as a refusal to procreate than a sin.
      In fact, it wasn’t until the eighteenth century that playing with your pee-pee became pathologized. In his Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation , Thomas Laqueur, a history professor U.C. Berkeley, traces the origins of the craze to a 1712 treatise fancifully titled Onania, or,

The first vibrators were invented to prevent doctors from getting carpal tunnel syndrome.

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. This delightful pamphlet, written by a total quack whom Laqueur identifies as John Marten, claimed that cures for this fictitious disease — patent medicines known as "Strengthening Tincture" and "Prolific Powder"— were available for a very reasonable price. (In this respect, the pharmaceutical industry hasn’t changed much in 300 years.) If it was like other nostrums available at the time, the Strengthening Tincture could have contained anything from ditch water to ground-up corpse parts.
     Thanks to Marten, solo sex became the obesity epidemic of the eighteenth century. The famous French physician Samuel Auguste David Tissot addressed the subject in his 1760 work, L’Onanisme, and before long, everyone was agreeing that it caused blindness, rickets, consumption and every other health problem known to man — the sort of thing that only the worst of libertines would engage in. Part of the case for cutting off Marie Antoinette’s head was that she was so far given over to decadence that she had taught the trick to her nine-year-old son. Apparently, it was more acceptable to go to a whore and risk syphilis than to scratch your own itch.
     Why the hysteria? What suddenly shifted auto-erotica from harmless pastime to depraved pursuit? According to Laqueur, the answer is, in part, capitalism. It’s no coincidence that the prohibition arose in the age of Adam Smith and the French physiocrats. Enlightenment thinkers believed in controlling natural physical desires, concentrating on the material world and the importance of social discourse — all things essential to a market economy. Rubbing one out, on the other hand, was a triple sin: it was an immoderate pleasure, relied on one’s own imagination and was completely private. Self-pleasure, in other words, meant self-sufficiency.
     Later generations further emphasized the connection between masturbation and moral, physical and financial ruin. Even decades after the fact, "Walter," the anonymous author of that magnum opus of Victorian pornography, My Secret Life, could recall his godfather’s reaction when he suspected his young ward of playing with himself: "You’ve been frigging yourself! No denial sir, no lies, you have, sir; don’t add lying to your bestiality, you’ve been at that filthy trick, I can see it in your face, you’ll die in a mad-house, or of consumption, you shall never have a farthing more pocket money from me, and I won’t buy your commission, nor leave you with any money at my death." (Read this in a Laurence Olivier accent for maximum effect.) Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts, wrote in the original 1908 Boy Scout Manual that that if "beastliness" is allowed to become a habit, "it quickly destroys both health and spirits; he becomes feeble in body and mind and often ends in a lunatic asylum." For a nation to keep from sliding into degeneration, its youth had to keep its hands off itself.
     Oddly enough, it’s also the Victorians who invented the modern vibrator. While this is somewhat surprising in a culture that seems to have never heard of foreplay, there was an alleged medical reason for the innovation. As Rachel Maines recounts in her Technology of Orgasm, the treatment for female "hysteria" —a disease supposedly caused by the wandering of the uterus, but which was more of a catchphrase for "uppity woman" — was for a licensed physician to stimulate the

The anti-masturbation craze actually birthed the health-food movement.

woman’s vulva until a "hysterical paroxysm" occurred. Jilling off was thus taken out of the hands of the hysterics themselves and placed in those of professionals. Of course, as any high school student will tell you, finger-banging someone to orgasm is hard work. Thus, the first vibrators were invented — not for female pleasure, but to prevent doctors from getting carpal tunnel syndrome.
     However, hysterical paroxysms not administered by the medical establishment were still verboten, and much time and effort were expended to combat the problem. Between 1856 and 1932, the U.S. Patent Office awarded thirty-three patents to people who had created anti-masturbation devices. The craze even birthed the health-food movement: Both Sylvester Graham’s Graham crackers and John Harvey Kellogg’s corn flakes were touted for their lust-dampening properties. These were the more amusing preventative measures; less hilarious were spiked cockrings, chastity belts, burning girls’ clitorises with carbolic acid and one legacy that remains: male circumcision.
     The war against wanking continued past the scientific study of masturbation. In fact, in his Psychopathia Sexualis, Richard von Krafft-Ebing pegged having a quick J. Arthur as the root of all sexual problems. Sigmund Freud agreed, insisting that fiddling with one’s clit is a mark of immature sexuality — mature women, as everyone knows, get off by penis-induced vaginal orgasms (imagine how miserable Mrs. Freud was). It took Alfred Kinsey’s massive studies of the sexual practices of thousands of men and women to reveal that everyone rides the skin bus occasionally, and years of Dr. Spock to convince American parents that it wasn’t pathological for Junior to hump his teddy bear.
     Yet, even though Philip Roth could single-handedly banish liver and onions from Jewish dinner tables across America with Portnoy’s Complaint, Betty Dodson could equate polishing the pearl with a radical political act in Liberating Masturbation, Cyndi Lauper and Christina Amphlett could sing hit songs about it, and parents could gift their embarrassed children with books such as What’s Going on Down There? , the stigma — and the giggles — remain. Ideally, we think, we shouldn’t have to be doing this — we should have someone do it for us. Economics are still integral to how we think about shaking hands with the commander-in-chief, only now it’s a service-based economy.
     There are still people out there trying reclaim the simple action of holding hands with yourself. For instance, the Center for Sex and Culture in San Francisco holds an annual group beat-off session, and expanded to a wank-a-thon in London this month. Likewise, "killing kittens" has become a running joke on websites such as Fark. Looks like overclocking your CPU may become fashionable yet.  

©2006 Ken Mondschein and
photo courtesy Dean Sabatino
Ken Mondschein is a Ph.D candidate at Fordham University and the author of A History of Single Life.