Sex Life of the American Male

How new technology, new mores, and current events impact male sexuality.

Masturbation Kills: The Dramatic History of Self-Pleasuring

The battle against masturbation was and continues to be a national obsession.

It is not an uncommon experience for a male’s romantic partner to inadvertently walk in on him while he is engaged in masturbation.  It is such a widespread occurrence that it has become a recurrent topic in the groups I facilitate with men.  I often ask men – even those who say they never experienced such a contretemps and those too who adamantly state they do not masturbate – to predict how their romantic partners would react if this were to occur. The majority of straight men (most of men I work with in groups are heterosexual, so I don’t have a representative gay male response) overwhelming predict their partners (wives, girlfriends, finances) would react negatively.  When queried as to why, the prototypical male response is that a partner would believe he is masturbating because he no longer finds her attractive and desirable.  Is there truth to this?  Is this one of the common reasons why males masturbate?

Before we can explore this question, we require a brief guided tour of the history of masturbation.  We’ll start on the third floor of the Museum of Sex (located in Manhattan), a wing dedicated to sexual activity in the animal kingdom.  Upon entering, patrons are informed, “Our expanding knowledge of the natural world has revealed that animals participate in an astonishing array of sexual behaviors, where all conceivable sex acts and sexual partnerships exist.”  The exhibit makes it abundantly clear that it is not only humans who masturbate, or, as colorfully stated in the display for animal autoeroticism, “Animals masturbate through tactile stimulation, using paws, feet, flippers, and fingers to caress.”

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

As for human masturbation, an article in the Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality reminds us that throughout history, “[M]asturbation in spite of the ambivalence often expressed about it seems to have been ever present. Pictorial representations of the practice exist from preliterate cultures and references to it can be found in the earliest of writings.”1  Still, throughout much of human history masturbation was considered an “abominable practice.”  In their exhaustive (and very readable) book “Masturbation: The History of a Great Terror,” authors Jean Stengers and Anne Van Neck acquaint modern readers with the prolific eighteenth century Swiss physician Samuel-Auguste Tissot, whose views on masturbation shaped worldwide cultural perspectives for over one hundred and fifty years and whose influence is still detected in modern discourse on the topic.  Tissot promulgated masturbation as a medical problem leading to: “(1) cloudiness of ideas and sometimes even madness; (2) decay of bodily powers, resulting in coughs, fevers, and consumption; (3) acute pains in the head, rheumatic pains, and an aching numbness; (4) pimples of the face, suppurating blisters on the nose, breast, and thighs, and painful itchings; (5) eventual weakening of the power of generation as indicated by impotence, premature ejaculation, gonorrhea, priapism, and tumors in the bladder; and (6) disordering of the intestines, resulting in constipation, hemorrhoids, and so forth.”2

Tissot described one unfortunate case of a chronic male masturbator who was “less a living being than a cadaver lying on straw, thin, pale, exuding a loathsome stench, almost incapable of movement…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.”3  This “unimaginable horror” died soon afterwards “without memory,” “incapable of linking two sentences,” and his entire body “covered with edemas.”[i] This dire case study and ones similar to it shocked the Western world and led to an out-and-out offensive against masturbation.  

It wasn’t until the 1940s when intrepid sex researcher Alfred Kinsey and his colleagues released their pioneering findings regarding male and female masturbation that the topic began to enter mainstream conversation; they found almost all of the men and more than half of the women interviewed reported having masturbated.  It was then that society began to reconsider the behavior. 

With this background information now in place, we can now consider the most common questions I am asked regarding masturbation in the 21st century:

  • Does a male masturbate because he no longer finds his partner attractive?
  • Is masturbation detrimental to relationships?
  • Can masturbation be harmful?

Unfortunately, due to space constraints, readers will have to wait until the next blog posting for answers.  Suffice to say, many of the teachings of Tissot – in one form or another – continue to tragically haunt our understanding of masturbation.

 

1 Vern L. Bullough, “Masturbation: A Historical Overview,” Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality 14, no. 2/3 (2002): 18.

2 Bullough: 29.

3 Jean Stengers and Anne Van Neck, Masturbation: The History of a Great Terror (New York: Palgrave, 2001): 65-66.

[i] Ibid.

Michael Shelton is a writer, therapist, and educator focused on male sex and sexuality issues.

more...

Subscribe to Sex Life of the American Male

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?