In recent years, we’ve seen the return of a strange, antiquated belief system that claims that masturbation results in weakness, loss of manhood, and psychological damage. There’s nothing really new about this belief — Swiss physician Samuel Tissot promoted the idea in 1760, arguing that semen was an essential oil, the loss of which resulted in decreased strength, memory, reason and morality. Benjamin Rush, a physician and signer of The Declaration of Independence, treated masturbation with leeches and claimed it caused blindness and mental disturbance. Graham and Kellog, 19th Century physicians invented bland foods like corn flakes and graham crackers to curb the desire to masturbate (I think that Graham didn’t anticipate s’mores, which are actually pretty sexy). Kellog advocated a host of punitive, restrictive measures to prevent children from masturbating, and was an early advocate for circumcision, arguing that it would reduce male masturbation. Christian arguments against the sin of onanism are now understood as a misinterpretation of the story of Onan, which is truly a condemnation of selfishness and depriving a widow and children of inheritance, not actually a condemnation against masturbation. The DSM-I, published in the 1950s by the American Psychiatric Association offered the diagnostic code of 317.1 for the "mental health disorder" of masturbation. But, modern society seemed to have moved away from open condemnation of the dangers of self-pleasure. At least it did, for a few decades.
Just in the past couple of years, we’ve seen the explosive rise of numerous groups and figures also advocating against the dangers of masturbation:
- Your Brain on Porn and Reboot Nation are also online groups who argue that masturbation to pornography results in neurological changes which desensitize a person’s brain to real sex, cause erectile dysfunction, and instill an addiction to Internet pornography. They promote the idea of a 90-day period of abstinence from sex and masturbation, in order to “reboot” the brain, like resetting it back to the original specs before you started watching porn (In case you were wondering this isn’t actually how brains work – we never go back, only forward in or neurological development).
- Numerous modern religious communities have condemned masturbation, especially to pornography. Brigham Young University, a Mormon school, spent what appears to be a great deal of money to produce a public service advertisement against the dangers and “darkness” of masturbation. For decades, Mormon bishops have conducted “worthiness interviews” of adolescents, centered on detecting and punishing masturbation, a practice now under scrutiny and challenge.
- Texas Senator Ted Cruz has taken on the dangers of masturbation, arguing in 2007 that US citizens "have no substantive due process right to stimulate their own genitals.”
- Conservative psychologist and Youtube sensation Jordan Peterson, PhD., has suggested: “there’s nothing noble about masturbating to pornography.”
- The Proud Boys is a group of young, nationalist males, self-described “Western Chauvinists,” who have recently been connected to numerous hate crimes, including public assaults on gay men. A central tenet of the Proud Boys’ belief system is the value of #NoWanks, claiming that masturbating makes men less likely to get dates and a way to push back against modern liberal culture.
- David Duke, associated with the KKK and white supremacy, suggested that pornography was a Jewish conspiracy, intended to serve as a “weapon of revenge” against European (white) men and societies. Duke argues that masturbation in fiction and films is a "metaphor for Jewish behavior" and cites Breitbart, and alleged masturbation by "asylum seekers" as a way to argue against immigration. Duke implores his followers to watch a video by Gary Wilson, founder of Your Brain on Porn.
You may notice that, overwhelmingly, all of these concerns, both historical and modern, about masturbation are primarily focused on male masturbation. Rarely were these arguments concerned with female masturbation. Why? And why, with almost no exceptions, are the leaders of these movements all conservative, religious white men? Conservative media outlet Breitbart sneers at liberals who "boast of masturbating," apparently because they'd grown "bored of LGBTQI."
Wilhelm Reich was an early 20th Century psychoanalyst who wrote The Mass Psychology of Fascism analyzing and criticizing the Nazi Party of 1930’s Germany. Reich’s book was so controversial that he was kicked out of the Communist Party that he had joined, due to concerns about angering the growing German power. Reich suggested that sexual suppression was a tool of fascism, a way to train young people to submit to authority, even in something relating to their own body. (Note, Reich went on to have some kooky beliefs of his own, about, for instance, the mystical power of the orgasm.)
Suppression of the natural sexuality in the child, particularly of its genital sexuality, makes the child apprehensive, shy, obedient, afraid of authority, good and adjusted in the authoritarian sense; it paralyzes the rebellious forces because any rebellion is laden with anxiety; it produces, by inhibiting sexual curiosity and sexual thinking in the child, a general inhibition of thinking and of critical faculties. In brief, the goal of sexual suppression is that of producing an individual who is adjusted to the authoritarian order and who will submit to it in spite of all misery and degradation. At first, the child has to submit to the structure of the authoritarian miniature state, the family; this makes it capable of later subordination to the general authoritarian system. The formation of the authoritarian structure takes place through the anchoring of sexual inhibition and anxiety. — Wilhelm Reich.
Religions, and particularly the conservative religions which form the backbone of modern conservatism, have a long history of condemnation of masturbation. Masturbation feels good and is a private source of erotic pleasure which leads one to be more comfortable with one’s own body, and with sexuality in general. Our bodies, and sex, in particular, are associated with “the mortal plain,” leading us to focus on our sensations and physical existence. But religions and conservative politics want us to focus on other things, aspiring to some higher “nobility” as Peterson suggests.
Masturbation is the healthiest human sexual behavior, associated with a range of health and life benefits, with no known (to science or medicine) health risks. It is pregnancy and disease-free. It teaches people to accept and understand their own sexuality. Healthy sexual and marital relationships are improved by masturbation when the shame and stigma of it are removed.
It would be easy, but likely foolish, to spin a theory that all of these modern anti-masturbation movements reflect secret Machiavellian plans to infiltrate the minds of young men and make them susceptible to authoritarian influence. Hanlon’s Razor suggests that it is a waste of time to attribute to conspiracy, which can be adequately explained by mere stupidity. The hatred of masturbation by these various conservative men may also reflect fear, as opposed to stupidity. Most of them seem to have religious backgrounds and likely grew up being taught to suppress their desires for anything other than heterosexual monogamy. The modern world, the “liberal world” as the Proud Boys decry it, offers many varied sexual experiences, apart from a heterosexual marriage. Perhaps that diversity of opportunities, and their own fear of their ability to resist them alone, drives these campaigns for communal resistance against masturbation?