Brain Pickings

Mary Roach on the Science of Masturbation and the Outrageous Vintage Pseudoscientific Techniques for Controlling It

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A cautionary tale of what happens when religious dogmatism attempts to subvert science.

Human sexuality has a long history of intellectual fascination, from the first ejaculation on Earth to Malcolm Cowley’s parodic vintage prediction for sex in the techno-future to Susan Sontag’s poignant meditation on the gap between love and sex. But the recent perusal of Mark Twain’s entertaining treatise on masturbation brought to mind the most intensely interesting and illuminating account ever published on the subject: Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex (public library) by science writer extraordinaire Mary Roach. Among a wealth of other phenomena, Roach examines the subject of Twain’s fascination, particularly the outrageous pseudoscientific techniques physicians, parents, and disciplinarians in the 18th and 19th centuries used to control the religiously abominable human urge — a tragicomic testament to society’s long and rather futile quest to judge and punish pleasure without understanding the underlying biology or the psychological repercussions of such misguided “treatments.”

Roach outlines the inhumane devices invented to abate the urge:

On the simple side, there was the Penile Pricking Ring. Invented in the 1850s, this was an adjustable, expandable metal ring slipped onto the penis at bedtime. If the sleeper’s penis begins to expand, it forces the ring open wider, exposing metal spikes….

Many of these devices included an option for daytime use, along with a lock-and-key mechanism. For the true target customer was not the penitent masturbator, but the worried parent and, even more so, the insane asylum caretaker. . . .

Happily, parents of K-through-8 masturbators were encouraged to try less drastic preventive measures. Little hands were tied to headboards, and trousers fashioned without pockets. Hobbyhorses were taken away, and climbing ropes removed from school gymnasiums. One of the biggest spoilsports in the antimasturbation crusade was American physician William Robinson. His 1916 Practical Treatise on the Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment of Sexual Impotence and Other Sexual Disorders in Men and Women includes a long chapter on preventing the premature awakening of the sexual instinct in children. “I strongly urge parents to keep their boys away from sensuous musical comedies and obscene vaudeville acts,” tutted Robinson … “Many of my patients told me that their first masturbatory act took place while witnessing some musical show.”

Jazz hands were not mentioned.

Illustration from Pixar's 'The Ancient Book of Sex and Science.' Click image for details.

Another antimasturbation crusader, a Dr. Crommelinck, prescribed “memorizing difficult passages on philosophy or history when overcome by the desire to masturbate.” And a book admonished citizens that masturbation could cause impotence, blindness, heart disease, insanity, stupidity, and “suppurating pustules on the face.” Even “mental masturbation” was strictly discouraged. Roach marvels at the pseudoscientific absurdity of it:

Truly it seemed that any activity undertaken — sleeping, thinking, eating spiced food, taking in a matinee of Mame — led the heedless male down the path to self-pollution. A man couldn’t even relieve himself without having to worry. Crommelinck urged gentlemen to avoid touching their genitals at all times, lest they inadvertently arouse themselves — even at the urinal. “Urinate quickly, do not shake your penis, even if means having several drops of urine drip into your pants.”

Those who could not manage to curb their impulses with philosophical tracts and antimasturbation gadgetry faced a withering assortment of brutal treatments. Robinson casually states that in two or three cases he applied “a red hotwire” to a child’s genitals.

In those days, masturbation was termed onanism — after the Bible’s Onan, who spilled his semen on the ground and was slain by God for this sinful transgression — and condemned as “self-abuse.” Applying hot iron to a child’s body was, evidently, not abuse but the cure for “self-abuse.” But beyond this gobsmacking moral irony lies a biological one. Roach circles back to science:

The bitter irony here is that regularly spilling one’s seed serves a valuable biological function. [S]perm which sit around the factory a week or more start to develop abnormalities; missing heads, extra heads, shriveled heads, tapered and bent heads. All of which render them less effective and headbanging their way into an egg. [Sex psychologist Rob] Levin speculates that that’s why men masturbate so much: It’s an evolutionary strategy.

The point, of course, isn’t that evolution explains everything or that our ancestors were ignorant brutes, but that the true power of science lies in illuminating, rather than controlling or punishing, the human condition so that we can live more intelligently and more freely, driven by a desire to understand rather than a blind righteousness.

Bonk is a fascinating read in its entirety. Complement it with Dorion Sagan’s scientific history of sex and see Roach’s most recent book, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal.

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