Masturbation, A Brief History4 Min Read
“Few other sexual practices have been as frequently discussed, so often condemned, and yet so universally practiced.” — VL Bullough
If you think masturbation is taboo now, you should know there’s a long history at play. One of the first anti-masturbation articles was published in the 1760s; in it, the authors claimed that it could cause memory loss. As time went on, misconceptions surrounding masturbation continued to grow, and differed based on community. For example, some Hindus once believed that masturbation wasted manhood, fostering the idea that semen had the potential to run out.
In some sects of Judaism, followers were taught that masturbation was unclean and therefore associated it with bacteria. Other misconceptions included the lie that your palms could get hairy or that you would be cheating on a spouse by masturbating. In all, anti-masturbation prejudice continued to spread and grow so rapidly that the 19th century has sometimes been called the “Age of Masturbatory Insanity” (1).
Many well-respected figures started signing off on these claims, such as Benjamin Rush, one of the 56 men to sign the Declaration of Independence. Interventions were increasing by the year, and people often sought a “cure” to a completely human urge. Some people believed remedies such as a bland vegetarian diet could fix a “dirty” mind, and entrepreneurs such as John Harvey Kellog and Reverend Sylvester Graham sold corn flakes and graham crackers to perpetuate this belief (4). Other more serious inventions included cutting a person’s foreskin with jagged scissors which made genitalia painful to rub, putting a hot iron on a person’s clitoris, applying creams that made the genitals too sensitive to touch, and in extreme cases, removing parts of someone’s genitalia all together.
By the start of the 20th century, these harsh techniques thankfully began to phase out — and people began to really understand masturbation for what it is. The first widespread study on sexuality was conducted in 1915, in which roughly 700 college men were asked about their sexual practices. For the first time, researchers found that masturbation was highly prevalent. These findings still did not promote masturbation but it did encourage people to keep studying.
Eventually, researchers found that masturbation can lead to better sleep, a reduction of stress, and the release of sexual tension. Masturbation can also help to mitigate menstruation pain for people who have periods (7).
The Modern Era
No matter how much research there has been on masturbation, it has become clear that shame — especially in women — has been left largely untouched. In 2011, the Department of Human Development at Virginia Tech launched a female-focused research project in which researchers instructed participants to write an extra credit assignment that focused on answering the question, ‘‘What were you taught about masturbation as a child, and from whom?’’ Two-thirds of the participants were women.
The results showed three major themes:
1) The majority of people learned about masturbation through peers and the media.
2) Masturbation is often thought of as “bad,” specifically for girls.
3) Finding the balance between letting go of the shame society has inflicted on people and enjoying the sexual pleasure and health benefits masturbation brings will help everyone move towards a more sex-positive culture (5).
Overall, while this work, and others like it, are a good step in the right direction, there is plenty more to be done to destigmatize masturbation for good.
Masturbation can start as early as 3 or 4 years of age. In the early years, kids are learning about their bodies and typically don’t realize what they are doing. As the years go on, research has shown that by the age of 10 or 11, masturbation turns from learning about different sensations to becoming a goal-driven activity, especially for boys.
There isn’t a “normal” amount of masturbation someone can engage in. People can practice masturbation never, once a month, once a week, or multiple times a day. Masturbation can be detrimental to someone’s life if it gets in the way of their daily tasks — someone who has obsessive compulsive disorder can experience this (3). But it’s worth underscoring that the vast majority of people do not need to worry — if you are concerned about your habits, you can talk to your doctor or therapist.
A lot of people worry that masturbation, particularly with the use of toys, will make it harder to have sex with a partner. Women in particular can worry that it will cause a loss of sensitivity, or make someone feel like they need a certain tool or method to experience pleasure. It’s important we put these myths to rest as they are just myths.
In reality, masturbation can help you learn what you do and do not like. Sex therapists actually often recommend vibrators or self-pleasuring techniques to help improve a client’s sex life. You can even use that knowledge you gain with a partner to increase your enjoyment overall (2).
1.Bullough, V. L. (2003). Masturbation: A historical overview. Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality, 14(2-3), 17-33.
2. Wang, James. “Do Vibrators Make It Harder to Orgasm during Sex?” Lioness, Lioness: Knowledge Is Power (And Pleasure), 22 Mar. 2019, blog.lioness.io/do-vibrators-make-it-harder-to-orgasm-during-sex-3a7c19372123.
3.“Masturbation.” Better Health Channel, Department of Health & Human Services, 31 May 2015, www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/masturbation.
4. The Sex Issue: Everything You've Always Wanted to Know about Sexuality, Seduction, and Desire. Grand Central Life & Style, 2018.
5.Kaestle, C. E., & Allen, K. R. (2011). The role of masturbation in healthy sexual development: Perceptions of young adults. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 40(5), 983–994.
6. Hogarth, H., & Ingham, R. (2009). Masturbation among young women and associations with sexual health: An exploratory study. Journal of Sex Research, 46(6), 558–567.
7. Parenthood, Planned. “Masturbation: Get the Facts About Masturbation Health.” Planned Parenthood, www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/sex-and-relationships/masturbation.