Masturbation Is at the Root of the Culture Wars

"Tell me how you really feel about masturbation, and I can more or less predict how you'll feel about the more frequently debated 'sex war' issues."
Universal Pictures

When we think of the culture wars, we tend to think of sex. And when we think of the most contentious political fronts in the sex wars, we usually think of gay marriage, abortion rights, and pornography. As divisive as those issues remain, a universal human activity may lie at the heart of these contemporary struggles: masturbation. The questions that self-pleasure raises are foundational: to whom do our bodies belong? What is sex for? Tell me how you really feel about masturbation, and I can more or less predict how you'll feel about the more frequently debated "sex war" issues.

Masturbation is almost certainly the most common human sexual practice. Though statistics about private sexual behavior vary widely, there's little dispute that the vast majority of both men and women will masturbate over the course of their lifetimes. Perhaps nothing so universal is discussed with greater embarrassment (or denied with greater frequency). That enduring shame and silence is one reason behind National Masturbation Month, which comes (sorry) to an end next week. First organized by the pioneering sex shop Good Vibrations in 1995 to protest the firing of Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders (who had dared suggest that teaching young people to masturbate could have a place in sex education), the month's events include innumerable education events across the country—and a Masturbate-a-Thon in San Francisco that raises money for charity. The month serves, as Good Vibrations announced in its annual press release, as "a necessary reminder that self-satisfaction is a healthy, accessible form of pleasure engaged in by almost everyone."

The view of masturbation as benign and beneficial is a new one. The Judeo-Christian tradition has long been hostile towards self-pleasure, at least for men. The Talmud compares spilling seed to spilling blood; the Zohar (the central work of Kabbalah) calls it the most evil act a man can commit. The traditional Christian view was no more tolerant; Catholic and Protestant authorities framed masturbation as a deeply sinful (though forgivable) waste of precious semen. Women were left out of these prohibitions for the obvious reason that most male religious authorities didn't consider the possibility that women were capable of or interested in giving themselves orgasms.

The campaign against masturbation became medicalized in the middle of the 19th century. Health reformers like Sylvester Graham (of the cracker) and John Harvey Kellogg (of the cereal) warned against the feminizing and enervating effects of male masturbation, describing it not as a sin but as a habit that could rob boys of their vital life force. At the same time, doctors began to warn of something theologians either hadn't considered or dared to mention: the dangers of female self-pleasure. Beginning in 1858, Dr. Isaac Baker-Brown—the president of the Medical Society of London—began to encourage surgical clitoridectomies to prevent hysteria, epilepsy, mania and even death that would surely follow as a consequence of the stimulation of the clitoris.

Other Victorian-era doctors took a seemingly more enlightened attitude than Baker-Brown. In the early 1880s, Joseph Mortimer Granville patented the first vibrator as a means of quickly inducing therapeutic "paroxysms" (orgasms) as a cure for hysteria in female patients. But Granville wanted those orgasms to take place only under safe medical supervision, thus maintaining medical (and male) control over female pleasure. As Rachel Maines points out in her excellent history of the vibrator, the early medical monopoly on the device was explicitly designed to make solitary self-stimulation with the hand seem unsatisfying by comparison. Granville's vibrator and Baker-Brown's clitoridectomy represent two very different approaches to the same terrifying problem: women's capacity for self-satisfaction.

The 19th century's secularized anxiety about masturbation was rooted in a fearful reaction to women's growing demands for political and economic power. Simply put, doctors and moralists feared that masturbation made men more dependent—and women less so. Kellogg and Graham worried that boys who masturbated would not only lose their physical vitality, but would become more easily influenced and even dominated by women. The boy who could resist pleasuring himself as a teen was learning the strength he'd need not to allow himself to be manipulated and hen-pecked by his future wife. At the same time, Granville, Baker-Brown, and their peers worried that a woman who learned to give herself sexual pleasure might pursue self-sufficiency in other areas. At a time of rising male anxiety about feminist demands for suffrage, female masturbation became an unsettling symbol of women's independence.

Presented by

Hugo Schwyzer teaches history and gender studies at Pasadena City College.  He is co-author of Beauty, Disrupted: A Memoir.

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