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Investigating a Tabooed Universal Practice



Rob Hardy


We sometimes think of our astronauts as intrepid explorers, as inspiring heroes. The Dutch urologist Mels van Driel was inspired by hearing one of them, the Dutch astronaut with the wonderful name of Professor Wubbo Ockels. The first Dutchman in space gave a presentation on sex in space, and while Ockels seems to have said that sexual intercourse could not happen in space (I bet he is wrong), he did admit that he had performed the substitute. "The M-word did not pass his lips," writes van Driel, "though he did remark that in space 'you had to be careful with liquids...'" Because of the presentation, van Driel was inspired to write With the Hand: A Cultural History of Masturbation (Reaktion Books), with translation by Paul Vincent. He thought he might be able to reduce somehow the taboo of masturbation, or at least reduce the huge amount of nonsense circulated about it. Maybe this will happen, but chances are that the people who like to maintain the taboos or believe nonsense are not the ones to pick up van Driel's book. Readers who do get to it will find that van Driel is a cheerful and humorous guide to a subject that is worth taking seriously just because it is so nearly universal. Van Driel describes his method: "To extract a few pages from my book Manhood, surf the internet and explore libraries to consult theologians, historians, classicists, doctors, sexologists, art connoisseurs, artists, philosophers, poets, musicians and feminists, and to weld everything into a narrative." The appealing result might be a small but intelligent step toward breaking taboos. 




Professor Wubbo Ockels didn't use the M-word. If he had, he would have been using a word deriving from long ago, as befits an ancient practice. Even the etymology hints at taboo; the origin of the Latin masturbari is probably a joining of words for "hand" and "disturb" or "defile." In his chapter on Roman and Greek writers and poets who might have used the original form of the word, there are only a few pages on classical texts. "In Classical literature there is plenty on sexuality, but solitary sex was obviously considered too intimate or too banal... This scarcity indicates that the Classical attitude toward masturbation was in general not positive." The examples given here from Martial and Aristophanes are about the male version of the activity, which seems from the beginning to have been taboo but less taboo than the female version.  




The professor also didn't use any of the slang terms for masturbation which "are legion and often very inventive." It may be a taboo subject, but that does not keep us from talking about it, and when we do, we often handle the uncomfortable topic by applying humorous euphemisms. Among those listed here are: assault on a friendly weapon, charming the cobra, getting in touch with yourself, one man show. "Getting in touch with yourself" could be applied to women as well, but there are far fewer slang terms for female masturbation (like fingering or squeezing the peach). This reflects basic anatomy. Female genitalia are integrated within the body, while male genitalia not only are "out there" and ready to be handled; the male member also has its own way of making its presence emphatically known. Perhaps this is also a reason that masturbation happens more often in men than in women, though the numbers for "having ever masturbated" are high for either sex. Some of the statistics van Driel gives are from Europe, specifically the Netherlands, but one researcher wrote that 99% of young people masturbate at least on a temporary basis, and "the hundredth, the pure person, is hiding the truth." Of older people, another researcher said, "Those who deny they have ever masturbated, have often simply forgotten." 




Another reason that female masturbation might be more taboo is that men might find it threatening. Men seldom have any trouble achieving orgasms in coitus, but coitus is not the most reliable way for women to achieve them. Men, the sex equipped with the obvious genitalia, never need any instruction in masturbation, but the activity is more furtive in females. There are, for instance, sexuality courses to help females find their best ways for stimulation, but no such courses for males. Van Driel reviews what goes on in a masturbation workshop, but then wonders, "Isn't it a covert variation on the age-old theme of man's oppression of woman? Much literature in praise of masturbation seems to work on the assumption that the woman's genitalia are a kind of domestic appliance whose owner has not understood the directions properly, so that an 'expert' is required to explain to women how their sex organs are constructed and how optimum operation can be achieved." Perhaps female masturbation is becoming more acceptable; there is an organization in Belgium called We Masturbate (Yes We Do), which is popular with girls and markets the name and logo to go on stickers and tee shirts for them. 




Van Driel says that for centuries the church had a healthy attitude toward sexuality; Pope John XXI presented a medical book in the thirteenth century that featured 56 recipes for increasing male potency. Coitus began to be seen as a drain on vigor, and semen became an abomination because demons got it and produced evil spirits from it. Aquinas thought not only did demons in the shapes of females come to collect semen from men in the night, they then changed to the shapes of men and impregnated women with demon progeny. Aquinas thought masturbation was worse than incest. According to van Driel, however, it took the voices of scientific authority (one cannot say they were the voices of science) that were harnessed by the church in the eighteenth century to really scare people about masturbation. A Swiss doctor, Samuel-Auguste Tissot, produced a bestseller of a thesis in 1758 to say that masturbation was morally worse than suicide, but medically it was the cause of hemorrhoids, constipation, epilepsy, tuberculosis, paralysis, and deformities of offspring. He had many followers, who were able to extend the list of masturbation-caused ailments profusely. These teachings were eagerly taken up by Catholics and Protestants, who could find no Biblical injunction against masturbation but were eager to connect any pleasure from it with sin and sickness. In 1985, the Catholic Church received unlikely support from the isolated Catholic Church in China, which condemned masturbation as causing impotence, brain-damage, and short-sightedness. However, among its recommendations for ceasing the practice was that potential victims needed to study more Marx, Lenin, and Mao. 




There are (small, black and white) illustrations in van Driel's chapter on artistic representations of masturbation. He says, "I began my search by studying the bottom panel of Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights for a whole evening. These days you can do that on the internet, and all the images can be enlarged. I drew a blank - there wasn't a single masturbator - and subsequently tried to make contact with respected art connoisseurs. I was unsuccessful, undoubtedly because the subject was not of immediate interest to them, though they didn't put it like that." There are few representations of masturbation from the classical period, but by the Enlightenment they were pretty common, and recently spatter patterns of ejaculation have been put on display.  




The review of the art, history, and science here makes plain that masturbation has an unnecessarily bad reputation. It is not connected with any illnesses; a modern study reviewed here that purportedly linked it to prostate cancer is fraught with complications and improbabilities. "In the light of so much uncertainty," van Driel writes, "no one need change his habits." That's the overall lesson of this entertaining book, as if this book or any other is going to change anyone's masturbation frequency. Van Driel writes with good humor, and uses more than his share of exclamation points. I wish that he or his translator had been more attentive in avoiding confusion of semen (a word hardly used here) with sperm ("Between 20 per cent and 30 per cent of the sperm volume is produced in the prostate"). Masturbation, van Driel wants us to know, is universal, natural, healthful, and enjoyable. His book confirms another adjective: interesting. 




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