After the death of his brother Er, Onan was told by his father Judah to fullfill his duty, that is to say marry his sister in law and have children with her to keep the family line alive. But, when Onan had sex with Tamar he withdrew before climax and spilled his seed on the floor. Because of that he died prematurely as God had warned. (Book of Genesis, Chapter 38)
So when talking about onanism or onania one seem to be referring to the “sin of Onan” as seen above. Since Onania or the heinous Sin of Self-Pollution, and all its Frightfull Consequences in both Sexes came out around 1712, there was a fusion between the terms “onania” and “masturbation”. Yet, the only similarity between the meaning of these two words is the idea of loss of semen they convey . It seems that when using the word “onania,” the anonymous author was only trying to give his work a religious authority. In fact, according to him “[his] great aim is to promote virtue and christian purity, and to discourage vice and uncleanness”. Moreover, his remarks are introduced and accompanied by scriptural interpretations. Paradoxically, this book marked a change in the way of apprehending the question of masturbation going from an entire religious view to a medical one. Masturbation was not only morally wrong, a sin, it became the source of all kind of diseases, or should we say, many diseases already existing could now be traced back to this sin of self-pollution. This medicalisation of the word was confirmed by the coming of Dr Tissot’s book L’Onanisme, essai sur les maladies produites par la masturbation (first edited in 1860). Compared to the anonymous author of Onania, Tissot tried to base his analysis on science and on science only. Even though the two books bear te same title, Tissot was not kind towards his predecessor of which he said “[it] is real chaos… one of the most unconnected production thas has appeared for a long time”(Laqueur, 2003, 39). He also insisted that there were no similarity between the two books. Compared to the author of Onania, Tissot is not interested in the religious aspect of masturbation. He only treats the question from a medical point of view and does not see Onania as scientifically accurate. However, both works were roughly organised the same way. They both treated the question of masturbation around three axes ; causes, consequences and cure.
In Onania, the anonymous author explains that the main cause for masturbation is ignorance. Because of idleness or loneliness, young people learn to masturbate without understanding how wrong or dangerous this is. Moreover, since there is no witness to the act they cannot learn, they do not feel shame or guilt. Boys too shy to approach girls can satisfy themselves and girls can use it “to combat strong desires” and refuse disadvantageous matches. Finally, the lack of punishment compared to other sins such the death penalty for sodomie encouraged the practice. Tissot does not offer any reason as to why masturbation spread among the youth. However, he does explains why mastubation is at the origin of diseases. He argued that semen was essential in maintaining the equilibrium of the body. The lost of semen caused the body to weaken. Considering that almost a century separates both works we can clearly see the evolution from a religious and moral condemnation to a total medicalisation of the concept.
The list of diseases deriving from masturbation is quite impressive. Onania‘s author talks of gonnorrheas, thin and waterish seed, fainting fits and epilepsies, consumtions, loss of erection and premature ejaculation, and infertility. If children came along they were expected to be sick and weakly, “ a misery to themselves, a dishonour to Human Race, and a Scandal to teir parents” ( Onania, 1712). As for women they suffered the same consequences as men and a few on their own such as imbecility, hysteric fits and barrenness. Similar conclusions can be found in Tissot and he too believes that women suffers more than men from the practise. He writes “outre les symptômes que j’ai déjà rapporté, les femmes sont plus paticulièrement exposées à des accès d’hystérie ou de vapeur, affreux, à des jaunites incurables, à des crampes cruelles de l’estomac et du dos, à de vives douleurs du nez, à des pertes blanches […], à des prolongements du clitoris, à des freuns utérines qui, leur enlevant à la fois la pudeur et la raison, les mettent au niveau des brutes les plus lassives.”(Tissot, 1764,58). Finally, According to Jalade-Lafond in Considérations sur les hernies abdominales, sur les bandages herniaires rénixigrades et sur de nouveaux moyens de s’opposer à l’onanisme (1823), « les effets les plus communs sont l’affaiblissement général, le manque d’accroissement […], le développement du corps n’est pas achevé, la maigreur, la décoloration, […] des convulsions, l’épilepsie, l’hypocondrie, des palpitations, des éruptions se manifestent sur la figure ou sur d’autres parties du corps. Les facultés mentales se dégradent et s’affaiblissent comme les forces physiques […] le malade finit par tomber un état de démence ou d’itiotisme qui le rapproche de la brute », (Jalade-Lafond, 1823, 445 ,446).
When it comes to the cure, Onania‘s author advocates prayors but also a very specific cure. You see, his plan was according to him to originally publish a warning against masturbation accompanied by translations of various phycisians prescriptions to cure the ills that it caused. However, he realized that the ingredients to make the cure would have been terribly expensive and that the medicines were too complex for patients to make themselves. So he transferred his rights over them to a medical friend who in return had thousand copies of Onania printed as his own expense. He supposedly gave the medicine for free but it was not long before it proved too expensive and he started selling them. Ironically, Tissot, a respected scientist who looked down on Onania, only adviced to live a healthy life as a cure with diets and cold bath.
Guillaume Jalade-Lafond created corsets in order to stop this sin of self pollution first for men and later for women.
“C’est un bandage ou corset. Il se compose d’une large ceinture en toile grise ou en nankin, quelquefois d’une espèce de chemise ou juste-au-corps, en toile lacé par derrière, que des épaulettes retiennent en haut, et qu’un demi caleçon assujettit inférieurement, de manière qu’il ne peut ni descendre ni monter . Une suite d’élastiques se voient en avant , pour que ce bandage se prête aux différents états d’expansion ou de resserrement de la poitrine ou du ventre, un écusson en argent, en vermeil ou en or, ayant la forme des parties génitales, et proportionné à leur volume est placé en bas de la ceinture, et reçoit la verge et les bourses […] . Le canal qui reçoit le pénis est plus grand que l’organe lui même […] . Les érections elles-mêmes peuvent avoir lieu; mais n’étant plus exitées par des attouchements manuels, elles sont de peu de durée et deviennent de plus en rares; et c’est ainsi que le sujet finit par perdre l’habitude de l’onanisme.( Jalade-Lafond, 1823,12).
The most interesting point about the condemnation of masturbation in the eighteenth century is that it put both men and women on an equal foot. Indeed, one was not more guilty than the other. However, although women are mentioned, compared to men they are almost ignored. Tissot devoted less than a chapter to the question of female masturbation. In the case of Onania, very few letters sent by women were published. The beginning of an explanation can be found in Tissot, and more generally in the causes they believed made masturbation the source of diseases. He argued that semen was essential to the body and loosing it would cause the body to weaken. Obviously, the loss of semen happens through orgasm. Before the eighteenth century, male and female bodies were believed to be variants of one kind, according to Tomas Laqueur ; « the vagina is imagined as an interior penis, the labia as foreskin, the uterus as scrotum and the testicules as ovaries. » (Laqueur, 1990 , 4). Laqueur also suggested that the eighteenth century marked the change between a one body model to a two bodies model in other words a distinction between the male and the female body. During the century, other theories appeared saying that female orgasm was not needed to make children. Going from there, women’s pleasure became less and less important. From being perceived as sexually aggressive women went on to be seen as sexually passive. If we draw the link with Tissot and the fact that the loss of semen (that is to say orgasm) through masturbation is the causes for the diseases that follow, it could explain why the question of female masturbation was less treated in the eighteenth century, because of a reluctance to associate women and sexual pleasure.
Masturbation as a cause for disease is an idea born at t beginning of te eighteenthcentury with Onania. Paradoxically, this book based on no scientific knowledge was the basis for many others to come . It is only in the twentieth century that phycisians recognized that masturbation was not at the origin of various diseases.
Anonymous,Onania or the heinous Sin of Self-Pollution, and all its Frightfull Consequences in both Sexes,
Jalade-Lafond,Guillaume, Considérations sur la confection des corsets et de ceintures propres à s’opposer à
la pernicieuse habitude de l’onanisme, Paris: chez l’auteur, 1819
Tissot, Samuel Auguste L’onanisme. Dissertation sur les maladies produites par la masturbation, Éd.: La Différence, réédité en 1998
MacDonald,Robert H.”The Frightful Consequences of Onanism: Notes on the History of a Delusion”, Journal
of the History of Ideas, Vol. 28 (Jul. – Sep., 1967), pp. 423-431
Stolberg, Michael “Self-Pollution, Moral Reform, and the Venereal Trade: Notes on the Sources and Historical Context of Onania (1716) “, Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 9 (Jan. – Apr., 2000), pp. 37- 61
Hall, Lesley A”Forbidden by God, Despised by Men: Masturbation, Medical Warnings, Moral Panic, and
Manhood in Great Britain, 1850-1950″, Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 2, No. 3, Special Issue, Part 2:
The State, Society, and the Regulation of Sexuality in Modern Europe (Jan., 1992), pp. 365-387
Laqueur, Thomas W. Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation, Zone Books, 2004
Laqueur, Thomas, Making sex : body and gender from the greeks to freud, Harvard University Pree, 1992