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Why and when did masturbation become an issue?

 ·  ☕ 3 min read

This also appeared on’s Sexual Wellness Project [SFW link, NSFW URL].


Often times, when people are growing up–depending on their parents–they are told that masturbation is unhealthy, sinful, or just plan immoral. This is still a very widespread attitude, especially in parts of the United States and Europe that are more conservative or religious.


But this hasn’t always been the case–in many places and times masturbation was seen as relatively harmless and painless, not particularly dangerous for an individual. So what changed?


Beginning in the late seventeenth century (late 1600’s), changes in family life and marriage began to occur in the middle and upper classes, moving towards a more recognizably modern style. The biggest change was the identification of children as a special group, different from adults, with their own sorts of institutions like schools or playgrounds. From around that time, adults began to go to increasing lengths to protect children from the knowledge of sex and death, both of which were seen as dangerous or frightening to them.


What’s more, is that many of the first schools for children were church-sponsored or run. In England, this meant they were often controlled by the Anglican Church, in Germany by the Lutheran Church and in France in Italy, the Catholic Church. But all three shared ideas of the purity and innocence of the child against a corrupt and dangerous world. Theologians and teachers decided that the only hope of preserving and improving the world would be to focus on the correct discipline and education of children. Thus, in a particularly backwards way, the rise of spanking at home and in school became the first sign of increasing respect and love of children.


However, the biggest influence on creating the idea that masturbation was incredibly bad was a book called Onania; or, The Heinous Sin of Self Pollution and all its Frightful Consequences, in both SEXES Considered, with Spiritual and Physical Advice to those who have already injured themselves by this abominable practice. And seasonable Admonition to the Youth of the nation of Both SEXES.


Even by the standards of the time, it was considered a best seller, and there were hundreds of thousands of copies sold and it was was wildly successful in those editions as well, despite, as Lawrence Stone puts it, its “vapid moralizing and implausible stories of resulting disease.


By the late 1700’s, the book and its idea had convinced even scientists and doctors. One such doctor, the famous Dr. Tissot, gave the masturbation problem medical recognition. He wrote about (likely exaggerated) cases of masturbating girls and boys becoming victims of fatigue, epilepsy, convulsions, boils, disorders of the digestive, respiratory or nervous systems, and even death. Following his book, nearly every doctor and preacher spent a lot of time warning about the dangers of touching yourself.


It was not until the second half of the last century (1950s onward) that doctors and others began to question and criticize the idea that masturbation was unhealthy and dangerous, and to instead point out that it was a normal part of sexual development and a healthy sexual lifestyle.

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Brian M. Watson
Brian M. Watson
Archivist, Historian, Digital Humanist