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Masturbation: A Misunderstood and Abused Notion

Anastasios D. Kalantzis, Surgeon Urologist-Andrologist


With the term masturbation we refer to the self-arousal of our own genital organs aiming to reaching an orgasm and the self-satisfaction of our libido and sexual pleasure, without having sexual intercourse with another person.


Further to humans, masturbation is observed also in a great number of the animal species.


Another word for masturbation is onanism. This word comes from the name of a minor biblical person called Onan, a descendant of Jacob. Onan did not exactly masturbated, but – not fulfilling the obligation he had undertaken by joining in Levirate marriage (a type of marriage in which the brother of a deceased man is obligated to marry his brother’s widow, and the widow is obligated to marry her deceased husband's brother) – he had coitus interruptus (he withdrew before ejaculating, which is the oldest form of contraception). Onan did not wish to have an offspring who would preserve the family line of his deceased brother Er, aiming to acquiring his primogeniture heritage.


References to male masturbation have been found since the prehistoric times, in inscriptions engraved on stones in various places of the world. A clay representation, dated in the 4th millennium B.C. found in an ancient temple in Malta, shows a woman masturbating. Of course, masturbation was more common in men. Male masturbation in ancient Egypt was regarded as an exceptionally significant action, especially when performed by a God and was considered a creative, magic, divine act. They also believed that God Atum created the universe masturbating, and the fluctuations of the Nile were attributed to the frequency of his masturbations.


Ancient Greeks were more moderate regarding masturbation, considering it a normal and healthy substitute of other forms of sexual pleasure. They dealt with female masturbation in every art form. For them, masturbation was a safety valve against sexual idleness and inexistence. A moral consideration of masturbation was made by the Greek philosopher Diogenes the Cynic. Diogenes attributed the invention of masturbation to God Hermes, who felt sorry for his son Pan who was in love with Echo but failed to seduce her, so he taught him the practice of masturbation in order to relieve himself. In turn, Pan taught this practice to young shepherds who spread it further.


According to Dio Chrysostom, Diogenes used to masturbate publically, in front of the crowd who gathered around his tub. Diogenes argued that, since it is not immoral to drink and eat, actions you perform with your hand, it is not immoral to masturbate either. When he was asked once if he felt shame, he answered “I wish I could relieve also my hunger by rubbing my belly”.


The official term used by the Orthodox Church for masturbation is “the solitary sin”. According to the Ecclesiastical Law of the Orthodox Church, if a clergyman causes excretion of his semen through masturbation, he will be punished with suspension from his duties for a year, while, if he practices this act continuously he will be unfrocked. If the masturbator is a layman or a monk, he is punished with a simple 40-day aphorism, a time period he should with strict fast (xirofagia - avoidance of meat, dairy and eggs, and the consumption of only dry meals such as bread, vegetables and fruits) and one hundred genuflections a day. Fr. Filotheos Faros says that according to the Orthodox Patristic teaching, it is not so much the act that matters, but the motive. The act is a sin as far as the motivation is the satisfaction of selfishness.


According to Thomas W. Laqueur, Professor of History at the University of Berkeley in California, the characterization of masturbation as a vice was a fabrication of Enlightenment, and not of the traditional religious ethics and morality. Masturbation did not alarm the conservative, who, for centuries, considered it one of the many carnal sins, but reversely, those who first became alarmed by masturbation and demonized it first morally and then also medically were the progressive enlighteners, who on the one hand had a positive attitude towards sexual pleasure, they were trying, however, to create a moral philosophy focused and centered on free will, to which, in their perception, masturbation was opposed.


Many practices were devised to prevent masturbation. Belts and corsets for both men and women which impeded masturbation were marketed until 1920, while clitoridectomy (surgical operation for female circumcision) was used for preventing female masturbation. In the 19th century, on the other hand, masturbation was used by psychoanalysts for the “treatment” of hysteria in women.


In earlier times masturbation was considered harmful to physical and/or mental health of the person, and it was rumored that it could lead to deafness, blindness and cause kyphosis. There was also a widespread belief that during masturbation there was removal of substance from the bone marrow. But today, such views are considered absurd and inaccurate and science no longer connects it to any physical or mental side effects, except, of course, for cases where the act is performed too frequently and substitutes the normal sexual life of the adult individual.


There is no medically accepted criterion defining the limitations of “normal” masturbation.


It constitutes sexual activity for both men and women and usually it is first observed during adolescence of the individual, at the age of 10 to 12 years approximately. It is a taboo for most people, while during adolescence it can be a “source of guiltiness”. Feelings such as guilt, shame and low self-esteem sometimes derive from it, as a result of deficient sexual education, misinformation, negative messages about sexuality, and social prejudices. Researches in infants and toddlers have shown that deriving pleasure from contact with the genitals occurs since these ages. French scientists published a study, documented with photographic materials, which reveals that masturbation occurs even in the intrauterine life of the fetus.


A great number of people masturbate also in adulthood; it is an activity which is not abandoned by either men or women (in smaller percentages of course). Even during a relationship or within a marriage, masturbation still occurs, although less frequently, as an act of sexual satisfaction.


Masturbation in men is “strictly personal business”, in which the woman very rarely participates. Even within a marriage, the wife does not have the opportunity to watch this activity of her husband very often. According to what men say, the frequency in which they masturbate varies from once a man to two or three times a day.


Although masturbation is usually done using the hands, other things may be used, as sex aids. A variation is the mutual masturbation (actually it is not masturbation but a form of sexual contact), in which two people of different or the same sex cause sexual arousal to each other in order to reach an orgasm.


Most women perform complacency, some of them, however, prefer to be masturbated by their sexual partner, because complacency makes them feel guilty. For others, on the other hand, masturbation has become a routine and they practice it in order to find relief from their sexual urges and, even while they are having sex, they resort to complacency, in order to surely reach a climax.


According to statistics, only 30% of women have an orgasm during intercourse, while 80% reach a climax with masturbation. Also, most women find the direct stimulation of the clitoris more pleasant and exciting.


According to indications, people who masturbate devoid of guilt, express their sexuality more freely, are better aware of their reactions to love calls and enjoy sex more


Usually, masturbation is promoted and successful through sexual fantasies.


A fantasy is a normal psychological function and, no matter how unusual, it is not governed by the limits and rules imposed by propriety and the Savoir Vivre. It is normal and natural for a person to have fantasies and share them with their partner when having sex, in order for the couple to enrich their sexual life.


The only “risk” that masturbation could pose is a form of addiction and psychological dependence which occurs to people with intense stress, when they use masturbation as a type of temporary tranquilizer. Masturbation seems to operate like a mechanism of psychological decompression, a fact that applies to both sexes and all ages.


Under normal circumstances and with the progress of age, masturbation should give way to sex with a partner.


Many times, however, in our lifetime we feel the need or we are forced to draw away from our environment and be isolated in our microcosm, thus finding pleasure in complacency.


A serious problem of our times, which inevitably leads us to complacency, is the lack of social and communication skills, timidity, introversion and insecurity.


It is logical that adolescents and young people, due to limited freedom but also due to lack of experience, to resort to masturbation. It is, however, quite sad and frustrating that adults not be able to handle and take advantage of their freedom, their knowledge and experiences of their age. Focused in their career and professional recognition and accomplishment, in their effort to increase their income and improve their life status, stuck with a computer monitor, some of us eventually become unable and emotionally inefficient to deal with any interpersonal relationship and claim the companionship they so strongly desire. They become people who are afraid to seek a sexual partner and restore their lost sexual life. But, at the end of the day, is that really the reward for our efforts?


Widely known and famous people report their personal experiences with masturbation, as they experienced it and as they feel about it…

- “Don't knock masturbation - it's sex with someone I love”. Woody Allen

- “The good thing with masturbation is that you don’t have to dress up for it”. Truman Capote

- “Sophisticated persons masturbate without compunction. They do it for reasons of health, privacy, thrift and because of the remarkable perfection of invisible partners”. P. J. O’Rourke

- “We have reason to believe that man first walked upright to free his hands for masturbation.” Lily Tomlin

- “Philosophy is to the real world as masturbation is to sex”. Carl Marx

- Masturbation: the primary sexual activity of mankind. In the nineteenth century it was a disease; in the twentieth, it's a cure.” Tomas Szasz (Hungarian Psychiatrist)


In any case, finding balance is in our hand!