The pandemic and solitary sex

With or without our pandemic-related social isolation, individual attitudes about intimate self- or partner-stimulation vary wildly. Some people privately accept masturbation but ridicule it publicly, or attach some degree of shame or guilt to the activity. It is in this context that I appreciated the straightforward clarity and frankness of the BC Centre for Disease Control’s message for us: “You are your safest sex partner. Masturbating by yourself (solo sex) will not spread COVID-19. If you masturbate with a partner(s), physical distancing will lower your chance of getting COVID-19.”

Masturbation is a common activity for humans, primates, and many other mammals on our planet. In the early years of the Enlightenment period of the 1700s, self-stimulation was identified as a threat to personal health and moral order. Before then, masturbators were portrayed in ancient Greek and Latin art and literature as comic or pathetic figures, if at all. Hippocrates, Galen, and medieval doctors offered only a few comments about excessive sexual pleasuring, and those were warnings directed at newlyweds. In the early Christian era, there was no specific interest in masturbation. Those who compiled the Talmud were focused more on issues related to the marriage between a widow and the deceased husband’s brother. So the biblical Onan spilling his seed on the ground was not associated with self-stimulation.   

Reading books was something new in the early 1700s, and people were absorbed in the stories they read. However, reading in private was thought to permit the reader to withdraw from society, which could lead to a collapse of the social fabric. In 1716 an anonymous author (who turned out to be a doctor) published Onania; or, the Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution. His salacious book intended to inflame desire and at the same time frighten the reader with the threat of harm from self-pleasuring. It included references to Onan’s fate and warned about the consequences of the “abominable practice” of “self-pollution.” A “medical friend’s” address was included with offers of cures for a modest fee. 

The book became a commercial success. It was sold in London’s thousands of coffee houses, and the so-called medicines it described were available by mail order. Onania remained a bestseller throughout Europe for a number of years and came to the attention of one of the 18th century’s most famous and influential physicians, the Swiss Dr Samuel-Auguste Tissot. His book, L’onanisme: Ou Dissertation Physique sur les Maladies Produites par la Masturbation, turned the medical perception of masturbation into that of a debilitating illness.

Over the next 250 years medical concerns related to masturbation and nocturnal emission of semen increased. A medical textbook published in Ontario in 1920 still had 14 pages on spermatorrhea, the “emission of semen without copulation.” It warned that the waste of seminal fluid “is a wanton expenditure, which robs the blood of its richness. . . . Its loss enfeebles the constitution, and results in impotence, premature decline, St. Vitus dance, paralysis, epilepsy, consumption, softening of the brain, and insanity.” Procedures like electric shock treatments, chastity belts, straitjackets, cauterization of the genitalia, and psychological measures like warnings that masturbation led to blindness filled the pages of western medical literature. Sigmund Freud, Havelock Ellis, psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, and even Robert Baden-Powell, (founder of Boy Scouts) contributed etiological theories and warnings. Continuing to masturbate after childhood was considered abnormal.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Kinsey reports presented a quasi-scientific confirmation that masturbation was commonplace, and that it was most common among educated people. In 1968 the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders excluded masturbation as a diagnosable condition. In 1972 the American Medical Association declared masturbation to be “normal,” and that it was only considered to be a problem if it was done in public or compulsively or if it interfered with daily life and activities. On a positive note, in addition to the immediate experience, there are potential long-range benefits to noncoital self- and partner-stimulation, including mood adjustments, social bonding, trust, and loving feelings—and now pandemic safety. 

In the 1980s my namesake but not kin, psychiatrist Dr Thomas Szasz, suggested that while “in the 19th century self-stimulation was an illness, in the 20th, it’s a treatment.” How times change. 
—George Szasz, CM, MD

Suggested reading
BC Centre for Disease Control. Covid-19 and sex. Accessed 9 November 2020.

Farid H. Intimacy, sex, and COVID-19. Harvard Health Publishing. Harvard Medical School. Accessed 9 November 2020.

Happyfeed. 4 brain chemicals that make you happy. Accessed 9 November 2020.

Laqueur WT. Solitary sex: A cultural history of masturbation. New York: Zone books; 2004.

Naik BS. Can a health care worker have sex in the time of Covid-19? Eur J Obstet Gynecol Reprod Biol 2020;252:622-623. 

Pierce RV. The people’s common sense: Medical adviser in plain English. Accessed 12 November 2020.

Szasz T. Sex by prescription: The startling truth about today’s sex therapy. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday; 1980.

Wikipedia. History of masturbation. Accessed 9 November 2020.

Wikipedia. Kinsey reports. Accessed 12 November 2020.

This post has not been peer reviewed by the BCMJ Editorial Board.

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