Ever heard of Ben Wa balls? Allow us to explain.
I remember being a 12-year-old Catholic schoolboy, cloistered in a dark confessional, admitting the sin of masturbation to a priest who I saw every day and who knew my voice. Thank God for the code words “impure thoughts” and “impure acts.” Father Joe?—?who’d sat through the confessions of every other boy in my class in the past half hour?—?let me off with three Hail Mary’s.
The Ancient Egyptians venerated masturbation. It formed the crux of their creation myth: the God Atum created the world by wanking it into existence. Atum’s act was re-enacted every year to ensure a good crop.
There’s probably never been a more potent metaphor for male hubris.
“One of the Pharaohs’ most onerous ceremonial duties in Egypt was to bring fertility to the Nile by masturbating annually into its waters,” writes Jonathan Margolis in his history of sexuality “O: The Intimate History of the Orgasm.”
Women weren’t left out of the game. Queen Cleopatra is said to have enjoyed a hollow gourd filled with bees, who pleasured her with their angry buzzing.
However, most references in Egyptian history are to male masturbation. Most historical accounts are written by men, and accord greater importance to the habits of men than women.
In Judaism, society forbid male masturbation based on a passage in the Torah (the Old Testament for Christians). In Genesis 38, God commands Onan (the son of a powerful man named Judah) to marry his dead brother’s widow, “and raise up seed to thy brother.” The scripture says that instead Onan “wasted his seed on the ground to avoid contributing offspring to his brother.
God killed him for his wastefulness. Margolis and the sexologist/UC Berkeley historian Thomas W. Laqueur believe many scholars misread this passage. They say it wasn’t about the sacredness of every sperm, but an instruction on Jewish inheritance law, which mandated that Onan provide his dead brother with a son. Onan hadn’t even masturbated; he’d merely employed coitus interruptus (which today is called “pulling out”).
At any rate, Margolis says Jews masturbated despite the ban.
Geographic location also helped determine the Jewish view of male masturbation, according to “The Cambridge History of Judaism” by historians Davies, Finkelstein and Katz. During the Rabbinic Period (70 CE?—?1000 CE) scholars in Palestine believed that both male and female “seed” contributed to the conception of a baby, and were relatively tolerant of masturbation.
Babylonian and Zoroastrian sages had a different view of how an embryo was formed. “That leads them to condemn masturbation ‘as deserving of death’ on the grounds that the wasting of semen, per se, represents the potential destruction of a life,” Davies writes.
The Ancient Greeks thought male masturbation was a natural remedy to frustration when women were unavailable, Margolis writes. Men were depicted masturbating on vases and frescoes and it was widely featured in comedy. In one play by Aristophanes, a slave complains that he indulged to such a degree that his foreskin would soon look like the back of a whipped slave. To prove its value as a free pleasure, philosopher Diogenes once masturbated before an audience, lamenting, “Would to Heaven that by rubbing my stomach in the same fashion, I could satisfy my hunger.”
This liberalism did not extend to women, who were thought of as modest and unable to attain sexual pleasure without the introduction of semen to their bodies. This was belied by the fact that Greek women were fond of taking spa days, where?—?behind closed doors?—?they indulged with an olisbos, a word left decorously untranslated by many historians. (It meant, more or less, a detailed, penis-shaped dildo.)
Ancient Romans also accepted masturbation, writes Margolis. While the poet Marcus Valerius Martialis, or “Martial” for short, once warned a young patron, “What you are losing between your fingers, Ponticus, is a human being.”
He also said, “Veneri servit amica manus?—?Thy hand serves as the mistress of thy pleasure.”
Sexual mores across Asia had their root in Tantra, a sexual philosophy we can trace back 6,000 years to ancient India. Margolis writes that most forms of sexuality were accepted, or even venerated by one religious sect or another?—?masturbation included. A handbook to life in and out of bed, the “Kamasutra” was compiled in its present form somewhere around 200 CE. Aimed at the India’s Brahmin elite?—?the highest caste in the Hindu caste system in India?—?it encouraged rough sex, slapping and biting, among other erotic pursuits.
One of the precepts of Tantra, however, is that a man should refrain from ejaculation in order to provide a better experience for a woman during lovemaking. This stigma surrounding ejaculation may explain, in part anyways, why masturbation eventually became a forbidden act that required atonement?—?at least for men. In his study of the Indian sexual culture of 500 CE, Swiss historian Johann Jakob Meyer writes that even voluntary nocturnal emissions (aka wet dreams) had to be atoned for. Sexually frustrated males were given the following advice:
“If he is in great erotic straits, then let him put himself in water. If he is overwhelmed in sleep, then let him whisper in his soul thrice the prayer that cleanses sin away.” (That’s from Meyer’s book, “Sexual Life in Ancient India.”)
Say three prayers for a sin you committed while you were sleeping? Sounds Catholic to me. Still, such aversion to masturbation persists today in yogic circles, where sperm loss is thought to be spiritually draining.
Tantric missionaries brought their codified sexual knowledge to China and other parts of Asia. China’s Han Dynasty (200 BC?—?220 CE) incorporated this knowledge into Taoism, and became the first Asian culture to create a sex manual for the common man (and woman). While Taoism considered most sex to be permissible, it generally frowned on masturbation for the same reason Tantra did: ejaculation outside of a woman’s body was a loss of vital essence.
Chinese painter Zhou Fang (c. 730–800 CE) depicted the full spectrum of sex acts in a set of scrolls, which influenced Japan courtly art of the same period. In the 19th century, Japanese artists produced woodblock-stamped pornography including masturbation (in one case, a woman enjoys an octopus!)
But Japan’s best-known contributions to the five-finger tango were Ben Wa balls, supposedly invented by a courtesan. When placed inside the vagina, these marble-sized balls could provoke an orgasm, allowing women to discreetly pleasure themselves while taking a stroll.
Some Ben Wa balls were hollow and contained small beads that rolled around inside, creating additional sensation.
Back in Europe, the Christian Church spent its first 300 years of existence putting the screws to the sexual liberation enjoyed by much of the Ancient World. However, moralists were far more concerned about fornication than masturbation. In fact, Margolis writes, one anonymous medical tract from 1644 encouraged it, calling it a good defense against the temptation of women.
Laqueur traces the prohibition of masturbation to a tract entitled “Onania; or, The Heinous Sin of Self Pollution, and all its Frightful Consequences.”
Published anonymously in 1724 in notoriously Puritan Boston, it repeated the same erroneous reading of the Old Testament passage. During the Enlightenment, masturbation became a grave concern, literally for some: German philosopher Immanuel Kant considered it worse than suicide.
Fear of masturbation grew to hysterical proportions in Victorian England. Men wore chastity belts or even spiked rings on their penises (with the spikes facing inward) to ward off temptation.
Women who suffered from “hysteria,” or sexual frustration, went to physicians who digitally stimulated them with placebo creams to bring about a “paroxysm.” It wasn’t called an orgasm, because doctors and everyone knew women weren’t capable of those. (NB: “Hysteria” comes from the Greek root for uterus, so it’s sexist to call a female colleague hysterical.)
The relentless march of technology also benefited frustrated women seeking discreet satisfaction. While we’ve always had dildos?—?scientists discovered a 28,000-year-old one in the German region of Swabia?—?the first commercial vibrator came out even before electricity, in 1734. It resembled an egg beater. By the turn of the 20th century, newspaper ads featured various vibrators, ostensibly meant to massage away aches and pains. Some were electric. The intimidating Manipulator from 1869 was steam-powered?—?and judging by its appearance, there’s no mistaking what it was used for.
In the 1940s and 50s, Dr. Alfred Kinsey established masturbation as a normal adult activity. A 2003 Australian study even showed that men who “wanked” had a lower risk of prostate cancer. For women, the door’s been thrown wide as well. Masturbation is good for you.
Today’s self-pleasurers have many options. Japan has turned sex toys into an art form: From the Hitachi Magic Wand for her, to the The Tenga Easy Beat Egg for him, Japanese masturbation innovations are ubiquitous in Japan’s sex shops and in China, Europe and even on Amazon.
Meanwhile, in a ruling that hearkens back to the Classical era, Italy’s Supreme court recently decided that public masturbation is not even illegal?—?as long as you don’t do it in front of children. The residents of Ancient Pompeii would be proud.
“When my worries oppress my body, with my left hand, I release my pent-up fluids”?—?graffiti in Pompeii
Not everyone is free to spank it, though. While most Reformed and Reconstructionist Jews no longer consider masturbation a sin, Orthodox and Hasidic Jews still do, and some wear underwear that lets them urinate without touching themselves. Islamic scholars are still debating whether masturbation is halal, haram or just makruh (strongly discouraged). Some imams see it as preferable to premarital sex.
However your religion or society views masturbation, since history began one simple fact remains true?—?nobody knows what you’re doing in the dark.