The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Mark Twain on Masturbation

In 1879, 44-year-old Mark Twain — irreverent adviser of little girls, pointed critic of the press, recipient of some outrageous requests from his fans — took the podium at a men’s club in Paris and delivered a lecture titled “Some Thoughts on the Science of Onanism,” onanism being masturbation, after the Bible’s Onan, who spilled his semen on the ground and was slain by God for this sinful transgression. The lecture was eventually adapted into On Masturbation (public library) and illustrated with charming Victorian-style engravings, but to fully understand just how scandalous Twain’s message was at the time, we ought to return to those Biblical admonitions.

In the Middle Ages, at the height of its rabid crusade to punish desire, the Catholic Church deemed masturbation a mortal sin deserving of eternal damnation. By Twain’s day, as medicine was beginning to split off from religious doctrine, doctors no longer claimed that God would slay those guilty of onanism, but did vehemently portend the harmful effects of self-pleasuring — or “self-abuse,” as it was referred to at the time. Admonishing that the perilous practice would even effect early death, they used medical warnings as a vehicle for the same old moral judgments stemming from religion. Victorian newspapers would regularly feature ads for male chastity belts, “scientific” pills to dampen desire, and even metal clamps designed to contain any unwanted “excitement.” Those, ironically, were marketed at treatments for rather than mechanisms of “self-abuse.”

‘What Will the Boy Become?’ Illustration from an early 20th-century manual of ‘social hygiene.’

A medical text from 1903 exemplifies the spirit of the era:

Teach your boy that when he handles or excites the sexual organs, all parts of the body suffer. This is why it is called “self-abuse.” The sin is terrible, and is, in fact, worse than lying or stealing. For, although these are wicked and will ruin the soul, self-abuse will ruin both soul and body. This loathsome habit lays the foundation for consumption, paralysis, and heart disease. It makes many boys lose their minds; others, when grown, commit suicide.

Twain, who reserved some of his sharpest critique for religion, thus unleashed his satire on both the cultural judgment of a practice so common yet so condemned, and on the sheepish religiosity that underpinned those judgments. His lecture pokes fun at those social attitudes by mashing up, more than a century before the Internet’s satirical mashups, famous words by cultural luminaries with thoughts on the subject of masturbation. Twain beings:

All great writers upon health and morals, both ancient and modern, have struggled with this stately subject ; this shows its dignity and importance. Some of these writers have taken one side, some the other.

Homer, in the second book of the Iliad, says with fine enthusiasm, “Give me masturbation or give me death!”

Caesar, in his Commentaries, says, “To the lonely it is company; to the forsaken it is a friend; to the aged and impotent it is a benefactor; they that be penniless are yet rich, in that they still have this majestic diversion.”


Robinson Crusoe says, “I cannot describe what I owe to this gentle art.”

Queen Elizabeth said, “It is the bulwark of virginity.”

Cetewayo, the Zulu hero, remarked that, “A jerk in the hand is worth two in the bush.”

The immortal Franklin has said, “Masturbation is the mother of invention.” He also said, “Masturbation is the best policy.”

Michelangelo and all the other Old Masters — Old Masters, I will remark, is an abbreviation, a contraction — have used similar language. Michelangelo said to Pope Julius II, “Self-negation is noble, self-culture is beneficent, self-possession is manly, but to the truly great and inspiring soul they are poor and tame compared to self-abuse.”

After running through a similar list of imaginary quotations from history’s masturbation-opponents, Twain plants a particularly well-aimed jab at religion by enlisting its arch-nemesis, evolution:

Mr. Darwin was grieved to feel obliged to give up his theory that the monkey was the connecting link between man and the lower animals. I think he was too hasty.

The monkey is the only animal, except man, that practices this science; hence he is our brother; there is a bond of sympathy and relationship between us. Give this ingenious animal an audience of the proper kind, and he will straightway put aside his other affairs and take a whet; and you will see by the contortions and his ecstatic expression that he takes an intelligent and human interest in his performance.

Twain proceeds to highlight the absurdity of condemning masturbation by offering a set of humorous diagnostic criteria for spotting those guilty of onanism and once again pokes fun at the purported effects of the practice:

The signs of excessive indulgence in this destructive pastime are easily detectable. They are these: A disposition to eat, to drink, to smoke, to meet together convivially, to laugh, to joke, and tell indelicate stories — and mainly, a yearning to paint pictures.

The results of the habit are: Loss of memory, loss of virility, loss of cheerfulness, loss of hopefulness, loss of character, and loss of progeny.

Twain concludes:

Of all the various kinds of sexual intercourse, this has the least to recommend it. As an amusement it is too fleeting; as an occupation it is too wearing; as a public exhibition there is no money in it. It is unsuited to the drawing room, and in the most cultured society it has long since been banished from the social board…

So, in concluding, I say: If you must gamble away your life sexually, don’t play a Lone Hand too much.

When you feel a revolutionary uprising in your system, get your Vendome Column down some other way — don’t jerk it down.

On Masturbation is a quick and delightful read in its entirety, and is available digitally for a rather guilt-free 99 cents. Complement it with Twain on religion and human egotism and his illustrated advice to little girls.

Published February 26, 2014




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