Tag Archives: Roman Empire

Punishments For Masturbation Throughout History


The practice of punishing the perpetrator of the act of masturbation is one that can be traced in documented form to the time of the Roman Empire.

The matriarchal society that was a feature of Roman life, tended to view male masturbation as an unwelcome, undesirable act, directly affecting procreation, so important to the future of the Empire.

During the first century AD, Christianity defined the act as a ‘Mortal Sin’ and the spread of Christianity brought with it the firm belief that self-abuse should be strongly discouraged in a Christian household. Even today the Catholic Church still categorises self-abuse as a ‘venal and mortal sin’.

Archbishop Borders of Baltimore, in his 1987 pastoral, ‘On Human Sexuality’, writes ‘Authentic human sexuality should open one to another in a deep and abiding relationship. It is neither unitive (sic.) nor procreative, and is merely sexual actuation with very little true sexual meaning’.

In 1992 Father Mateo wrote on the Internet: ‘In itself, masturbation is a mortal sin because it negates the whole purpose of our most sacred powers, the power to fashion family and procreate human life.’

That then is the view of God and the punishments distributed by Priests throughout history have been many and varied. In Ireland boys were regularly caned and whipped in addition to more normal religious impositions. Irish parents thrashed their male offspring when evidence of self-abuse was discovered, and the same scenario is echoed through many other countries of the Catholic world. What emerges from this investigation is the surprising fact that punishments for masturbation have changed very little over the years and, moreover, that it has been predominantly the female in the household who has been more tasked to seek out and deal with the male self-abuser.

Punishment for self-abuse was at its height during the Victorian era and much of it was delivered by the Nanny, Governess or indeed by other female members of the household staff. In most cases the females were spinsters of mature age and the possibility of their being somewhat disenchanted or even unaware of sexual pleasures, only serves to explain their particular preference in dealing with young male abusers in their charge, by means of potions, restraints and canes. In public schools of the time masturbation was not condoned and discovery of an offender would earn him a severe thrashing as described by an author of the time, Edward Whittaker in his ‘Memoirs of an Eton Housemaster’; “Use of the cane and birch was widespread and the cane was administered by both Staff and Prefects. Offences were the usual acts of high-spirited boys, which led to class or dormitory disruption, lack of hygiene, failure to meet academic standards and general disobedience. These would be promptly and properly punished with a number of strokes from the cane on the tight trousers of the bending boy. The birch was reserved for more serious offences such as stealing or self-abuse, and was administered on the bare backside of the unfortunate pupil, as he lay firmly secured across the birching block. Only the Headmaster flogged with this implement, which was harsh in the extreme!

The most common punishments for this ‘crime’ throughout history were physical denial by various means and flagellation. As remarked on before, more often than not, this was administered by a female to a male in the first flush of puberty. I’m not going to dwell on the psychological damage that was often inflicted as a result of this situation, suffice to say there are many females who are grateful for the fact that it did.

References to the punishment of masturbation prior to the 18th century are few and far between. It may be assumed that in the Middle Ages, Jacobean and Elizabethan eras, a more liberal attitude was adopted by a society which regarded such activities as normal, however it is also true that males were far more likely to be experiencing full heterosexual intercourse often from the tender ages of nine years old. There are many accounts of royal marriages being arranged for couples barely in their teens. In addition the Reformation of Tudor times destroyed the Catholic teachings and spread a somewhat barren moral wasteland before the confused and increasingly apathetic population.

The earliest reference to the use of punishment to deter the masturbator can be found in an account of the Roman household by Peter Moorview in his book, ‘The Roman Citizen’, a factual description of domestic life at the time of the Roman Empire. According to the author, many of the young male slaves had their penis ringed with iron or their urethra pierced to discourage erections and to avoid the possibility of them attempting rape. Other male slaves found they were obliged to carry out ‘bedroom duties’ (sic) as well as their normal domestic chores within the house:

The frequent absence of the Master of the house, (eg. in the case of military personnel), often led to illicit and furtive sexual activity between slave and Mistress and in order to ensure confidentiality, slaves were subjected to the most horrendous acts of cruelty to ensure their obedience and silence. Well-endowed and virile young slaves were much in demand and were available at public auctions to privileged sections of Roman society. Slaves purchased solely for the purpose of providing sexual gratification for their Mistress often had their genitalia permanently restrained within purpose made metal chastity belts to prevent unauthorised masturbation. Those free to masturbate would face a severe flogging with a rod if discovered and subsequently their genitals would be bound in bandages soaked in a mixture of herbs and peppers, which inflicted excruciating pain on the treated parts. Persistent offenders were generally discarded and punished by castration and removal of their tongues to ensure their secrets would never be disclosed.

Before 1700, medical references to the harmful effects of masturbation were scarce. In the eighteenth century two works, Contra: or the Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution, and all its frightful sequences, (by an anonymous author) and Samuel Tissot’s Treatise on the Diseases Produced by Onanism introduced concepts that a certain Sylvester Graham adopted and helped to popularize.

Tissot’s claim that loss of semen under any condition caused health hazards spread rapidly throughout the world’s medical profession and Graham’s Lecture to Young Men (1834) was the first of its kind and launched a whole genre of medical tracts on masturbation, known then as ‘self-abuse’ or ‘self-pollution’. In America, where he lectured, a peculiar flowering of myths involving masturbation took place during the 19th century. The predictable culprits… Victorian prudery, evangelical Christianity, entrepreneurialism are all part of the picture, and Graham, knowing his audience, and with a solid grasp of rhetorical devices made claims that no one could disprove. Or rather, would disprove. According to Graham a masturbator grows up ‘with a body full of disease, and with a mind in ruins, the loathsome habit still tyrannising over him, with the inexorable imperiousness of a fiend of darkness.’

Hardly surprising then that fond parents, Nannies, and Governess’, the world over, felt justified in meting out the most horrific punishments to save their charges from the devastating medical prognoses, and the hell-fire that lay ahead for the unfortunate self-abuser when he was finally laid to rest! Thus, the scene was set for the next 100 years or so…. ‘Punish or He’s Damned! …. was to be the cry.

Treatments for self-abuse, both physical and dietary abounded. Dr John Harvey Kellog, (brother of the founder of the Kellog’s Corn Flakes Company) suggested: ‘A remedy which is almost always effective in small boys is circumcision…. the operation should be performed by a surgeon without administering an anaesthetic, as the brief pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind…. In females, the author has found the application of pure carbolic acid to the clitoris an excellent means of allaying the abnormal excitement…’ the chance of disease and death’.

General medical opinion weighed in with their recipe for healthy minds and bodies. Sexual moderation (no more than 12 times a year for married couples), exercise (to help prevent nocturnal emissions), no masturbation and a proper diet (to facilitate free peristaltic action of the bowels).

Masturbation led to madness and nocturnal emissions probably would as well. Spermatorrhoea was recognised as a disease, causing complete lack of energy and exhaustion. Rapid dissemination of these theories on the dangers of self-abuse among the upper and middle class citizens of Great Britain in particular during the 19th century led to an explosion in the sale of implements of correction, chastity devices, potions and lotions and increased demand for the services of Governess’ and Nannies to provide 24 hour observation of their charges and to provide the necessary moral guidance, physical treatment, and punishment that would be needed to educate their children and save them from a fate worse than death.

The Governess or Nanny used a wide variety of what we today would consider torture devices as punishment. Some people may still consider masturbation to be a sin, but at least boys are not punished in this way in this day and time. Submissive/masochistic men may allow someone to restrain them from masturbation (a wide variety of male chastity devices exist) or allow themselves to be punished for masturbation, but they have that choice and usually derive pleasure from the experience. However, young boys in the past must have been terrified of leaving evidence of masturbation or even nocturnal emissions, which they had no control over.

From Atum to Kinsey


Since we are on the discussion of masturbation, I thought I would write a post on the history of masturbation. As an historian, I always find the history of almost any subject very interesting. So I did a little research on the history of masturbation.

It seems likely masturbation has always been the most common and universal of human sexual experiences – but only in recent decades have attitudes toward sexuality in general, and masturbation in particular, begun to improve. There never has been a “golden age” of sexual freedom and tolerance, though specific taboos have always varied widely. The frequent condemnation of masturbation apparently stems from a surprisingly simple mandate: there’s safety in numbers. For centuries, all forms of sexual pleasure unlikely to result in population increase have routinely been denounced as wrong. Which is the major reason that I believe that in most societies there is a prohibition on homosexuality.

In order to understand current attitudes, it helps to examine earlier human cultures. Before history, which is defined by the existence of written records, the evidence proves sketchy. Prehistoric petroglyphs and rock paintings from around the world evidently depict male masturbation, though these are entirely matters of interpretation. Most early people seem to have connected human sexuality with abundance in nature. A clay figurine of the 4th millennium B.C., from a temple site called Hagar Qim on the island of Malta, depicts a woman masturbating. However, in the ancient world depictions of male masturbation are far more common. A figure of a masturbating male from a Neolithic cemetery in Greece is roughly contemporary with the Malta image and likewise suggests fertility rites. From the Sumerians, who invented the first written Western language, we find references to the Mesopotamian god Enki masturbating, his ejaculation filling the Tigris River with flowing water.

Male masturbation became an even more important image in ancient Egyptian cosmology. When performed by a god it could be considered a creative or magical act, but a mortal human masturbator might not receive such approval. According to one major creation myth the god Atum appeared on the Primordial Mound out of the void of Nu. As the first “thing” in the midst of nothingness, Atum relieved his loneliness by masturbating. His ejaculation resulted in the appearance of the first god and goddess, Shu and Tefnut, who became the parents of all other elements of the world. An alternate version indicates that the god Ptah, architect of the universe, maintains cosmic order through continual masturbation. The yearly flooding of the Nile, on which Egypt depended entirely, was also said to flow from the secretions of the Nile god Hapy. Min, the god of male potency, was always shown standing with an immense erection, often held in his own hand. Min represented the sexual potency of the Pharaoh, the Great House, an aspect of the Good God considered necessary to the fertility of the Nile valley. During the annual festival of Min men engaged in public acts of masturbation, but otherwise such exhibitionism would not have been tolerated. So even in that pleasure-loving culture the attitude toward masturbation depended entirely upon context.

Far Eastern cultures are sometimes viewed as more sexually tolerant, but this may often be a case of social cosmetics. “Out of sight, out of mind” can mean that human nature (including sexual behavior) is tacitly accepted, so long as it is kept private or unseen. A Hindu myth from India described the phallic god Shiva being masturbated by Agni, the god of fire, who swallowed his semen. Agni then gave birth to Skanda, a god of male beauty. But the Hindus, like later Buddhists, often denounced attachment to sexual pleasure as a cause of human suffering. The oldest Chinese traditions of Taoism equated certain forms of sexual pleasure with generating chi, or life force. As “cultivation,” prolonged masturbation without ejaculating was believed to enhance health and well being. At the same time, frequent ejaculation was considered a waste of this same precious chi.

The ancient Greeks had a more natural attitude toward masturbation than the Egyptians did, regarding the act as a normal and healthy substitute for other forms of sexual pleasure. They considered masturbation a safety valve against destructive sexual frustration. Numerous vase paintings depict male masturbation as a regular part of daily life, neither a virtue nor a vice. Greek culture was extremely phallocentric, meaning the erect penis was a major object of veneration, both spiritually and in daily life. Women did not enjoy a high status in the male-dominated culture, being primarily confined to roles of breeding and motherhood. The society was largely segregated by gender, men spending most of their time with men and women with women – yet the Greeks considered procreation and the family unit of supreme importance. They tolerated male masturbation in daily life only to the extent that it did not interfere with the stability of the family or protection of the state.

In a wonderful Greek myth, Hermes invented masturbation. He taught the practice to Pan, so that the woodland god no longer suffered his habitual frustration. Thereafter Pan learned to give pleasure to others as well as to himself.

More unusual for the ancient world, the Greeks also dealt with female masturbation in both their art and writings. Having ample reason for frustration, Greek women were often depicted using dildos or artificial phalluses made of leather, wood, or ivory for their self-satisfaction. The city of Miletus in Asia Minor was well known as the source of the best such instruments, as was the Island of Lesbos, the home of the legendary poet Sappho.

When the Roman Empire began dominating the Western world, an obsession with distinguishing virtue and vice became increasingly important. Though we often consider the Romans decadent, in fact they practiced a kind of prudish hypocrisy. The Latin term masturbari was only one among half a dozen terms they used for the act. Originally it meant only to rub by hand or to agitate, without negative connotations. Over time, however, the term gained associations of disturbance and defilement. Some authors came to associate the term with manus sinistra, meaning the left hand, indicating uncleanliness, since the Romans linked the left hand with elimination functions. The cosmopolitan civilization of Rome had no consistent attitudes toward sexuality, only a growing intolerance for diversity and concern over distinguishing virtue and vice.

Sexuality began to suffer a stigma with the growing influence of the Christian Church. Such figures as the apostle Paul (of the first century), Augustine (A.D. 354-430), and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) contributed to increasingly negative attitudes toward the human body and all forms of pleasure in general. Paul fostered misogyny, or anti-female sentiments, starting a trend which has been interpreted by many as condemning all forms of sexuality other than heterosexual intercourse for the purpose of reproduction. This continued an existing philosophical trend of separating the physical and the spiritual, considering them as conflicting opposites. Augustine institutionalized the religious distaste for sexual union itself, while Aquinas particularly vilified homosexuality. An early medieval manual of punishments to be bestowed by priests prescribed severe penalties for men over 20 who engaged in mutual masturbation. Men under that age were punished less severely, and boys under 14 engaging in solo masturbation were punished the least. As I wrote in yesterday’s post, the Bible itself never mentions masturbation specifically: the “sin” of Onan was clearly coitus interruptus, or early withdrawal to prevent conception. Still, this misconception persists.

Islam and Judaism share common roots with Christianity, yet both of these religions deal with masturbation quite differently. They maintain their own rigidly prescribed attitudes toward sexual behavior, advocating only heterosexuality within the context of marriage. Yet neither religion consistently condemns masturbation as Christianity has, in practice taking a more Eastern approach of tacitly accepting some aspects of human nature. On a more encouraging note, some Native Americans call masturbation by their young people “warming the heart.”

Unfortunately in the Western world attacks on masturbation grew increasingly irrational. A 1710 work titled “Onania, or the Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution,” blamed venereal disease on masturbation. By the 19th century the cereal magnate John Harvey Kellogg declared “sex for anything but reproduction” to be “sexual excess.” Kellogg and others began advocating routine circumcision of males as a deterrent to masturbation. Sylvester Graham invented the Graham cracker, believing it would diminish male sexual desire. (Though with s’mores being a popular camping treat, I don’t believe that it ever prevented randy boys/men from experimenting sexually on camp outs.) A variety of awful devices were employed in attempts to forcibly prevent masturbation. Much worse, female circumcision, or the removal of the clitoris, was sometimes advocated by the Victorians, preventing many females from ever experiencing orgasm. In 1864 Ellen G. White published a book claiming that the “solitary vice” led to everything from retardation to insanity and cancer.

As late as 1940, a pediatric text titled “Diseases of Infancy and Childhood” proclaimed masturbation to be harmful. Research suggests an overall agenda behind such anti-pleasure sentiments, the deeper motive being to increase population at all costs by controlling and denying non-reproductive erotic outlets. The more of “us” there are, the less we need to feel threatened by “them.” Until the last century, this kind of reasoning made at least some partial, rudimentary sense. But in our times of runaway overpopulation, when sexuality no longer remains tied to reproductive imperatives, it makes no sense at all.

Beginning with the Kinsey Report of 1948, masturbation has finally been demystified and even discovered to be beneficial. In 1966 Masters & Johnson revealed the practice to be virtually universal in North America, cutting across all boundaries of sex, age, race, and social class. In 1971 Goldstein, Haeberle & McBride determined masturbation to be the most common form of sexual activity among humans. Dr. Joycelyn Elders was far ahead of the political establishment in her 1993 suggestion that masturbation be taught in our schools. She is now being vindicated: Accurate information is being widely disseminated to autonomous learners through the “school” of the Internet.

Though ignorance and superstition linger, healthy and accepting attitudes toward masturbation are increasing. The eminent neuropsychologist James W. Prescott has said: “Deprivation of physical affection in human relationships…constitutes the single greatest source of violence in human societies.”

Adapted from “MASTURBATION THROUGHOUT HISTORY” By Bruce McFarland (http://www.jackinworld.com/resources/general-articles/masturbation-throughout-history)