L'Onanisme (or, if you prefer, the lenghty title : De l'onanisme, ou dissertation pyhsique sur les maladies, produites par la masturbation) was the, er, seminal work by the Swiss physician Samuel-August Tissot. In it, he describes the disease of Onanism - the act of masturbation - and all the various physical and societal ills that come about from that enduringly popular practice.

Now, for those of you who haven't been reading your Bibles, the word 'Onanism' comes from the touching story of Onan, detailed in chapter 38 of Genesis. To recap, Onan's brother, Er, was slain by the Lord for some wickedness or other. Judah, the father, commanded Onan to lay with Er's wife and produce an heir for the family. Onan complied, hittin' tha skinz doggy-style, but pulled out at the last second, 'spilling his seed on the ground', disappointing everyone involved. Of course, 'everyone involved' included God, and he commanded Onan to take a nice long dirt-nap. Most theologians today believe that the sin of Onan was that he hated his family and his brother (thus the coitus interruptus - deny his father an heir), but in the wayback, it was believed that Onan's sin was wasting his precious, precious seed.

That idea eventually led to the anonymous publication of Onania; or, The Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution in 1710. This was pretty much a get-rich quick scheme. The author talked at length about the various ills caused by masturbation, flatly claiming that the practice would cause blindness, insanity, and stunted growth. And then the masturbator would invariably become a Sodomite, a non-breeder, an extremely naughty person in the eyes of the Lord. And then, having brought about panic and fear, he would hit them with advertisements for his cures, his 'Strengthening Tinctures' and 'Prolific Powder'. Beautiful work, that.

History did not preserve that man's name or his ledgers (pity - the con man in me would like to see how much product he moved) but the pamphlet was printed, reprinted, appended to, revised - a thousand arguments were built upon the foundation it provided. But a physician named Tissot didn't buy any of it - too religious. If the Enlightenment had taught this guy anything, it was to distrust any contention that banked on the Divine. But he had toured the asylums of the time; he had noted that the favorite activity of the inmates, who were locked away in dank, mildewed closets, without any real human contact, well, their main joy was 'self-abuse'. He'd read on the Greeks, and their belief in the balance of the human body, and how sicknesses resulted in a lack of balance. And he had read works by other physicians lending creedence to the idea that losing bodily fluid of any kind would result in a weakened state, both mentally and physically.

So Tissot began his life's work, his Sisyphean quest to end the solitary vice of the flesh. He did so in a purely scientific manner, rejecting any odd Bible passage or scrap of so-called common knowledge - he worked strictly off of observation, marrying his data with the best that Ancient Greece had to offer. His observations? That any act of copulation would draw blood into the head, upsetting the inherent balance of the body. This inequality of bodily humour would saturate the nerves, deaden them, and eventually lead to insanity, which he had seen often in asylums. Even more disturbing, the loss of the most powerful bodily humours (semen and vaginal discharge) would upset the body even more, irritating the nerves and speeding up the slide into psychosis. Men spending their seed in such a careless manner would be stricken dumb; women, who were weaker, would become hysterical without provocation, desending into a state of 'uterine fury'. Death would eventually result.

The treatise was published in 1760 and was an immediate sensation. Action was taken. There was no cure for Onanism, so the focus was on prevention; schemes were dreamed, abandoned, attempted again.Circumcision of both the male and female were prescribed, in order to keep irritants from accumulating on the genitals, in order to keep you from having any excuse to touch yourself. Foods were created; both Graham crackers and Kellogs flakes were the products of medical doctors seeking a cure, or barring that, a good diversion. Some even believed in severing nerves to the penis, or a much more simple clitoridectomy. Masturbation was proposed as the cause of sore backs, shooting pains in the chest, loss of memory, and venereal disease. For his part, Tissot believed strictly in insanity as the only effect, and that the solution to this mess was simple; civilization, and the resulting increase in leisure time, was the root. Idle hands would always drift downward. This idea was backed by none other than Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who spoke from experience; he claimed in his Confessions that "study makes men delicate ... incapable of resisting either sorrows or passions".

From this book, nearly two hundred years of history flow. It was the first medical reasoning behind masturbation, and was rarely debunked; L'Onanisme was cited as a primary source as late as 1904. It took a sexual revolution to help clean up the mess it left.

As you may have noticed, blessed as you are with 20/20 hindsight, Tissot's skills in observing and reasoning were somewhat lacking. From what fragments I could find on the 'net (and there aren't many), he suffered from post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacies in spades, linking the insanity he witnessed first hand too closely with masturbation. He often did not question the morals of the day and he too often used them as a compass, pointing him towards his conclusion. (Like almost any other human being - really, how many of us have broken this habit? Hands? None of you. No, not even you.I thought so.) It's said that he perceived a rising tide of masturbation, and did what he could to continue the procreation of the human race. (I can almost hear him saying 'Kids today. What's gotten into them? Wasn't like this when I grew up.') It's also said that, in lieu of the sadly disproved cause of all medical problems, demonic possession, Tissot sought a new whipping boy, one simple, widely practiced act that would explain all that was wrong with the world. I don't know about those last two, but at any rate, current data appears to disprove Tissot's theories.

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