There are depictions of male masturbation in prehistoric rock paintings around the world. Most early people seem to have connected human sexuality with abundance in nature. A clay figurine of the 4th millennium BC from a temple site on the island of Malta, depicts a woman masturbating. However, in the ancient world depictions of male masturbation are far more common.
From the earliest records, ancient Sumer had a relaxed attitude toward sex, and masturbation was a popular technique for enhancing potency, either alone or with a partner.
Male masturbation became an even more important image in ancient Egypt. When performed by a god it could be considered a creative or magical act: the god Atum was believed to have created the universe by masturbating to ejaculation, and the ebb and flow of the Nile was attributed to the frequency of his ejaculations. Egyptian Pharaohs, in response to this, were at one time required to masturbate ceremonially into the Nile.
The ancient Indian Hindu text Kama Sutra explains in detail the best procedure to masturbate; "Churn your instrument with a lion's pounce: sit with legs stretched out at right angles to one another, propping yourself up with two hands planted on the ground between in them, and it between your arms".
The ancient Greeks had a more relaxed attitude toward masturbation than the Egyptians did, regarding the act as a normal and healthy substitute for other forms of sexual pleasure. They considered it a safety valve against destructive sexual frustration. The Greeks also dealt with female masturbation in both their art and writings. One common term used for it was anaphlan, which roughly translates as "up-fire".
Diogenes, speaking in jest, credited the god Hermes with its invention: he allegedly took pity on his son Pan, who was pining for Echo but unable to seduce her, and taught him the trick of masturbation in order to relieve his suffering. Pan in his turn taught the habit to young shepherds.
As late as the seventeenth century in Europe the practice was commonly employed by nannies to put their young male charges to sleep. That tolerance was soon to change. The first use of the word "onanism" to consistently and specifically refer to masturbation appears to be Onania, an anonymous pamphlet first distributed in London in 1716. It drew on familiar themes of sin and vice, this time in particular against the "heinous sin" of "self-pollution". After dire warnings that those who so indulged would suffer impotence, gonorrhea, epilepsy and a wasting of the faculties (included were letters and testimonials supposedly from young men ill and dying from the effects of compulsive masturbation) the pamphlet then goes on to recommend as an effective remedy a "Strengthening Tincture" at 10 shillings a bottle and a "Prolific Powder" at 12 shillings a bag, available from a local shop.
A patented device designed to prevent masturbation by inflicting electric shocks upon the perpetrator, by ringing an alarm bell, and through spikes at the inner edge of the tube into which the penis is inserted. The entire patent document: Page 1, 2, 3, 4.
One of the many horrified by the descriptions of malady in Onania was the notable Swiss physician Samuel-Auguste Tissot. In 1760, he published L'Onanisme, his own comprehensive medical treatise on the purported ill-effects of masturbation. Citing case studies of young male masturbators amongst his patients in Lausanne, Switzerland as basis for his reasoning, Tissot argued that semen was an "essential oil" and "stimulus" that, when lost from the body in great amounts, would cause "a perceptible reduction of strength, of memory and even of reason; blurred vision, all the nervous disorders, all types of gout and rheumatism, weakening of the organs of generation, blood in the urine, disturbance of the appetite, headaches and a great number of other disorders."
Though Tissot's ideas are now considered conjectural at best, his treatise was presented as a scholarly, scientific work in a time when experimental physiology was practically nonexistent. The authority with which the work was subsequently treated - Tissot's arguments were even acknowledged and echoed by luminaries such as Kant and Voltaire - arguably shifted the view of masturbation in Western medicine over the next two centuries into that of a debilitating illness.
This view persisted well into the Victorian Era, where such medical censure of masturbation was in line with the widespread social conservatism and opposition to open sexual behavior common at the time. There were recommendations to have boys' pants constructed so that the genitals could not be touched through the pockets, for schoolchildren to be seated at special desks to prevent their crossing their legs in class and for girls to be forbidden from riding horses and bicycles because the sensations these activities produce were considered too similar to masturbation. Boys and young men who nevertheless continued to indulge in the practice were branded as "weak-minded." Many "remedies" were devised, including eating a bland, meatless diet. This approach was promoted by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (inventor of corn flakes) and Rev. Sylvester Graham (inventor of Graham crackers). The medical literature of the times describes procedures for electric shock treatment, infibulation, restraining devices like chastity belts and straitjackets, cauterization or - as a last resort - wholesale surgical excision of the genitals. Routine neonatal circumcision was widely adopted in the United States and the UK at least partly because of its believed preventive effect against masturbation (see also History of male circumcision). In later decades, the more drastic of these measures were increasingly replaced with psychological techniques, such as warnings that masturbation led to blindness, hairy hands or stunted growth. Some of these persist as myths even today.
Image of a chastity belt from a patent document. For entire document, see: Page 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
At the same time, the supposed medical condition of hysteria-from the Greek hystera or uterus-was being treated by what would now be described as medically administered or medically prescribed masturbation for women. Techniques included use of the earliest vibrators and rubbing the genitals with placebo creams.
Medical attitudes toward masturbation began to change at the beginning of the 20th century when H. Havelock Ellis, in his seminal 1897 work Studies in the Psychology of Sex, questioned Tissot's premises, cheerfully named famous men of the era who masturbated and then set out to disprove (with the work of more recent physicians) each of the claimed diseases of which masturbation was purportedly the cause. "We reach the conclusion", he wrote, "that in the case of moderate masturbation in healthy, well-born individuals, no seriously pernicious results necessarily follow."
Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of The Scout Association, incorporated a passage in the 1914 edition of Scouting for Boys warning against the dangers of masturbation. This passage stated that the individual should run away from the temptation by performing physical activity which was supposed to tire the individual so that masturbation could not be performed. By 1930, however, Dr. F. W. W. Griffin, editor of The Scouter, had written in a book for Rover Scouts that the temptation to masturbate was "a quite natural stage of development" and, citing Ellis' work, held that "the effort to achieve complete abstinence was a very serious error."
Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich in his 1922 essay Concerning Specific Forms of Masturbation tried to identify healthy and unhealthy forms of masturbation. He tried to relate the way people masturbated to their degree of inclination towards the opposite sex and to their psycho-sexual pathologies.
The works of Sexologist Alfred Kinsey during the 1940s and 1950s said that masturbation was an instinctive behavior for both males and females, citing the results of Gallup Poll surveys indicating how common it was in the United States. Some critics of this theory held that his research was biased and that the Gallup Poll method was redundant for defining "natural behavior".
In 1994, when the Surgeon General of the United States, Dr. Joycelyn Elders, mentioned as an aside that it should be mentioned in school curricula that masturbation was safe and healthy, she was forced to resign, with opponents asserting that she was promoting the teaching of how to masturbate. Many[who?] believe this was the result of her long history of promoting controversial viewpoints and not due solely to her public mention of masturbation.