You know that masturbation means self-stimulation of the erogenous zones to please oneself, obtain pleasure and, in most cases, achieve orgasm. Now, as far as the definition is concerned, that's pretty good, but this is a definition that has evolved over time. Not only that, but it's by no means universal. Masturbation is seen in many different lights and perceptions very much depend on the social and cultural contexts in which we find ourselves. Disapproval, taboos, guilt... history has left its mark as numerous scientific and religious circles have debated the morality of this natural act over the years. In fact, opinions on the (cis) female body have been so mixed and masturbation condemned to such an extent that in recent centuries it has even led to excision.
There are no paleontological remains to prove whether or not our prehistoric ancestors were partial to a little self-gratification, but since we're not only mammals but primates too, it would be logical to assume that, yes, indeed, they were. Masturbation today forms part of the life of all hominids. This includes bonobos, a species of pygmy chimpanzee, who reap the full benefits of their sexuality, enjoy sexual relationships with partners of both genders and even masturbate. We share about 99% of our DNA with these active apes, who use sexual contact for social cohesion, stress relief and to strengthen emotional bonds between group members. Sound familiar? It's clear that for them the notion of "sex for procreation" is very far-flung, despite not having a human conscience. Is there anything more natural than that?
In truth, the concept of masturbation has been shaped over time, conditioned by the moral norms and standards of every era. With that being said, masturbation has been synonymous with both self-stimulation and self-injury, depending on the perspective of the period in question. Nowadays, it makes absolutely no sense to consider it self-directed physical aggression. Equating it with something negative—which it isn't—has a lot to do with learned morals and values.
From the Ancient Greeks to the 20th century
In the fourth century BC, Diogenes often masturbated in public, and when he was scolded (nowadays it would be unthinkable for someone to go unpunished after masturbating in the street) he would say, "if only it were so easy to banish hunger", rubbing his belly.
From Diogenes to the 20th century, the idea of women masturbating and masturbation in general became increasingly distanced from the current notion, at least in the west, taking giant leaps backwards and becoming an abomination, not only from the religious viewpoint, but the scientific one too, with theories that would seem totally absurd and senseless nowadays.
But let's start with Galen, a Greek physician, surgeon and philosopher who lived in the first century AD. This scholar from Pergamon, in the Roman Empire, believed that masturbation was a way to release excess sperm and relieve oneself of the consequences of retention. OK, so far so good, but what if I told you he considered this the case for both men and women? Yep, you read that right. Galen thought that people with ovaries, a vagina and vulva also produced semen and, from then until around the 17th century, men and women were considered to belong to one sex, with the distinction being that for (cis) women, the breath of life was not quite strong enough to allow their sexual organs to fully develop. We were, in other words, half-men, the wrong way round. This not only meant we suffered from some kind of disease, but that we were also, as a result, inferior. Nevertheless, despite this theory, masturbation amongst us "half-men" was highly recommended since, given our anatomy, it was much more likely for our semen (if only they knew, eh...) to accumulate and rot. This is what we call "therapeutic masturbation".
Outside the medical field, people who didn't know about therapeutic masturbation believed it to be grotesque and second class—something only permitted amongst the poor, slaves and women. A decent man could never stoop so low; he would use his money to pay someone for sex or make use of a male or female slave. As for women, however, nothing could lower their status as "half-men". Their decency was not at risk because they didn't have any…
With the dawn of the Middle Ages came Albertus Magnus, bishop, doctor, theologian, geographer and philosopher. After many musings, Magnus came to the conclusion that sperm was derived from the brain, alleging that there was some kind of link between them. One of the tests that proved his theory was the case of a monk who, after lusting over a woman, spent the night masturbating until he eventually died. The man's autopsy revealed that his eyes were completely dehydrated and that his brain had shrunk to the size of a pomegranate. Nowadays, we can safely assume that there was no cause and effect relationship between these two events and that the monk's death was perhaps due to a brain defect rather than the 77 (as recorded in Albertus Magnus's notes) "happy endings" he enjoyed that night.
Indeed, as the influence of the Church increased, masturbation became a sin, as it was seen to infringe upon the laws of God. Sodomy, fornication and adultery were much more serious offences, but that didn't stop this rejection of masturbation from gaining even more momentum in the 17th century, when it became a sinful act. We owe this to Onan, a figure in the Book of Genesis. God decreed "be fruitful and multiply", so the spilling of one's seed was seen as a defiant deed, one that Onan repeated multiple times. According to Jewish law, Onan's duty was to marry his dead brother's widow, since he had left no heir. Consequently, any son born of Onan and his sister-in-law would not be his heir, but that of his dead brother Er. However, Onan withdrew before orgasm and wasted his seed to avoid fathering a child. As a result, according to the Book of Genesis, he was slain by God.
Masturbation was thus no longer seen as a therapeutic act; it became one of violence. This idea was supported by doctors such as Albertus Magnus, with his theory that semen came from the brain, and welcomed by the Church.
In 1758, Swiss physician Samuel-Auguste Tissot published Onanism. A treatise upon the disorders produced by masturbation. To add to the many arguments against self-pleasure, this book detailed the harmful effects of masturbation on the nervous system, with the author citing case studies from amongst his own patients as his inspiration. According to Tissot, the loss of semen would lead to cramps, convulsions, epileptic fits, hysteria and melancholy, which affected women to an even greater extent, given that our bodies were deemed inferior and much more vulnerable than our male counterparts'. Of course, the Church was quick to praise Tissot's theories.
Such was the angst about masturbation and the fear of debilitating one's body that physical punishments started to be applied, either keeping the desire to touch oneself at bay or preventing the act entirely. In men, the urethra was irrigated with a solution of sodium bicarbonate so that the injuries incurred quashed the desire to masturbate. Meanwhile, when women were infertile they underwent clitoral cauterisation or excision, a practice that persisted well up to the 19th century.
Since the clitoris has no reproductive function, but was deemed immoral as it provided pleasure without procreation, its cauterisation and excision was justified. This "amputation" was seen as the salvation of the female reproductive system, with the clitoris considered a useless, gangrenous and even carcinogenic appendage. To remove it was to sacrifice a part to save the whole.
Nevertheless, these morbid and dissuasive tactics also coexisted alongside many others which not only did not penalise masturbation, but also used it for healing purposes, much like Galen nineteen centuries earlier. In the 20th century, having debunked the one-sex theory and since proved that men and women belonged to two organically different sexes (although today we could have a whole host of debates about that), masturbation was used in women to treat the (in)famous hysteria, a nervous disorder supposedly responsible for a plethora of emotional and psychological changes, often accompanied by hot flushes. Doctors were the ones to provide these masturbatory massages, using their hands, vibrators or streams of water. Nowadays, not only is hysteria no longer recognised as a medical condition, but we know all too well that it was yet another ableist tool used to oppress women by attributing their revolution to a disease. "We're not hysterical, we're historical", we shout now to mark International Women's Day on March 8th every year.
Female masturbation today
According to the study "Fiction vs. Reality in Sex" by Bijoux Indiscrets, 11.2% of women have never masturbated and 13.3% feel guilty when they do. The history of masturbation in general, and female masturbation specifically, has been swamped by archaic science and religious and moral stigmas before finally becoming what it is today, despite some persistent misconceptions: a healthy practice of self-awareness and pleasure.