Mark Twain’s Hilarious “Thoughts on the Science of Onanism”

Mark Twain at age 15

Mark Twain at age 15

Through the latter half of the 19th century, Mark Twain was on a mission to attack pretense with satire. One of his most hilarious, if completely scandalous and by many standards inappropriate, works was a lecture he gave to The Stomach Club in 1879 about masturbation titled, “Some Thoughts on the Science of Onanism.”

During the 19th century, medical practice had been increasingly incorporating scientific thoughts and developments, including how disease spread and the rise of anesthesia. As such, simply calling something a “science” at that time gave it a certain cachet, so the irony of juxtaposing this honorific with the topic of self-abuse (as masturbation used to be called), would not have been lost on the audience.

Nor would any part of Twain’s talk go unappreciated, as The Stomach Club was a group of writers and artists who loved to get together over a delicious meal, and a few too many drinks, and enjoy a bawdy tale.

That evening, Twain’s topic would not disappoint, as Onanism was well known at the time as a euphemism for masturbation

If you’re wondering, Onan was the guy from the Old Testament who was killed for spilling his “seed” on the ground instead of in the lady- the oldest documented instance of the withdrawal method of birth control being used, which contrary to what many think is actually nearly as effective at preventing pregnancy as condoms according to a 2008 study, Better Than Nothing or Savvy Risk-Reduction Practice? The Importance of Withdrawal, written by researchers from Princeton, Central Connecticut State University, the Guttmacher Institute, and Ibis Reproductive Health.

Specifically, they note the withdrawal method, while a poor way to prevent STDs in general, when executed perfectly- which just means withdrawing before ejaculation, aiming said ejaculate away from the relevant lady bits, and not having sex again until one has urinated first to clear any remaining sperm out of the urethra- is 96% effective at preventing pregnancy if used as the primary means of contraception over the course of a given year. For comparison, using a condom, when done perfectly, is 98% effective over that same span and oral contraception has a “perfect use” rate of about 99.7%.

Now this is when all three methods are done “perfectly”, so what about in actual practice with everyday people? The pull and pray method is roughly 82% effective while using a condom is roughly 83% effective, give or take depending on which study you want to go with. The pill, in contrast, does offer a much better “actual use” rate of around 96%.

In any event, back to Twain and his thoughts on Onanism- getting off to a good start with his speech, Twain began by referring to the act as a “species of recreation . . . to which I perceive you are much addicted.”

He goes on,

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 to the impotent it is a benefactor. They that are penniless are yet rich, in that they still have this majestic diversion.” In another place this experienced observer has said, “There are times when I prefer it to sodomy.”

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, “A jerk in the hand is worth two in the bush.” The immortal Franklin has said, “Masturbation is the best policy.”

… Michelangelo said to Pope Julius II, “Self-negation is noble, self-culture beneficent, self-possession is manly, but to the truly great and inspiring soul they are poor and tame compared with self-abuse.” …

Obviously a fan, Twain remained faithful to his journalistic roots and gave equal time to those who were not enamored with the ancient art, noting

Brigham Young, an expert of incontestable authority, said, “As compared with the other thing, it is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” Solomon said, “There is nothing to recommend it but its cheapness.” Galen said, “It is shameful to degrade to such bestial uses that grand limb, that formidable member, which we votaries of Science dub the Major Maxillary–when they dub it at all–which is seldom, It would be better to amputate the os frontis than to put it to such use.”

Twain then turned to Darwin and the noble monkey, stating,

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 ingenuous 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 his contortions and his ecstatic expression that he takes an intelligent and human interest in his performance.

Like a modern roast today, Twain couldn’t resist sticking it to his audience a bit as he opined that those who indulge in the recreation too much can be easily detected by their “disposition to eat, to drink, to smoke, to meet together convivially, to laugh, to joke and tell indelicate stories.”

Ultimately, however, Twain explained that this science was the least efficacious of all sexual acts since:

As an amusement, it is too fleeting; as an occupation . . . 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 been banished . . . It has at last, in our day of progress and improvement, been degraded to brotherhood with flatulence. Among the best bred, these two arts are now indulged in only private–though by consent of the whole company, when only males are present, it is still permissible, in good society, to remove the embargo on the fundamental sigh.

Finally, Twain concluded with these maxims:

If you must gamble your lives 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.

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our new popular podcast, The BrainFood Show (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Feed), as well as:

Bonus Facts:

  • Circumcision in the United States did not become popular because Christians were trying to keep with the covenant between God and Abraham, as is often thought today. After 50 BC, circumcision remained, at least popularly speaking, a largely Jewish affair as it had been since at least 1800 BC. However, there eventually arose a controversy concerning the practice among Christians as it was unclear whether the Gospel required circumcision among converts, which would thus restrict Christianity to Jews or Gentiles willing to snip the tip. Ultimately, it was decided that circumcision was not a prerequisite to conversion, and the Catholic Church maintained a degree of hostility towards the practice which would set the tone for circumcision among Catholics and Protestants alike until the 19th century (though of course Muslim groups would popularly also eventually adopt the practice). But as for the Western world, the popularity of circumcision didn’t grow until the 19th century as a way to try to discourage masturbation. Clitoridectomies were also mildly popular for a time as a treatment for masturbation in women. For more on this, see our video The History of Circumcision.
  • Samuel Clemens grew up along the banks of the Mississippi River, where he eventually became a steamboat pilot in 1857. It was from his experiences here that he came up with the name “Mark Twain” sometime around 1863. This was river slang for 12 feet of water, or two fathoms, with Mark twain literally meaning “mark two” or the second mark on the depth measurement line.
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  • Why would you possibly put a paragraph about the “pull out method” effectiveness? That’s way too complicated of a topic to summarize here. For example, the study you cite study finds that it is only effective if practiced perfectly, which almost nobody does. That makes the practical effectiveness rate a LOT lower. Plus it doesn’t protect against STDs like condoms do.

    Is that anecdote worth someone stumbling across it and using it as a justification to do something stupid?

    • Daven Hiskey

      “the study you cite study finds that it is only effective if practiced perfectly, which almost nobody does” It actually says it’s almost as effective in real world use at preventing pregnancy as condoms as noted in the article. This shouldn’t really be a surprise to anyone as it’s not exactly rocket surgery. No sperm able to get to an egg = no baby. The former controversy was that it was thought that pre-ejaculate actually contained some viable sperm, so even if you pulled out there would still be a small chance of pregnancy. However, it turns out pre-ejactulate does not contain any viable sperm. The exception to this is if a guy ejaculated and then without urinating in between had sex again. In that case there is a small chance of viable sperm being transferred even without an additional ejaculation. But the solution there is also not complex.