“Some 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 (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).

Getting off to a good start (no pun intended), Twain began by referring to the act as a “species of recreation . . . to which I perceive you are much addicted.”

Then the master of satire “recounted” a series of quotes on the subject, purportedly made by some of histories most notable personalities. For example, Twain has Queen Elizabeth noting that the practice is “the bulwark of virginity,” while Julius Caesar is said to have characterized it as “company” to the lonely, “friend” to the forsaken, and “benefactor” to the “aged and the impotent.”

Building to a crescendo, Twain quotes Ben Franklin as saying “masturbation is the best policy,” and Robinson Crusoe as admitting, “I cannot describe what I owe this gentle art,” although no one praised the science more ardently than Mr. Brown who, according to Twain, said, “None knows it but to love it; none name it but to praise it.”

Obviously a fan, Twain remained faithful to his journalistic roots and gave equal time to those who were not enamored with the ancient art, including Brigham Young, whom Twain said described it “as compared with the other thing, it is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

Twain also has Galen saying it “is shameful to degrade to such bestial uses that grand limb, that formidable member . . . . It would be better to amputate the os frontis than to put it to such use.”

Twain then got scientific, including reporting that the statistician, Smith, averred that, “more children have been wasted in this way than any other.” He later turned to zoology and anthropology, and described the similarity of the practice in both humans and monkeys, with the latter taking “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 . . .

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.

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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, until controversy ignited among early Christians. It was yet unclear whether the Gospel required circumcision among converts, which would thus restrict Christianity to Jews or Gentiles willing to undergo the procedure. 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. Rather, in the Western world, the popularity of circumcision grew in 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. (See: The History of Circumcision)
  • Twain grew up along the banks of the Mississippi River, where he eventually became a steamboat pilot in 1857 (and from where he took the name “Mark Twain,” which was river slang for 12 feet of water).
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