Spilling One’s Seed
Not so long ago, as I was walking round the Hermitage in St Petersburg, I spotted among the many paintings a wonderful etching by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) depicting a nude male model in front of a curtain. The young man is undoubtedly masturbating. Commentators speak of an ‘academic posture in a classical attitude expressing balance and harmony’. I don’t believe a word of it.
Male self-gratification means that the man does not inject his seed into the appropriate aperture in a female body, but wastes it. At least, for centuries this was the view of many religions. Other terms for selfgratification include masturbation, onanism and solo sex. ‘Masturbation’ derives from the Latin words mas, meaning ‘manly/manliness’ and turbare, meaning ‘to move (violently)’. In reality it refers to the phenomenon that occurs in both sexes of humans and animals, namely bringing oneself through certain actions to a state of sexual arousal, whether or not followed by an orgasm, and in men the ejaculating of sperm. In Thailand they call it ‘flying your kite’.
In many primates both sexes masturbate with some regularity, for example the red-capped mangabey, a soot-coloured West African monkey with a long tail and extravagant hair growth on its cheeks. And orang-utans stimulate themselves with sex toys that they make from twigs and leaves. Male red deer do it by rubbing the tips of their antlers on the grass. It takes no longer than fifteen seconds from beginning to end. Elephants of course use their trunks in masturbation.
The Romans associated masturbation with the left hand, traditionally seen as the wrong or evil hand. In general the spilling of seed has been regarded as sinful or a necessary evil. The Talmud makes no bones about it: it is forbidden to hold one’s member even while urinating. There is an important linguistic distinction between masturbation and onanism. For the reader not brought up with the language of the
Bible, the term onanism is quite wrongly derived from Onan, a grandson of the patriarch Jacob. In accordance with ancient Jewish custom Onan’s father demanded that he marry Tamar, the widow of his dead brother and have children with her. Onan did not want to do this and so ‘it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled [his seed] upon the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother’ (Genesis 38:1-30). What Onan did is more accurately known as coitus interruptus.