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Onania, or The Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution: 1724

"Abomination with those of our own Sex"

An anonymous book, Onania; or, The Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution, And All its Frightful Consequences, in both Sexes was published in London in 1723, and reprinted in Boston in 1724. This first warning against masturbation published in the American colonies, and one of the earliest such diatribes published in England, contains scattered references to Sodom and sodomy.(1)

Onania declared: Wherever it was said in the Old or New Testament, "Uncleanness, the Lusts of the Flesh, or the Abominations of Sodom are condemned" the sin of "Self-Pollution" was "hinted at among others.(2) Whether "we commit Abomination with those of our own Sex, as the Scripture says, Men with Men; or with Beasts; or that we defile our own Bodies ourselves with this shameful Action," it "destroys conjugal Affection, perverts natural Inclination, and tends to extinguish the Hopes of Posterity."(3)

Various punishments and sanctions kept people from fornication and adultery; and the "Punishment for unnatural Impurities committed with others is Capital." But, the author complained, in "Self-Pollution" many imagined they had nothing to fear.(4)

A letter from an anonymous female argued that after a woman had conceived or was past child-bearing, any sexual intercourse of husband and wife "centers in the Pleasure of Sense, and is a Frustraneous Abuse of their Bodies, the same ... with Self-Pollution and Sodomy."(5)

The author of Onania disagreed. It was inconsistent with the goodness and justice of God that any act "should be so heinous a Sin as Sodomy" and that he would not "have warned us against it."(6) If such intercourse as the letter writer condemned

"was so heinous a Sin as Sodomy, and by every Body believed to be such, Procreation itself would suffer very much. The Danger of committing so capital a Crime, would render good People cautious beyond Necessity."

The "Fear of having conceived already, would in many Cases hinder them from conceiving at all. "(7)

Another letter writer, a male, said that self- pollution "has always appeared to me very Criminal," but much less so than "several Crimes that Mankind is too much adicted to; such as Sodomy, Whoredom, Profane-Swearing, Murder, and the like."(8)

A letter from "Nathaniel Pedagogus" hoped that most of "our Masturbators . . . are not so Wicked as to desire Persons of their own Sex, much less any of the Contrary, to be their Accomplices in gratifying their innate Corruption."(9)

But the same writer admitted that "seldom do I evacuate [ejaculate] myself at any time of the Night, but that except I have some Bed-fellow, from whose warmth and Company I find my Desires and Inclinations almost insuperably heightened." The writer denied the sinfulness of "a voluntary Emission of the Semen," if it was not accompanied by "impure" thoughts or desires. He had for "many Years followed this practice," and had never offended his maker "by having Carnally to do with any Woman."(10)

The author of Onania answered that the letter writer was obviously not a good judge of his own morals:

A Man who is so Lascivious in his Temper, that his Desires and Inclinations are almost insuperably heightened by a Bed-fellow of his own Sex, is in a dangerous Condition, and ought, far from pampering his Flesh by several Meals in a day [as the letter writer had admitted], to make use of the most effectual means to mortify it, before he can without Folly or Impudence hope for the assistance of Divine Grace.(11)

Interpretation

Although much of the book's rhetoric is religious, the author (a doctor, apparently) framed the argument against "Self-Pollution" primarily in terms of "disease" and other dire physical effects on the individual polluter. This illustrates a move away from earlier arguments against non-procreative sex, formulated in religious and social terms, toward a new secular ideology referring to individuals' "health."

By 1700 the busily trading American colonies were already qualitatively different from those tenuous outposts that had passed the early sodomy laws and tried the early sodomy cases. References in Onania to women as "the different Sex," "the contrary Sex," and "the other Sex" are the earliest such usages Katz noted in colonial-era documents that he surveyed. Those phrases suggest that in England and America the sexes were being more insistently differentiated; the early colonists' relative lack of stress, in some situations, on sexual difference was on its way out.

 

References

  1. Jonathan Ned Katz, Gay/Lesbian Almanac (NY: Harper & Row, 1983), pp. 131-33, citing Onania; or, The Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution, and all its Frightful Consequences, in Both Sexes, Considered(London, 1723: Boston for John Philips, 1924). Reprinted in The Secret Vice Exposed! Some Arguements Against Masturbation (New York: Arno Press, 1974).
  2. Onania, p. 7.
  3. Onania, p. 9.
  4. Onania, p. 11-12.
  5. Onania, p. 86.
  6. Onania, p. 93.
  7. Onania, p. 96.
  8. Onania, p. 127.
  9. Onania, p. 141.
  10. Onania, p. 143.
  11. Onania, p. 155.