In Praise of Masturbation
by Philippe Brenot

I confess here, openly, and as an act of atonement: ‘Yes, I’ve masturbated…and several times too!’

This confession of a contemptible crime, this repeat offence, would have cost me my life under the Spanish Inquisition, would have merited prison in the 18th century, a flogging and corporal punishment in the 19th, and contempt and severe disapproval not so long ago. Today it leaves some people indifferent, while it offends those who still don’t know what to think about it.

Ben Johnson confessed to doping himself, de Quincey admitted to taking opium and Gautier to smoking hashish. I confess to masturbation, a solitary crime if ever there was one, whose roots emerge from the divine precepts of the Bible; a crime that was reborn from its ashes in the ‘Dark Ages’ of the 18th century, not Rousseau’s century but Tissot’s, a fellow citizen from Geneva, who clumsily preached war on sex.

In 1758, with the publication of his treatise On Onanism or The Ills Produced by Masturbation, Tissot inaugurated two hundred years of obscurantism by proclaiming sexual repression, repression of dawning impulses and sexual guilt in what is the most ‘imaginative’, the most natural, the most necessary sexual act: masturbation. Over time, his discourse has become part of our morality. It still permeates language and popular thought today. It is still alive at the very centre of our uncertainties, it feeds the guilt of men, women and couples who believe secretly, in their innermost hearts, that what is good is bad.

Although it is the most frequent act of our sexuality, masturbation remains the most intimate taboo of western sexual morality. Morals have changed. Sex is shown on television. One can talk about rape, incest or transexuality, for it doesn’t relate to most of us directly. I’ve never raped, I’ll never be incestuous, I’m not about to change my sex, while…

This formidable crusade, led by an army of naïve persecutors, was in reality motivated, justified and even legitimatized by a very deep fear of the end of the world, and the total destruction of humanity, when faced by that distressing revelation: sperm is alive, it contains human beings, beware of genocide!

But if a vengeful sadism threw this criminal anathema at the whole world, nobody has yet dared to say that the prohibition has been lifted; that is, not until today with In Praise of Masturbation.

‘Just for Sex’

As one can say something is done ‘just for fun’, I think one can use the phrase ‘just for sex’ in the same manner. Almost by chance, a crime was committed in the 18th century, in the Vaud district of Switzerland. This ‘sex crime’ happened in the melting pot of Europe on the banks of Lake Geneva where both Rousseau, a citizen of Geneva and Voltaire, from the hills of Ferney, excelled.

This idea of doing something ‘just for sex’ first came about in 1758 with the publication in Lausanne of a very serious book, written in Latin by Samuel Tissot, Testamen de Morbis ex Manustupratione (‘A physical dissertation on the ills produced by masturbation’), which was published almost privately following on from one of his most famous texts, his Dissertation on Bilious Fevers.

As with many others at the time, that publication could have been nothing more than anecdotal. But it did however wake up the old demons of the Inquisition and witch hunts, and it influenced attitudes and sexual morality, lasting right up until the beginning of the 20th century. That symbolic book, which would continue to be re-published, provoked the biggest outbreak of sexual repression known to Europe, and one which still endures today.

Samuel Auguste David André Tissot, who always wrote his name preceded by the two initials S.A. (Samuel André), was born in Grancy in the Vaud district on March 20th 1728, to a very religious family. His uncle, who cared for him during his childhood, was a pastor. He succeeded brilliantly at school in Geneva, then studied medicine at Montpellier, the oldest and most reputable faculty of the day. A doctor by the year 1749, Tissot returned to settle in Lausanne, where he rapidly gained a reputation throughout Europe for his therapeutic skills, notably in his treatment of smallpox – which he cured with remedies termed ‘laxatives’ at a time when sweating alone was recommended – a counter-therapy which made him very famous. At the same time, Tissot published numerous books which caused a considerable stir because, for the first time, a doctor was writing for the people and was expressing his knowledge through popular language. His Advice to the People with Regard to their Health, published in 1761 and translated into ten languages, brought him the praise of his fellow doctors. Lausanne made him a burgher and a member of the Council. Berne and Geneva awarded him numerous honours. The Royal Society in London made him one of its members. In 1786, the King of Poland offered him the title of ‘First Doctor’, a title he also received the following year from the King of England.