The Good, The Bad and Bumping Uglys

One night when I was ten years old, my father abruptly announced that we would begin a weekly Bible study, just the two of us. “Every Tuesday night,” he said. The study lasted for three weeks. Those first two Tuesdays were simply a setup, a warm up for Tuesday number three. My father decided it was time for “the talk,” only this was not your standard “where babies come from” spiel. No, this was the whole ugly shebang.

We sat down on our sweating and plastic-covered couch, my mother was in the kitchen slowly doing dishes, and we talked about God’s view of sex. We read from a suggestively pink hardcover Christian publication written specifically for the adolescent. A kind of hot pink handbook for kids called Your Youth—Getting the Best Out of It! I can still see my father, sitting awkwardly in his tight brown slacks hugging his middle-aged scrotum way too closely, threads wearing thin (and why does he sit with his legs spread so wide, even now? my wife has actually asked me this), a clown-sized paisley tie hanging heavy from his white and blushing, freshly shaved neck.

My father read to me from a chapter entitled “Masturbation and Homosexuality,” and we began an extraordinarily stilted conversation about the dangers and sinful nature of “self-abuse” and of touching other boys.

There are many, many things wrong with this picture.

Even as a ten-year-old I was baffled—does God have sex? If not, then what on earth does He know about it? And as far as “self-abuse” is concerned, let’s just say the name does not quite fit the game. Not to mention, why is this man talking to me about touching other boys? Has he not seen how nervous, how excited I get during I Dream of Jeannie? Does he know something I don’t? And of course there is the conspicuous coupling of the two topics, masturbation and homosexuality, as if one is somehow dependent on the other, that both are equally “sinful” simply because they’re not boy/girl. Very silly.

Perhaps nothing, amid the entire scene, may have been so bizarre as my father’s choice to illustrate our inaugural discussion of the-birds-and-the-bees with cartoon fish.

I’ll explain.


In the back inside cover of the pink book, my father, with a carpenter’s flat pencil, drew two fish in profile. One behind the other, as if two cars in traffic on a one lane road. Each had an exaggerated smile and tiny circles for eyes. One fish, according to my father, has a hole. This was apparently the girl-fish, and my father proceeded to draw a small dark orifice just beneath the girl-fish’s back triangular fin. The boy-fish, however, was quite different, and was entirely unlike any fish that I’ve seen since. Let us say he was blessed, because from beneath his back fin hung a penis that any horse would envy (at least when considering scale). Yes, from the back of the boy-fish hung a long tubular and erect organ, with what would be softball-sized testicles to match. And I imagine that if this were indeed the state of these two fish, Ms. Fish would swim off for her life.


To fully appreciate the gross irony, please understand that I think of my father’s drawing whenever I find myself behind a car bumper bearing the Christian symbol of Ichthys—the Jesus Fish.

All of which is to say—masturbation is bad, bad, bad. And God says so.


I recently read Norman Mailer’s book on writing, The Spooky Art, which perhaps due to his passing still sneaks its way into my consciousness with an unexpected resonance. And as is usually the case when reading Mailer, I was at times filled with envy, admiration and awe. At other times, I scratched my head like what the hell is wrong with this man. Under the subheading of “Part Two: Psychology” is the chapter “Gender, Narcissism and Masturbation.” If you’re already familiar with Mailer and his singular and strangely homophobic take on human sexuality, forgive the repetition, but Mr. Mailer does not like masturbation. “It’s a miserable act,” Mailer writes, using language that closely approaches a form of religiosity.

For Mailer, God is an existential God and an artisan, though a far from perfect one. He is, like the human, not entirely good. Nevertheless, we are His ever-protean and greatest work. In fact, (and it’s been said before) Mailer’s God is a lot like Mailer. In Mailer’s theology there is no heaven, but there certainly is a God and there certainly is a Devil. And we humans make for a problematic, but intrinsic third in Mailer’s trinity. We three are interdependent in that fight between The Good and The Bad. And, contrary to popular belief, and despite Mailer’s affinity for reincarnation, this is not necessarily an eternal fight. More, there’s no guarantee that, in the end, The Good will win.

And why should there be if the fight is a fair one?

But what interests me here is what all of this, his particular sense of theology, of life, the universe, and everything has to do with touching one’s own privates. My guess is that if we humans somewhat constitute God by our very existence, then God, in turn, is dependent on our very existence, and therefore dependent on procreation. When God says “Be fruitful and multiply,” in Genesis, He isn’t kidding. His job depends on it. Masturbation, however, is an isolated act, one that fails to reproduce, a potentially creative act that fails to create.

So for Mailer (as far as I can tell) masturbation is bad, bad, bad, because masturbation fails to create God.


So here we have two men, my father and Norman Mailer, two men that could not have been more opposite in their opinion and yet both claim the M-word abhorrent. Of course, it would make good sense if the reader now begins to question my pointed interest in the topic at hand (ha!)—especially after considering the writer’s likely location, sitting in a small room, alone, in front of a computer… What I am getting at: my father’s position on masturbation is relatively understandable. It’s symptomatic of his position on what’s Right and what’s Wrong. There is a clear, definable and biblical line, (regardless of that line’s illegitimacy). Mailer on the other hand (ha, again!), somewhat troubles me.

Masturbation seems a clearly gray, if not trivial, moral question.

So this began for me a brief but rather unsettling meditation on morality, with wanking as a lens.


In the beginning there was Onan. Genesis chapter 38, versus 3-10, tells the very short story of two brothers, Onan and Er. Both young men whom, unlike almost any other character in the Good Book that die by divine judgment (angel of death, plague, etc.), actually die directly by God’s own hand. First there is Er, the older brother who, apparently, was just no good: “And Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the LORD; and the LORD slew him” (38:7 King James).

Not much information really. And then there is the infamous Onan.

A little back-story is in order.

It’s very likely that a jealous and hasty God, such as the God, Yahweh, of the Hebrew Bible, might realize only after slaying of Er that Er had no sons to speak of. This would be quite the big deal in a nomadic, patriarchal, tribal culture, such as that of the ancient Israelites. The boys continue the line; the line continues the tribe.

So in the event of death before descendants, the brother marries the wife of the deceased (think Hamlet, although that’s not exactly the same thing). It is the job of the brother to inseminate the wife. This is referred to as a levirate marriage, and it’s still in practice today (see HBO’s Deadwood—again, not exactly the same thing). Onan, however, did not want the job. And why? “Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled [it] on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother. And the thing which he did displeased the LORD: wherefore He slew him also” (38:9,10).

Wow. Onan was whacked by God himself just for pulling out.

One would think things might end here, or, at best, inspire the religiously inclined to swear off early withdrawal. Maybe even extend this toward the use of contraception, as the Catholics have so creatively done, and announce that God hates condoms. Alas, no. Strict rules regarding the bumping of uglys (yes, a repugnant term, but it worked in the title pun, so I had to do it) did not inspire sufficiently pious disgust for human sexuality. In addition, one must hate one’s very own privates.

Thus “Onanism” was born.

Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, then and now, have oh so often claimed that Onan’s crime was indeed the waste of semen, and therefore masturbation is a crime. A crime against God! Against nature! A crime worthy of death! And so began the bloody history of hanging, and burning, and damning boys and girls discovered under sheets, and who take too long in the bathroom. Actually the official term, Onanism, was not coined until 1760 when Swiss physician Samuel Auguste André David Tissot authored L’Onanisme, a largely fictional medical treatise that condemned the act of masturbation. It was a hit, to say the least. But for centuries prior to Tissot, masturbators, young and old, were sent to the gallows, dungeons and blade. Just think of the Spanish Inquisition.

On U.S. soil, masturbation was punishable by death up until the mid-seventeenth century. In the nineteenth century, Sylvester Graham, inventor of the Graham Cracker, was equally famous and lauded for his nationwide campaign against jerking. In the early twentieth century, John Kellogg, inventor of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes (what is it about carbohydrates that inspires such deviant obsessions), also vehemently pursued a nation free of masturbation. Kellogg recommended anesthetic-free circumcision on older boys, and carbolic acid on the clitoris for girls, placing him in a tradition that had long existed throughout several portions of Africa and Asia, where female circumcision continues to maim and kill thousands of girls annually. 

In “scientific” circles masturbation has been creatively linked with countless ailments, diseases and disorders. All of which, in part, would have found their ancestry in the groundbreaking work of Tissot. Blindness, hairy palms, dementia, etc.

The witch hunt continued well into the twentieth century. In the 1980s, Cindy Lauper and England’s Buzzcocks deflowered the ears of innumerable American teenagers with pop anthems that extolled the joys of self-love: “She-Bop” and “Orgasm Addict” respectively. Creepy parents everywhere cried out for justice as they parsed innocuous lyrics to the favorite songs of sons and daughters, looking for possibly dirty words. My parents called an emergency family round-table over Quiet Riot’s “Cum On Feel the Noize,” carefully explaining that “cum” was quite different than “come,” insisting that if we found ourselves in direct aural contact with this particular song, we should run for the hills.

Thank goodness for the rare honesty of Mark Twain who, in his hilarious speech, “Some Thoughts on the Science of Onanism,” called the act nothing less than an “art.” In fact, an art responsible for much of history’s greatest artworks—”Old masters,” remarks Twain, “is an abbreviation, a contraction.”

And, of course, let us not forget the great Dr. Betty Dodson, who in 2005 declared the very first National Masturbation Day—May 7th—fully embracing the notion of embracing one’s self. Point being this: since time immemorial there has been the other half, more often the losing half that celebrates the Self. In Egyptian antiquity, the god Atum was believed to continuously bring the world into being by way of masturbation. And the Nile River—well, you can imagine, I’m sure.

A few thousand years later, in 1986, Dr. I. Meizner captured for the first time sonographic footage of in-utero masturbation (the first of countless unisex observations since). Yes, a twenty-eight-week-old male making use of his alone time, proving once and for all that self-love is a healthy, normal biological function.

As a young boy, my father shared the story of Onan with me and tattooed his interpretation of it on my tiny brain. The story’s repercussions rebounded in my head. But as I grew older, I became even more fascinated with the brother, Er. What did this poor sap do? According to scripture, he was “wicked.” Well, that doesn’t really do a person any good, now does it? Tell me why, and maybe I’ll learn something. What was Er actually guilty of? Murder, rape, incest, adultery, theft, lying, jealousy? Well, so are practically all of God’s chosen throughout the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament (this seems a fun time as any to point out that the words testament and testicle do have the same etymology).

At times, Yahweh is guilty of such things Himself.

Yet Er is slain, presumably, for one (or more) of these crimes while others remain untouched, even blessed. The lesson here is to err is human, and yet Er is slain for being just that. It made very little sense to me then. The only understandable message was this—there exists both evil and righteousness. Good and Bad.

And God knows which is which.

Nevertheless, the evidence is in.

Onanism, auto-eroticism, masturbation, self-love, wanking, whatever you want to call it, is in the cards, kids. It’s part of who we are. Hell, it’s on sonographic videotape.

In fact, some contemporary biblical literary scholars, like Leonard Mars, argue that Onan’s crime was not primarily a sexual one. Mars argues that Onan’s crime was murder. And no, no, no, not the murder of some unborn child, but the murder of his brother Er, by way of ending Er’s lineage, erasing Er’s name (all of enormous and equal value in ancient Judaism). If this is the case, who knows how many have suffered and will continue to suffer (Shame! Guilt! Exorbitant DVD costs!), and all based on the erroneous reading of an obscure biblical passage.

Right and wrong. Good and bad. It all seems very gray to me.

Then again, some things just feel good.

Really, really good.


An earlier draft of this essay appeared in the Huffington Post.


  • For a more in-depth discussion of Tissot and modern figurations of masturbation see R.P. Nueman’s  Masturbation, Madness, and the Modern Concepts of Childhood and Adolescence,” Journal of Social History, Vol. 8, No. 3 (Spring, 1975), pp. 1-27.
  • Feel free to dig around for a hardcopy of Twain’s speech—unfortunately, it’s been long out of print—or just go here for the full text.
  • For a fascinating discussion of Leonard Mars’s theory see “What was Onan’s Crime?” in Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 26, No. 3 (Jul., 1984), pp. 429-439.
  • I. Meizner.“Sonographic observation of in utero fetal ‘masturbation,’” Journal Of Ultrasound In Medicine: Official Journal Of The American Institute Of Ultrasound In Medicine [J Ultrasound Med] 1987 Feb; Vol. 6 (2), pp. 111 


Scott Cheshire is the author of the novel High as the Horses' Bridles (Henry Holt), and teaches at Queens College, CUNY.