Masturbation was at one time called “solitary vice,” and we may suppose that it was, and is, in most cases a reclusive transgression. Diogenes is said to have pleasured himself publicly as a gesture of contempt for conventional morality, but Diogenes was, by design, an exception to the human rule.
I have heard enlightened folk make a somewhat half-hearted attempt to normalize masturbation with the euphemism “self-pleasuring,” but also noted that not one of these unabashed sexual pioneers elected to “come out” as a proud self-pleasurer.
There is a certain degree of obfuscation in both of these phrases, “solitary vice” and “self-pleasuring,” since they would seem to locate the autoerotic essence in either the setting (solitary) or the administrator (the self). Unless we are prepared to say that Diogenes was doing something other than masturbate when he staggered across the agora waving his tomahawk, we must reject solitude as the essence of the act.
That masturbation is essentially self-administered is likewise open to serious objections. These objections are grounded in no less an authority than underworld slang, and more especially the definitive underworld slang of hard-boiled detective fiction. This slang registers the existence of assisted masturbation, and gives the assistants such titles as a “jerker” and a “whanker’s moll.”*
I hope you will not object to a short digression on this word whank. Schmidt’s Dictionary of Medical Slang (1959) spells the word whank, with an h, but all modern writers seem to omit the letter and spell the word wank. One consequence of this omission has been mystification of the origin of the word. Until quite recently, whank was onomatopoeic for a short, sharp cry, and was especially used to denote the craking call of certain birds. For instance, here is what one author has to say of the unmelodious nuthatch:
“‘Whank, whank, whank!’ the little bird calls.” (Dunn and Troxell, By the Roadside .)
It is also possible that this word whank comes from the old Yorkshire colloquialism whang, which is to say beat, but I believe it comes from almost duck-like quack that so often accompanies what Schmidt described as “manual decompression of the membrum virile erectum.” We have seen that solitude is not essential to this act, but privacy is so often sought that it is understandable that the act has been connected to certain tell-a-tale noises from behind closed doors.
We move much closer to the essence of masturbation if we focus on that word manual in what Schmidt calls “manual decompression.”
The word masturbation is quite possibly a bastardization of the older word manustupration, which means to debauch (Latin stupor) with the hand. We all know that a man in a stupor is in a state of impaired sensibility. Whether the impairment is permanent or temporary, we call such a man stupid. From this I believe it follows that manual stupefaction of the genitals is the essence of masturbation. By regular manipulation, the whanker has rendered his penis stupid. This means that his “self abuse” has rendered the organ insensible to all but the most lurid enticements, and all but the most vigorous stimulation.
We might say he sufferes Stupid Penis Syndrome.
The Latin word stupor is often translated as debauch. This is a word that would benefit from restoration, since it is nowadays used almost exclusively as a noun (debauchery) that denotes excess, or what should really be called luxury. Properly speaking, debauchery a one particular form of stupefaction. Specifically, to debauch a person (or a thing) is to render it incapable of serving its purpose or fulfilling its duty. Or, if you like, it is to make that thing or person stupid. When a person is debauched, this always involves rendering that person insensible to that purpose or duty.
You may have heard the expression “debauch the currency.” What does this mean? It means to render the currency incapable of serving its purpose as a store of value and a medium of exchange, normally by inflating the money supply.
In olden times, a woman was said to be debauched when she had been rendered incapable of performing the natural duties of a wife and mother. In the terms of my previous post, she was a whore (i.e. a “goodtime girl” or a “party girl”). This sometimes involved defilement by rape, but debauchery of a woman did not require rape, and rape did not entail debauchery. Debauchery did, however, usually involve rendering the woman stupidly insensible to her natural duties as a woman.
Likewise, in olden times, a man was said to be debauched when he had been rendered incapable of performing the natural duties of a husband and father. In the terms of my previous post, he was a gambler (i.e. a “sport” or a “playboy”). This often involved wagering on the outcome of games, but was in essence a conviction that life is a game in which the summum bonum is fun. And here again, debauchery involved rendering the man stupidly insensible to his natural duties as a man.
Manustupration debauches the genitals because it isolates the orgasm as the summum bonum of erotic desire. Fun is transformed from a happy accident of sex into its defining purpose. Whanking is not the only means whereby this transformation can be accomplished, but it is certainly one of the most common ways in which eros is debauched. If a man or woman persists in self-abuse, they will in time impair, perhaps even loose, their capacity for natural sexual function, because they have brought themselves to a state of profound sexual stupidity.