Somehow the human race survived the Middle Ages, no mean feat when you consider how much literature was out there condemning sex. Church thinkers like Saint Jerome announced that carnal relations were “filthy” even within the bounds of holy matrimony: “The wise man should love his wife with cool discretion,” Jerome opined, “not with hot desire… Nothing is nastier than to love your own wife as if she were your mistress.” Intercourse for procreation was tolerable, the holy fathers begrudgingly admitted, but anyone who indulged in sex because they were in love or seeking physical pleasure was on a fast track to damnation. In fact, this attitude eventually led the Church to legislate on the most intimate details of married life: In 1215, the cleric Johannes Teutonicus was the first to announce that there was only one “natural”… More…

Masturbation’s bad rap can be dated with surprising accuracy. Around 1712, a short, anonymous pamphlet called Onania began to circulate around the 2,000-odd coffee houses of London, published by the private press of one P. Varenne. Little did anyone know it would become history’s most successful advertorial. The pamphlet made the sensational claim that masturbation was responsible for a whole range of illnesses — from headaches to rheumatism, short-sightedness, bowel disorders, and gonorrhea — and that, left unrestrained, the habit would inevitably lead to a lonely and agonizing death. Up until this time, the world had been blissfully indifferent to the health risks of self-pleasuring; the habit elicited a few tut-tuts from the Church, but it was considered an insignificant and harmless vice. In fact, doctors since the Roman Galen had argued that the retention of sperm by males was physically dangerous and that females could also avoid hysteria and… More…