A while ago, I happened across an article with the tear-inducing title, “Egyptian Med Students Believe Masturbation Causes Blindness”. Now before you start laughing at those “backward” Muslims, please remember that there are plenty of Americans who believe this as well. I hope that none of them are currently in med school but hey, you never know. Michael Behe has a Ph.D. in biology and yet he doesn’t believe in evolution. Ignorance doesn’t have a nationality. But anyway…
After reading this article, I decided to try to figure out where in the Hell this ridiculous idea came from. Even without the benefit of medical science, this idea is patently absurd. Nearly everyone has seen a blind adult and many people have seen blind children or blind babies. So if we’re all aware that one can be born blind, where would anyone get the idea that you could go blind without physically damaging your eyes ? *
It’s difficult to pin down the exact time and place that this myth was born, but one of the first people to suggest that masturbation could make you go blind was the Swiss scientist Simon Tissot, in his 1758 text, Treatise on the Diseases Caused By Onanism. Onanism was the word used to describe masturbation before the actual word “masturbation” was coined. Onanism is a reference Onan, a character in the Bible who was killed by Yahweh for masturbating (Gen 38:7-10).
Tissot’s ideas (which he himself had borrowed had borrowed from an earlier, anonymous text) were popularized by Sylvester Graham, a very influential public speaker in the antebellum period. Graham believed that excessive heat (generated by, among other things, masturbation) caused physical damage to the blood vessels and to the brain. Masturbation could even cause you to go insane! Graham was also the inventor of the Graham cracker, which was part of his plan to cure masturbation (etc) through diet. Another one of the culprits responsible for the spread of this idea was John Kellogg, who also believed that masturbation caused blindness (as well as acne). Similar to Graham, Kellogg proposed a dietary solution to this problem. Namely cereal.
The awful tyranny of ignorance was brought to an end in the 1950s when a husband and wife team of researchers (Masters and Johnson) discovered that a large percentage of American adults masturbated and that this activity did not in fact cause blindness. So don’t say that science has never done anything for your sex life.
* Science note: Diabetes can make you blind, but that tends to happen very late in life and even if pre-scientific people had noticed this sugar to blindness connection, they would’ve attributed it to old age, not to masturbation. As far as I know, that’s the only thing that can cause blindness without physically damaging your eyes from the outside.
Attitudes Toward Sex in Antebellum America edited by Helen Horowitz