Lynch's Memetic Theories about Masturbation (Long)

Timothy Perper/Martha Cornog (
Wed, 18 Jun 1997 14:08:25 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Wed, 18 Jun 1997 14:08:25 -0500
From: (Timothy Perper/Martha Cornog)
Subject: Lynch's Memetic Theories about Masturbation (Long)

The following is from both Tim Perper and Martha Cornog.

There has been much discussion on this list of various abstractions
concerning memes, cultural evolution, and related material. In the
following, which is fairly long, we take a specific example of memetics and
examine it in detail. One question that will arise with considerable force
is whether memetics as yet can deal with the sorts of details that surround
a specific issue. The example is masturbation, and is taken from Aaron
Lynch's book "Thought Contagion."

--- Background ---

In the midst of a discussion with Bill Benzon, Aaron Lynch wrote on 6/13/97:

> You might find my analysis of sex taboos ... a bit less trivial.... so I ask
>>you to give an example, perhaps from one of the memes I discuss in
>chapter 1 at How, for instance, am I
>blinding anyone to unsound thinking about the evolution of masturbation

We can't discuss whether or not anyone will be blinded by this discussion,
although we could point out in passing that it's a good example of some
kind of meme -- because folklore has it that excessive masturbation will
make one go blind. But masturbation does present itself as a useful test
case for memetics and, in specific, of some memetic hypotheses Lynch
describes in his book.

--- the text we are using ----

On 6/13/97, TP asked Aaron Lynch what section of his book he meant. He answered:

>Those reading from the printed hard covers of THOUGHT CONTAGION will see
>>masturbation listed in the index as pages 3-4 and 90-91. Those reading from
>on >line don't have page numbers, but can find the first section (the one I
>was >recommending in my earlier post) by searching for "masturbation" at

So, we will examine material from pages 90-91 and from pages 3-4 of the
hardback edition of "Thought Contagion."

The following was written by both Timothy Perper and Martha Cornog, and
draws on a variety of professional and scholarly sources. Our credentials
include a variety of scholarly publications in sexuality as well as
membership in professional sexological organizations.

Some of the following draws on from

Cornog, Martha and Timothy Perper 1996 For Sex Education, See Librarian:
A Guide to the Issues and Resources. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Other sources are listed following our comments. Quotes from Lynch's book
are prefaced by AL.

------ Textual Analysis -------

"The masturbation taboo earlier illustrated quantity parental replication.
Taboo adherents have fewer 'acceptable' erotic alternatives, pressuring
them towards more frequent vaginal sex. For singles, the taboo heightens
the incentive to mate."

We're not sure what parental replication means -- it might mean the parents
have more children, or it might mean that the "meme" for the masturbation
taboo is self-replicating in some unexplained way. The next few sentences
suggest that the topic is having children, so we'll adopt that reading.

It is not clear that "taboo adherents" have fewer erotic alternatives. We
do not know if the taboo in reality translates into anti-masturbatory
behavior or into masturbation plus post hoc guilt. It also may be that
some people have a lower internal desire for sexual outlets, which reduces
both their masturbatory and coital frequencies. Such people might say --
and believe -- of themselves that they were following or obeying the taboo
when in fact they are just not very interested in sex. So it is not
obvious that the masturbation taboo drives individuals towards more
frequent *vaginal* coitus than they might engage in otherwise. For
example, if the taboo does hydraulically cause men to seek other forms of
sex, why not oral sex or some other type of erotic activity, e.g., sex with
prostitutes -- which has very low reproductive potential for a given male?

It is also not clear that for women whether the anti-masturbatory taboo
will lead *towards* or *away* from vaginal coitus. Thus, if a woman holds
the taboo for generalized reasons of erotophobia, the taboo may be
associated with a reduction in vaginal coitus.

For the taboo to operate as suggested, it must be completely independent of
all other sexual beliefs and taboos. However, from the definitions of
erotophobia of Fisher and Byrne, we find patterns of overall rejection of
sex, including masturbation, coitus, and oral sex among "erotophobic"
individuals, whereas "erotophilic" individuals seek out many forms of
sexual activity. Moreover, the erotphobic individual has an overall
reduced frequency of sexual activity, including masturbation and vaginal

Lynch seems here to adopt a "hydraulic" model of sexuality. This view
holds that if sexual urges are suppressed in one area, then they will
emerge elsewhere, as if sexuality was driven by an internal pressure.
Although simple, the hydraulic model is not widely accepted today, in part
because suppression of sexuality in one domain often leads to its
suppression in other domains as well.


"Even those hosts [of the masturbation taboo meme] who continue
masturbating still want to find their partners quickly in order to reduce
their guilt."

Again, this assumes a hydraulic model of sexuality and assumes that
acceptance of the masturbation taboo does *not* reduce other forms of
sexual activity.

In traditional moral systems, such as magisterial Roman Catholic moral
teaching, there are broad condemnations of all forms of sexual activity
except those connected with marital procreative penis-in-vagina
ejaculation. Here, the idea is to reduce *all* forms of non-procreative
sexuality, not merely masturbation. However, it is not obvious that people
accepting such moral teachings in fact try to reduce guilt by marrying
earlier or having more frequent marital intercourse. We think this
statement needs careful documentation from the literature.

Is it also the case, from known data, that people who reduce their
masturbatory guilt do NOT seek partners as quickly?


"For couples, the taboo may reduce both solitary and mutual masturbation,
including any done for birth control."

Birth control has been documented to Ancient Egypt and has taken many forms
throughout history, including the extremes of abortion and infanticide.
Less extreme but equally ancient forms have included vaginal tampons and
sponges, linen penis sheaths, and the infamous "coitus interuptus," known
as "withdrawal." In actual fact, "onanism," widely used as a synonym for
masturbation, was actually withdrawal and ejaculation outside the vaginal

If masturbation is done for contraceptive purposes (and the taboo is
therefore pro-conceptive) then we might expect that masturbation
frequencies would decline as the availability of other forms of
contraception increase. As we all know, the efficacy and frequency of use
of contraception and abortion have increased over the centuries rather than
being extinguished. However, it is not clear that masturbation rates have
changed at all. So we need to ask for evidence suporting the reciprocal
relationship postulated here between masturbation and contraception.
Indeed, we speculate that, if anything, the availabilty of contraception
increases sexual activity of all types, as sexuality in general emerges the
shadows of wider taboos.

Taking another view of the matter, if the anti-masturbation taboo spreads
because it is pro-conceptive, as Lynch seems to believe, then contraception
and masturbation both should dwindle as carriers of pro-conceptive,
anti-masturbatory memes outreproduce those without these memes. But
masturbation has not vanished, and contraceptive use has grown. It is
vacuous to say that masturbation and contraception memes have
"out-reproduced" their alternatives, because that statement merely
rephrases the observation without offering an explanation.


"Male hosts [of the masturbation taboo] can also produce higher sperm
counts during intercourse by reducing their nonvaginal orgasms."

By "orgasms" we assume you mean "ejaculations." (As the word is used in
sex research, orgasm refers to the psychological experience.)

In the following "IPC" means "in-pair copulation." Baker and Bellis (1995)
write "On average, therefore, males suffer no disadvantage from
masturbation in terms of the number of sperm retained by the female at
their next IPC, despite inseminating fewer [sperm]. ... In fact, the
non-significant trend is for more sperm to be retained when the male
masturbates between copulations. ... Our analyses of the dynamics and
consequences of masturbation clearly supports the view that the behaviour
is a functional strategy. The function, however, appears to be more to
increase the 'fitness' of sperm retained by the female at the next IPC than
to increase the number retained." (page 216)

The biology of this process is extremely complex, and does not seem to
offer a simple functionalist explanation for the masturbation taboo.

Baker, R. Robin and Mark A. Bellis 1995 Human Sperm Competition:
Copulation, Masturbation, and Infidelity. London: Chatman & Hall.


"All these effects tend to increase fertility rates for those holding the

Data are absolutely essential for supporting this claim. As a generality,
human fertility is determined by a series of factors primarily involving
the female. The most significant is the use of contraception by the woman,
followed by duration of post-birth lactation. Next come female health and
nutritional status. However, by contrast, male masturbation probably plays
virtually no role at all in influencing overall realized fertility. For
example, Wood's (1994) authoritative and comprehensive survey of human
fertility and demography does not even have an index entry for
masturbation. We really need data to support this point, rather than
"proof by assertion."

Wood, James W. 1994 Dynamics of Human Reproduction: Biology, Biometry,
Deomgraphy. NY: de Gruyter.


"Once the masturbation taboo outpopulates more permissive ideas,
proselytism boosts the taboo further. Hosts become eager to 'prove' their
conformity to the taboo, especially if they suspect that other hosts are
listening. Yet they can't prove their conformity to the taboo directly, so
they often 'demonstrate' an ideological incapacity to violate it. That
usually means expressing the taboo in the fiercest language possible or
implying strict conformity by referring to masturbation in the context of
insults. Such proselytism resembles what happens for advanced transmission
antigay memes."

It really is not clear what "proselytism" means here. Is the idea that
medieval preachers thundered denunciations of self-abuse from the pulpit?
sexuality in Europe, it is known that Roman Catholic penitentials condemned
masturbation, especially among clerics, but these exercises in morality
appear to have been private and limited to the confessional. It seems that
only with the publication of "Onania" in the 1600s (first American edition,
1724) was there truly *public* discourse on masturbation. However, the
readership of this treatise was likely limited to those few who could
afford to buy books. It was not until Tissot, in the 1700s, that a
medicalized and public discourse on the horrors of self-abuse became
possible, and even then did not reach a large public until the 19th
century. However, that discourse was centered not on *moral* taboos
(masturbation = sin) but on alleged *medical* dangers. That idea was
actively promulgated by a variety of "sexual purity" adherents, including
some physicians. With time and other factors, this sort of propaganda
diminished. (See Money, 1985; Bullough and Bullough, 1995.)

Now a question in memetics arises. One can simply reformulate these
historical processes, using the language of memes and meme replication
(which this passage from Lynch's book does not do), but it is not clear
that doing so buys us anything unavailable in accounts written by
historically sophisticated scholars (e.g., Money and the Bulloughs). To be
sure, Lynch's paragraph is very brief, and is not, we assume, supposed to
represent a thorough historical analysis, but it does not distinguish among
a variety of anti-masturbatory ideologies nor discuss how or why they
changed. To speak of "memetic mutation" -- as one might do, although Lynch
does not -- seems merely to attach an opaque name to these changes without
explaining anything.

Bullough, Vern and Bonnie Bullough 1995 Sexual Attitudes: Myths and
Realities. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. See Chapter 4, "Masturbation."

Money, John 1985 The Destroying Angel: Sex, Fitness & Food in the Legacy
of Degeneracy Theory, Graham Crackers, Kellogg's Corn Flakes & American
Health History. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.


"On the other hand, most people who accept masturbation see few reasons to
proselytize, especially for solitary masturbation. Discussing the subject
can suggest sexual frustration, implying low status to listeners. Besides,
those accepting solitary masturbation feel little or even negative sex
motive to persuade others, since converts might become less available for
partnered sex. That leaves few advocates for autoeroticism outside its
modern considerations in sex research and disease control."

Actually, the amount written about the pleasures of masturbation is quite
large, especially in the last few years, and a number of writers and
organizations promote masturbatory sex for its pleasures. To list only a

Blank, Joani 1989 Good Vibrations: The Complete Guide to Vibrators.
Burlingame, CA: Down There Press.

Blank, Joani Editor 1996 First Person Sexual: Women & Men Write about
Self-Pleasuring. San Francisco: Down There Press.

Dodson, Betty 1996 Sex for One: The Joy of Selfloving. NY: Crown Trade

Gordon, David Cole 1968 Self-Love and a Theory of Unification. NY:
Verity House.

Griffin, Gary 1994 The Art of Auto-Fellatio (Oral Sex for One), Fourth
Edition. Palm Springs, CA: Added Dimensions Publishing.

Litten, Harold 1993 The Joy of Solo Sex. Mobile, AL: Factor Press.

Litten, Harold 1996 More Joy ... An Advanced Guide to Solo Sex. Mobile,
AL: Factor Press.

Morin, Jack 1988 Men Loving Themselves: Images of Male Self-Sexuality.
Burlingame, CA: Down There Press.

Woods, Margo 1981 Masturbation, Tantra and Self-Love. San Diego, CA:
Omphaloskepsis Press.

A number of organizations promote "JO" activities, an abbreviation meaning
either male or female masturbation. "Celebrate the Self Newsletter, the
Newsletter for the Solo Sex Enthusiast," edited by Allen Erich, from
Mobile, Alabama, has been published continuously since 1993. (The
abbreviation "JO" stands for "jack off" for men and "jill off" for women, a
punning reference to the nursery rhyme Jack and Jill as well as to an
American colloquialism for male masturbation.)

A good many scholars have written about masturbation from various
viewpoints, and the literature is NOT small.

***The question is whether memetics offers anything uniquely insightful
into this literature. One could say that the terms "jack off" and "jill
off" represent "memes," but if so, then those who hold that people do not
actively alter memes will have difficulty explaining the origin of the two


"Masturbation taboos have declined somewhat in recent years, with much of
the change inspired by mass media."

To prove this assertion, one needs detailed analyses of the mass media --
meaning television, radio, newsmagazines, and newspapers. Mere impressions
are not enough. Reduction of anti-masturbation beliefs is more than likely
to be part of general reduction of anti-sexual beliefs since the 1960s.
Since the AIDS crisis, and since the introduction of Safe and Safer Sex
education, it has become paradoxically clear that masturbation and mutual
masturbation may actually be adaptive.

We now need to raise another issue. What, exactly, IS the
anti-masturbation taboo Lynch is discussing? It is clear from historical
and survey sources that masturbation has always been common as a behavior,
so the taboo seems not reflect itself in actual sexual activity. Male
youngsters -- children and adolescents -- quickly learn that masturbation
exists and that many words and terms describe it. They simultaneously
learn not to say such words in "polite company," meaning in the presence of
women or in "proper" social settings, but they nonetheless learn and use
the terms. As the medicalized discourse started by the anonymous "Onania"
and by Simon Tissot gained ground, especially in the 19th century, there
was extensive discourse about masturbation, usually under names like
"self-abuse" and "the solitary sin," and such language provided a way to
talk about masturbation publicly.

It is our impression that mastrubation, like much of sexuality, is set into
a system of cultural rules governing behavior and discourse. It seems
subject to a common enough dichotomy -- sexual language and references are
acceptable in some social settings (all male groups, for example) but not
in others. We are not sure how memetics offers an advantage for analyzing
these complex ethnographic facts.


"Indeed, the very status as taboo makes masturbation and other sex topics
prime material for commercial use: mention over the airwaves can make
people pay attention long enough to hear a commercial, and then improve
recall by 'downloading' it to an aroused audience."

We will deal only with masturbation, and not the widespread use of sexy
images in advertising. It is not our impression at all that *masturbation*
is widely used in advertising, although sexy pictures of women in
advertisements might be used by men for masturbatory purposes. We need
some specific examples of ads that use masturbation per se before accepting
this view.


"The process incidentally conveys the idea that masturbation is normal and

You need to provide examples where masturbation is used deliberately by an
advertiser to prove this idea. Note that we said "deliberately" -- a sexy
picture of a woman might stimulate masturbatory urges, but that is a far
cry from saying that such an advertisement "conveys the idea" that
masturbation is acceptable. We suspect that most advertisers would
staunchly deny such an attribution to them.


"Although the taboo remains widely entrenched, media exposure over a few
decades has caused a prevalence drop that would previously have taken

This presumably means a drop in the prevalence of the taboo, and not the
prevalence of masturbation.

This sentence seems to suggest that the media -- which need to be defined!
-- have been spreading "anti-anti-masturbation" or "pro-masturbation"
memes. Possibly so, but we need examples -- with references, not
impressions -- that the media has promoted masturbation. We *think* Lynch
may mean that the media has increasingly used sexual images, and that these
are increasingly explicit, but such a "sex sells" strategy is NOT the same
as saying that the mass media *promotes* masturbation.

In fact, two facts suggest otherwise. One was the forced resignation of
Dr. Jocelyn Elders as Surgeon-General of the United States after she
recommended that public schools actually teach what masturbation is. She
did not recommend masturbation per se, but her critics believed that she
was promoting sin and corruption.

The other example is the October 26, 1992 episode of the "Seinfeld"
television show entiled "The Contest." The plot, which is rather thin,
centers on a contest among the characters as to who can avoid masturbating
the longest. However, the show *never* uses the word "masturbation" at
all. This show has become famous, because it so sharply broke the taboo of
discussing masturbation -- without naming it! -- during prime time
television entertainment.

David, Larry 1992 Seinfeld: "The Contest" #04-0411. Beverly Hills, CA:
Castle Rock Entertainment. [This is the actual script for the episode, and
can be purchased from Castle Rock Entertainment.]

AL, page 3:
"Far more prevalent in North America is the taboo against
masturbation. Its vast influence shows up clearly in the recent 'Sex in
America Survey,' and vividly in events that brought down a recent surgeon
"The Census Bureau does not track fertility rates for this taboo's
hosts, so its quantity parental effect is less demonstrable than that of
the Amish faith. Yet educated guesswork suggests that the masturbation
taboo raises its adherents' reproduction rate above average levels."

As we mentioned before, we rather doubt this suggestion. For example, in
the Laumann et al. (1994) survey of US sexual behavior, only 36.7% of all
men are reported "not at all" to masturbate (page 82, Table 3.1). This
means that 63.3% of men *do* masturbate, meaning that about 1/3 of all men
must have a higher reproductive rate than the remainder.

This seems unlikely to us. Thus, when the the Laumann et al. masturbation
data for men are broken into age categories, the frequency-by-age data
shows an upside down "U" shape, with 58.8% of men aged 18-24 reporting that
they masturbate, RISING to 71-72% for the ages 25-34, dropping to 61.5%
masturbating for 35-39 year olds, and dropping still further to the 50%
range among older men (page 82, Table 3.1). If Lynch's suggestion is
correct, then these very young and much older men must have HIGHER
reproductive rates than men in their late 20s and 30s.

We may examine pregnancy rates expressed by age of FATHER from a variety of
data sources. Thus, Wood (1994) gives data for New York State (excluding
New York City) between 1959-1967. Men younger than 25 fathered 23.0% of
all births; men between 25 and 34 fathered 52.1% of all births, men aged
35-39 fathered 36.7%, and men older than 40 fathered only 9.3%. (Wood,
1994, Table 11.7, page 494; the total N is 1,472,846 pregnancies arranged
by age of father; see also pages 483-498, and Figure 11.6, page 502 for
similar data.)

Thus, young men masturbate less often and father fewer children; men
between ages 25-34 masturbate more and father more children; men aged
35-39 have lower masturbatory and fathering rates, and men still older
masturbate even less and have even fewer children. This pattern is the
OPPOSITE of what Lynch's argument predicts.

Note that the denominator in the data Wood cites is *pregnancies* and not
men. Thus, the data are telling us the age of the men who actually were
the fathers in some 1,470,000 pregancies

Furthermore, Laumann et al (1994) write:

"The obvious hypothesis to be culled from Kinsey's theory is that the
frequency of masturbation decreases in the context of a stable sexual
relationship with an available partner. This appears to be the case among
the married, more dramatically for men than women, although both genders
show the same effects. More people do not masturbate, and fewer people
masturbate one or more times per week. However, this is not the entire
story since a large portion of the reduced incidence of masturbation among
the married is a result of being older. Note that many of the men among
those never married but living with a partner, a rather youthful group, are
masturbating frequently. ... Cohabiting individuals, then (and probably
younger married respondents as well), are characterized by comparatively
high rates of both masturbation and coupled sexual activity. The point is
not to argue that Kinsey's observations are incorrect but rather to suggest
that the frequency of masturbation has no set quantitative relation to
other partnered sexual activities." (Laumann, et al. 1994, page 83.)

Laumann, Edward O., John H. Gagnon, Robert T. Michael, and Stuart Michaels
1994 The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United
States. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Wood, James W. 1994 Dynamics of Human Reproduction: Biology, Biometry,
Deomgraphy. NY: de Gruyter. [In giving the data from Table 3.1, we have
inverted the percentages to show frequencies of men who do masturbate
rather than those who do not.]


"Taboo hosts generally have fewer acceptable options for reacting to sex
drives. They must either mate more often, abstain more often, or do both.
The resulting behavioral mix should contribute more children to the taboo's
host population. Even hosts whose masturbation remains unabated would
still experience guilt as a motive to seek entirely partnered sex. This
group's greater effort toward mating would presumably yield more children
to inculcuate with the taboo."

By "entirely partnered sex," we assume Lynch means coital sex only, rather
than masturbation. It is a nice-sounding theory, but the data just
presented suggest the opposite.


"The number of extra children per generation need not be great to explain
the masturbation taboo's widespread propagation. The secret lies in the
taboo's very great age. Even a 5 percent per generation increase amounts
to a 132-fold increase when compounded over 100 generations. A
reproductive effect imperceptible to any one generation can gently elevate
the idea from fringe group status to mainstream proportions. Such modern
influences as publicized sex research have reversed some of the taboo's
gains, though the subject of masturbation still troubles many."

It turns out that times of greatest masturbation are those of greatest
realized fertility for men. In the face of such evidence, Lynch's
hypothesis cannot be accepted without data that positively support it.
"Educated guesswork" is not enough. Moreover, as we pointed out above,
linking anti-masturbation beliefs to pro-conceptive effects makes it
difficult to explain the existence and spread of contraception.


Now a few general comments.

Lynch was not writing a treatise on sexuality nor on masturbation.
However, he did use masturbation as an example, and in his posting invited
the participants in this list to examine the topic in relation to claims he
made in his book. Our commments have focused *solely* on that one topic.

The "no masturbation means more kids" hypothesis appears not to hold up.
In fact, the opposite seems to be true, at least as one can judge by
looking at the age of men who masturbate and who have children. Support for
the Lynch hypothesis will require large sample databases, and not
"guesswork," educated or not.

The notion of a single, unitary "anti-masturbation" meme seems historically
unwarranted. Ideologies about masturbation have ranged from invoking
procreation-only religious themes, through notions of medical dangers of
masturbation, to social regimes in which talk about masturbation is limited
only to certain places and times (e.g., not to be mentioned in polite
company), to veiled references on the Seinfeld show, to activist promotion
of masturbation as a positive sexual good and birth-right. No single
"anti-masturbation" meme appears to exist.

A recent role for mass media in promoting masturbation seems
unsubstantiated, and requires detailed examples to be acceptable.

It is not clear that memetics is central to Lynch's discussion. In fact,
he only rarely refers to memes in his sections on masturbation, except when
he uses the word "host" to refer to people who hold one or another
anti-masturbation belief. Hence, we are not sure that discussing the
"anti-masturbation meme" enlightens us about memetics in the ways Lynch
seems to believe.

We would like to point out positive aspects of these sections of Lynch's book.
In particular, they bring sexuality, particularly masturbation, to the
attention of memeticists. The discussion contains testable hypotheses and
can generate more work, especially if memeticists choose to draw on the
large databases now available about sexual behavior and attitudes.

Although this example -- masturbation -- does not prove or disprove the
utility of memetics, it does suggest that memeticists need to engage
themselves in the details of history and culture before memetics will be
more than a theoretical parlor game.

Timothy Perper, PhD Martha Cornog, MA, MS

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