On semen retention

Mostly because my life is cursed/an unending nightmare, I have been subjected to a lot of takes about semen retention lately. Part of this has to do with the fact that it is a specific alt-right talking point, with certain nazis going so far as to make statements like, “The (((elites))) [Jewish people] fear men who practice semen retention”, which…IDK man I don’t even know where to start with that one. Also, like, whatever the hell this is, which made me take psychic damage earlier this week:

I’m not having fun anymore. I’d like to get off.

The “thinking” involved in these takes is that if men retain semen, usually by not masturbating (as I have discussed before), they then retain more of the essence of their masculinity. Men who do not masturbate are, according to this theory stronger, more confident, more energetic, more focused, you know, all those stereotypically masculine traits, which are apparently stored in the balls. Every time a man jizzes, he loses some of that and becomes more feminine, i.e. bad.

Anyway, this is hilarious to me because it is an honest to god medieval idea that is still walking around in the wild. More than that, it is an idea that has its roots in ancient Greek and Roman thinking. You know, the eras before we had any kind of workable medicine and everything was done by humoral theory? Yeah, that is when this whole idea caught on.

Plato (c. 428-348 BC), for instance, worried about the fact that “in men the nature of the genital organs is disobedient and self-willed, like a creature that is deaf to reason, and it attempts to dominate all because of its frenzied lusts.” [1] To him thing about men is that they are meant to embody all that is prudent and rational. The fact that they do be getting horny and risking it all means that the body, and more specifically the junk, overrides the “real” essential masculinity of the mind. It is this inability to conquer the irrational demands of the body which leads men to do stupid things, like wank, which in turn makes them less masculine.

Ah. the understated restraint of Hellenic pottery.

To overcome the weakness of the body, men were meant to call on their own extremely logical and focused masculinity. This was necessarily linked to retaining semen because masculinity was often conceived of by later philosophers including Aretaeus of Cappadocia (2nd century AD), among others, in the semen. If you lost too much of that sweet sweet spunk, you would lose the masculine hot and dry nature, and become “inferior” and less able to conceive.

This was very much on display in ancient Rome, as Rouselle has pointed out. There, an ideal man and citizen was one who was actively working to restrain the unruly tendencies of his body, and actively retain their sperm for the logical activity of making healthy (and masculine) heirs. According to her,“The pneuma which the man went to such lengths to retain, by adopting a strict lifestyle and constantly watching his diet, was to be used for one fertile sexual act, which would take place in the evening, just after the woman’s menstrual period. The woman should then cross her legs to keep in this precious semen…”.[2]

Dudes who went around not spunking directly into their wives were therefore to be looked down on for a number of reasons: first they had not mastered their unruly junk; second, they were less likely to conceive male heirs when they were attempting to do so; and third, they might end of becoming like a woman which is the worst thing that you could be. They might at any moment start enjoying sex, like women did, jizzing all over the place, and then the next thing you knew rich dudes would no longer be ruling over their little slave society and people would be wearing hats on their feet and hamburgers would be eating people. A bad scene.

Where the trouble started – Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden, British Library MS Royal 17 E VII, f. 8v. 

When Christianity took over, since they loved to keep all the same philosophical ideas of the Romans and Greeks they kept on with this. The also added a smidge of, “Oh and also God hates sex so you had better keep that semen internal, dudes.” St Augustine (354-430), for example, was all about Plato’s idea of the genitals as unruly, but lays the blame for this on original sin. According to him, “the flesh began to lust against the spirit …  It is this tyranny of lust  that  makes  men  ashamed. They hate to have such uncontrollable movements.”[3]

In order to combat the horror of the horny body, once again, men were to abstain from sex with themselves and make sure that if they were to have sex it was with their wife in order to have kids.

To make sure that dudes were not, in fact, cranking it and wasting their precious manly semen, churchmen such as the fourteenth-century scholar Jean Gerson (1363-1429) encouraged those hearing confessions to ask men whether or not they were either masturbating or having wet dreams. Even if they denied doing so, Gerson insisted that confessors should push for more information because, “If he [the penitent] immediately denies such things, it is apparent that he is afraid of mentioning more substantial matters. In this way I know how many have been taken who, when questioned, denied that they ever had felt any heat in the genitals or any itch or erection…”.[4] So basically, if dudes are lying about masturbating they are probably also doing all kinds of other bad sex stuff that does not involve trying to have kids. Asking about masturbatory habits was therefore a way of feeling out other theoretical sexual excesses.

Gerson was not alone in worrying about the ramifications of guys coming in the wrong way though. While Gerson’s concerns were religious, medical scholars such as Constantine the African (d. c. 1098) opined that dudes who had a lot of wet dreams were colder and moister, like women, and that their semen was weaker and more feminine, and as a result would (Shock! Horror!) produce more daughters than sons.[5]

The old dick bagpipes, from the‘Hours of Joanna the Mad’, Bruges 1486-1506. British Library MS, Add 18852, fol. 299r.

So basically, semen was necessary for men to be men and overcome their feminine nature, which was overtly sexual, and also bad because women, like sex, were bad. Lovely stuff.

Now, avid readers of this blog (Hi! Thanks! Good work, pals!) will remember that in both the ancient and medieval constructions, women also have semen. So, then, should they, like men, be retaining it in order to be more feminine? LOLOLOL, no.

The famous late medieval guide to women’s health, the Trotula noted, as did most physicians of both periods that women not orgasming enough could lead to serious sexual problems. If the semen was not released, it would build up inside them and become putrid. To whit: “too much spoiled seed abounds in them [undersexed women] and it changes to a poisonous character. Especially does this happen to those who have no husbands, widows in particular and those who previously have been accustomed to make use of carnal intercourse. It also happens in virgins who have come to marriageable years and have not yet husbands for in them abounds the seed which nature wished to draw out by means of the male. From this superabundant and spoiled seed a certain cold substance is formed which ascends to certain parts which by common use are called “collaterals” because they are neighbors to the heart, the lungs, and vocal organs, whence an impediment to the voice is wont to happen. Illness of this sort is accustomed principally to begin with a failure of the menses and when they cease and there is too much seed the illness is much more troublesome and prolonged especially when it takes possession of the higher parts.”[6]

In general the medical remedies for such troubles were either for the women suffering to get married and have sex with their husbands, or to jack off or in certain circumstances for them to be jacked off by a medical professional.  Albertus Magnus for example, considered that women suffering from pent-up semen often relieve themselves as they will “… feel in their minds intercourse with a man and often imagine men’s private parts, and often rub themselves strongly with their fingers or with other instruments until, the vessels having been relaxed through the heat of rubbing and coitus, the spermatic humor exits … and then their groins are rendered temperate and then they become more chaste.”[7]

Bibliothèque de Genève, Ms. lat. 33, fol. 79v.

While physicians might think this was necessary, theologians thought it was just plain sinful and they warned that masturbation was a form of “committing fornication against their own bodies.”[8] That’s bad. But of course, women were more likely to be doing it because they lacked the male impetus to pull back and not do the sexy thing by nature of being women and therefore hot little sluts. (That’s a reclaimed word. This blog is pro slut.)

Indeed, even if women were to have sex the right way, which is to say engage in wholesome, married PIV sex for the purposes of procreation, you still had to watch them because when they get jizzed in they absorb the masculinity of the semen and become more like men. According to the late medieval medical handbook The Secrets of Women “The more women have sexual intercourse, the stronger they become, because they are made hot by the motion that the man makes during coitus. Further, male sperm is hot because it is of the same nature as air and when it is received by the woman it warms her entire body, so women are strengthened by this heat. On the other hand, men who have sex frequently are weakened by this act because they become exceedingly dried out.”[9] In other words, dudes, be careful lest a woman drain off all your semen and then hulk TF out or something.

So, both these weirdo Nazi guys and the great thinkers of the ancient and medieval period agree: men should not jizz. Also women are bad, or something.

Thing is, the great thinkers of the ancient and medieval period lacked one thing that the Nazis now have: accurate medical theory which shows pretty conclusively that all of this is nonsense. Turns out it is actually really good if people with balls ejaculate frequently because it is good for their prostate health.  Also, you’ll just make more semen. That is kinda how it works man, I don’t know what to tell you. Moreover, turns out there is absolutely no evidence that if women come into contact with semen they become stronger, which is a real shame because it would be a handy way to up your deadlift PB if it did.

Anyway the point is that sometimes just because there is a long and storied history about something, that doesn’t necessarily make it true. Now you can go ahead and believe that retaining semen is gonna make you stronger or something if you want. But if you are gonna start to believe that stuff then you need to also give up on all the modern medical science we have that proves all these old dead dudes wrong. Sorry, but it’s either retain your semen and humoral theory, or admit this is nonsense and germ theory. I make the rules. I made that one just now.

TL/DR Nazis are stupid and you can jack it if you feel like it. Do with that what you will.

[1] Plato Timaeus.  Critias.  Cleitophon.  Menexenus.  Epistles, Trans. R.G. Bury. The  Loeb  Classical  Library, Vol. IX. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1989), 91 b-c.
[2] Aline Rouselle, Porneia: On Desire and the Body in Antiquity, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988). p. 20
[3] K Cooper and C  Leyser,  “The  Gender  of  Grace:  Impotence,  Servitude,  and  Manliness in the Fifth-Century West”, Gender & History, Vol. 12 No. 3, pp. 541-543
[4]Jean Gerson,  On the Art of Hearing Confessions, in Jean Gerson, Early Works,(New York: Paulist Press, 1998 ) p. 371.
[5] D. Elliot, Fallen bodies: pollution, sexuality, and  demonology in the Middle Ages, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), pp. 28, 187.
[6] Trotula, The Diseases of Women, trans. Elizabeth Mason-Hohl (Los Angeles: The Ward Ritchie Press, 1940), p.  11.
[7] De Animalibus, bk. IX, tr. I, ch. 1, 7, following Joan Cadden’s translation, in, “Western medicine and natural philosophy”, in, Handbook of Medieval Sexuality, ed. Vern L. Bullough and James A. Brundage (New York: Garland, 1996), p. 59.
[8]  Hincmar of Reims, De divortio Lotharii et Tetbergae, in, Patriologia Latina, 125, pp. 692-693. Following the translation in Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerence,and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), p. 204.
[9] Helen Rodnite Lemay, Women’s Secrets: A Translation of Pseudo-Albertus Magnus’ De Secretis Mulierum with Commentaries, (Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 1992), p. 127.

For more on sex in the medieval period, see:
On sex with demons
The Medieval Sex Apocalypse on Drinking with Historians
Doing it Right – A Short Introduction to Medieval Sex for Nerd Nite
On “alpha” men, sexual contagion, and poorly disguised misogyny
Talking sex in the medieval times on Holly Randall Unfiltered
On the plague, sex, and rebellion
No beastiality was never OK, you absolute rabid weirdo
On courtly love and pickup artists
That’s not what sodomy is, but OK
On sexualising the “other”
On Jezebel, makeup, and other apocalyptic signs
On Sex, Logic, and Being the Subject
The Medieval Podcast – Medieval Sexuality with Eleanor Janega
On the Objectification of Sex
On “the way of carnal lust”, Joan of Leeds, and the difficulty of clerical celibacy
On Dildos and Penance
On No Nut November
On cuckolding – a thing
On sex work and the concept of ‘rescue’
The history of penis in vagina as default sex at Bish!
Sex and the (medieval) city: social hygiene and sex in the medieval urban landscape
On women and desire
These hoes ain’t loyal – on prostitutes and bad bitches in medieval and hip hop culture

Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, George Michael evangelist.

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