When considering a history of sexual orientation and gender identity in Wales we cannot always concentrate on items specifically related to the country and its people – for example, bestselling books would have been read throughout the UK. Bearing this in mind, I’ve taken a look at two books, one from the seventeenth century and the other from the eighteenth century. Both books are in the National Library Wales (NLW) collection but are freely available online.
Arguably, the most influential of the two is Onania; or the Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution (NLW, Ref: 99272934102419), first published c.1708-1712 but remaining popular throughout the eighteenth century – by 1752 it was in its eighteenth edition. The identity of the author is unknown but has been generally attributed to surgeon and medical author, John Marten (died 1768).
The text of Onania concerned the ills befalling those who self-polluted (masturbated), and outlined myriad physical deformities as a result, as well as lecturing readers on their religious responsibilities – but never fear, the author reassured his readers, a cure was available if only they bought his ‘Prolifick Powder’. With each new edition, the book expanded with numerous letters from grateful readers who not only outlined their afflictions in detail but their ‘miraculous cures’ after taking the powders. Onania probably remained in print due to the titillation of sexual details despite the obvious fictitious letters. Nevertheless, it was the first influential publication on masturbation, and the writer refers to it as a ‘disease’ making it one of the earliest moves away from religious dictates that emissions are for procreation only and that sperm should not be ‘wasted’, towards a secular concern for an individual’s health. It also includes references to sexuality and gender fluidity.
Throughout the work, there are hints of same-sex activity, such as:
we commit Abomination with those of our own Sex, as the Scripture says, Men with Men; or with Beasts; or that we defile our own Bodies ourselves with this shameful Action (it) destroys conjugal Affection, perverts natural Inclination, and tends to extinguish the Hopes of Posterity. (7)
One man wrote,
seldom do I evacuate [ejaculate] myself at any time of the Night, but that except I have some Bed-fellow, from whose warmth and Company I find my Desires and Inclinations almost insuperably heightened.’(137)
The author of Onania did not approve, ‘A Man who is so Lascivious in his Temper, that his Desires and Inclinations are almost insuperably heightened by a Bed-fellow of his own Sex, is in a dangerous Condition.’ (143)
While some women are covered in early versions, it is not until later editions that they have more presence, illustrated by a growing concern over female self-polluting usurping men’s position in relation to her body. It also raised worries about tribadism (lesbianism), because it was essentially a woman having sex with a woman.
These fears were made clear in editions from the 1720s onwards, by a letter purportedly from a young Lady who, from an early age was
taught it by my Mother’s Chamber Maid, who lay with me from that Time all along till now, which is full seven Years, and so intimate were we in the Sin, that we took all Opportunities of committing it, and invented all the ways we were capable of to highten the Titillation, and gratifie our sinful Lusts the more. We, in short, pleasured one another, as well as each our selves.
As with all other letter writers, she begins to suffer physical deformities:
a Swelling that thrusts out from my body, as big, and almost as hard, and as long or longer than my Thumb, which inclines me to excessive lustful Desires, and from it their [sic] issues a moisture or slipp’riness to that degree that I am almost continually wet, and sometimes have such a forcing, as if something of a large Substance was coming from me, which greatly frightens both me and my Maid.’ (126)
This was typical of a belief that a woman who self-polluted turned her clitoris into a penis. The author replied that it was
common to many of the Sex, both in the single and married, who are Vigorous and Lustful, and have given up themselves to the Practice of Self Pollution for any time. In some Women it extends it self, and is enlarged when inflated to the exact likeness and size of a human Penis erect, except that it has no perforation, (though it really looks, by the natural Impression at the end, as if there was a Passage) nor is altogether so long, but yet it erects and falls as that does, in proportion to the venereal Desire or Inclination of the Woman. [127)
To support his argument, the author quotes from Dr. Carr’s Medicinal Epistles about two nuns in Rome who changed sex: ‘the uncommon Growth of the Clitoris, is so frequent in some Eastern Countries, that the most skilful Chirurgeons, have found out a Method of amputating it; and to take it away from Persons about to marry, lest it should be a hinderance in Coition.’ (131)
This ‘uncommon Growth’ was, according to Carr, so common it ‘deserved its own medical literature and castrating surgical procedures.’
At this time, it was commonly believed that men and women had the same bodies, just that women’s organs were internal and men’s external, and women could change sex by internal organs descending to the external.
Several works had covered this, including another in the NLW collection, Nathaniel Wanley’s Wonders of the Little World (Ref: 99658012302419) consisting of six books written between 1634-1680. Chapter 33 is entitled ‘Such Persons as have changed their Sex’, detailing 24 cases from classical to contemporary sources. All but one involved women changing to men, a move rendered logical by the writer as men were considered superior to women. Most simply related an event that had happened but some were more detailed:
No 11 is a rare example of using the ‘he’ pronoun, as most retained ‘she’.
In keeping with the times, and later, anything deviating from a socially accepted ‘norm’ is placed in a racist context by locating the examples in foreign countries. The letter from the ‘Lady’ in Onania is obviously from a wealthy family putting her in the minority part of society. Carr continues,
I have read, that in France, there are a People, who have a great propension of the Clitoris, naturally, and are equally able to make use of those of both Sexes, and that the Laws there, leave to their Choice, which Sex to make use of, after which, the use of the other are absolutely forbidden them … we read that in Florida, there is a Nation, which have the Generative Parts of both Sexes. (135)
And Carr goes on to list a number of ‘other’ places:
I have read a remarkable Account of an Hermaphrodite, in a certain City in Scotland, that went for a Maid, yet got her Master’s Daughter, who lay in the same Bed with her, with Child: She was accused of the Fact, in the Year 1461, found capable, as Man as well as Woman, convicted, and condemn’d before the Judges, and suffered Death, by being put into the Ground alive. (136)
One of the worries was if these women could turn themselves into pseudo-males, then it put men in danger of inadvertent homosexuality. With a taxonomic binary system, any ambiguities destroy that system so they must be removed and in order to do so they must be rendered monstrous which is why, as in the Scottish example, they were treated so harshly.
These two books come from a period that was exploring a newly found fascination with the human body and how it was treated, and we only have to take a look at a few to see examples of sexual orientation and gender identity. The question is, how many other historic publications contain similar references?
 Anon, Onania; or, the heinous sin of self-pollution, and all its frightful consequences, in both sexes, considered, with spiritual and physical advice, London: printed for the author, and sold by N. Crouch; P. Varenne; and J. Isted, 1724
 Parker, Todd C. (1996) “ONANIA Self-Pollution and the Danger of Female Sexuality,” 1650-1850: Ideas, Aesthetics, and Inquiries in the Early Modern Era: Vol. 2, Article 6. Available at: https://digitalcommons.lsu.edu/sixteenfifty/vol2/iss1/6
 Wanley, Nathaniel, The Wonders of the Little World Or a General History of Man, 1678