AskDefine | Define onanism

Dictionary Definition



1 manual stimulation of the genital organs (of yourself or another) for sexual pleasure [syn: masturbation, self-abuse]
2 a method of birth control in which coitus is initiated but the penis is deliberately withdrawn before ejaculation [syn: coitus interruptus, withdrawal method, pulling out]

User Contributed Dictionary



From the biblical name Onan: In the Book of Genesis, Onan, son of Judah, in fulfillment of the laws of levirate marriage was to impregnate his brother Er's widow, Tamar, in order to raise offspring from the union in his brother's name. In order to avoid raising descendants for his late brother, however, Onan spilled his semen on the ground when he went in to his brother's wife, so that he would not give offspring to his brother. (Genesis 38:9). Thus the word Onanism was coined, meaning ejaculating outside the vagina, or masturbation (because this also spills semen, rather than using it for procreation).


  1. ejaculating outside the vagina during intercourse; (the performing of) Coitus interruptus
  2. masturbation


See also

Extensive Definition

In the Biblical Book of Genesis, Onan () was the second son of Judah. Certain interpretations of the narrative concerning him have led to the use of the term onanism to refer to masturbation.
According to the text, after God had killed Onan's older brother Er, Judah asked Onan to have sex with Tamar, Er's widow, so that the offspring could be declared Er's heir. The narrative implies that Onan didn't object to the sex itself, but performed coitus interruptus, spilling his seed upon the ground, so that there wouldn't be any offspring he couldn't claim as his own; the passage goes on to state that for this act, a displeased Yahweh killed him. The deaths of Onan and Er are among the few deaths caused by Yahweh that the Torah doesn't describe as being caused via an intermediary, such as plague or the Angel of Death.
According to some biblical scholars who contextually read this passage, the description of Onan is an eponymous aetiological myth concerning fluctuations in the constituency of the tribe of Judah, with the death of Onan reflecting the dying out of a clan; Er and Onan are hence viewed as each being representative of a clan, with Onan possibly representing an Edomite clan named Onam, mentioned by an Edomite genealogy in Genesis.
The text emphasises the social and legal situation, with Judah explaining what Onan must do and why; the plain reading of the text is that Onan was killed because he refused to follow instructions. Scholars have argued that the secondary purpose of the Tamar narrative, of which the description of Onan is a part, was to either assert the institution of levirate marriage, or present an aetiological myth for its origin; Onan's role in the narrative is thus as the brother abusing his obligations by agreeing to sexual involvement with his dead brother's wife, but refusing to allow her to become pregnant as a result. Emerton regards the evidence for this as inconclusive, though classical rabbinical writers argued that this narrative describes the origin of levirate marriage.
However, other early writers focused on the spilling seed, and the sexual act being used for non-procreational purposes; one opinion expressed in the Talmud argues that the death penalty was only imposed because of it. This interpretation was held by several early Christian apologists, Jerome for example arguing:
But I wonder why he the heretic Jovinianus set Judah and Tamar before us for an example, unless perchance even harlots give him pleasure; or Onan, who was slain because he grudged his brother seed. Does he imagine that we approve of any sexual intercourse except for [br]the procreation of children?
Clement of Alexandria, though he does not make explicit reference to Onan, similarly reflects an early Christian view of the abhorrence of '"spilling seed'":
Because of its divine institution for the propagation of man, the seed is not to be vainly ejaculated, nor is it to be damaged, nor is it to be wasted
To have coitus other than to procreate children is to do injury to nature'
Many Christian groups, especially Roman Catholicism, have subsequently cited the Onan narrative as justification for bans on both masturbation and coitus interruptus, and since Medieval times have also used it to justify a prohibition against contraception. This view that wasted seed refers to masturbation was upheld by many early rabbis. However, the Levitical regulations concerning ejaculation, whether as a result of heterosexual intercourse or of mastubation or nocturnal emission, merely prescribe a ritual washing and remaining ritually impure until the next day began on the following evening.


Timothy Findley uses a phrase "The Rain of Onan" in his novel Not Wanted on the Voyage (1984). "it was now that the rain, having lost its translucence and its mauveness, began to take on an opaque milky look, and Noah said that what had been an "evil" rain was now a 'passionate' rain being poured from the sky-spent and wasted on the dying earth and this he called 'The Rain of Onan.'"
Robert Jordan, the main character in Ernest Hemingway's book, "For Whom the Bell Tolls" also makes reference to Onan the night before he is to fight in battle: "He smiled and thought: I'll keep any oversupply of that for tomorrow. I'll need all of that there is tomorrow. There are no pine needles that need that now as I will need it tomorrow. Who was it cast his seed upon the ground in the Bible? Onan. How did Onan turn out? he thought. I don't remember ever hearing any more about Onan. He smiled in the dark."
Additionally, an oblique reference is made in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, in the form of the Organization of North American Nations, O.N.A.N., a fictional "interdependent" alliance of America, Canada, and Mexico occurring at some unspecified point in the future where America has instituted a policy of "experialism," ceding most of New England to a very unwilling Canada in return for the right to use their former territory as a toxic dumping ground. American waste is catapulted from urban centers and blown north with giant fans to fall to the earth in what used to be New England, rendering the land unlivable. It is widely held that O.N.A.N. is an intentional pun on Onanism.

Notes and citations

onanism in Danish: Onan
onanism in German: Onan
onanism in Estonian: Oonan
onanism in Modern Greek (1453-): Αυνάν
onanism in Spanish: Onán
onanism in French: Onan
onanism in Italian: Onan
onanism in Lithuanian: Onanas
onanism in Norwegian: Onan
onanism in Polish: Onan
onanism in Portuguese: Onã
onanism in Russian: Онан
onanism in Slovak: Onan
onanism in Swedish: Onan
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