Here is the transcript (more or less) and a few of the slides from my one-hour lecture at Hashinger Hall, April 5th, 2016. Enjoy!
The history department hired me to research wet dreams, East and West, from premodern to modern, from Sumer to Egypt to England to Japan, but it's difficult because there isn’t really a lot out there about wet dreams, or even about semen in general (an omission that arguably helps men retain their position as rational and untainted by the messiness of corporeal flows). So I had to read about how a culture dealt with other body fluids and uncontrollable flows, like menstruation, breast milk, urine, and dreams. Not even my favorite Michael Kimmel book, Manhood in America, mentions anything about wet dreams or semen, and this is why KU is working on putting together a cultural history of this important body fluid.The book, Men's Milk, should be out sometime next year.
Last time we talked about how in history male bodies had to present themselves as hard, closed, and dry, like a rock, while female bodies, who were categorically “other,” were associated with softness, holes, wetness and uncontrollable waters. But the entire binary is ridiculous because male bodies are uncontrollable too, and slimy, and wet, and we leak, and so tonight I want to explore how certain male experiences that were decidedly “wet” seriously disturbed a man’s idea of what it means to be a man and not a woman. Wet dreams are where his hardness and his wetness meet.
Some men have multiple wet dreams a week if they stop masturbating, but most men I know never have wet dreams. They have erotic dreams, but they don't actually ejaculate in bed because they masturbate and have plenty of sex in their waking lives. Most boys growing up are already masturbating and so they don't have the big wet dream they were told they would in sex ed. class. But we waited for it. Some of us feared it, because that's when the parents would find out about our dream sex life. In a way, the wet dream even betrayed a sort of loss of virginity, because dreams are real when you are in them. Maybe those guys that are good lovers from the start have practiced in their dreams, practiced “becoming the other." But ladies, can you imagine waiting for your period, for that sign that you are growing up, and it just never arriving?
In a bit of irony, though, the men in history who did have wet dreams, lots of them, were the celibate monks and erotiphobic Christians, especially the great church fathers of western civilization. And what’s important to remember is that for them, as for most premodern people, semen wasn't just a slimy sexual substance that appeared after intense physical bliss. Semen was the soul. It was considered the living soul of the person, or it was a material support for the soul. And it wasn't just the patriarchal, male-centered imagination that turned semen divine. The materiality of it - its oily, pearly shininess - was a testament to its divinity, and a tiny drop was believed to be spread all throughout the body, sustaining it, animating it. We find this idea all over the world. And to be clear, women also had this drop of semen keeping them alive, but they didn't have a storehouse of it. Her ‘essence,’ or refined spirit became milk. She became milk, which is food. He became soul.
Before modern medicine placed the production of semen in the testicles, it was believed to originate in the head, like condensed pure consciousness, and then, in men, it traveled down the spinal column and out the penis. Thoughts were then believed to affect the quality of this “spirit oil,” and what you were thinking at the moment of orgasm affected the life of your offspring. Its whiteness also related it to bone marrow and to the eyeballs, which contributed to the idea that leaking semen would lead to a weak spine and to blindness.
As Michel Foucault summarizes it in his History of Sexuality (1990: 130), “by expelling their semen, living creatures…deprived themselves of elements that were valuable for their own existence.” This is one reason why eating semen, or liquid soul, was an early Christian ritual, and semen became the Eucharist and Host of the body. If it’s eaten then it’s not wasted! They took The Gospel of Eve literally, which says to “gather your seeds” and to not waste them. Some of these ‘heretical’ Christians believed Jesus was the first to show us, at the last supper, how to consume his soul through oral sex. “This is my soul. Eat it so that I may live in you forever.” [We know about these early Christian beliefs because they were described in detail by Iranius and Epiphanius, the Church Fathers bent on exposing heretical Christians.]
Early Christians were not the only groups to ensoul semen, and to develop semen-eating rituals around the idea of maintaining an unbroken lineage to a certain person’s mind. Buddhists were doing it, too. And this idea, that semen is soul, is of course incredibly sexist. Because only men create semen (which is why it’s also a symbol for masculinity), are women just considered soulless? Yeah, pretty much. And as far as procreation goes, men were believed to contribute the “white parts” - the eyes, bones, teeth, marrow, and the soul, whereas women contributed “the red parts” - the soft flesh and blood. Considering how the creation of a child seems to be the mixing of the two fluids, the semen and the menstrual blood, can we really blame premodern people for believing this?
However sexist, the conflation of semen with the soul and with the other 'pearly whites' of the body created serious anxiety in men: leaking this stuff could be deadly, or even worse: emasculating. Wet dreams betrayed one’s weakness, one's femininity, one's sinful heart. We read about this in history, but was this true in prehistory? Did prehistoric people even have to deal with wet dreams?
Prehistoric Wet Dreams
We might have evidence for attitudes towards erotic dreams at the 17,000 year old Scene At the Well in Lascaux. We see a figure on its back with an erection. Is he dead? Is he asleep? Maybe he is in a trance or a dream. His head is a bird signifying he is in flight even if his body is not. And the bull floating above could be the dream image, more real than his body. The bull or minotaur could even be the erotic partner, with the spear and vagina symbol floating to the right, pointing to sex. This could be a depiction of an erotic dream. And what is all that white stuff floating around?
Prehistoric people may not have even had nocturnal emissions, though, because maybe they had enough opportunities to empty their testicles during the day. If our bonobo primate cousins tell us anything about ourselves, it’s that we masturbated plenty in prehistory.
But even if prehistoric people had wet dreams, frequently, how wet were they? I mean, how shameful, how sticky, how bed-wetty “wet,” were they? How feminine, or how challenging to a man’s identity, were they? Maybe not at all.
Prehistoric men, and this is an important point, didn't know about paternity yet, a knowledge most likely gained in Egypt with the domestication of animals. So there wouldn’t have been this historic anxiety about spilling or wasting semen. Like all body fluids, prehistoric semen may have been mysterious, sure, but it was also like any other odd body fluid that squirts out. It was like puss, or snot, spit, sweat. It was just an oily secretion that appeared after intense physical bliss.
The archaeological evidence from prehistory supports this view: there are virtually no male icons in prehistory, because there are no 'fathers,' no warriors, no priests—there are no male gender roles tied to male lineage. Instead there are thousands of female figurines. Marija Gimbutas argues that this is evidence for a "civilization of the goddess," and for early monotheism. She says the goddess icon was a unifier, an agent of culture who kept the peace, made the people, and helped us survive for tens of thousands of years. The female body was seen as Creatrix and leader, and male bodies were underdeveloped women who can’t give birth or feed babies. Because we saw both male and female bodies come from the female, her body must somehow contain both.
And look! The Venus of Willendorf's unnaturally thin arms make her breasts look like penises, and archaeologist Rosemary Joyce points out that figurines like the one on the right can obviously be viewed in two ways. Another secret about how prehistoric people felt about semen reveals itself when we notice this homomorphy of the breasts and male genitalia. There is an association between the milk from the penis and the milk from the breasts [fantastically expressed in Murakami’s 1998 fiberglass sculptures], so we can infer that semen may have been considered a food. But, like food, it may have also been, in the end, associated with feces and other bodily wastes.
Sumerian Wet Dreams
Prehistory is dark, but in Sumer we have cuneiform clay tablets, the beginning of records, stories, ideas about semen, and thus about wet dreams. We find Enki, the creator God, lifting up his penis and ejaculating the Tigris river into the landscapes that gives birth to civilization. The 'water' mixes with dirt, and the first humans are made out of clay. Semen here is understood as fertilizing water, but water isn’t necessarily just a good thing. Not enough and one dies, too much and one dies, and water is associated with rot, urine, foul smells, and we know that wet things decay, whereas dry things stay clean. And there is a story of Enki getting sick from eating leaves made from his spilled waters. He gets pregnant with beings and almost dies because he doesn't have a hole, so he can’t give birth. But the goddess, Innana, takes pity on poor Enki. She takes the babies from his belly and delivers them herself. She saves him.
So we see in Sumer that semen is related to water, and we are also beginning to see semen turn into a kind of poison. Sumerian culture was no doubt influential, but Egypt is when these cultural forms really get going.
Egyptian Wet Dreams
Egyptian culture flourished relatively unchanged for three thousand years, longer than any other culture in history, much longer than Greece, albeit not nearly as long as our prehistoric structuring, but its still extremely foundational. We can argue that the cultural habits, or ‘habitus,’ the Egyptians laid down in history are still present today. Camille Paglia argues in Sexual Personae that our current sense of beauty and fashion - our eye-liner and make-up and dresses and metrosexuality - all of it is people still living out the aesthetic tastes of Pharaoh. Modern visual culture is the slow development of one of Pharoh’s dreams.
Egyptian mythology, like Abrahamic, Mayan, and Japanese Shinto mythology, places semen and orgasm at the original metaphor for Genesis. Atum, the Egyptian creator, masturbates and then ejaculates the universe. The Mayans named their creator Itzanmaaj, which means “one who does itz,” and itz refers to 'semen, milk, and other magical fluids.' In Japan, Izanagi ejaculates the world from his 'jeweled spear' and then feeds beings life-force through his petrified semen rice, not unlike the way Yahweh feeds his people white sticky manna in the desert. In the Judeo-Christian version of Genesis, Yahweh, like Atum, gives rise to the universe all by himself, and in a state of bliss. If we look at this myth as embodied, was it the Father’s tears or was it his semen that “gave birth” to the universe? It was probably his semen, although there is a version of the Egyptian story where Atum ejaculates into his mouth, spits out time and space, and then cries beings into the universe.
Thomas Hare, in ReMembering Osiris, says this about the Egyptian version, but it can apply to the others: “The phallus and its seminal trace exist then in a nexus of associations exemplifying, supporting, and extending the power of the father, on the one hand, and promulgating violence, pollution, and danger, on the other.”
Semen plays an incredibly important role in Egyptian symbolism, although most people don't like to think about that. For example, the Eye of Horus, if you read the Contendings of Horus and Set, is Horus’s semen that appears on Set’s forehead after they have sex, thus nullifying his right to be King of Egypt. Who knows this story?
Probably part political satire, part erotic poem, and part origin myth, the Contendings of Horus and Set begins with the death of Osiris, who was killed by his brother, Set (like how Scar kills Mufasa in the Lion King). There is a court battle between Set and Horus, who is Osiris’s son and reincarnation, about who gets to inherit Egypt. The ancestors, the Enead, call for a break, and tell the uncle and nephew to stop fighting and to meet back in court again in the morning. Set invites Horus to his house and that night the two end up having sex! But, right before Set cums in Horus’s ass, Horus pulls out Set’s cock and holds it in his hand, and Set unknowingly cums in Horus’s hand! In the morning, Set leaves all happy to go to the garden, and Horus takes his uncles semen to his mother Isis, who quickly cuts off the defiled hand and feeds it to a fish that swims away deep into the river (an important detail). Isis then jerks off her son, collects his semen, which is also in a way Osiris’s semen, and she goes to the garden and wipes it on Set’s favorite lettuce, which he carelessly eats for breakfast.
At court, Set announces to everyone that he has new information. “I had sex with Horus last night. He is therefore emasculated and has no right to the throne.” Everyone looks to Horus who just laughs and says, "this is a lie." Set says “No, no. I can prove it! Call forth my semen and it will come out of Horus’s head (where all semen is stored).” They call out for it, but the semen doesn't come out of Horus’s head; it comes out of a fish, suddenly seen sailing through the air from out of the river! Everyone laughs (because it implies that Set fucked a fish last night). Horus then says that the opposite it actually the case. “I fucked Set. Call out to my semen and it will appear right where it should.” They call it forth, and the semen appears as a drop in the center of uncle Set’s forehead, right at the crown. Then suddenly, from out of nowhere, Thoth grabs Horus’s semen, slaps it onto his own head, and crowns himself King of Egypt. It’s interesting how the anointing of oil on the head will be picked up by the Hebrews, who will call the oil, ‘shemen.’
This myth belongs to the oldest extended body of writing in the world, and already we see the idea that ejaculating into the wrong place, at the wrong time, is a dangerous move. And, I might add, we also see the beginning of the ‘contaminated food’ or ‘secret sauce’ theme of urban legends, like the 'angry restaurant employee,' or the 'fraternity cream-filled donut prank.' Urban legends, like myths, are believed to express deep cultural anxieties. You can read these semen-filled urban legends at snopes.com.
So, even though in Egypt semen becomes filled with heredity, and it becomes a symbol for men and masculinity, and even though its oily materiality is pretty much totally harmless if touched or eaten, semen is also marked as a kind of poison, one that dirties and defiles anything it touches.
This association is quite literal, actually. The Egyptian word mtwt [pronounced ‘mahtoot’] means both semen and venom. Martin Bernal (2006), Cornel Historian, in volume three of Black Athena, shows how mtwt in Egyptian means “semen, seed, progeny, the Nile…but also secreted materials from snakes and scorpions.” He thinks this may be because mtwt can be read mwtt, which resembles mut, the Afroasiatic word for “man,” and mut comes from mawut, meaning “to die.” There are a few other reasons I think.
It could be that semen is venom because semen is life and life is death (there is a kind of Buddhistic “life is suffering” logic going on here), but also because semen was believed to come from the spine, and there is a visual punning between the penis and a snake—which is essentially a living spinal column whose head looks like the glans, and whose milk/spit is dangerous.
There are some early Christian sects that also associated semen with snakes, the spine, and with spinal fluid. The Peretae gnostics, for example, who flourished in the third-sixth century, had a great embodied cosmology where God the Father is the brain, his son is the spinal column, and the holy spirit is the seminal spinal fluid, fed to the body from the Father via the Son. This doctrine was associated with other gnostic doctrines that speculated on the snake-like nature of the spinal column, which carried semen or consciousness from the brain to the genitals and back again. The spine thus performed the same role as Jesus, linking the Father with the world of matter. It’s interesting that Jesus is also cast in gnostic books like the Apocraphon of John as the serpent snake sent by God into the Garden of Eden.
Plato also characterized semen as “a soft flow from the spine”; and Leonardo de Vinci rendered semen coming from the spine in his 1493 drawing, “The Copulation,” and this is interesting because he had the cadaver right in front of him, but his eyes were clouded by his culture and this ancient “knowledge” that semen came from the spine.
The Garba Upanishad, an important Indian Vedic text, puts this early view of the body thus: “From food blood is born; from blood, flesh; from flesh, fat; from fat, bone; from bone, marrow; from marrow, semen.” We see how semen was believed to be the end of digestion, the clarified blood, or the ghee of the person. It’s the essence. We read in Gordan and Schwabe that some Egyptian texts also show a close relationship between the backbone, life, and one’s ability to survive after death. The white bones of a bull remain on the altar after the fire destroys the pink flesh. This may be one reason the ankh, the symbol for eternal life, is shaped like a bull’s thoracic vertebra, and why Eve, in the most popular Hebrew version of Genesis, was created from a thoracic bone. This idea that sperm comes from bone marrow is interesting considering how scientists in 2007 learned how to make sperm from bone marrow. Maybe the ancient Egyptian idea wasn't just wishful thinking. Maybe it was a vision of the future.
Egyptian semen/venom finds its way into the Jewish midrash, which is a collection of folk stories meant to supplement the priest’s text, and one describes Eve as being created from Adam’s tail, which “ended in a sting.” It doesn’t help that scorpion venom physically resembles semen.
Jewish Wet Dreams
Sumerian, Egyptian, Gnostic, Midrashic, and other religious texts are important to look at because, for a time, it was all everyone was looking at. These texts came from, and reinforced, certain bodies in the past, and they still construct bodies today.
There are two important passages in the Bible that address wet dreams directly: Leviticus 15 and Deuteronomy 23. In Leviticus 15, God tells Moses and Aaron that all their bodily discharges are unclean, and that a man who has had an “emission of semen” must wash everything that came into contact with it. The man himself is “unclean,” (which means he can’t eat holy foods, and he can’t read scripture or pray) until evening. Semen ‘out of place’ keeps you from practicing your own religion?
Deuteronomy 23 speaks specifically of a man defiled "by his nocturnal emission" and requires that he leave the war camp until evening. He can’t even fight for his people? And I imagine a lot of solders would be spilling semen left and right, so far away from their wives. He must bathe before returning. Deuteronomy 23 also says that any uncleanliness, any semen out of place, will “cause God to turn away and not protect you or your people.” Your wet dream could destroy your entire nation! It’s therefore not surprising that Hebrew culture, like their Egyptian mythological overlords, were obsessed with cleanliness.
Sera lavetela. Semen in vain. Scripture was clear: wet dreams, masturbation, (Deut. 23:lO-12; Lev. 15:16-17), and rape (Deut. 22:23-26) are all polluting (although battlefield sex, or ”marriage” is permitted). And this isn’t very surprising. After all, ancient Israel was a patriarchal society, and each of these acts entails seminal discharge into something that might confuse or frustrate male lineage. One ancient rabbi in the Gemara, Rabbi Johana, is quoted as saying, “whoever emits semen in vain deserves capital punishment.”
Uncontrollable emissions are then of course compared to menstrual blood, and wet dreams are kind of like male menstruation in Jewish culture. Menstruation is so unclean that Leviticus 15 says women, after they are totally done discharging, have to wait another week and then take two young pigeons to the priest who offers one as a sin offering and the other as a burnt offering to make atonement for the discharge of her uncleanness.”
Fluids matter in Hebrew cultures, and in cultures that want so desperately to feel clean and pure. If you want to feel pure, and you want your group to feel pure, then you have to construct ideas of impurity. Concepts of impurity strengthen and affirm what is “pure.” So we want to consider how wet dreams and other uncontrollable flows contribute to group concepts of purity.
And there appears nothing more impure than failed sex. Remember Onan, in Gen 38, dies after spilling his semen, which really freaked people out. But it can be argued that he died from not fulfilling his duty, whereas anxieties around wet dreams were really energized by a belief that semen itself was sentient, and if spilled it gave birth to demons. Can you imagine actually believing this? How guilty you would feel? Demons then go around and ruin everyone’s lives.
This 'sentient semen' appears in other cultures, too. In Greek Mythology, Athena’s serpent-human child, Erichthonius, was born from spilled semen. There is some story about her wiping cum off of her thigh and then tossing the tissue to the ground. When the liquid soul touches the dirt, Erichthonius is born.
But most interesting is this story from the midrash, where Adam and Eve vow to never have children again after they see how failed their first children are - Cain and Able - and they spend 150 years in abstinence. During this time Adam inadvertently feeds semen to underground succubi who give birth to demons. Woops! And it's usually Lilith, Adam’s first wife, who is believed to be the cause of erotic and wet dreams. She’s the “night demon,” the one who is inside your body, possessing you, making you leak out your seed and your soul!
Who knows about Lilith? She is a fascinating character, introduced in the Jewish Midrash and other Babylonian texts like the Talmud. She is Adam’s first wife, who was equal to Adam and didn't like being mounted like an animal and raped, so she protested and disappeared. One story suggests that Adam must have killed her, and he is forever haunted by her ghost. In another version, a more popular one, Lilith tells Adam to stop, stands up, intones the secret name of God, and then floats up into the sky and disappears like in the transfiguration. Now she lives in the underworld or in the ruins of cities. In an Islamic story, she shacks up with Satan and gives birth to demons. In another, she is Satan. Some believe she wanders the world killing babies, and there is an argument that the word "lullaby" comes from the phrase, “Lilith, be gone!” Jews would hang a charm by the baby’s crib to distract Lilith and keep her from entering the child. Native American dream catchers, and modern mobiles are arguably the same type of ritual object, placed there to distract demonic spirits. And if by demonic spirits we mean nightmares, then maybe the reason these enchanting objects work is because they distract the baby and calm the mind before it goes to sleep.
In any case, in the myth God needs Adam and Eve have sex again so they can bring forth Seth, their third son (like Ender!), whose lineage will be able to survive the flood, so, “to lure Adam out of his abstinence God plants in him the lust for Eve and tells him to lie with her, undertaking that he would remove their temptation to wild and indecent lust. This promise He kept” (Graves and Patai, 98).
Not all Jews and early Christians believed spilling seed was bad. Borborite Christians followed the Gospel of Phillip, which says that ejaculating into a vagina could cause another soul to be pulled out of eternity and into a body, into a ‘prison for the soul,’ and so all seed must be spilled, or eaten, or wasted, because according to this doctrine, the worst sin, the one sin that can keep you out of heaven, is procreation. For them, the deity who commanded us to “be fruitful and multiply,” was actually the demiurge, Satan.
Nevertheless, most of the Jews and early Christians believed semen not ejaculated into in a vagina was sera le-vatala, semen in vain, and wet dreams keep you from being able to enter the temple. [There are stories about the Jewish high priest staying up all night before Yom Kippur, to avoid having a wet dream.]
This hopefully sets the stage for the next phase of our wet dream history: Christian Wet Dreams.
Christian Wet Dreams
If we examine texts about wet dreams from medieval theologians, philosophers and physicians, we find that as the church grew in power, male leaders expressed serious anxieties over wet dreams. I mean they were terrified. They had stopped masturbating, stopped thinking about sex - their waking, libidinal bodies were divinely suppressed, and yet, they couldn't stop lustful dreams! With wet dreams the male body becomes disobedient (Plato called the genitals in general “disobedient”). And everyone knew that the content of a dream is related to the content of the waking mind, so these monks had to keep their wet dreams secret. But they couldn't keep them a secret from themselves, or from God. So, for example, Saint Augustine admits in his late fourth century Confessions that nocturnal emissions create “a great gap between myself and myself,” or between his body and his will. For Augustine, wet dreams “spoke to all men, and of one thing alone—of a fatal deposit of concupiscence left there by Adam’s fall.” Concupiscence means desires. So you can tell that this is not just cold slime found on your leg in the morning.
Essentially, before Martin Luther and the reformation, Christian monasteries where places where wet dreams were forbidden—which is like forbidding menstruation, or sweating. Can you imagine, a natural flow from the body, a healthy natural flow, being forbidden? Apa Moses, the late fifth century Christian father, was a little compassionate and declared that three uncontrolled semen emissions a year, without sexual fantasies, would be what a good monk might expect. But even the most devout monks, as Augustine confessed, cannot stop the body from leaking semen completely.
[The celebrated catholic saint and Egyptian orthodox monk, John Cassian (c.360-435), plays a big role in the present scholarship on medieval wet dreams, and one historian says that with Cassian, “wet dreams are subjected to a level of analysis deeper and literally more ‘microscopic’ than anything we have…encountered.”]
Medicinal Wet Dreams
The Christian anxiety will flow into Western Medicine’s interpretation of wet dreams, and here is when our story gets really gross.
The second century Roman physician Soranus of Ephesus says that a wet dream is not itself a disease, but could lead to one, such as epilepsy, insanity, or another illness in which the body "suffers agitation and is shaken.” The immediate cause of the nocturnal emission was a dream image, which was itself the result of perversion and prolonged sexual desire. Because nocturnal emission could develop into a worse problem, the doctor suggested remedial action of two kinds. First, the patient's mental images had to be turned away from sex to other interests. Second, the patient's body, evidently too hot and moist, had to be made cold and dry. This could be accomplished in a variety of ways: placing a lead plate on the groin, injecting "cold" juices into the urethra, but mostly by prescribing a cold, drying diet (Kellogg developed corn flakes and promoted circumcision for this same purpose).
Fasting was another possible solution. Ian Shaw’s History of the Monks in Egypt includes the teaching of Dioscorus in which he reminds monks that nocturnal emissions of semen “can be reduced by means of fasting: by controlling the intake of food one reduces the buildup of “matter,” or seminal fluid, in the body.” Cassian also recognized the role of diet in the occurrence of nocturnal emissions. He refers to the notion that excess nutrition leads to a buildup of bodily humors, including semen. Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica, states that seminal discharge can result from eating too much food.
Indian, Vedic, and Buddhist Wet Dreams
What happens if you are an athlete and want to stop leaking semen but you cannot fast? Within A History of Celibacy we find Indian wrestlers, pahalwans, who practice brahamacharya, “the way to God”, or celibacy, because they need to store up semen and its other version, milk, in order to stay beautiful and strong. There is the notion in India that storing up semen increases one’s masculinity. Indian men also believed that semen-milk fills the male breasts and makes them look beautiful. Pahalwans are famous for drinking lots of milk and being the most beautiful men in India—which sucks because they were also celibate, and their radiant beauty would just attract more people to them, making it harder to remain celibate. Like everywhere else, the doctors in India believed that excessive ejaculation lead to various morbidities and premature death. By contrast, “the heroic ascetic and yogi who retains his seed is the most manly of men and enjoys robust health, tremendous physical energy, and mental alertness," and he also develops supernatural powers, called "siddhis." Those who practice celibacy and can control their wet dreams also accumulate a subtle form of semen, called shakti, and an energy called tapas, which literally means ‘heat’. The heat then helps the yogi burn away the heavier semen and sexual desires, while keeping that small drop spread out around the body.
In Play of Consciousness, Swami Muktananda, an incredibly accomplished and influential Yogi, compares this important body technique to saving money: “You should preserve your seminal fluid, which is your radiance, as you save money, watching every penny. Never forget that a radiant human being can be formed from that one drop. If you lose it, all the best powders and creams will not brighten your skin. The radiance of the sexual fluid is the vehicle of Shakti. Shakti is, as it were, bought with it. It is the means for activating the Kundalini and the highest means of making Samadhi stable. Look carefully and see the condition of the man who has wasted his sexual fluid” (1978: 145).
Even in esoteric Buddhism, semen is considered the “vital essence-drop that is spread throughout the body in numerous subtle channels as the support for life and consciousness.”
Within Asian bodylore, then, female bodies are just simply out of luck. Women don't get semen and they don't get stable Samadhi, enlightenment, eternal life...
So much of Indian, Buddhist, and also Taoist yogas are based on this sexist equation of semen with prana, or with shakti, or chi. But as far as I know, seminal retention, or withholding semen, doesn't actually benefit the body. The opposite might be the case, and the more orgasms and ejaculations you have, the better. According to classical Indian medical theory, though, one portion of semen requires sixty portions of blood to produce, and one portion lost is like loosing 60 portions of blood, and so it is considered extremely precious.
This reminds me of Gibert Herdt’s study of the Sambia boys of Papau New Guiney, and how they drink each other’s semen to replenish their stores: Sambian boys learn that semen is a kind of milk, and that the penis is a version of the breast. The move from childhood to adulthood is the move from sucking milk from the breast to sucking milk from the penis. They also will drink white tree sap. Men gather in the forest around a secret, sacred spot to drink white tree sap. Men say that this tree sap “replaces” ejaculated semen “lost” through heterosexual sex. Interestingly, most men do not replace semen lost through homosexual sex.
Victorian Wet Dreams: Spermatorrhea
Anxiety over wet dreams echoed all the way up into the 19th and 20th century. Victorian doctors invented “Spermatorrhea,” pronounced like diarrhea, (in India it was called Dhat Syndrome), which was a catch-all term for the deadly problem of semen-leaking. European and American physicians discovered, described, diagnosed, and, if paid, treated this condition, caused by excessive sexual activity such as “masturbation, wet dreams, and sex more than once a week.” This is when we first find the use of the term ‘wet dream,’ in William Acton’s A practical treatise on diseases, 2nd ed., published in 1858. He says, “Spermatorrhea… is known by many other terms, such as “seminal emissions,” “nocturnal” or “diurnal emissions,” “pollutions,” “wet dreams,” “masturbation,” “onanism,” etc.”
--> surgical treatments such as cauterization, and the infamous “spermatorrhea ring” you could order for a dollar fifty, that cuts into the penis when it swells in arousal.
The extremely influential Victorian physician, William Acton, in his most popular work The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs, straight up calls wet dreams, “pollutions.” It was first published in 1857, and an eighth edition came out in Philadelphia in 1894! Acton says that wet dreams can be healthful, a “safety valve,” but he also speaks frankly about wet dreams as being undesirable and dangerous, and as controllable as masturbation and bedwetting. Wet beds, wet dreams, the term was probably used to humiliate. To patients who complained that they can’t control their dreams, Acton declared: “This is only partially true. Those who have studied the connection between thoughts during waking hours and dreams during sleep, know that they are closely connected….” Acton generally recommends a change in diet to blander foods, and not to drink anything after eight o’clock. However, cauterization is his number one recommendation because “both theory and actual practice point it out, in my opinion, as the best means for checking the tendency. As soon as the excessive morbid sensibility of the canal of the urethra has disappeared, the will can assert its force…” Cauterization is dripping silver nitrate into the urethra to destroy its sensitivity. Acton says: “Cauterization may indeed remove morbid irritability from the urethra, and in cases where the emissions arise from this local cause, there is reason to hope that the reflex action on the cord or on the brain may cease.” Because the boy wasn't masturbating in his sleep [and you can see a video of a wet dream on Wikipedia], the ‘morbid irritation’ couldn't have been coming from the outside, so they thought it was coming from the inside.
Acton also recommends more mindful dreaming, and prescribes different techniques one can use to become a lucid dreamer. And this is interesting in the way it relates to Tibetan Dream yoga and the yoga nidra. For the Tibetans, though, the goal of lucid dreaming is spiritual realization of the nature of mind, and to prepare oneself for death, so that when dream images appear as you lose consciousness, you don't freak out, but instead stay lucid. The Victorians, on the other hand, wanted to develop the ability to lucid dream so that they could avoid having erotic and wet dreams.
This overvaluation of semen lasted into the 20th century. I found writings from The Alliance-Scottish Council, founded in 1951 for the purpose of sex education, who had clear views about wet dreams. They thought that nocturnal emissions were biologically normal, but they were accompanied by "rather unpleasant dreams" and "the loss of this fluid should not , as a rule, be more often than once a week." If it was more frequent, the child was advised to speak to their father or mother, “as you may need a tonic.” And while boys were told to clean and care for their “sex glands,” careless handling was deplored on the grounds that “it may sometimes force some of the semen from the storehouses before nature is ready”. Masturbation, or in the terminology of the Alliance’s literature, “self-abuse,” was strongly discouraged as a “waste of vital energy, a sign of retarded development, and a negation of the opportunities of Christian manhood.”
Slime and Flow
In the end, I think anxiety over wet dreams is probably caused by the transiency of body fluids in general. Anthropologist Anna Meigs puts it well: “The disgust and fear which North Americans experience when confronting body emissions derives primarily from a perception of them as waste, as substances cut off from the vitality of the body and subject to imminent decay.” Elizabeth Grosz, in Volatile Bodies, says body fluids “attest to a certain irreducible ‘ dirt’ or disgust, a horror of the unknown or the unspecifiable that permeates, lurks, lingers, and at times leaks out of the body, a testimony of the fraudulence or impossibility of the ‘ clean’ and ‘ proper’ .”
And let's not forget that all the body techniques we have discussed—celibacy, seminal retention, fasting, cauterization, all come from male-centered cultures and religions. Saving semen from spilling and anxiety around nocturnal emissions were also entangled in the cross-cultural need to distinguish dry men from wet women.
And it wasn't just a mythic patriarchal, male-centered imagination that turned semen into soul. The origins and materiality of semen, its oily, slippery shininess, associated it with oils, with blood, water, and bone marrow, all substances that legitimize its divinity.
Body fluids freak us out because they attest to the permeability of the body. Wet dreams can interrogate our hard won boundaries. It can point out how mutable our boundaries can be, and I think this is really good thing.
I want to end tonight with a quote from Posthuman Theologist and Professor Gerald Loughlin, who talks about how fluids and flesh can cross the borders of skin, mind and world. “Human flesh is always traversing and transgressing boundaries; its fluids seeping out, its skin touching other skins, its limbs entangling aliens – human and divine. It leaves one land and enters another, traveling from one book to the next, and, above all, it slips beyond the scrolls on which it was first written, beyond the pages of its inception, to live in the imaginations of those traditions we call religions, and, beyond them, in the cultures they once wrote and still write.”
For references, see my article on Reality Sandwich.