The social side of 18th-century masturbation.
In 18th century Britain, for a man of means, membership in a gentlemen’s club was pretty much a given. These functioned as a kind of home from home, a way for men to socialize while also entirely avoiding any kind of domestic responsibility.
Some of these clubs were formed around a similarity in members’ backgrounds, like alumni of the same university, while others were based around common interests—politics, science, literature, or emerging technology like the car. One Scottish gentleman’s club was formed around a very common interest—jerkin’ it.
The Beggar’s Benison—or, to give it its full title, the Most Ancient and Most Puissant Order of the Beggar's Benison and Merryland, Anstruther—was essentially a wealthy men’s masturbation club. Based in Anstruther in the county of Fife, and formed in 1732, the club took its name from a folk tale about King James V, disguised while traveling the country, paying a peasant woman to lift her skirts and carry him across a river so he didn’t get wet. Paying her a gold coin, he was given the blessing (or benison) “May your purse ne'er be toom and your horn aye in bloom"—i.e. may your wallet never be empty and your penis be eternally erect. The club’s logo, in tribute to this, was an erect penis with a small bag of money hanging from it. As for Merryland, that was the name of a sub-genre of erotic fiction in which the female body was described as though it was a landscape, with lots of very stretched metaphors involving plowing.
The club presented itself as a "convivial celebration of male sexuality", and becoming a member involved going through several rather intimate initiation rituals. The initiate had to place his erect penis on a platter, at which point the other members of the club would approach in pairs and touch their own erections to his, after which everyone would get drunk, recite lewd poetry, and pleasure themselves.
The club held a huge collection of pornography, and would occasionally hire “posture girls” to stand nude and be gawped at, with no club members permitted to touch or speak to them. Some meetings would begin with legitimate scientific lectures—‘The Menstrual Cycle of the Skate’, ‘The Gender of an Earthworm’—before progressing to the saucy stuff. Often these two elements were combined—a lecture on some kind of erotic subject matter with a living, breathing ‘visual aid’.
What was going on? Was there simply that little else going on in 18th-century Fife? Possibly, but some historians have suggested that the Beggar’s Benison had slightly more to it than a bunch of fellas flogging the dolphin.
It all came down to that least sexy of subjects, politics. Taxation on alcohol had been dramatically increased, disproportionately affecting Scotland and the whisky industry. And, in London, there was a growing backlash against the libertinism of the day—an industrious and vocal minority looking for a return to puritanism. They were keen to spread the idea that self-pleasure was a sin, was hazardous to health and society, and could lead to blindness. As writer Annie Harrower-Gray put it in Scotland magazine, “The elite of Anstruther were outraged that not only had London deprived them of the camaraderie to be found in a dram but of their solitary pleasures too.”
Were the masturbating men of Fife making a political point with their actions? Was each stroke motivated by showing the wealthy London lawmakers that the people of Scotland wouldn’t stand for their ridiculous policies? Were they demonstrating taking more than just their genitals into their own hands? Or was it just a roomful of horny Scotsmen jerking off?
They certainly liked to frame their “frigging” (their chosen word) as an expression of intellectual freedom. They dressed it all up in arcane, prop-laden rituals—surviving relics include medals with nude figures, plates and bowls decorated with genitals (and into which club-goers would ejaculate), and their prize possession: a snuffbox given to them by King George IV, an honorary member, containing the pubic hair of one of his mistresses.
The organization existed for over a century, finally closing its doors in 1836. How powerful an exercise in intellectualism a group of men pleasuring themselves into a series of dishes really was may never truly be known, but again, there really wasn’t a huge amount else to do in 17th-century Fife—at least it got them out of the house.