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Onanism is the act of "spilling one's seed" in any place other than a woman's vagina. Not to be confused with the priapic Schwarzenegger vehicle, Conan the Barbarian nor with the worship of a certain Norse god.
It is most often used as a euphemism for male masturbation, although it can mean coitus interruptus (the withdrawal method of contraception), as in Genesis 38:1-the biblical story of Onan which is the origin of the term. Both these acts are regarded as serious sins by the Roman Catholic Church and other, less-than-progressive Abrahamic religions.
The word derives from a rather unfortunate man called Onan, whose older brother, Er, was struck down by God for being evil.[note 1] Hebrew custom required that Onan marry his brother's widow, Tamar, and produce a male heir. Whilst Onan married Tamar, he was unhappy that any heir he fathered would be Er's and not his. Consequently, whenever he had sex with Tamar, as the King James translation somewhat coyly puts it, he "spilled his seed on the ground". This being the Old Testament, and Old Testament God being a mean, cussed old bastard, Onan was promptly slain for this impertinence.[note 2]
As the etymology suggests, the tale has been taken as an injunction against masturbation and used to instill feelings of guilt and shame into generations of Christians. The actual text is, however, incredibly vague on what, specifically, Onan did to deserve such a rich, creamy helping of God's loving Wrath. The story seems to suggest coitus interruptus rather than masturbation, and the most sensible explanation is that he was divinely smoked for refusing to perform his familial duty of providing an heir to his brother.
There is a body of opinion which holds that Onan was punished not for masturbation, but for disobeying God, though there are plenty of people walking around today who have willfully failed to impregnate their brother's widows. Probably they will die later.
Noted smartass Dorothy Parker named her parrot Onan, because he too spilled his seed upon the ground.