by Th. Metzger
© 1999 by Th. Metzger Artwork © 1999 by r
What a Young Boy Ought to Know came C.O.D. After paying the postman and opening the wooden packing crate, what the anxious youngster and equally nervous parents found were twenty-four black Edison cylinders. This may be the first audio book: two dozen little sermonettes about “the vicious habit of self-pollution.” Recorded at the turn of the twentieth century by Doctor of Divinity Sylvanus Stall, it was one of the most influential forces in the war against the “vile addiction to solitary vice.” A hundred years later, Dr. Stall's voice is creaky, pinched, just managing to hold in the hysteria. He exhorts his imaginary listener, “My Dear Friend Harry,” to struggle with all his strength against “defilement of thought and life.”
Though masturbatory insanity was touted as a social plague as far back as the mid-1700s, it was the Century of Progress, the 1800s, that brought the obsession with “onanistic self-corruption” to its height. And Dr. Stall's extremely popular work reached its peak of influence just as the twentieth century opened.
Masturbation, proclaimed the good doctor, is like an opiate addiction, soon becoming “a fixed habit, and is likely to be practiced with such violence that idiocy, and even death, may and often does, come speedily. Words are scarcely capable of describing the dreadful consequences which are suffered by those who persist in this practice.” Body, mind and even soul are quickly and inexorably destroyed by this pernicious “secret vice.”
Sallow skin, lusterless eyes, flabby muscles, loose stools, cold and clammy hands, poor indigestion, heart palpitations, hollow chest, headaches, dizziness all mark the young man snared by vicious habit.
Stall paints a grim picture of the chronic masturbator - a figure as cliched in the 1890s as the crypto-lunatic assassin and the raving, bestial “drug addict.” Sallow skin, lusterless eyes, flabby muscles, loose stools, cold and clammy hands, poor digestion, heart palpitations, hollow chest, headaches, dizziness all mark the young man snared by the vicious habit. Orgasm - or “violent shocks to the nervous system” in Stall's words - if repeated or long continued will eventually “shatter and ruin” the body beyond all hope of recovery.
The mind too is attacked. The thrall to self-pollution “can no longer look people squarely and frankly in the face, but seeks to avoid meeting people, pulls down his cap to hide his eyes and goes about with a shy and guilty bearing. His memory fails him. His mind begins to lack grasp and grip. He slowly but surely ceases to be positive and self-reliant. Imbecility and insanity may, and often do come as the inevitable result.”
When a boy injures his reproductive powers so that when a man his sexual secretion shall be of inferior quality, his offspring will show it in their physical, mental and moral natures, shaping the history and destiny of the nation.
This is not just a personal failing, however, affecting only the masturbator. His family too, his descendents and the entire race are blighted. “When a boy injures his reproductive powers so that when a man his sexual secretion shall be of inferior quality, his offspring will show it in their physical, mental and moral natures, shaping the history and destiny of the nation.” The precious protoplasm - which for Victorians could mean anything from an “opaque jelly” to the “sacred” essence of racial identity - was at stake.
Stall was not a solitary wild prophet shouting his baleful predictions into the wind. His book contained numerous endorsements from prominent Americans and went into scores of editions in dozens of languages. More importantly it stands as the capstone in a huge edifice of sexual mania. Indeed, masturbational insanity did plague Victorian America. But it was the preachers and doctors and other moral authorities who were overwhelmed by the madness, not furtive children and lonely adults. Masturbatory insanity reached its peak just as industrialized progress promised to totally transform American life. Railroads, electric light, telegraph and telephone, film, automobiles, X-rays were all becoming part of the landscape as the specter of the chronic masturbator - “debilitated and emaciated, pallid and haggard, abominable and wretched” - stalked the dark imaginings of American medical men.
Though the Catholic church had railed against sexual sin for centuries, it wasn't until 1772, when Onanism: a Treatise on the Disorders Produced by Masturbation reached England that “This heinous crime, this abominable sin, condemned alike by God and man” began to consume the minds of moral watchdogs. Written by Samuel Tissot, the Pope's chief expert on hygiene and advisor on plagues, Onanism is a mixture of medical hysteria and hellfire thunderation. Tissot claimed that self-abuse causes impotence, epilepsy, blindness, imbecility, gonorrhea, priapism, tumors, hemorrhoids, homosexuality, and death. One man, according to Tissot, was so addicted to self-abuse that his brain dried out and could be heard rattling in his head. More important than the vivid picture he paints of the wretched masturbator is Tissot's linking of medical and moral doom, assuring the self-abuser of torment both in this world and the next. Going through innumerable reprintings in many languages, Onanism had a deep and lasting effect on medical thought.
In the first American psychiatry textbook, Benjamin Rush took up the battle cry, claiming that masturbation would inflict upon its victim “...impotence, ...dimness of sight, vertigo, epilepsy, ...loss of memory, ...fatuity and death.” By the middle of the 1800s, it was standard medical wisdom to blame masturbation for a bewildering variety of symptoms.
If doctors and other guardians of civilization were to be believed, the English-speaking world was being swamped in a tide of moral degeneracy. Thousands of “addicts” were consumed by “self-polluting mania,” stalking the nation like the “mudsill” immigrants dumped on our shores and the dope fiends who bred in the filth of the inner cities like vermin. What exactly did the chronic masturbator look like? An illustration from The Silent Friend (1853) shows a bleary-eyed, mop-haired, slack-jawed, imbecile with his tongue lolling and oozing with drool.
These wretches were - according to the great Henry Maudsley, one of the foremost psychiatrists of his day - filled with “intense self-feeling and conceit, extreme perversion of feeling and corresponding derangement of thought, failure of intelligence, nocturnal hallucinations and suicidal or homicidal propensities.” G.F. Fleming claimed that the masturbator tended to be solitary, vacuous, frequently rapt in thought, “as though brooding on something.” He was callous and cold. “He has no interests; he loves no one; he is dead to the call of his family, his country, or of humanity.” The notable American authority on mental hygiene, Edward Spitzka, describing the perils of “masturbatic insanity” told of the “obtrusive selfishness, cunning, deception, maliciousness and cruelty of such patients.” Their foulness was such that “the most kind-hearted and philosophical alienist may find it impossible to reconcile himself to regarding them as anything else than repulsive eyesores and a source of contamination to other patients, physically and morally.”
Other doctors added a variety of symptoms to the list: asthma, mania, dementia, hysterical attacks, paralysis, auditory hallucinations, constipation and religious delusions. Dr. Emma Drake's What a Young Wife Ought to Know explains that masturbating children will be cold and clammy, emaciated and restless, they will avert their eyes and their bodies will exude “a peculiar disagreeable smell.”
In short, the person addicted to the solitary vice became a repository for all the most nauseous symptoms that the Victorian mind could conjure up. Imagine a lisping, stinking, shambling, raving, murderous, drool-besmeared, wheezing pervert and you have an idea what the Victorian doctors were so obsessed by. Picture 10,000 gibbering maniacs alternately yanking at themselves in imbecile frenzy and secretly plotting to drag other unsuspecting wretches into the same bottomless pit of carnal doom and you get a glimpse of the scourge that so terrified the moral authorities. The masturbator was one part leper (contagious and necrotic), one part Jack the Ripper (cruelly seeking a new victim) and one part vampire. In Dracula, published at the peak of the masturbational insanity craze, Stoker describes the vampires in terms that might have come straight from The Journal of Mental Science or What a Young Boy Ought to Know. “Pallid cheeks and lips, miserably weak” yet superhumanly strong, preying on helpless children (Lucy Westenra, the Bloofer Lady, leaves her young victims “terribly weak and emaciated”), solitary and cunning, “hideous,” with a “voluptuous smile,” “eyes unclean and full of hellfire,” “carnal” in the extreme. What better description of an orgasm than “the body shook and quivered and twisted in wild contortions”? The key here is “carnality” - the total immersion in the body, pleasure and the uncontrollable impulses of the flesh.
Where did this bizarre fantasy come from? Why would alienists, psychiatrists and other caretakers of the mind imagine this plague of self-abusing monstrosities? Clearly, people had touched themselves for pleasure before the Century of Progress. Why then were the 1800s so stricken by masturbatory insanity?
The person addicted to the solitary vice became a repository for all the most nauseous symptoms that the Victorian mind could conjure up. Imagine a lisping, stinking, shambling, raving, murderous, drool-besmeared, wheezing pervert and you have an idea what the Victorian doctors were so obsessed by.
Three explanations of the mania are put forth by E.H. Hare: 1) The old witchcraft/demonic possession theory of madness had finally died by the early 1800s. 2) Real discoveries in pathology led doctors to accept physical explanations for insanity. 3) Asylums for the insane became more common in the 1700s and it was here that the “crazy people masturbate, so masturbation must make you crazy” theory developed. These may be helpful, but they don't explain fully the phenomenon.
The psychiatric obsession with self-abuse reached one of its peaks in England during the mid to late 1800s. But as it began to wane there, the torch was passed to the new world where American doctors took up the crusade with a new zeal. The gospel was transmitted from doctors to parents, to teachers and nannies and to men such as Sylvanus Stall, who made careers out of frightening boys with tales of sexual madness.
The changing role of doctors in western society is perhaps the most important factor to be considered. In the 1800s, they were becoming steadily more important and respected. Real progress had been made in medicine and their successes in curing certain diseases added much luster to their reputations. With this new higher social status came some of the authority of the priest. Able to, in some cases, actually save lives, physicians took on a Godlike character. Doctors, and especially doctors of the mind, were by the turn of the twentieth century often seen as moral and spiritual authorities. Van Helsing, in Dracula, is a fantasy version of this figure, probing the secrets of the mind, beating back the forces of carnality and unreason.
Masturbation was seen in not just physical or psychological terms, but also as a “moral leprosy.” With the rise of racial anxieties, the obsession with protoplasmic purity and hereditary hygiene, came the obsession with the sexual fluids and organs. Dr. Joseph Jones, in 1889, declared that a child of a masturbator was likely to be afflicted with hereditary insanity. The specter of racial decay haunted the so-called Anglo-Saxon world in the late 1800s. The strength, reproductive ability, the moral and spiritual character of “Aryan” seed-bearers was directly threatened by the “vicious habit.” Doctors were charged with protecting society's most precious substance: the seed out of which new generations would spring.
Like every witch hunt, this was more about the anxiety of the authorities (in the face of weakening control) than about real threatening behavior.
Perhaps as significant was the disruption in male-female and child-adult relationships that industrialization caused. The presence of huge numbers of women and children in factories, mills and sweat-shops radically changed social structures. And with this change came a heightened sexual anxiety among the rulers and owners. A perfect example of this is shown by “Influence of Sewing Machines Upon the Health and Morality of Females Using Them.” The authors of this article found that sweat-shop seamstresses often suffered from heart palpitations, severe back pain, headache, eye strain and exhaustion. The cause? Not miserable working conditions but secret sexual pleasure from pumping the sewing machine treadles all day. Women, as cogs in the vast industrial system, were thought to be masturbating and many were “forced to quit the establishment on account of the fatigue, lassitude, pains, etc. superinduced by the venereal excitement incident to setting the machine in motion.”
Upper class women too were afflicted by masturbational symptoms. Nubile daughters resistant to arranged marriages and wives who were unsatisfied with their lot in life were often brought to doctors for treatment. No surprise: masturbation was often discovered to be the cause of their “unsteady and peevish disposition tending toward anger, exaggerated timidity in the presence of parents, surly attitude toward strangers, profound idleness and tendency toward lying.” In short, authorities' obsession with masturbation was a symptom of their anxieties and a tool for social control.
How did the guardians of Victorian purity deal with this blight? The course of their treatments in the 1800s falls into three progressive periods. First, up to the 1850s, doctors emphasized hydrotherapy, diet, and drugs. From 1850 to 1880, the majority of the literature on the plague recommended the use of surgical intervention. Between 1880 and the turn of the century, medical men turned toward physical restraint and psychic terrorization.
To numb the sexual organs, doctors used a variety of anesthetics, among them camphor and tincture of cantharides. The therapeutic use of baths was also encouraged. And special diets too were believed to help keep the monstrous impulses at bay. Throughout the entire Century of Progress, certain foods were thought to stir up sexual feelings and lead to the solitary vice. Dr. Stall warned his Dear Friend Harry against pork, eggs, salt-meat, candy, pies and cakes, pepper, pickles and condiments. “Milk and vegetable foods are most favorable to a mastery of sexual sensitiveness,” the doctor explained.
By the midpoint of the 1800s, more brutal treatments were brought into play to control imaginary sexual deviation: blistering and cauterization of the genitals, clitoridectomy, sectioning of the penile nerves, and even castration.
The use of caustic chemicals to sear the skin, hot irons, and electrical cauterization (“faradization”) of the clitoris were much in vogue. Not just sexual tissue though was the target of the doctors' fiery attentions. Blistering the thighs and spinal region were also thought useful to beat back onanistic impulses.
Another novel technique - infibulation - consisted of placing silver wires through the prepuce to prevent its retraction behind the glans. Stiffer silver rings were also used. Dr. D. Yellowlees of Scotland used infibulation well into the last part of the century. After a dozen cases, he wrote that “the sensation among the patients themselves was extraordinary.” He was much impressed by the “conscience-stricken way in which the patients submitted to the operation upon their penises” and hoped to “try it on a large scale and go on wiring all masturbators.”
A variety of other surgical assaults were used. Circumcision was quite popular and to this day remains so in the U.S. Nonsense about hygiene continues to influence parents to have their boy babies cut, but in fact America's obsession with circumcision has more to do with masturbatory fears than cleanliness. Before the Golden Age of Hygiene in the U.S. (1890-1920), very few American boys were circumcised. The patent absurdity of the cleanliness argument (analogous to “the cure for dirt behind the ears is cutting them off”) makes it obvious that another motivation was at work. Hygiene, in the Victorian sense, was not so much about actual cleanliness as about ritual purity. The fact that circumcision is an ancient religious ritual, and that Victorian doctors directed so much of their violent fears against the foreskin (cutting, wiring, piercing, burning) makes it clear that circumcision was more about irrational anxieties (fear of being dirty in a sexual sense) than about cleanliness (fear of physical dirt). The foreskin seems to have become the repository for all kinds of sexual dread. As one doctor put it, the prepuce was “an outlaw.”
The scalpel was also applied to the sexual nerves. In order to kill all sensation in the penis, the dorsal nerve was often sectioned. E.J. Spratling argued that “complete section of the dorsal nerves of the penis is a rational procedure,” though he didn't think it necessary for all chronic masturbators. Dr. Yellowlees was less impressed with this procedure, claiming in 1892 that “sexual desires are not destroyed and their prurient indulgence will not be prevented.”
The next obvious step was to castrate inmates of mental institutions. If masturbation made them mad, doctors argued, then total prevention of self-abuse would cure them. Even the president of the Royal College of Surgeons as late as 1891 claimed that “measures more radical than circumcision would be a true kindness to many patients of both sexes.”
Women, too, were subjected to the curative powers of the knife. Clitoridectomy was much the rage in the mid 1800s. Dr. Isaac Baker Brown in England and members of the Orificial Surgical Society in the U.S. were avid and vocal proponents of this procedure. Baker Brown, in order to prevent what he modestly called “peripheral excitement,” founded the London Surgical Home where many female patients - adults as well as children - were operated on to free them from sexual slavery. In the U.S., Dr. M. Landesburg published his novel findings: that a number of women suffering from upper respiratory infections were cured when their masturbation was stopped through the use of the knife. In all cases, he found that the “morbid condition” was healed by surgery.
The masturbator haunted the Victorian doctor's dreams as demons haunted the medieval priest's and today imaginary social deviants haunt the imaginations of legislators, religious leaders, educators and police.
There were those who objected to such sadistic practices and as the twentieth century loomed near greater emphasis was placed on psychological terrorization and physical restraint. Dr. I. Bloch, in The Sexual Life of Our Time, recounts with some fondness the technique of doctors “who appeared before the child armed with great knives and scissors and threatened a painful operation or even to cut off the genital organs” as an efficient way of preventing self-abuse. Thousands of children in the late Victorian period were threatened with sexual mutilation if caught masturbating. To aid the vigilant parents, devices were sold to warn of nocturnal arousal. Attached to electrical bells and buzzers, these were useful for sexual surveillance. More crude, but perhaps more effective were toothed and spiked rings worn on the penis, causing severe pain and bleeding in the case of nighttime erection.
More common were contraptions to restrain self-abusers' hands. Dr. Maeve Marwick, of Scotland, remembered the sexual terrorization she encountered in her youth. A young girl she knew was made to sleep in sheepskin pants and jacket made into one garment, with her hands tied to a collar about her neck; her feet were tied to the footboard and by a strap about her waist she was fastened to the headboard so she could not slide down the bed and use her heels; she had been scolded, reasoned with and whipped, and in spite of it all she managed to keep up the habit.
Eventually the little deviant was wholly bound in canvas and splints as she slept. Thus the doctors hoped to save her from “Shame and ruin, polluted affections, and even an early grave.” As late as 1928, The Mothercraft Manual read: “untiring zeal on the part of the mother or nurse is the only cure: It may be necessary to put the legs in splints before putting the child to bed.”
As witches in the middle ages, anarchist bombers at the turn of the century, communists in the 1950s, and evil drug users and predatory child molesters today are largely social constructions -- amalgams of fear and repressed desire -- so the chronic self-abuser was for the Victorian doctor.
The chastity belt, or girdle of chastity, was not, contrary to popular notions, an artifact of the middle ages. There is little or no evidence that kings and knights locked up their ladies to contain their sexual impulses. These devices were the product of masturbatory insanity: doctors trying any method possible to keep the exploring fingers away from the genitals.
Dr. Moodie, another Scot involved in the war against self-abuse, may be the true inventor of the chastity belt. Not only did he warn against little girls fingering themselves, but designed his girdles to prevent married women from employing dildos - which he believed it was more common for wives to have than to be without. The Moodie girdle of chastity consisted of a cushion made out of rubber or some other soft material and suitably covered with silk, linen or soft leather. This cushion or pad formed the base into which was fixed a kind of grating, and this part of the apparatus rested upon the vulva, the pad being large enough to press upon the mons veneris. The lower part of the pad rested upon the perineum, being curved so as to fit the parts enclosed. The bars of the grating were to be made of ivory or bone. The whole apparatus was affixed by means of a belt to a pair of tight-fitting drawers and secured by a padlock, a secret flap closing over the key hole.
A surgical-instruments catalog from 1930 shows various devices for sexual restraint: straight jackets of “stout sailcloth” fastened with leather straps and buckles, and the “masturbation appliance” consisting of a belt of corset material, and a “nickel-plated cage, which had padded edges and rubber understraps.” How many of these sexual shackles were actually sold is not known, but the fact that reputable medical supply companies made them available, that so many textbooks and articles spoke of their usefulness indicates these may have been a common - if secret - fact of Victorian life.
The mania for onanistic control did not fade until the 1940s. Kinsey's work and the steadily increasing acceptance of Freud's theories slowly undermined the notion that children, women and other chattels needed severe sexual control. Like every witchhunt, this was more about the anxiety of the authorities (in the face of weakening control) than about real threatening behavior. As witches in the middle ages, anarchist bombers at the turn of the century, communists in the 1950s, and evil drug users and predatory child molesters today are largely social constructions -- amalgams of fear and repressed desire -- so the chronic self-abuser was for the Victorian doctor. The sufferer from masturbatory insanity was a fantasy of the medical authorities, an image of social chaos. Interested only in self-pleasure, self-indulgence, not caring about the future of the state or the “race,” the masturbator stood as the perfect opposite of the acceptable Victorian citizen. Anti-social in the extreme, flouting authority, reason and responsibility, consumed by animal impulses, the uncontrolled onanist summed up much of what the Century of Progress most feared. The masturbator haunted the Victorian doctor's dreams as demons haunted the medieval priest's and today imaginary social deviants haunt the imaginations of legislators, religious leaders, educators and police.
Comfort, Alex. The Anxiety Makers. (London: Panther, 1968.)
Down, J. and H. Langdon. “The Influence of Sewing Machines on Female Health.” New Orleans Medical Surgical Journal. 20: 359-360. 1867-86.
Drake, Emma. What a Young Wife Ought to Know. Philadelphia, 1901.
Duffy, John. “Masturbation and Clitoridectomy.” JAMA. 186: 246-248. 1963.
Hare, E.H. “Masturbational Insanity: the History of an Idea.” Journal of Mental Science. 108: 1-25. 1962.
Spitz, Rene. “Authority and Masturbation.” Yearbook of Psychoanalysis. 9: 113-145. 1953.
Spitzka, Edward C. “Causes of Masturbation.” Journal of Mental Science. 33: 57; 34:58. 1887.
Stall, Sylvanus. What a Young Boy Ought to Know. (Philadelphia, Vir Publishing, 1897.)
Yellowlees, D. Journal of Mental Science. 22: 336. 1876.
2000 Main Catalog l
LOOMPANICS UNLIMITED Online Catalog