Masturbation Prevention, Victorian Style

Currently, I’m working on a lecture on masturbation. The evolution of social attitudes over the past few centuries is fascinating, especially when considering how far people went to prohibit masturbation.

Many periods in history viewed masturbation as a vice or crime worse than rape. The 1642 Council of Trent, which set the groundwork of the Spanish Inquisition, made a distinction between Mortal Sexual Sins (potentially, and frequently depending on time period and location was punished by death) and Venial Sexual Sins (possibility of repentance). Mortal Sexual Sins were abortion, contraception, homosexuality, and masturbation. Venial Sexual Sins were fornication, adultery, incest, and rape. So, you could be put to death for masturbation while incest and rape received a slap on the wrists.

During the Victorian Era came the rise of the Bourgeoisie, what we now call the middle class. They were obsessed with how to stop masturbation, partly because of the rise in occurrences facilitated by children with separate bedrooms, college dorms, etc. Simply put, it was much easier to do than in time periods where the entire family slept in one big room. Loss of control begets strange panics.

The methods to stop masturbation invented in this period ranged from benign special bland diets featuring corn flakes and graham crackers to severe devices which strapped onto the penis, some which prevented the boy from touching himself (here’s a parody of the practice in modern day terms), and others which used spikes and glass shards to discourage erections in the most painful of ways. Jaws of doom!

For adolescent females it went much further. Dr. Demetrius Zambaco, a Victorian Era doctor reported of his findings on combating female adolescent masturbation that “Dr. J Guerin confirmed that…he had succeeded in curing young girls affected by the vice of onanism by burning the clitoris with a hot iron.” This is an extreme example, but holy fuck that’s something I don’t even want to try and imagine.

One thought on “Masturbation Prevention, Victorian Style”

  1. Extreme but not as extreme as it gets. It’s a long story about how I got there from Tim Spector’s… interesting g-spot research but the other day I wound up in an article on 19th Century ideas for dealing with “nymphomania.” (Nymphomania: The Historical Construction of Female Sexuality, Carol Groneman
    Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 19, no. 2, ps. 337-367) Groneman describes a woman who continued to masturbate after she’d had her clitoris removed (“but it grew again. …I tormented doctors to operate again.”)

    Extra credit, by the way, for mentioning corn flakes and Graham crackers. In “Celibacy, a History” Elizabeth Abbott makes the case that Kellogg, Graham, and other doctors in the 19th Century were convinced that not just male masturbation but any loss of semen at all was a catastrophe for men’s health. For instance they argued that the “loss” of as little as one drop of semen was equal to losing a pint of blood. Sex for women, on the other hand, might have been a moral hazard but not at all a medical one. Except for the bit where their harmless-to-them desires were tantamount to wanting to sicken or kill their husbands. All the more reason for everyone back then, and not just men, to be freaked out about “nymphomania.” And yet one more bloody stupid reason for them to dream up such harsh “cures” as burning clitorises and using glass shards on penises.

    And yeah as you say in your 1/11/10 post on masturbation it was all completely unfounded. They did all that. But they really didn’t need to do any of it.

    I’m really enjoying your blog.


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