I've written many articles based on Victorian/Edwardian advice books. There was advice for everything, from how to improve your breast size to keeping your man faithful, all written with earnest authority by "experts" of the day. In these old books, I noticed that one subject appeared over and over, usually shrouded with dire euphemisms: The Solitary Vice. Self Abuse. The Vicious Habit.
In other words: Masturbation.
Past generations were absolutely terrified by masturbation, and regarded it among the vilest of sexual practices. Some considered it more of an offense, as we will see, than child molestation. Health experts of the day demanded it be curbed, especially in children, often by any means necessary. That is why, unlike the other articles in my Advice series, a retrospective on masturbation cannot be funny. It can only be heartbreaking.
Subscribe to The Week
Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.
Reasons to fear masturbation
Nearly all writers of these anti-masturbation screeds referred to the state of the soul, and how masturbation slowly shreds it, defiling God-given organs of regeneration by using them for selfish gratification. The sinfulness of masturbation can still be debated, but the medical and psychological maladies these writers claimed resulted from the practice have mostly been disproved.
Joseph William Howe, who wrote Excessive Venery, Masturbation and Continence in 1884, gave bizarrely specific details as to the physical affects masturbation had on a woman's genitalia, believing that the practice deformed the organs. He wrote, for example, "I have seen cases in the hospital where [the labia minora] resembled the ear of a small spaniel."
According to Mary Ries Melendy, author of 1903's Perfect Womanhood for Maidens—Wives—Mothers:
Masturbation steals the blood from the rest of your body, leaving you undernourished and sickly. If you even think too much about your sexual organs, the nerves inside them become exhausted and give you a backache. This is the first step on the road to eventual suicide.
Howe also has a list of surprising, often fatal medical conditions that result from self-abuse.
And let us not forget the most horrific disease that a female masturbator may bring on herself. Especially if she's blonde.
Treatment for masturbation
Amputation of the clitoris was debated even during the heyday of hysteria, but many doctors considered it legitimate treatment for a female who masturbated. Usually a physician's advice was less drastic, at least at first.
William Josephus Robinson wrote A Practical Treatise on the Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment of Sexual Impotence and Other Sexual Disorders in Men and Women in 1913. His prescription for restraining a child's desire to masturbate starts blandly enough, and quickly proceeds to abusive.
First, there is a proper way to sleep.
Robinson believed this was seldom enough to stop the vice. Beating was recommended, as children were not smart enough to understand other methods of communication. However, never spank the masturbating child. They may enjoy it.
Severe cases call for restricting the child, creating special garments, and binding their hands and feet to secure them to the bedposts of their beds.
Robinson then elevates the treatment of masturbation from abusive, to sadistic. A sure way to discourage a child from touching their genitals is to mutilate them.
Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (brother of the cereal king), a highly respected director of the famous Battle Creek Sanitarium, also resorted to mutilation in "obstinate" cases, this time in little girls. In his Ladies Guide in Health and Disease, he wrote:
Molestation and masturbation
If you can imagine it, there is even a deeper level of despair to be uncovered in these old texts. The doctors who assumed a child's masturbation was the root of all her health and psychological problems had no interest in investigating other causes.
Below are some of the signs Kellogg listed to help parents discern whether or not their daughter had discovered the life-wrecking sin of masturbation. Beware of:
If some of these descriptions sound uncomfortably familiar to you, there is a reason. Compare them to some of the conditions listed today by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as signs of sexual abuse in children:
Have you ever wondered if we have more sexual abuse in our culture now than in the past? Were people less terrible in the old days, or just less likely to talk about what had been done to them? The attitudes toward sexuality put forth in these old texts go a long way toward answering that question.
Kellogg relates a horrible story made all the more unbearable by hindsight.
Please note the real tragedy in Kellogg's story. It's not that the child was molested. It's that the molestation introduced "this soul-and-body-destroying habit" of masturbation, the act of which he blamed all the child's subsequent maladies on. So the child bore not only the pain of the original abuse, but the shame and disapproval of her parents and doctor.
What's more, Kellogg asserts that the child will never again be whole. They are corrupted, and will forevermore have "evil tendencies."
Sexual awareness was considered a corruption. Exploring your own body could lead to a beating. Being molested and speaking up about it could cause a whole town to view you as "ruined," and might even lead to further sexual abuse under the care of your doctor. It is only relatively recently that Western attitudes toward sexuality — a thing we desire and detest at the same time — has relaxed. People lament the degradation of our society, the sexualization of our culture. As reasonable as those complaints may be, it is important to remember that those changes helped create a society that can talk about sex without shame and blame. And that, in turn, helped take many of these brutal practices and ideas out of our society and lock them safely away in the history books.
Create an account with the same email registered to your subscription to unlock access.