Masturbation in the Victorian Age


 

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This article is excerpted from Getting Off: A Woman's Guide to Masturbation. 

 

Masturbation has been around longer than we have, and it will be around long after we're gone. The ancient Egyptians weaved masturbation into their creation story (with the sun god Atum) and the classic Greeks did it with dildos. Of course there has been repression towards masturbation throughout the ages, whether it be from doctors, religion or politics, but when it comes to girls just wanting to have fun, the Victorian era, in all its prudish glory, became the ultimate era of repression, denial and sin. In fact, during this time, girls were restricted from riding horses or bicycles, sewing, and squatting down to do laundry because the feelings associated with these activities could turn a nice girl naughty. Even cereal magnates Kellog and Graham jumped on the anti-mastrubation bandwagon, giving "the finger" to using ones hands.

In order to make sure women wouldn't masturbate, the anti-masturbation crowd churned out a number of speakers and supporters during those prim and proper days. Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell was one such prominent and out-spoken female doctor who espoused the consequences of "bad-touch." The first woman MD to graduate from an American medical school, Dr Blackwell was, needless to say, not a fan of the fingers. In addition to her many accomplishments (including opening the New York Infirmary for Women and Children), she wrote the Counsel to Parents on the Moral Education of Children. In it she discussed controversial topics such as masturbation, which she openly disapproved of, calling it one of the "two vices from which all other forms of unnatural vice springs." She blamed it for domestic violence, and for making both women and men lose their self-control. Still, she was a feminist and a pioneer in her field, and to her credit, she also claimed that it was wrong to think that women were any less sexual than their male counterparts.

When books, pamphlets, and tinctures didn't stop certain insatiable women, extreme measures could be taken. A well-known London gynecologist/surgeon named Isaac Baker-Brown thought that masturbation was the widespread cause of nervous disorders like epilepsy, and further theorized this view in his book On the Curability of Certain Forms of Insanity, Epilespsy, Catalepsy and Hysteria in Females (1866). He came up with what he thought the perfect solution to the imperfection of masturbation. In 1858, he introduced the clitoridectomy, a ferociously cruel way to ensure there were no feel-good effects from touching oneself. It became Baker-Brown's signature "quick fix" remedy for the insatiable female, and for years he "successfully" removed the clitoris on an unknown number of women. In 1867, he was banned from the London Obstetrical Society and went insane, and while the clitoridectomy was no longer practiced in Britain, it lived on in the United States well into the twentieth century.

In 1894, Dr. A.J. Block, a physician from New Orleans, shared his disgust over female masturbation in an article entitled "Sexual Perversion in the Female." In it he describes one of his own successes, a case in which a nineteen-year-old girl was cured of a nervous disorder. After Dr. Block manhandled her vagina and labia and found no response, he decided to touch her clitoris. Her body responded with short and rapid breaths, a pale face, and slight moans, and he deduced that the clitoris itself was the cause of her disease and therefore aptly removed it.

In 1868, English Psychiatrist Henry Maudsley coined the term "masturbatory insanity" based on the assumed damage masturbation caused to the brain. Along those same lines, several gynecologists blamed the mind's madness directly on the ovaries. Dr. Robert Battey of Rome, Georgia, was one such gynecologist. Battey operated on women whom he felt had no other way out of their miserable existence, and made it his cause celebre after being deeply affected by the loss of one young female patient whom he thought he could have saved. The operation became known as Battey's Operation, or an Ovariotomy, and it involved the removal of both fully functioning, healthy ovaries in order to treat "menstrual madness," nymphomania, and masturbation.

Inhumane practices around masturbation and hysteria continued well into the early 1900s, even as medical opinion and attitude toward masturbation slowly began to change. In 1936, Holt's Diseases of Infancy and Childhood still recommended the cauterization of the clitoris as a way to cure female masturbation.

Cereal (Anti) Masturbators

Two of the most fanatic anti-masturbation mavens were men whose life's work continues to impact what we eat for breakfast today. First, there was Sylvester Graham (1794-1851), a Presbyterian minister and vegetarian who became well known on the lecture circuit for his "self-pollution" series. Then there was Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (1852-1943), a health nut who received his medical degree from Bellevue Hospital Medical College in New York in 1875. Separately, they worked to change the nation's diet and sexual appetite.

Sylvester Graham preached about the simplicity in which one could spot a victim of self-abuse. Describing a masturbator in detail, he explained how they were introverted, unclean, tired, and had lots of acne or other skin problems. They would grow up with cancerous lesions, and die a slow and painful death. While Graham eventually moved away from his masturbation rhetoric and began focusing more of his attention and affection on his nutritional plan for a healthy, happy life, he never lost interest in condemning the abominable sin. His focus on healthful eating led him to theorize that the world would be a much-improved place if everybody understood the negative effects of eating (and beating) their meat. His theory said that meat eaters lusted after more in life, desired further vices, and therefore were further prone to abusing their bodies. To further exemplify his teachings, he preached that married couples should practice excessive sexual moderation, meaning sex no more than once a month.

Dr. John Harvey Kellogg admired Graham, and when he had his chance, as the staff physician at the health reform institute known as Battle Creek Sanitarium (or "The San,"), he also promoted a strict regime of bland foods and daily exercise for overall health. Kellogg, too, believed that the key to being fit entailed sexual starvation. He thought masturbation was the most dangerous of the sexual behaviors, and in his Treatment for Self-Abuse and its Effects he described numerous ways to stop children from jacking or jilling off. His treatments included tying a masturbator's hands together and circumcising a male without anesthesia (so that he remembered the pain). For women, Kellogg had another suggestion: To pour a bit of pure carbolic acid, a toxic liquid and disinfectant, also known as phenol, directly on the clitoris so that it burned so badly that no woman would ever want to touch there again. Kellogg actually performed at least one clitoridectomy, on a ten-year-old girl whose father was certain that she would be damned if drastic measures were not taken.

Kellogg claimed that he never let a known masturbator into The San. This was a man who spent the first night of his honeymoon writing his Plain Facts for Old and Young, a 644-page treatise with a 97-page focus on masturbation. He claimed that a masturbating woman was likely to suffer from nervous exhaustion and emaciation, as well flat-chestedness, memory loss, fickleness, and an irritable disposition. And these were only a few of the thirty-nine symptoms and effects masturbation might impart.

Kellogg also believed that a child should be served cold, instead of hot, cereals at breakfast, in order to avoid the itch to masturbate. And eventually, like Graham, he created his own signature food designed to curb masturbatory urges and sexual desires, while providing nutrition in the form of bland, boring, and dull. Their mission had been to eradicate sexual thoughts, including masturbation, and lead people into this new enlightenment by eating a proper diet of unsavory foods. That's how Graham Crackers, and later corn flakes, came to be. Though that's not why people eat them today, since Graham and Kellogg would never have approved of certain ingredients, like the refined flour and sugar, used in their modern-day products.

 

This article orginally appeared on Reality Sandwich on December 3, 2007. 

Copyright 2007 by Jamye Waxman. Reprinted by permission of Seal Press (www.sealpress.com), a member of the Perseus Books
Group. All rights reserved.