Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Charlatans of the 1890s Anti-Masturbation Movement

Victorian sexuality can be approached from so many directions, including (but not limited to) body image, sexual orientation, masturbation, prostitution, sex education, disease, religion, marriage, and pornography. All of these aspects overlap and influence each other, creating tremendous diversity in attitudes toward sex at any given point in history. Each of these factors provide the context in which sexual identities are created. This post is the third in a series of posts that seek to explore that context from the 1890s with an emphasis on male sexuality.


Onanism is another word for masturbation that was popular in the 1890s.
Masturbation is a natural part of human life. Many adults and children even do it in their sleep. In the 1800s, it was generally believed that masturbation was bad for you - real bad. Although women masturbate too and precautions were taken to prevent them from doing so, the anti-masturbation movement primarily focused on men. 
Throughout the 1800s and into the mid-1900s, charismatic charlatans and money-hungry doctors throughout the Western World and its colonies continued to cash in on the anti-masturbation craze by selling snake oil and sadistic appliances to the masses. Most of these devices operated on the principle that aversion therapy - teaching men to associate fear and pain with genital stimulation - would put an end to masturbation. Among the numerous devices manufactured to cure self-stimulation: a "Penis Cooling Device," invented by Frank Orth (1893); the Stephenson Spermatic Truss (1876); a saw toothed steel penis ring to prevent erection (1908); a leather and steel penis "corset," invented by a Dr. Fleck (1931). These and dozens of other types of cages and chastity contraptions were routinely used on boys and men, not only in the spas and clinics run by the charlatans, but in hospitals and mental wards throughout Europe and North America, where psychiatrists eagerly applied themselves to the task of " curing" male masturbation by causing intense pain to their genitals. - Gloria G. Brame, The Truth about Sex, a Sex Primer for the 21st Century: Sex and the Self (2011).
 One of the most famous anti-masturbation advocates of the 1890s was John Harvey Kellogg of Kellogg's cereal. He may rightly be considered one of the charlatans that Brame refers to above, because he made a lot of money through his sanatarium and anti-masturbatory Corn Flakes cereal.

John Harvey Kellogg
Typical of the medical professionals of the era, Kellogg advocated sexual abstinence. He discouraged sexual activity for both medical and moral reasons, which he learned through the  Seventh-day Adventist Church, but were broadly supported at the time. He wrote books about abstinence, and believed the diet he was prescribing would reduce the sexual urges of its adherents. Kellogg loved enemas for this reason, and, like Frank Orth, the inventor of the 'Penis Cooling Device,' Kellogg supported the 'benefits' of hydrotherapy.

Frank Orth's Penis Cooling Device.
Kellogg was even against excessive sex within a marriage, and any sexual acts that were "against nature." Legend has it that Kellogg even spent his honeymoon writing one of his books on abstinence.

In his campaign against masturbation, Kellogg drew upon contemporary scientific rumors of masturbation-related deaths, in "such a victim literally dies by his own hand." Many of his contemporaries joined him in the claim that masturbation caused cancer of the womb, urinary diseases, nocturnal emissions, impotence, epilepsy, insanity, as well as numerous other disabilities.

Kellogg set out to rehabilitate masturbators through extreme measures, including genital mutilation of both sexes. He advocated the circumcision of young boys without painkillers to curb masturbation, and the application of phenol to a young woman's clitoris. He produced cages for boys' genitals and electric shock therapy.

People, like me, pick on Kellogg because he is a recognizable figure, who promoted harmful ideas. In context, Kellogg's ideas were as commonplace as viagra is today. Out of context, circumcising a guy of any age to keep him from masturbating sounds barbaric, but today's widespread circumcision of boys began in the late-Victorian era for this reason.

Medical Reference
(28 September 1895).
As late as the 1860s, circumcision was viewed primarily as a Jewish practice, until doctors began to view it as a way of preventing men and boys from masturbating. One 1895 medical journal calls circumcision "the physician's best friend and ally" because it "provides immunity from after-reproach." The same medical journal claims:
...should there be any play the patient will be found to readily resume his practice, not begrudging the time and extra energy required to produce the orgasm. It is true, however, that the longer it takes to have an orgasm, the less frequently it will be attempted, consequently the greater the benefit gained.
This journal advocates early circumcision, but says that if performed before puberty, it might have to happen again! Yikes! It also greatly advocates circumcision on men over fifty because they are less likely to suffer "the mental depression" that was sometimes observed after the fact in younger patients. However, they felt that passed that age masturbation has little effect on a man's health.

So, if doctors in the 1890s really believed all this nonsense, does Brame go too far in calling them charlatans? In some cases, these doctors were absolutely charlatans! Harry Finely makes the point that with all of the anti-masturbation propaganda circulating about, these 'doctors' had a very guilty and captive audience because almost everybody has masturbated at some point in their life. Combine that guilty conscience with a $10 instant cure, and these doctors definitely turned into charlatans.

I would compare it to the distribution of viagra today. Many men worry about their ability to get and maintain an erection, which has resulted in the over-prescription and abuse of medical aids, like viagra. Doctors, today, don't make extra money for writing a prescription, they worry for their patients, and I think many misguided doctors felt the same way regarding their patients concerns over masturbation in the 1890s.

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