Masturbation: When medicine had a heavy hand (Part 2)

In the 18th century, masturbation was to blame for all ills. Some 19th century physicians wanted to prevent it at all costs, with bullying and even mutilation.

Medical History: Better a dead child than a masturbating one

In the 18th century, an apocalyptic vision of masturbation was imposed throughout Europe. However...the worst was yet to come. For some 19th century physicians, convinced that masturbation was responsible for a thousand pathologies, it was absolutely necessary to prevent it. Surveillance, prevention, punishment... and mutilation. The 19th century was to do everything in its power to combat what it considered a moral vice, a pandemic perversion that many believed could ruin the whole of society.

Article translated from the original French version

You can visit Part 1 of this story here

The fight against this 'disease' is merciless among teenagers and even among five-year-olds. This staggering passage from an 1868 book by the writer Alexandre Weill bears witness to this: "If by chance the vicious child should touch himself, he should be beaten to a bloody pulp in front of his companions and never have pity on his pain, his complaints, or his cries. It is better [for the child] to die at 4 or 5 than to live an idiotic or criminal life [because of masturbation]."

Physicians were saying the same thing. At that time, they believed that masturbation led to impotence and death by exhaustion in men. For women, female sexuality was synonymous with procreation. At best, it served to keep couples together. In short, masturbation was all the more condemned: "Women [who masturbate] look much more like men; they are tall, have vigorous limbs, a manly face, a loud voice...", wrote the French physician Renauldin in the entry "clitoris" in the Dictionnaire des sciences médicales (Dictionary of Medical Sciences) in 1813.

The century of all violence

Today, it is hard to imagine the brutality of the "treatments" recommended by the medical community. Sometimes the paranoia is ubiquitous, as with Doctor Deslandes: "Masturbation can be practised [...] without the aid of the hands. This possibility has enabled young boys and girls to deceive the most attentive vigilance, even at school or in the midst of their families. They press [...], they make almost no movement: they can therefore be dressed, sitting, have their hands free, appear to be attentive to a conversation [...], and yet be masturbating".


In addition to the supervision of the children, they are forced to read books such as the very popular “Untitled Book”, which describes the abominable agony of a young masturbator.


To prevent masturbation, there are punishments, medicines ("calming" potions based on bromide) but also restraints. Arms are tied at night, hands placed in thick leather gloves. Young people were exhausted by physical exercise and their diet was adapted to contain only bland, low-sugar products, reputed to calm desire.

But it gets worse: straitjackets, penis sleeves with spikes or a new kind of chastity belt for men and women. Some of the latest models are even electrified.


The mutilations

So far we have mentioned humiliating measures or devices. But when these didn't work, physicians didn't hesitate to become more... caustic. In 1826, Professor Teraube evoked the work of another French physician, Dr. Larrey: "As for the second method (...) suitable for curing masturbation, it is to the learned and modest Larrey to whom humanity is indebted. It consists in producing an artificial irritation in the urethral canal, and in phlogosising its mucous membrane. One injects a subcarbonate of soda (...) One thus procures an artificial blennorrhoea, by creating a tension and a pain strong enough to make it impossible for the patient to masturbate."

Surgery is also involved. In boys, it is the foreskin that is concerned, on the grounds that it can cause itching, and thus encourage masturbation. In Europe and the United States, some physicians impose circumcision. 

The renowned American physician John Harvey Kellogg - founder of the famous cornflakes1 of the same name, for example, sadistically states: "For adolescents in whom moral considerations have no hold, (...) a remedy which is almost always successful is circumcision. The operation can be performed by a surgeon without anaesthesia because the brief pain of the operation may have a salutary effect on the mind, especially if the boy experiences his operation as a punishment, as it may be in some cases."


Dr. John Harvey Kellogg


1. Cereals designed to be deliberately bland at their origin: according to Kellogg, their lack of taste helped to extinguish the masturbatory impulses of young men.