Beginning in the late-nineteenth century and continuing well into the twentieth century, American medical doctors fought a war against an enemy they thought was the primary cause of most societal, mental, and bodily ills: masturbation. According to Hodges (2005),
American doctors, using the most modern “scientific” methods at their disposal, convinced themselves that masturbation was the underlying cause of nearly all social problems and diseases, ranging from rape, divorce, “pederasty,” poverty, and criminal activity, to paralysis, epilepsy, venereal disease, nervousness, heart disease, fever, tuberculosis, apoplexy, insanity, idiocy, and even death.” (p. 722)
Even after medical researchers such as Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch had provided convincing evidence in support of the germ theory of disease, which stated that microorganisms cause many diseases (see Germ Theory) masturbation still was thought to be an important cause of most disease, as well as serious societal and psychological problems. In fact, Hodges (2005) noted that “the medical war on masturbation reached its fever pitch in the 20th century in terms of the numbers of innocent young ‘patients’ forcibly subjected to compulsory and mutilating surgical ‘treatments’” (p. 722).
Simon Auguste David Tissot (1728-1787)
The story begins in the second half of the eighteenth century, after the publication in 1758 of L’Onanisme, Dissertation sur les Maladies Produites par la Masturbation. Its author, Simon Auguste David Tissot, was an esteemed physician and professor at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland.
His highly original argument was carefully constructed and supported by references to earlier authorities…. [H]is erudite book created the partly inaccurate impression that there existed a powerful consensus among the respectable and leading European doctors, in harmony with the views of classical authors, that masturbation was a dangerous and gathering threat to human welfare. (Hodges, 2005, p. 723)
Tissot argued that masturbation was dangerous because physical and mental health required the reabsorption of retained semen. It was the loss of semen that was the root cause of the physical and mental problems caused by masturbation.
Although virtually all medical professionals would have been able to read Tissot’s book in its original Latin version, his arguments would have reached a much wider audience after it was translated into English in 1832.
Benjamin Rush (1745–1813)
Even before its translation into English, many American physicians became aware of Tissot’s book either because they had studied in France, where the book was well known, or had learned of it from those who had. For example, the legendary American physician, Benjamin Rush, fully accepted Tissot’s claims. In 1812, he argued that an excessive “sexual appetite”
becomes a disease both of the body and mind. When restrained, it produces tremors, a flushing of the face, sighing, nocturnal pollutions [wet dreams], hysteria, hypochondriasis, and in women the furor uterines. When indulged in an undue or a promiscuous intercourse with the female sex, or in onanism, it produces seminal weakness [involuntary discharge of semen], impotence, dysury [painful or difficult urination], tabes dorsalis [impairments in movement and sensory disturbances], pulmonary consumption [tuberculosis], dyspepsia [indigestion], dimness of sight [poor vision], vertigo [dizziness], epilepsy, hypochondriasis, loss of memory, manalgia [mental or physical inactivity, lethargy], fatuity [feeblemindedness], and death. (quoted in Hodges, 2005, p. 723).
Some of these symptoms are caused by sexually transmitted diseases, such as syphilis. According to Hodges (2005),, attributing them also to masturbation suggests that “doctors at this time were unable or unwilling to make a distinction between sexual activity and the morbidity caused by diseases … contracted during sexual activity with infected partners” (p. 723).
Rush’s prominence in the medical community helped to firmly establish the belief among most physicians that masturbation was a dangerous activity that must be aggressively treated.
Sylvester Graham (1794–1851)
xThe medical and scientific literature on the supposed harmful effects of masturbation was popularized by Sylvester Graham. He gave public lectures and, in 1834, published the first edition of a book that warned the American public about not only the scourge of masturbation but also the perilous nature of excessive sexual activity.
He agreed with Tissot’s claim that the loss of semen was a major cause of mental, physical, and societal ills. Graham (1834) stated tha
semen may be called the essential oil of animal liquors…. [It] contributes to the support of the nerves…. [Semen] imparts to the body, peculiar sprightliness, vivacity, muscular strength, and general vigor and energy…;—that it causes the beard, hair and nails to grow—gives depth of tone, and masculine scope and power to the voice—and manliness and dignity to the countenance and person; and energy, and ardor, and noble daring to the mind. (quoted in Hodges, 2005, p. 724)
Graham concluded that, because semen is so essential to optimal mental and biological functioning, a single ejaculation
enfeebles the body more than the loss of 20 times the same quantity of blood…. [H]ence the frequent and excessive loss of it, cannot fail to produce the most extreme debility, and disorder, and wretchedness of both body and mind. (Graham, 1834; quoted in Hodges, 2005, p. 724)
But, in a departure from Tissot’s these, Graham asserted that an even greater danger was the sexual activity leading to orgasm. It caused a “nervous excitement” that
rapidly exhausts the vital properties of the tissues, and impairs the functional powers of the organs: and consequently, that it, in a greater degree than any other cause, deteriorates all the vital processes of nutrition, from beginning to end; and therefore, more injuriously affects the character and condition of all the fluids and solids of the body. (Graham, 1834; quoted in Hodges, 2005, p. 275)
Physicians in New England were strongly influenced by Graham’s ideas. A series of articles were published in a prestigious medical journal, the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, that were reprinted in newspapers. In this way, the warnings about masturbation became well known to a wide audience and, because of their endorsement by medical professionals, gained even more legitimacy among the general public.
In Part 2, I will discuss the evolution of the “War on Masturbation in the second half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century.
Graham S. (1834) A lecture to young men. Providence, RI: Weeden & Cory.
Hodges, F. M. (2005). History of sexual medicine: The antimasturbation crusade in antebellum American medicine. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 2(5), 722-731. doi: 10.1111/j.1743-6109.2005.00133.x
Tissot, S. A. D. (1832). A treatise on the diseases produced by onanism. New York, NY: Collins & Hannay. Accessed at https://archive.org/details/57110430R.nlm.nih.gov
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