Planet of Peril (4)

By: Lynn Peril
May 31, 2016

One in a series of posts, about forgotten fads and figures, by historian and HiLobrow friend Lynn Peril.



During a recent stand-up set, comedian Sarah Silverman riffed on the “every sperm is sacred” theme, noting that a recent study found that the hardy little gametes have a sense of smell before she moved in for the money shot: “Sperm is life. And you know what that means: We’ve gotta legislate that shit.”

Of course, Silverman was making a point about ever growing restrictions on female reproductive rights in the twenty-first century. Masturbation, male or female, has never been outlawed in the United States. But a quick survey of nineteenth-century sex ed materials shows that the medical professionals and others who wrote them did their best to provide a kind of moral legislation against what was variously called onanism (after the biblical character who spilled his seed upon the ground rather that impregnate his brother’s wife; one might think that the big takeaway here would be “don’t fornicate” as opposed to “don’t masturbate,” but apparently that was covered elsewhere), self-abuse, or simply, the secret vice.

The big problem with masturbation was that it was non-reproductive by nature, the same reason that contraception was taboo. Experts urged readers to take the high road where their genitals were concerned. “Recollect that the final cause of your organs of reproduction — the propagation of your species — requires but seldom the exercise of their function!” exhorted the Reverend Dr. Sylvester Graham, he of cracker fame, in Chastity, A Course of Lectures to Young Men (circa 1837). In Plain Facts About Sexual Life (1877), Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (yes, the cornflake guy; both he and Graham developed their eponymous foodstuffs in part to curb undue sexual urges) wrote that “The use of the reproductive function is perhaps the highest physical act of which man is capable; its abuse is certainly one of the most grievous outrages against nature which it is possible for him to perpetrate.”


As if they realized that an appeal to higher nature was likely utterly hopeless in this situation, the guidebook authors turned to fear tactics, expounding at length on the grim results of self-abuse. “Thousands of youth on whom high expectations have been placed, are already on the highway that will probably lead down to disease and premature death,” wrote William A. Alcott in The Young Man’s Guide (1846). Insanity was number one on his list of the “formidable host of maladies” that resulted from secret vice, but “idiotism,” paralysis, and blindness were among the others. According to Dr. William Acton’s The Functions and Disorders of Reproductive Organs in Childhood, Youth, Adult Age, and Advanced Life (1894), “habitual masturbators” might “gradually waste away if the evil passion is not got the better of; nervous symptoms set in, such as spasmodic contraction, … convulsive movements, together with epilepsy, eclampsy, and … paralysis.” It got worse. “That insanity is a consequence of this habit is now beyond a doubt,” he wrote. “The pale complexion, the emaciated form, the slouching gait, the clammy palm, the glassy or leaden eye, and the averted gaze, indicate the lunatic victim to this vice.”


By then it was too late, of course. Dr. Kellogg compiled a helpful list of 39 “suspicious signs” of masturbation that concerned parents might look for in their children. (Yes, girls did it too, but it was far less common and, according to professor of midwifery Dr. Augustus K. Gardner, “less disastrous in its results.” Even so, “much of the worthlessness, lassitude and mental feebleness attributable to the modern woman” was to “be ascribed to these habits as their initial cause,” he wrote in 1905.) Dr. Kellogg noted that a masturbator would “resort to all manner of cunning devices to hide his vice, and will not scruple to falsify concerning it, when questioned.” A parent thus needed to be on the lookout for, among other things: sleeplessness, failure of mental capacity, fickleness, untrustworthiness, love of solitude (here the good doctor pointed out that “The barn, the garret, the water-closet, and sometimes secluded places in the woods, are the favorite places of masturbators. They should be carefully followed and watched, unobserved”), bashfulness, unnatural boldness, round shoulders, weak backs, capricious appetites (“A boy or girl who is constantly eating cloves or cinnamon, or who will eat salt in quantities without other food, gives good occasion for suspicion”), and the use of tobacco.


Children who had “recently acquired the habit” of masturbation could be cured, Kellogg continued, by “admonishing them of its sinfulness” and never leaving them alone. In younger boys, “bandaging the parts” or “tying the hands” were helpful, while “Covering the organs with a cage has been practiced with entire success.” (He didn’t mention where parents could buy such a device, this was apparently a DIY project.) Dr. Acton suggested that in young infants, the habit could be corrected by “applying a sort of strait-waistcoat.”

In adults, masturbation could be cured by marriage, but even then some former sufferers found themselves unable to perform in the marital bed (even if they could, the doctors recommended the practice of “continence” after marriage as well as before, which meant that intercourse took place for reproductive purposes only).

It was much better to nip the habit in the bud. Dr. Kellogg provided a list of seven useful suggestions for adults interested in fighting “the battle with vice and habit.” The penitent self-abuser began with “most solemn vows” to reform, “not to-morrow or next week but this very minute. Thousands have sunk to perdition while resolving to indulge ‘only this once.’” Next one purged the mind of lewd thought, because (pace President Carter) “the thought itself is sin,” leaving “a physical as well as a moral scar almost as deep and hideous as that inflicted by the grosser crime.” If despite ones best efforts impure thoughts intruded, “immediately direct the mind upon the purest object with which you are acquainted.” Avoid solitude. Comply with all the other rules “for the cultivation of chastity and the maintenance of continence.” Finally, “seek for grace and help from” above. Don’t scoff; according to Dr. K, for those who conscientiously persevered in this course of action, there was “no possible chance for failure.”



MORE LYNN PERIL at HILOBROW: PLANET OF PERIL series | MUSEUM OF FEMORIBILIA series | HERMENAUTIC TAROT: The Waiting Man | KIRB YOUR ENTHUSIASM: Young Romance | CROM YOUR ENTHUSIASM: Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife | HILO HERO ITEMS on: Tura Satana, Paul Simonon, Vivienne Westwood, Lucy Stone, Lydia Lunch, Gloria Steinem, Gene Vincent, among many others.

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