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May 18, 2018

Appliances for Treatment and Prevention of Male and Female Masturbation From the Victorian Era

During the Victorian era, masturbation—also known as self-pollution, self-abuse, or onanism—was believed to be both a moral and a physical evil. Medical manuals of the era address it in the most severe terms, blaming male masturbation, and the resulting depletion of the body’s vital humors, for every imaginable illness, from blindness, impotence, and epilepsy to chronic fatigue, mental derangement, and even premature death.

By the 19th century, concerns about the evil effects of masturbation had risen to epic proportions. The solitary vice was being discussed in medical texts and religious treatises. And the Victorians—who ascribed moral value to self-discipline and restraint—were driven to devise various means of discouraging and controlling it.

Appareils contre l'onanisme", anti-masturbation devices for boys (left) and girls (right), probably 19th century. (Image via Wikipedia)

In his 1845 book, The Secret Companion: A Medical Work on Onanism or Self-Pollution, consulting surgeon R. J. Brodie says the patient who wished for relief from the consequences of masturbation must first “…entirely discontinue this dreadful practice, however difficult to do so from the force of habit…”

This was often easier said than done, especially for those patients who reported engaging in the solitary vice multiple times each day. To aid the process, doctors frequently recommended changes in diet, an increase in physical activity, and prayer. Visualization exercises were also sometimes recommended.

For desperate cases, doctors sometimes recommended desperate measures. There were cordials and various patent medicines. There were also more invasive types of “cures” such as spiked rings or electric shock devices for the genitals. According to the book Sexualities in Victorian Britain, by the 1850s some doctors were even beginning to recommend circumcision as a treatment for masturbation.

Four Pointed Urethral Ring for the Treatment of Masturbation, 1887. (Image via Wellcome Library CC BY 4.0)

The Electric Alarum for Treatment of Masturbation, 1887. (Image via Wellcome Library CC BY 4.0)

What About Women?

Most of what was written about the dangers of masturbation in the Victorian era was directed at men. However, women were not entirely exempt. According to author Joan Perkin in her 1993 book Victorian Women, some doctors believed that masturbation caused “increasing numbers of hysterical cases among girls.” While others said that masturbation caused “certain forms of insanity, epilepsy and hysteria in females.”

Historic chastity belt including cloth lining that was necessary for chastity belts before the introduction of stainless steel. Note that no "old" chastity belt specimens in European museums have been proven to date from before the late 16th century or 17th century, while some are outright 19th century forgeries. (Image via Wikipedia)

Chastity belt, complete with waistbelt and padlock. Covered with velvet and mounted on a modern lining. (Image via Welcome Images)

At its most extreme, the cure for the solitary vice in women was grim. Perkin mentions a gynecologist named Isaac Baker Brown who ran a clinic in London during the 1860s. He called masturbation in women “anti-social behavior” and, as Perkin reports:
“His treatment was removal of the clitoris.”
Brown was not the only doctor during the Victorian era to perform clitoridectomies on girls and women, but the practice, as a whole, was extremely controversial. Perkin points out that the total number of females operated on “must have been very small.” As a side note, Brown was ultimately expelled from the Obstetrical Society.

(via Mimi Matthews)



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