Today medical professionals see masturbation as a normal sexual outlet, one that men and women practice as part of a healthy sexual lifestyle. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was viewed quite differently. Although science was beginning to move away from religious ideology at this time, many scientific thinkers were still informed by a Christian sense of morality. When this morality was mixed with the new science of eugenics, scientists and elite thinkers began to consider certain acts that they deemed as ‘immoral’ to be associated with mental degeneracy. Such was the case of masturbation. The eugenic focus on reproductive control led to a concern over the practice of non-reproductive sexual stimulation. Psychiatrists and biologists heavily debated the affects they believed resulted from excessive masturbation. It was largely believed that the practice of masturbation was both a cause and a symptom of insanity. The increased role of science within western psychiatry led doctors and psychiatrists to study the practice of masturbation and its so-called ‘evils’. These studies had a particularly gendered aspect and were usually directed at young men, while women who demonstrated an increased sexuality were instead classified as nymphomaniacs. Due to the pseudo-scientific nature of such studies, the beliefs about masturbation and mental health were highly varied.
Both a Cause and a Symptom
The case of masturbation is an interesting one because doctors were unsure of whether to classify it as a cause of insanity, or a symptom of insanity. Psychiatrists during the nineteenth century believed that some individuals were born with a certain amount of ‘vital force’ or ‘nerve power’, which could be depleted through certain activities that raised the excitement levels of the body. Masturbation was believed to be one of these activities. As such, doctors believed that individuals who were feeble-minded were at risk of sending themselves into a state of insanity if they used up their ‘nervous energy’ through frequent masturbation. For example, the Canadian physician Stephen Lett stated, “in early life, the child who thus pollutes himself retards and arrests the healthy development of his nervous system, and the practice in such a one tends to idiocy and imbecility.” Lett, and many like him, believed that continual non-reproductive stimulation could lead to further mental degeneration and the result was insanity. Insanity thus produced was referred to as ‘Masturbational Insanity’ or ‘Sexual Neurosis’ and was particularly diagnosed in younger men. The classification of Masturbational Insanity began early in the 19th century, with the writings of a group of doctors called the Alienists, while the idea of Sexual Neurosis was more popular in the late 19th century in the works of Benjamin Rush and Luther Bell.
Although masturbation was seen as a possible cause of insanity, doctors also believed that masturbation could be a symptom of insanity. It was believed that once human reason had left the mind, the ‘animal passions’ would be uncontrollable and many humans indulged in masturbation as a result. Doctors within insane asylums often noted that masturbation occurred frequently among patients of all ages. When present, it was seen as an obstruction to the treatment of the insane, as doctors believed that it harmed the mental health of a patient. As such, masturbation was often viewed as an illness of the mind at the initiation of the eugenics movement.
Masturbation and Science
The rise of psychiatric medicine and the increasing interest in the causes of insanity led scientists to investigate the biological aspects of sexuality and masturbation. One widely held belief in the 19th century was that masturbation hindered the ability to have ‘normal’ sexual encounters (between a man and a woman) and thereby hinder reproduction. This led many scientists to try and pinpoint which aspect of the brain was the center for sexual function, as they believed that the deterioration or disease of this part of the brain would be the reason behind cases of Masturbational Insanity. Many scientists performed experiments on animals for their research, removing different parts of the brain before seeing if the animal could mate. Not surprisingly, these experiments were unfruitful.
The Influences of Gender
Since doctors believed that the masturbation prevented proper reproduction, it was believed to be a great evil. This was especially the case when it came to men. It was believed that repeated masturbation could cause congestions and blockages of the urethra. While blockages of the urethra are possible from certain medical conditions, ejaculation would not have caused such congestions. Yet many North American and British doctors believed that cleaning of the deep urethra was an important practice when presented with a patient who was prone to masturbation. In some patients circumcision was also used as a treatment. Additional psychiatric treatment was usually recommended in these cases.
It is therefore easy to see that the medical discussion was focused on the issues surrounding males who masturbated—circumcision and urethral cleaning were not treatments to be given to female masturbators. This was largely informed by conceptions of gender at this time. It was seen as especially dangerous for men to masturbate regularly (although occasional masturbation was not so bad), because they risked being unable to have other sexual encounters. This was especially bad in a society that conceived of men as sexual aggressors, with a duty to reproduce in the ‘natural’ way. Those men who acted in a way seen as contrary to the natural order were deemed to be insane. This was especially the case for those men who failed to demonstrate masculinity, because of their ‘nervous’ demeanor.
In contrast, women who masturbated were usually classified as nymphomaniacs. Gender assumptions of the time believed women to be more susceptible to nervous conditions, which masturbation was thought to excite. Women were traditionally believed to be reserved, docile and the passive partners in sexual encounters. Masturbation implied an active sexual drive and was therefore considered an expression of an unsound mind in women. The term 'Nymphomania' was used to classify the insanity of women who demonstrated an active interest in sexuality. While doctors believed masturbation was a cause of insanity in men, it was almost exclusively seen as an indication of insanity in women.
Conclusion: From Sexuality to Insanity
Judeo-Christian morality has condemned the practice of masturbation throughout Western history. These moral values were the basis for the early medicalization of the practice. Physicians deemed this natural act ‘abnormal’ in the late 18th and 19th centuries. It was seen as a danger to the mental, physical and moral health of an individual. Masturbation was linked to various ideas about the nature of human passion and the expression of insanity. This expression was intimately linked to social concepts of gender. Victorian conceptions of masculinity viewed men as sexual aggressors and therefore saw ‘excessive’ masturbation as a danger to normal reproductive encounters. Women who practiced masturbation opposed the idea of a passive, submissive femininity. These women were thus classified as nymphomaniacs, as female masturbation was seen as a symptom of an unsound mind.
- Paula Larsson
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