September 4th, 2012
THIS MONTH IN HISTORY:
The Severe Effects of Masturbation: 1914. Non-procreative sex has long been seen as a terrible problem in Western society. Biblical prohibitions against adultery, onanism (masturbation), and lying with a man as one lies with a woman are obvious sources for that disdain on sex for sex’s sake. Add to that, the scourge of the clap (gonorrhea) and, worse, the pox (syphilis), both of which were uncurable for several centuries, only reinforced the perceived dangers of non-procreative sex, including masturbation. Today, we see the manual method as being perhaps the safest of safe-sex practices, but until the first second third of the twentieth century, that was far from being an accepted idea, even among scientists and medical authorities. And believe it or not, those who warned against the health dangers of masturbation had science — well, proto-science, anyway — to back them up.
Before the mid 1800’s, when germ theory began to take root, the mechanisms by which syphilis and gonorrhea were spread were poorly understood, but one thing that many people could understand that those who were more likely to contract these diseases were those who had a lot of sex. And in a time when people didn’t talk about the deed, those who “had a lot of sex” were those who were famously having a lot of sex — particularly those who were patronizing prostitutes, but also young men with, shall we say, time on their hands. And what happens when time is up? Two things: seed is spilt and exhaustion sets in, at least momentarily. And it was the second thing: that momentary “weakening,” was believed to be the very opportunity which diseases seized upon to enter the body and take root. The reasoning went this: since weak people got sick, and sex made people weak, it’s only logical that sex, especially lots of sex, makes people sick.
But it wasn’t the momentary exhaustion following orgasm — that afterglow we call it today — that made people weak in the knees. According to medical science — science! — the loss of semen was also the problem. And that belief had its root in a book that was published in the early 1700s by an unknown London doctor and clergyman. The title was, quite simply, Onania; or, the Heinous SIN of Self-Pollution, and All its Frightful Confequences, in both SEXES, Confider’d. With Spiritual and Phyfical Advice to Thofe, who have already injur’d themfelves by this abominable Practice. And feafonable Admonition to the Youth of the Nation, (of both SEXES) and thofe whofe Tuition they are under, whether Parents, Guardians, Mafters, or Miftreffes.
Where were we? Oh, yeah, the loss of semon itself resulted in a loss of strength by putting an inordinate strain upon the blood supply:
The blood is made into Seed, which is further elaborated and purify’d in the Epidydimides, from whence by the Vafa deferensin, it is carried into the VeficulÃ¦ Seminales, where it is laid up till by contractions of thofe VeficulÃ¦, it is carried through the Proftate into the Urethra, and forc’d through the Capuit Galinaginis, which hinders the voluntary running of it. The oftner these VeficulÃ¦ Seminales are emptied, the more is made for the Tefticles, and consequently the greater Confumption of the fineft and moft Balfamick part of the Blood.
Blood was well-recognized as the, well, lifeblood of the human body. When blood was spilled, life was in danger, and it often ended. And so it stood to reason that if the “finest Baslamic part of the Blood” was used to replenish the supply of semen, then male vigor was threatened any time that precious supply was squandered. Do it too often, and life itself was at peril.
Let’s fast forward some two hundred years. The microscope confirmed the presence of germs and viruses as causes of diseases, and antiseptics made hospitals places where people recovered, not places where they went to die. As for beliefs about non-procreative sex, many in the medical profession began to understand that the spilling of a little seed here and there wasn’t something to get too worked up about. But it took a long time for that knowledge to become universal, even among medical professionals, and part of the reason for it is that now the feared harms of masturbation were no longer just physical. The fears over masturbation in the mid-1800s were swept up by the rushing waters of Degeneracy Theory (see yesterday’s Agenda for an introduction to the theory) to produce a new worry: That masturbation was not just physically harmful, but its assault on the nervous system resulted in mental and emotional harm, and that those harms could then be passed down through the generations.
By 1914, Degeneracy Theory had mostly run its course, but its aftermath was still running heavy in medicine and the social sciences. And so it was that the September 1914 issue of the American Journal of Urology included an article by Dr. Victor Blum of the Vienna General Polyclinic, in which he concluded his four-part series about the deleterious effects of masturbation. In his final installment, titled simply “Results of Masturbation,” he posed the question: “Is masturbation a primary affection, or is it the result of a special neuropathic disposition?” An answer of “neither” was quickly ruled out:
It is denied by some authors that the act of masturbation is essentially different from the normal satisfaction of the sexual needs. Both arise from the same source, the human sexual instinct; both are physiologically and mechanically very similar actions; and yet clinical experience teaches that masturbation has an entirely different effect upon the nervous system from natural coitus. We have considered this question thoroughly elsewhere, and came to the conclusion, that habitual masturbation in some way represents an injury, in spite of the apparent identity of the two actions in their individual acts, because it 1s an abnormality of the sexual life.
The severe effects of masturbation, however, only occur when the injury affects an originally non-resistant nervous system, that is, when the unnatural sexual life is added as a specific agent to a nervous constitution.
When masturbation leads to severe nervous disorders in otherwise quite normally constituted men, we must suppose the cause of this to be the immoderate sexual activity in early youth, a time when the sensitive organism cannot bear without injury the repeated severe shocks to the nervous system resulting from the sexual acts and perhaps also from the frequent seminal losses.
As you may have guessed, these breathtaking conclusions were not arrived at by anything remotely resembling the Scientific Method. No experiments, no studies, no controls, no analysis. Just one declarative statement following upon another. And while the rise of Degeneracy Theory did add an additional concern to the effects of masturbation, there still lurked the belief that shocks to the nervous system weren’t the only problem. Semen loss was still an issue, but not with Dr. Blum. The journal’s editor, William J. Robinson, felt compelled to interject with a parenthetical paragraph to re-introduce the eighteenth-century “fact”:
It is my positive conviction that in some people the mere withdrawal of a certain amount of semen can have a disastrous effect on the economy. … For as soon as the seminal vesicles and the testicles are emptied of their reserve semen, the latter at once begin to elaborate new semen, and in the process of elaboration valuable vital material is withdrawn from the economy, material which evidently is of great importance to the brain and spinal cord-in short, to the entire nervous system.
Didn’t we just read something very similar to that from two hundred years earlier?
Blum’s concern was also with masturbation’s effect on the central nervous system.:
The principal injurious effect manifested is upon the nervous system, from the early suffered and frequently repeated severe shocks of the sexual act, and upon the general health, since in every sexual activity a cooperation of other organs is unavoidable. Thus we see disturbances occur in the circulatory and respiratory systems and in the functions of the visceral organs. The results of onanism upon the individual organs we have already reported in the chapter on sexual neurasthenia. The relations between masturbation and mental and psychic changes in the youthful masturbator have also been treated in that chapter.
If the reader has any doubts, Blum closes with the case of a twenty-year-old “unfortunate, who made his confession in the form of a letter”:
“My present state is a sad one. Unfounded fears, quick exhaustion of the entire body, especially of the hands and feet; poor memory, anger at the least trifle and especially pleasure in quarreling. I am fond of seeking lonely places, where I can sit all day and meditate on my lost happiness of youth. I should be happy to wander, if I could only go far, far away from Vienna.
“I get up in the moming more tired than when I went to bed, and have a morbid sleepiness so that I often sleep during my office hours. My complaints are: pain in urinating, pain in the feet and hands, then also in the hips and the head. The way in which I seek satisfaction is to rub the penis so long or to move to and fro so long on the bed until the pleasure comes, often in the reclining position, often in the standing during the day three or four times and alas! oftener sometimes. The penis will not relax until the semen is emptied, which causes terrible pains. When the semen has been evacuated I am weak and cannot recover for twenty to thirty minutes, while the heart beats strongly and I have difficulty in breathing. Afterwards I can urinate only with difficulty, often with tears in my eyes.
“…To conclude, I fear that the end of these sad youthful errors will be madness; as the books all say at the end, there is no hope for me, and the madhouse threatens me. I have come to this supposition by reading the so-called popular scientific books — thus incurable! Especially the book entitled ‘Masturbation and its Terrible Results,’ let no other thoughts arise in me than those of the madhouse.”
So let that be a warning to you.
[Sources: Anonymous. Onania: or, the Heinous Sin… 9th ed. (London: Fliz. Rumball: 1723). Available online here.
Victor Blum. “Results of masturbation.” American Journal of Urology 10, no. 9 (September 1914): 410-414. Available online here.]
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