In the early seventeenth-century French court, the infant Louis XIII, according to the royal physician's diary, was constantly displaying and touching his penis, a habit courtiers seem to have found amusing. Nearly two centuries later, in 1793, one of the indictments brought against Marie Antoinette by the Revolutionary Tribunal was that she had encouraged the dauphin to masturbate. A major change in attitudes emerged during the first decades of the eighteenth century: previously, "self-abuse" was considered just one among the sins of lust.

Concern and Control

An anonymous text entitled Onania, or, the Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution, and All its Frightful Consequences in Both Sexes consider'd with Spiritual and Physical Advice to those, Who Have Already Injur'd Themselves by This Abominable Practice. And Seasonable Admonition to the Youth of the Nation, (of both Sexes) and Those Whose Tuition They Are Under, Whether Parents, Guardians, Masters, or Mistresses, first published in London sometime during the first two decades of the eighteenth century, became a best-seller throughout Europe. While laying emphasis on the extreme sinfulness of self-pollution, Onania also alleged seriously deleterious effects on health, claiming it caused specific genital ailments and undermined the whole system, causing fits, consumption, and infertility (in both sexes). This new emphasis on adverse physical effects was not unconnected with the patent remedy the pamphlet promoted. Masturbation thus first became a concern in connection with relatively mature individuals, with disposable income available to purchase both Onania and the remedy, though anxieties over youth were also present. Some historians have argued that the rise of masturbation paranoia reflected anxieties within Protestant culture, cut off from old sources of moral authority, but masturbation fears were at least as prevalent in Catholic nations, possibly reflecting anxieties generated by political, social, and economic change.

The theme was taken up by numerous authors in the same world of commercial quackery, and then became the subject of a work by the highly respected Swiss physician Samuel Tissot, first published in Latin in 1758, and two years later in French as L'Onanisme, ou Dissertation physique sur les maladies produit par la masturbation. Tissot located the adverse effects in contemporary theories of physiology and bodily economy, suggesting that a small amount of seminal fluid was equivalent to a many times greater quantity of blood, and that the expenditure of nervous energy destabilized the bodily mechanism. However, he did not propose a patent remedy but lifestyle practices which would become standards: cold baths, exercise, regular evacuation of the bowels, sleep only in moderation (no lying in bed), and conscious effort to keep the thoughts pure.

These efforts to control a practice considered potentially lethal soon affected child-rearing practices, with the prophylactic inculcation of good habits and the prevention of those tending to lead to masturbation. It is debatable whether concerns over childhood masturbation arose from increasing interest in the moral and physical welfare of children and more interventionist child-rearing practices, or whether these practices were the outcome of a belief that greater surveillance of children was necessary to prevent the development of "secret habits." Probably the two phenomena were selfreinforcing–increased surveillance might reveal previously unsuspected practices, leading to even closer attention. There was also a growing tradition of stories about children inducted into masturbation by servants and nursemaids.

The masturbatory hypothesis provided an explanatory model for many conditions for which the medical profession of the day could find no other diagnosis and for which they could do nothing. By the early nineteenth century self-abuse was beginning to be blamed not only for physical and nervous ailments, but also for mental disorder. By the mid-century, in Britain and North America in particular, a particular form of "masturbatory insanity" was identified. This was strongly associated with ADOLESCENCE, and in some casesmay have been dementia praecox.

The major focus of masturbation anxieties in the nineteenth century was the male in adolescence and young adulthood. There were sporadic manifestations of concern over females but compared to the pervasive antimasturbation rhetoric directed at men and its policing by medical and pedagogic authorities, these were the exception. Particularly for middle- and upper-class youth it was hard to avoid learning of the evils of self-abuse, whether from school sermons or quack literature and the horrifying waxworks in anatomical museums. A number of devices were manufactured and sold for the control of masturbation and nocturnal emissions. It is not however clear to what extent these were applied to children by concerned adult guardians, rather than being employed by worried postpubertal males. This awareness of the dangers of masturbation ratcheted up a further degree in the later nineteenth century. A range of well-meaning organizations and individuals disseminated tracts warning against the dangers of self-abuse and also against succumbing to the horror stories of quacks, associating this with advocacy for cultivating a type of manhood fit for national and imperial purposes. This torrent of warnings about a practice which early investigations already suggested was almost universal among adolescent boys could have serious psychological effects.

A Loosening of Controls

By the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, it was being argued by many medical authorities that (except in "excess") masturbation was less harmful than the common fears about the damage that the practice might have caused. However, older views still circulated in such works as the 1908 Scouting for Boys by Boy Scout founder ROBERT BADEN-POWELL. And well into the late twentieth century, manuals of advice to young people, while reassuring them that masturbation was not harmful, nonetheless recommended that they should try to refrain from it. It was also presented as a problem in CHILD-REARING ADVICE LITERATURE, though with the rise of increasingly humane ideas preventive measures were recommended rather than punitive approaches. Nonetheless, relatively late in the twentieth century and well into the "permissive era," people still reported traumas caused by parents or nurses threatening to "cut it off if you don't stop that!" and students reportedly attributed various ailments to masturbation.

Masturbation is still an uncomfortable subject. Questions on individual, rather than mutual, masturbation were omitted from the British Sexual Attitudes and Behaviour Survey of the early 1990s. Joycelyn Elders was dismissed from her post as U.S. Surgeon General in 1994 because she recommended including discussion of masturbation (as safe a sex practice as one could wish) in school sex education programs. This continuing ambivalence doubtless still affects children and young people.

See also: Infancy of Louis XIII; Sexuality.


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