The term masturbation was first introduced in the 18th century. At the time, however, the terms onanism or self-pollution were more frequently used. Victorians later used those same terms to refer to masturbation. Additionally, in the 19th century, masturbation was more politely referred to as self-abuse or sometimes manualization, as it was done by hand.
One article published in 1870 noted that the practice of masturbation among Victorian youth in boarding schools was “much more frequent than … generally imagined.” According to the article there was nothing more “detestable or ruinous.” Masturbation was also called a “baneful habit,” and it was noted that such a pernicious habit could easily spread from one student to another until the whole boarding school was affected. Moreover, the effects of it could supposedly result in the following:
“Health, intellect, morals — all purity, dignity, and self-respect — sink beneath it in promiscuous and hopeless ruin. When carried to excess it produces idiotism in the most deplorable and disgusting form, accompanied by impaired vision and hearing, paralysis, and other distressing infirmities, and terminates in death.”
Nearly everyone complained about the prevalence of masturbation at boarding schools. For example, American school teachers regularly reported about the abominable practice, and one teacher in particular, a Mrs. Gleason, mournfully remarked, “self-abuse exists to a frightful extent among the majority of male and female schools of the United States.” Another distinguished homeopathic physician claimed that when he went to boarding school “there was not one boy who was not guilty of the habit of self-abuse!” Moreover, a male student wrote to his doctor in 1849 and confessed, “I am troubled once a week, sometimes four or five nights in succession … I am nervous and restless, until nature is overpowered.”
A young woman, whom I will call Mary for clarity’s sake, admitted that she began masturbating at boarding school. In April of 1850, she wrote a letter to a doctor seeking help for her condition and stating:
“At the early age of twelve years I was sent to … a boarding school for young ladies. At fourteen I acquired the habit of ‘self-abuse,’ through the teachings of my room-mate, a girl some years older than myself.”
Mary then left school at age sixteen having been well immersed in the practice of masturbating and for the next three years traveled with her parents all over the European Continent. She noted:
“The many excitements abroad to tempt the passions, such as the facility to procure, indeed to have thrust upon your notice, lascivious drawings, books, paintings, etc. together with the loose manners of the people, goaded me on as it were with a perpetual thirst to drink deep of the intoxicating pleasures.”
When Mary’s travels ended, she was able to stop masturbating for a year. However, the temptation to masturbate began again and she reported it was so strong she was unable to resist. Wishing for help, she finally wrote a letter to a doctor and confessed the “temptation to practice the old habit is irresistible to me.” Mary then begged the doctor to provide her with some sort of help and claimed that if he could help her, she would “ever feel under the most lasting obligations.”
It was confessions like Mary’s that resulted in advice about how to stop the youth from masturbating. One solution was that “the first culprit” identified practicing masturbation be removed from the boarding school so as not to taint the other students. Fortunately, the culprit removed was not necessarily abandoned to his or her fate as it was also advised that “every practicable expedient to reform [the culprit] should be adopted and persevered in.” These reforms consisted of activities that would engage, occupy, or interest the student. Such activities also usually consisted of some sort of “alacrity and industrious” employment. The idea was that the removal of idleness would allow no time for masturbation, as “leisure and idleness are often the source and always one of the nurses of evil to be corrected.”
Another suggestion was that parents should not place their children in boarding schools in the first place. One female writer warned:
“If I had no objections against the curriculum and the mode of instruction in most our female seminaries and boarding schools, I should still firmly refuse to send a daughter to one. … the moral atmosphere of such schools is always more or less vitiated. It is not the fault of the instructors or the faculty. It is so in spite of them. In the close contact which necessarily exists between the pupils, a very small proportion of evil-disposed and morally-debased girls is sufficient to corrupt the whole at the impressionable age at which girls attend these schools. The dormitory system … is sufficient to destroy all personal modesty; and when this is gone, the bulwark of the girl’s innocence is broken down. It is in these instructions that secret vice flourishes to a degree scarcely to be believed.”
Victorians suggested a variety of solutions for when the moment of temptation struck but usually based their suggestions on the idea that masturbation occurred because of over stimulation. Diet was one area where people might be over stimulated, and, so, the foods suggested to be eaten were to be “the plainest kind, and all spices and stimulants, of whatever nature, should be absolutely forbidden.” Avoidance of all rich and indigestible foods such as “coffee, tobacco, and alcoholic beverages” were also to be avoided. Additionally, people was advised to avoid “all causes which excite sexual feelings,” and, thus, the self-abuser was not to read any lascivious literature or anything that might stimulate his or her imagination.
Beyond stimulation of any kind, there were also a variety of other ideas to prevent masturbation. Supposedly, one of the best solutions for a person who masturbated was a tepid sitz bath or a bath of either cold or warm water. It was though that such baths would give “the private parts … some slight aid toward overcoming the habit of self-abuse.” Sleeping on a hard mattress was also advised, as was rising early because it was thought that a boy’s seminal fluids were at their highest peak at that time and “emissions [were] most apt to take place.” Other suggestions about overcoming masturbation were also accompanied by some form of active labor or amusements to keep a person’s mind occupied and off masturbation.
In some cases, suggestions given to boarding schools about how to prevent masturbation in their students countered one another. An example of this was the idea that dormitory style sleeping caused the problem. The remedy was that every child be given his or her own room. However, others thought the opposite. They suggested rarely leaving the self-abuser alone during the day and never at night. Rather it was suggested that a responsible person was supposed to sleep in the same bed with the student to prevent masturbation from occurring.
If a parent tried the above techniques and failed, they were advised to seek medical help. Cures from physicians might include powders, pills, lotions, potions, or cordials, and when they failed too, marriage was often prescribed as a last resort. Yet, marriage seemed to be no panacea for masturbation either.
One woman who admitted that her masturbation began at boarding school “in perfect ignorance of any injurious effects,” continued to practice it despite being married for four years and having four children. According to her doctor, she so thorough enjoyed the practice that eventually it was only masturbation that gave her pleasure. For that reason, her husband sought medical help because he was worried about his wife’s perverse sexual feelings and wanted to know “if it was possible that a woman might lose sexual feeling from [masturbation].” Her doctor concluded:
“So ruinous is the practice of solitary vice, both in the one and other sex, that it is carried on even in married life, where no excuse can be devised, and is actually preferred to the natural excitement. … If the unnatural excesses of masturbation take place early in life, before the subjects who commit them arrive at maturity, it is not surprising that we meet with women whose possibility of sexual feeling, if it ever existed, is now prematurely worn out.”
Despite some Victorian physicians believing marriage was the only cure, other physicians argued against it. These critics stated that people who could not control themselves certainly should not get married because it would likely affected their posterity and those who masturbated might “transmit an enfeebled constitution to innocent offspring.” Moreover, a Dr. Caldwell concluded:
“The evil inflicted upon society by marriage under such circumstance is sufficient in itself, to say nothing of the greater injury wrought to the partner of the marriage-bed who may be ignorant of the atrocious experiment tried by a physician’s advice.”
Ultimately, many Victorian adults thought of masturbation as a life-long sentence because they saw it as a difficult practice to overcome. Those who practiced it often complained of poor health, and despite their poor health, most people reported they still could not stop masturbating. Doctors reported that sufferers complained of such symptoms as shortness of breath, giddiness, gout, rheumatism of the genital organs, constipation, weakness, nervous irritability, feebleness, emaciation, loss of memory, mental depression, sallowness of the skin, impaired digestion, despondency, weak or accelerated pulse, inability to concentrate, headache, flatulence, and even melancholy. Thus, because masturbation was considered so dangerous and because it could affect even the most innocent child at a boarding school, one article warned boarding schools to take the most dire of care:
“No vigilance to prevent it therefore can be too strict; and when it is detected, no remonstrance against it can be too solemn, no representation of its direful effects too strong, no denunciation of it too stern, and, if persevered in, no penalty for it too heavy.”
- Acton, William, The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs in Childhood, Youth, Adult Age, and Advanced Life, 1865
- College and Clinical Record, Volume 5, 1884
- Dickinson, Wilmot Horton, Homeopathic Principles and Practice of Medicine, 1893
- Duffey, Eliza Bisbee, What Women Should Know, 1873
- Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Volume 11, 1855
- La Crois, Dr., Dr. La Croix’s Physiological View of Marriage, 1864
- Phrenological Journal and Life Illustrated, 1870
- The Young Lady’s Private Counselor, 1890