The Great Masturbation Delusion,Hilary Evans,The Skeptic

This article originally appeared in The Skeptic, Volume 20, Issue 1, from 2007.

THE GREAT MASTURBATION delusion of the 19th century was exceptional in that it involved extraordinary behaviour not on the part of panicking mobs or obsessed fanatics, but of physicians and scientists of the highest repute, moral and religious leaders of unimpeachable standing. Weighted with their authority, the delusion infected countless lesser minds that accepted and repeated their dictates.

The delusion consisted of the belief that masturbation is uniquely harmful to those who practise it, leading inexorably to feebleness and debility through a wide assortment of ailments to madness, and ultimately death. The delusion was subscribed to, and often vehemently promoted by, men and women in the highest scientific positions throughout Western Europe and North America, as well as churchmen and others with the moral clout to ensure that they would be listened to with respect. Yet in support of these affirmations there was not a scrap of scientific evidence. Instead, scientific and medical findings were distorted and manipulated to give a wholly erroneous impression. As a result, millions of children were subjected to a reign of terror in which horrific mental suffering was often accompanied by physical torture.

Masturbation is practised throughout the world, in almost every known culture. “It is found among the people of nearly every race of which we have an intimate knowledge, however natural the conditions under which man and woman may live,” sexologist Havelock Ellis declared more than a century ago, and he provided examples showing that among Africans “no secret is made of it… it is treated as one of the most ordinary facts of life. Throughout the East masturbation is very prevalent, especially among young girls…” and so on (Ellis, 1924). Culturally, the area in which the delusion was promulgated was almost wholly Judeo-Christian, and the teachings of the Jewish and Christian religions formed its basis. In particular, they taught that any sexual activity outside marriage is sinful, particularly when – as with masturbation – it is non-procreative. The pleasure that accompanies sexual activity, being simply a biological device to provide an incentive, was not to be sought for its own sake. Consequently, masturbation always ranked high on the list of forbidden acts.

In practice, however, this was little more than a technicality. During the centuries previous to the 18th, the taboo on masturbation, insofar as any taboo existed, was wholly a theological one, stemming from what the Church believed were God’s wishes in the matter. Doctors saw no reason to stigmatise masturbation on medical grounds; at most they would discourage excess, as with any other form of sexual activity (Ellis, 1924). Indeed, the eminent 16th century anatomist Falloppio encouraged parents to stimulate their son’s penis on the grounds that repeated erections would make it larger and thus capable of giving greater pleasure to a future wife (Ellis, 1924).

Science considers masturbation

At the beginning of the 18th century, however, the taboo acquired a supposedly scientific dimension, with the publication of writings purporting to demonstrate the deleterious consequences of masturbation. The ball was set rolling by the 1710 publication, by an anonymous English author (plausibly identified by Laqueur, 2002, as hack writer John Marten) of Onania, or the heinous sin of self-pollution. Though, as its title suggests, it was the moral aspects of the matter which were the focus, his book echoed the spirit of the Age of Enlightenment in finding a ‘scientific’ dimension for the moral teaching: masturbation was identified and soundly denounced as a serious medical hazard.

Though Marten had no professional standing, his book was immensely popular and led to more serious discussion. However, it is doubtful whether the delusion would have taken firm root without the authority of a recognised professional. One of those who had been profoundly influenced by the English book – which was widely translated – was a Swiss physician of high repute, Samuel-August Tissot, who in 1758 published (at first in Latin, later in French) L’onanisme, ou dissertation physique sur les maladies produites par la masturbation. (Incidentally, though both these authors employ the term ‘onanism’ as though it were synonymous with masturbation, it is nothing of the sort. The crime of Onan, a biblical figure, was to spill his seed upon the ground rather than impregnate his sister-inlaw. Not only is masturbation not condemned in the Bible, it is not as much as mentioned.)

Following these two very influential books, the dangers of masturbation were supposed to be built upon an ostensibly solid medical foundation. Masturbation was perceived as responsible for a wide range of ailments, ranging from digestive disorders to deteriorating eyesight, and leading to insanity. For Tissot, the masturbator was a criminal whose condition “more justly entitles him to the contempt than the pity of his fellow creatures” (Ellis, 1924). Moreover – and this was to be a key factor in the creation of the delusion – Tissot purported to show that masturbation was more harmful to the individual than ‘normal’ forms of sexual activity. His book sold in vast quantities and was widely translated. His great reputation ensured that his statements carried authority. Though his case histories were dubious and his reasoning faulty, he appeared to be providing abundant evidence that masturbation led to degeneration of the individual, culminating in madness and death.

From then on, the chorus of condemnation of masturbation increased in volume throughout the rest of the 18th century, reaching a crescendo in the 19th century. Attitudes were similar throughout Europe and North America: in 1780, the American doctor Johann Frank insisted that onanism had become so widespread in American schools that the authorities could not take too much care to stamp out this plague. The medical-scientific aspects of the subject were accepted without question, the only differences of opinion being as to how many maladies should be attributed to the practice.

By the early 19th century, virtually all authorities accepted the belief as fact. Benjamin Rush, the most respected physician in America, asserted in 1812 that masturbation led to a whole range of ailments including pulmonary consumption, dimness of sight, vertigo, epilepsy, loss of memory, and ultimately death. In France, the 1819 Dictionnaire des sciences medicales confidently claimed that “the continual excitement of the genital organs is liable to give rise to almost all the acute or chronic illnesses which can disturb the harmony of our functions”. Diagnosis became a self-fulfilling process. Since masturbation led to so many ailments, clearly anyone suffering from any of these ailments was probably guilty of masturbation: and since almost every patient admitted to masturbating at one time or another, the sequence of cause and effect was self-evident. The list of believers included many of the greatest names in medicine. In France, the eminent Jean-Etienne-Dominique Esquirol took it for granted that no respectable medical authority could doubt the harmfulness of the practice: “Masturbation is recognized in all countries as a common cause of insanity… by lowering the powers of resistance it reduces the patient to a state of stupidity, to phtisis, marasmus, and death”. The idea took root in England in the 1820s, and in Germany in the 1830s. Doctors everywhere echoed the view of French physician Reveille-Parise who in 1828 declared: “In my opinion, neither plague, nor war, nor smallpox, nor a crowd of similar evils, have resulted more disastrously for humanity than the habit of masturbation: it is the destroying element of civilized society” (cited in Laqueur, 2002).

However, as Lesley Hall has shown (2003), the matter was not quite so simple. She demonstrates that the delusion presented significant changes of emphasis. At first, following Onania and Tissot, the emphasis was on the physical consequences of masturbation. This emphasis gradually shifted to what it did to the mind, driving the patient insane. As the 19th century progressed, the masturbatory hypothesis became more specifically applied to madness. Some doctors, among them the distinguished Henry Maudsley, identified specific types of insanity, which could be linked to masturbation. To his credit, Maudsley subsequently withdrew his 1868 assertions, but for a while ‘masturbatory insanity’ was an essential element of diagnosis, explaining a wide range of psychiatric conditions.

Male voices outweighed female voices here as elsewhere, but masturbation was no less vilified by women: the eminent American doctor Elizabeth Blackwell saw masturbation as the precursor of “all other forms of unnatural vice”, and feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft considered “private vices” (she clearly intended masturbation) to be “a public pest”. Towards the end of the 19th century masturbation came to be associated with ‘neurasthenia’ rather than madness, and for those who continued to condemn it in the 20th century it was regarded rather as a psychological defect.

However, these were trends of emphasis rather than clear-cut distinctions: underlying them there persisted the almost unquestioned conviction that self-abuse (as it was now widely labelled) was one of humankind’s most terrible scourges and must be eradicated by whatever means offered themselves.

Sanctioned by the medical authorities, popular authors felt it their duty to echo their judgment in terms accessible to the general public. Thus the American self-appointed ‘Professor’ Fowler let loose in 1875 with a diatribe whose exaggerated terms bear witness to the well-nigh unbelievable extremes to which the masturbation delusion carried those who subscribed to it: “Neither Christendom nor heathendom suffers any evil at all to compare with this… Pile all other evils together – drunkenness upon all cheateries, swindlings, robberies and murders, and tobacco upon both, and all sickness, diseases and pestilence upon all, and war as the cap-sheaf of them all – and all combined cause not a tithe as much human deterioration and misery as does this secret sin”.

To stigmatise a schoolboy or girl enjoying a solitary orgasm as worse than the ravages of the Huns might seem extreme, but such expressions of horror were commonplace. The prolific Dr Rengade, author of many excellent books of popular information, can be taken as representative of popular European authors. This is his take on masturbation – “the most shameful of all vices”, in his 1881 book La vie normale:

A frivolous conversation, the reading of a book, the sight of an attractive person, sometimes  a single word, suffices to excite these burning souls, to inspire erotic dreams whose  inevitable consequence can only be a spontaneous pollution or one brought on by masturbation. Defying all surveillance, the adolescents seek solitude: they hide, without waiting for nightfall which is most favourable to these vile manoeuvres, and may indeed succeed, simply by friction of the thighs, to satisfy their shameful passion even beneath the eyes of parents or teachers. Miserable beings, of whatever sex, who, deficient in willpower, abandon themselves to these superficial joys, who cannot live without these sorry pleasures! Soon it becomes a veritable mania which drives them to devote themselves to it. The brain exhausts itself in unhealthy overexcitement which the organs, overtaxed, refuse to obey. Haggard, panting, the wretched creature struggles to provoke the voluptuous spasms which lead only to fatigue. Soon, the eyes grow ringed and lifeless in their sockets, the lips hang flabby, the nostrils become pinched, the features grow to resemble a monkey’s rather than a human’s, the head droops in shame, the shoulders are bowed, the limbs become emaciated: and these first signs are swiftly followed by more serious symptoms – phthisis, epilepsy, hysteria, imbecility, madness and consumption.

The remedies proposed by the good doctor were incessant surveillance; early rising; going to bed late when sleep will come swiftly; daily baths and cold showers; severe diet; gymnastic exercises, manual tasks, and exhausting country walks, all backed by remonstrance and reproaches from the parents.

As a physician, Rengade was concerned only with the physical consequences of the practice, but in Britain and America it was the interweaving of science with morals that gave the delusion a double force. The bestselling Sylvanus Stall can be taken as representative in this regard. His What a young boy ought to know sold in the hundreds of thousands and was widely translated:

If you were ever to fall a victim to this vice… you would begin to lose faith in all that is good, and as you persisted in your sin, you would grow less and less like Jesus, and more and more like Satan.

But of course he also points out, at some length, the physical consequences: the masturbator:

…gradually drops back towards the foot of his class… he no longer has his accustomed pleasure in the vigorous romp, the hearty laugh, the good fellowship which characterizes a boy with a vigorous mind and a strong body… the health gradually declines. The eyes lose their lustre. The skin becomes sallow. The muscles become flabby. Every little effort is followed by weariness. Work becomes distasteful and irksome. He complains of pain in the back, of headache and dizziness. The hands become cold and clammy. The digestion becomes poor, the appetite fitful. He sits in a stooping position, becomes hollow-chested, and the entire body becomes wasted, and many signs give promise of early decline and death.

How the public responded to this teaching and preaching can only be surmised from scraps of information that slip past the taboo, which ensured that the subject was rarely mentioned except in the form of warnings. Many masturbators carried on covertly, no doubt. The historian of the MORZINE outbreak mentions, quite casually, that the country girls would meet for group masturbation. At more sophisticated social levels, diaries and autobiographical narratives bear witness to the torment of moral guilt and physical terror induced by the likes of Rengade and Stall.

Eradicating self-abuse

Along with the identification of masturbation as the root cause of so many ailments, came discussion as to how it could be eradicated. Moral condemnation could go only so far with an impetuous youth: so more practical means had to be found. In simple cases, prevention was tried before cure. Little girls should be discouraged from riding hobbyhorses, boys from sliding down stair banisters. The bicycle and the treadle sewing machine were recognised as dangerous. Vigorous activity just before bedtime, leaving the child too fatigued to indulge his/her vice, was advised. Cold baths were prescribed. François Raspail, in his manual of health (1845) recommended that the child’s genitals should be wrapped in a heavy layer of camphor powder, and it should be sprinkled on the bed sheets or between the mattress and the sheets before putting the child to bed. The child could even wear a bathing suit with a bag of camphor strategically placed. The hands could be tied to the bedpost. Ingenious devices were designed, such as enclosing a spiked cage to enclose the penis, which became uncomfortable if erection occurred. ‘Chastity belts’ of various types were available for boys and girls.

One rather surprising solution had been proposed early in the 18th century: Bernard de Mandeville, a Dutch physician practising in England, in A modest defence of public stews, proposed the establishment of authorised brothels, providing a healthier outlet for young men than masturbation. Though moral objections prevented the idea from being accepted, other later opponents of masturbation would discreetly advocate this solution, though it failed to address the equally alarming propensity of females to the vice.

Surgery was also advocated. About 1858, Dr Isaac Baker Brown, a prominent London surgeon, proposed clitoridectomy – the surgical removal of the clitoris – for female masturbators, who would then have less incentive to indulge in a practice which otherwise would lead them to hysteria, epilepsy and convulsive attacks: the operation was still being advocated in the United States as late as 1894. Back in 1786 S G Vogel had suggested that infibulations – preventing full erection by fastening the foreskin to the penis with silver wire – might be an effective preventative: comparable methods might be employed on girls. In 1864 the great French physician Broca told how he had performed an operation on a five-year old girl who had been masturbating repeatedly, despite surveillance and even the wearing of a chastity belt. By joining the labia, leaving only a small hole to pee through but covering the clitoris, he reduced the girl’s access to her sensitive parts. He was, however, criticised – though not for performing the operation, rather as to whether this was the most effective method. A colleague wondered why he had not tried cauterization, which he himself had used effectively on a boy, making his genital area so painful as to effectively discourage masturbation (Laqueur, 2002).

In 1891, London surgeon James Hutchinson proposed that male circumcision would effectively reduce the “shameful habit”, while his colleague, Spratling, went further, recommending “the complete section of the dorsal nerves of the penis”, while for females, “nothing short of ovariotomy” was advocated. Alas, even surgery was not certain of success. A Dr Richet in 1864 told how he had performed a total amputation of the clitoris of a 27-year old woman, but within a year she had learnt to obtain relief by masturbating her vagina. A Dr Guérin concurred, describing his own attempt to cure a patient, “I totally destroyed the clitoris without managing to extinguish the desire to masturbate”. But in 1894 Dr Eyer, of St John’s Hospital in Ohio, reported greater success when his patient, a little girl whose clitoris he had hacked away, reported “You know there is nothing there now, so I could do nothing” (cited in Ellis, 1924).

Reasoning in circles

These surgeons describe their procedures in clinical terms, much as they would the removal of an appendix or any other operation. They make no reference to the psychological trauma involved, not only subjecting the young patients to terrifying surgery but involving them in a horrific experience of induced guilt. Dr Yellowlees, in England, told in 1876 how he had been struck by “the conscious-stricken way in which they submitted to the operation on their penises” (Laqueur, 2002). The child was made to feel an outcast, a sinner, performing an unnatural act, which was vile in the eyes of God and of all decent men and women. The result was that children were terrorised, and in extreme cases this could lead to suicide; in uncounted instances, it led to feelings of guilt and self-recrimination which recur not only in case histories but also the literature of the period, ranging from Dean Farrar’s story of school life, Eric or little by little, to Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer sonata. Yet, while some doctors deplored the psychological effects of inculcating guilt and remorse, others welcomed it as a means whereby the patient himself would be driven to voluntarily abandon the practice. French doctor Debreyne in 1844 declared that masturbators “must be threatened with dishonour, with ignominy, with all the horrors of the most painful, the most degrading and the most shameful maladies and finally with an early death to be followed by eternal punishment” (Laqueur, 2002). A colleague, Dr Devay, taught his young patients that their penis would become gangrenous as a result. Privately he admitted that there was no truth in this whatever, but insisted that the lie was justified if it served his purpose.

These examples illustrate the extraordinary circular arguments of the delusion. Doctors justified themselves in threatening consequences they knew to be false, in order to discourage practices which they believed to be harmful in other ways. They demonstrate that, while it was unquestionably the ostensibly scientific aspect of the delusion which enabled it to take such universal hold, it would hardly have done so without a strong moral basis, explicit or concealed. At this time, when almost everyone in advanced societies still, if only nominally, subscribed to Judeo-Christian beliefs, medical authorities did not hesitate to interweave science and religion. Thus Mary R Melendy, an American doctor and author of popular guides to sexual behaviour, wrote to mothers: “Go teach your boy… about these organs that make him specially a boy. Teach him that they are not impure, but… made by God for a definite purpose. Impress upon him that if these organs are… put to any use besides that for which God made them – and He did not intend they should be used at all until man is fully grown – they will bring disease and ruin upon those who abuse and disobey those laws which God has made to govern them” (cited in Ellis, 1924). Needless to say, she does not indicate where God promulgated any such laws, which would – if they existed – hardly be compatible with medical reality.

Indeed, the strength of the moral aspect of the delusion is illustrated by the comment of one of the first medical men to declare that masturbation is no more harmful than sexual intercourse, Sir James Paget. Even while insisting that the practice is not the monster it had been made out to be, he concludes by saying, almost reluctantly, “I wish that I could say something worse of so nasty a practice: an uncleanliness, a filthiness forbidden by God, an unmanliness despised by man” (cited in Szasz, 1971).

Because masturbation is by definition generally a solitary act, and because given the climate of opinion most people kept quiet about their activities, there are no figures to show how prevalent the practice was or how many children were affected. When in 1949 Alfred Kinsey, professor of zoology, and his colleagues at Indiana University, presented their report on the sexual habits of the American male (followed in 1953 by a sequel on the female) they disclosed that 93% of American males, and 62% of females, indulged in masturbation, despite the fact that the taboo was still very widely imposed (Ellis, 1924). Since there is no reason to think that human nature had changed dramatically in the previous 100 years, we can suppose that even at the height of the delusion, and in the face of such a barrage of denunciation, almost every child felt the urge to masturbate, and that a very high percentage yielded to that urge. That the practice was widespread was generally admitted, but authorities, with rare exception, did not ask the obvious question: why, in that case, were the numbers of mad people relatively few?

Sceptical voices

Although, throughout the duration of the delusion, a few sceptical voices had been raised, this was only in medical circles and not in public. It was not until the very close of the 19th century that ideas began to change, and even then it was only slowly and reluctantly. A prominent influence was the English sociologist Havelock Ellis, whose writings were initially banned, but whose authority went a considerable way towards shaking the entrenched belief. Yet though in 1900 he was able to report that “recent authorities are almost unanimous in rejecting masturbation as a cause of insanity” (Szasz, 1971) the delusion was slow to die. Freud and his followers, even if they no longer held extreme views, did not question that masturbation was harmful (the importance Freud attributed to the subject is indicated by the fact that there are more than 100 references to masturbation in his collected works, as well as some fifty to auto-eroticism). Even though medical authorities generally came to concede that masturbation had few if any harmful effects, Kinsey, writing about male masturbation in 1949, noted that the consequences of the delusion were still much in evidence half a century later: “It must be realized that masturbation is taboo and even strongly condemned among certain groups; and while college men more often admit their experience, there are males in some other groups who would admit almost any other kind of sexual activity before they would give a record of masturbatory experiences… Millions of boys have lived in continual mental conflict over this problem. For that matter, many a boy still does. Many boys pass through a periodic succession of attempts to stop the habit, inevitable failures in those attempts, consequent periods of remorse, the making of new resolutions and a new start on the whole cycle. It is difficult to imagine anything better calculated to do permanent damage to the personality of an individual” (Szasz, 1971).

The situation was similar for the female. Four years later he reported:

In view of the more than two thousand years of religious condemnation of masturbation, fortified by the ostensibly scientific opinions of physicians and other professionally trained groups, it is not surprising that many individuals, both female and male, are considerably disturbed when they masturbate. Among the females in the sample who had ever masturbated, approximately half had experienced some psychological disturbance over their experience… This means that some millions of the females in the United States, and a larger number of the males, have had their selfassurance, their social efficiency, and sometimes their sexual adjustments in marriage needlessly damaged – not by their masturbations, but by the conflict between their practice and the moral codes.

“Masturbational insanity was real enough,” declares Dr Alex Comfort, but it was not the ignorant masses who were insane, rather “it was affecting the medical profession,” whom he stigmatises as ‘anxiety makers’ (Szasz, 1971). Thomas Szasz (1971) comments: “We may wonder how learned men and the public alike could believe such nonsense, flagrantly contradicted by observation easily made among both men and animals,” and attributes it to the fact that man “is more interested in preserving popular explanations, which tend to consolidate the group, than in making accurate observations which tend to divide it”.

Laqueur’s 2002 thesis analyses the concept of masturbation as a cultural phenomenon rooted in time. The delusion was, paradoxically, a child of the Age of Enlightenment, when the status of the individual in relation to society was in the course of transformation. Masturbation, so essentially an individual practice, was felt to be anti-social, so when Marten and Tissot offered grounds, however dubious, for demonising the practice, their views were enthusiastically embraced (Szasz, 1971).

Thus the masturbation delusion served a stabilising purpose: it allowed people to continue to accept the Judeo-Christian moral code and perpetuate it into a scientific age. Fundamental to the delusion was the puritanical credo that any form of self-indulgence is inherently blameworthy, and non-procreative sexual activity especially so. Consequently, when ostensible scientific support for demonising masturbation was offered, moralists and scientists welcomed it alike. They accepted the false reasoning, which led to the belief in masturbatory insanity because it justified their subconscious conviction that masturbation was wrong. The moral judgment not only preceded, but also continued to underlie any supposed scientific evaluation.


Comfort, A. (1967). The anxiety makers. London: Nelson.Ellis, H. (1924). Studies in the psychology of sex (3rd ed). Philadelphia: F A Davis.Hall, L. A. (2003). “It was affecting the medical profession”: the history of masturbatory insanity revisited. Paedagogica Historica, 39(6).Kinsey, A. C., Pomeroy, W. B., & Martin, C.E. (1949). Sexual behavior in the human male. Philadelphia: W B Saunders.Kinsey, A. C., Pomeroy, W. B., & Martin, C. E., & Gebhard, P. H. (1953). Sexual behavior in the human female. Philadelphia: W B Saunders.Laqueur, T. W. (2002). Solitary sex. New York: Zone Books.Rengade, J. (1881). La vie normale. Paris: Libraire Illustrée.Stall, S. (1909). What a young boy ought to know. Philadelphia: Environment Publishing.Stengers, J., & Van Neck, A. (2002). Masturbation. Translated from the French Histoire d’une grande peur, la masturbation, by Kathryn Hoffmann. Originally published 1998. English translation: London: Palgrave.Szasz, T. S. (1971). The manufacture of madness. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

This article is adapted from an entry in the Encyclopedia of Exceptional Social Behaviour, which Robert Bartholomew and Hilary Evans have been working on together for a number of years.

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A bout of moral alarm in the educated? From the archives, Hilary Evans considers another example where the scientific evidence is absent
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