The Heartbreak of 19th Century Masturbation

I spent three hours early this morning researching 19th century masturbation for my next article, until I was just so goddamn sad that I had to stop.

I have been doing a series for The Week where I look at the outrageous hygiene and social advice given to people 100 years ago. It’s fun, funny. When they’re telling you to grease up your birth canal with lard to aid birth and to be prepared for your bride to running screaming into the night the first time you try to have sex with her, it isn’t hard to be funny.

Harvey Kellogg, the brother of the cereal guy, the one that ran the famous Battle Creek Sanitarium, is a goldmine of pontificated, horrific advice. I was skimming a huge section he wrote specifically dealing with masturbation in little girls. I’m always looking for the funny bits, but it became so quickly apparent that this just wasn’t funny.

He listed signs that your young daughter might be engaging in The Solitary Vice. She becomes shy of strangers, withdrawn, wanting to be alone, her privates look red and distressed, she has inappropriate knowledge or curiosity about sex.

…..Those are also the symptoms, today, we are told to look for in children being sexually abused. But that didn’t even cross Kellogg’s mind.

So I let myself fall into the depths of 19th century views toward children, masturbation, and sex abuse. And what I found there was so awful that I told my editor I wanted to write it, but I couldn’t make it funny. It was just too heartbreaking.

All sexual behavior in children was to be punished, ranging from sewing special restraints to keep the child’s arms and legs tied to the bedposts, to burning the labia majora with a hot wire so the resulting wound will be too painful to touch. A clitorectomy was also alluded to.

Just to see if it was there for cross-reference, I looked and looked for information about child abuse, and could only find “pederasty” referred to obliquely, as something old deviants do when they’re bored with other perversions, and it wasn’t particularly distinguished from the more common perversion of homosexuality. There were thousands of pages devoted to sexual hygiene and perversions; one author even had a detailed discussion of Pygmalionism  (being sexually aroused by statues). But child abuse, hardly a thing.

Kellogg did mention one little girl, a five year old who, in the language of the day,was coaxed behind a shed and debauched by some vile roue. But the problem wasn’t that she was molested. It was that the molestation taught her to masturbate.

Do you want to cry yet?

I have always wondered, did sexual abuse happen as much in the past? Were they more sexually controlled/innocent, or did it happen all the time no one never talked about it? The more dark corners of history I sweep through, the more I think it is the latter. Millions of children simply told to shut up and forget about it.

For instance, I found a court case among the online records of the Old Bailey, from the 1700s, of a man being tried for raping a ten year old. The father spoke in court that if the man hadn’t given the girl gonorrhea and then had the cheek to continue to frequent the family’s ale-house, he would never have said a thing. Because he didn’t want his daughter’s life to be ruined by everyone knowing. The court recitation also recounted that when the ten year old stumbled home, tear-stained and disheveled, her mother beat her for being late. She did not tell what had happened to her, for fear of further beatings.

That man was executed. But as the 1800’s dawned, the court records of The Old Bailey became skint of records of children being abused, and the penalty for raping a child turned from death, to 3 years hard labor. I don’t know why. I don’t know what happened.

I will be plagiarizing myself with a lot of this in a few days, I’m sure, in The Week, with more quotes and support and research. But I saw the title of my own page, “Editorlessness” and thought, yeah, that’s what I need tonight. Not to think about presentation and structure. Just, I need to lay the ugly thoughts off my shoulder and onto a page, like I’ve always done.  Sorry for laying it at your feet. But thank you.

13 thoughts on “The Heartbreak of 19th Century Masturbation

  1. I’ve wondered the same thing – is there more of this type of abuse happening now, or do we just hear about it more now with the internet and 24/7 news. It hadn’t occurred to me that these horrible things were happening just as often back then, but the wrong people were being punished. How sad.


  2. I think that people assume incest/sexual abuse is on the rise because it has become publicized recently. But judging from older patients of mine who were abused and never received help as children, it seems pretty clear that it is a problem that goes way, way back. Sometimes they just shut up, other times they were specifically told they’d better keep quiet, and occasionally they told and were punished or ignored. This had to be even more true in a time when children were seen as property.


    • Shame must have been a huge factor too…the whole neighborhood would look at you funny, even in the 20th century. Those poor kids/old folks.


  3. Kraft-ebbing! The guy all the other books were quoting! I did find him..his psychopathia sexualis (I had to totally google that spelling). I found him just as I was starting to burn out. He’s the one who said child molesting was mostly done by bored perverts. I know I have to look closer at him but I’m not exactly excited about it.


  4. my head is spinning. So much I want to say, so much I want to look up now, but at the moment- barely able to have a coherent thought because there’s just too much. Too much of my own issues and anger – lots and lots of anger. I want to come back to this…


  5. (as an aside – I just scrolled through your articles on The Week and I noticed one of them had close to 300 comments – I almost got sucked into that black hole of people hating each other via the interwebs. It’s funny how an article about anit-suffragettes turned into people talking about the statistics of inter-racial rape. I need a drink.)


  6. I absolutely love this Article. Very well written yet very sad a well. These are often thoughts I stumble upon in today’s society that is full of murderers and robbers and worst of all the sick twisted people that will kidnap and rape or enslave our children. I wonder has the world always been this twisted have people always been this sick and cruel. Or is it due to the fact that one dysfunctional couple reproduces and causes another sick individual and so on and so on. Is it due to the movies and internet or have human beings always been like this and now there’s just more of us to spread the filth to the world. It saddens me that the penalty went from death to a 3 year labor sentence. It should have stayed death and still should be in my opinion.


    • I’d just like to find out WHY it went to 3 years labor. I’m halfway hoping a big chunk of the court record’s were lost…thanks for reading.


  7. I know this is really late, but I wondered if you’d mind providing some of your sources for your article? I’d like to quote it in a post on reddit, and I want to make sure I have the correct info.

    Your article was pretty mind-blowing, by the way. I kind of knew some of it, but not the extent or the sheer lunacy of it.


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