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 She becomes shy of strangers, withdrawn, wanting to be alone, her privates look red and distressed, she has inappropriate knowledge or curiosity about sex.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.