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Why 18th-Century Masturbation Pseudoscience Was So Hard to Rub Out

How a fraud and a wacko convinced two centuries of masturbators that jacking off caused blindness, insanity, gout and hairy palms

Masturbation has always been a touchy subject. From early Biblical teachings about the dangers of “spilling seed” to the moral panic around porn addiction today, it seems we’re still trying to figure out whether it’s a benign sexual expression or a gateway to interpersonal ruin. Thankfully, as most doctors and researchers agree, it’s a perfectly healthy activity with lots of free and easy benefits, and because of their many endorsements, most modern masturbators know they can spill all the “seed” they want without going blind.

This wasn’t always the case, of course. For a concerningly long stint in recent history, most people in the Western world believed that masturbation wasn’t only morally wrong, but straight-up pathological. They were certain it would cause sterility, blindness, impotence, insanity and — incredibly — hairy palms, and doctors and religious leaders did everything they could to reinforce those beliefs. The thing is, plenty of people masturbated throughout history without any sort of disastrous result, so how was it that so many of them were duped into thinking their jerk sessions could make them sick?

The biggest engine behind this misinformation campaign was a Victorian-era pamphlet called Onania: Or, The Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution. Produced by an anonymous author claiming to be a physician in 1715, it was the first so-called “medical text” to sound the alarm about masturbation (and a real best-seller, too). Full of sermons about the sinfulness of jacking off — and with lots of references to God and Satan — its author couched his own moral protestations within his medical authority, citing the dire physical outcomes of masturbation in no uncertain terms:

“When the Seminal Vessels are first strain’d and afterwards relax’d, the Ferment in the Testes is destroy’d and the Seed grown thin and waterish, comes away unelaborated, without any provocation; this Distemper often proves fatal, even under the Hands of the most skillful.”

Other horrors awaiting the masturbator apparently included, but were not limited to: stunted growth, phimosis, ulcers, gonorrhea, epileptic fits, consumption, night emissions, impotence, sterility, birth defects, weak jaws, pallid complexions, low muscle tone, women who become haggard and swarthy, incontinence, inability to urinate, permanent erections, and, obviously, death. As such, the text beseeches readers to recognize not only the devastating physical consequences, but the social embarrassments that these afflictions will cause when it comes to prospects of marriage and progeny.

The impact of Onania was huge, influencing the studies of respected Swiss physician Samuel Tissot, who published his own anti-masturbation book — L’Onanisme — in 1760. This, in turn, triggered the Great Masturbation Panic that terrorized Victorian England in the first part of the 19th century. Pulled from case studies of patients Tissot had treated, he warned of the medical dangers of masturbation, which, according to him, included “a perceptible reduction of strength, of memory and even of reason; blurred vision, all the nervous disorders, all types of gout and rheumatism, weakening of the organs of generation, blood in the urine, disturbance of the appetite, headaches and a great number of other disorders.”

Whether or not these conditions were actually related to masturbation is highly doubtful, but the credibility of Tissot’s name was enough to kick off a hysteria that saw people not only terrified and gaslit, but committed to institutions where both adults and children were physically tortured with medieval anti-masturbation devices for years by their own parents and doctors. (Interestingly, John Harvey Kellogg — inventor of Kellogg’s cereal — was a major proponent of these devices, suggesting that boys be circumcised without anesthesia and girls’ clitorises be chemically burned with carbolic acid to keep them from the sin of self-pleasure.)

What’s most amazing about all of this isn’t the Saw-like tortures that awaited masturbators in the 18th and 19th centuries, though — it’s that anyone believed it. How was it that such facile minds were taken in by the propaganda of an anonymous pamphlet and a wily physician?

As it turns out, it was a confluence of scientific and social factors; I could fill a book with it all, but for now, I’ll attempt a quick and dirty explanation.

For one, there’s evidence that Onania was written by a clergyman, not a physician — it might have been his effort to bring people back to God by offering medical reasoning for religious admonition. Secondly, while Tissot was a respected doctor, both his text and Onania provide humoralist views of medicine, which is a fancy way of saying that they believed that the body was made of up four fluids — black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood — that were thought to cause disease when out of balance. According to Hippocrates, who came up with the bright idea around the third century B.C., other bodily fluids like semen, sweat, tears and urine were seen as products of these so-called humors, and they needed to be drained or retained in order to keep the body in optimal health. This belief was canonized in the medical literature, and for centuries, most therapies focused on how to do this (semen, in case you’re wondering, was a fluid that needed to be “retained”).

But by the 1600s, medical knowledge had advanced to understand the circulation of blood, nerves, the heart and the brain, not humors. Likewise, the 18th century saw a philosophical shift away from religion with its notions of predestination and original sin, and a new thrust of thinking toward ideas of self-determination. This movement was called The Enlightenment, and it brought about an expansion of the natural sciences, a trend of ordering and classifying things and identifying the forces of nature, placing them squarely alongside intellectual explorations around ideas of utopia, the so-called noble savage and a more secular structure of society.

Both Onania and L’Onanisme were published somewhere in the midst of all this change. The fact that both these texts incorporated scientifically bogus principles is, perhaps, evidence of an ideological paradigm shift, a snapshot taken during a time where the world was stuck somewhere between the superstitious and the empirical.

But all of that doesn’t explain the thing about hairy palms, does it?

The myth about masturbation causing you to grow hair on your palms is an interesting outlier because it doesn’t fit with the other ailments described in medical texts, all of which did actually afflict people (though not because of masturbation). Hairy palms have always been implausible and not a real medical thing, but as art history author Deborah Birch explains in her essay “Hairy Palms, or, Onania and All It’s Frightful Consequences,” people’s fear of getting them may have had more to do with a poor translation than an actual medical malady.

As she points out, there’s a French idiom — avoir du poil dans la main (to have hair on the palms) — that emerged in the beginning of the 19th century as another way to say someone was lazy. As it so happened, laziness was the cardinal sin of masturbation — it was believed to drain people of life force, was seen as a solitary and indulgent activity, and at the time, stood in stark contrast to the emerging ideals of self-control, refinement, ambition and ethical perfection. In other words, laziness was about the middle class distinguishing themselves from the working class.

Likewise, around that same time, using French phrases and words was a way to distinguish oneself as educated (despite the English hatred of the French). It’s not a far leap to imagine then that saying masturbation would make one have hair on the palms, meaning to be both sedentary and ineffectual, as it was translated into English and trickled down to the masses, lost its figurative meaning and was taken literally.

Perhaps all this time, we’ve just been lost in translation.

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