Onanism: Victorian America's Enemy

by Ornella Moscucci

Unease about masturbation began, as is well known, in the early eighteenth century, when a book appeared entitled Onania; or the Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution (1707-1717) appeared anonymously in Holland and met with great success. By the middle of the century Tissot's famous treatise, On Onania: or a Treatise upon the Disorders Produced by Masturbation (1760), had given a scientific veneer to the new anxiety about the "solitary vice." Drawing on ideas about the wastage of bodily energy, Tissot argued that physical illness resulted from loss of semen, leading to general debility, consumption, deterioration of eyesight, disturbance of the nervous system, and so on. From 1800 onwards, the evils of masturbation were widely discussed in medical and moralistic texts; although attitudes to the practice were not monolithic, much was made of its physically and mentally deterious effects (see Hall; Hare; Engelhardt; Comfort). In essence, masturbation was less a vice than an antisocial activity, an egotistic enjoyment of pleasures that were the proper domain of heterosexual intercourse. (Lacqueur, Making Sex 227-30). Polluting and debilitating for the individual, it had a destabilizing effect on society, as it prevented healthy sexual desire from fulfilling socially desirable ends--marriage and procreation, which was the foundation of the social order.

Belief in the horrors of masturbation was shared by doctors and patients. As Lesley Hall has shown for the later period (the 1920s), a large component of men's "hidden anxieties" related to the sense of disgust and self-loathing induced by masturbation: "folly," "mistake," "disease," were the words employed by men writing to Marie Stopes, the birth control pioneer, when they described their "addiction" to the pernicious habit of self-abuse. Such fears were easily exploited by a variety of groups with interests ranging from the religious to the commercial. Quacks were particularly active in the "treatment" of masturbation: posters, leaflets, handbills, and "anatomical museums" illustrating the dreadful consequences of onanism were widely used as marketing strategies, much to the concern of the medical profession, which was anxious to establish its own claims to the treatment of masturbation. In a letter to Lancet for 1857, for example, an anonymous doctor railed against the "spermatorrhoea imposture" that lay behind the peddling of contraptions such as the "American remedy" recommended as an infallible cure for masturbation. Retailing at two guineas apiece, the device consisted of a metal ring "with a screw passing through one of its sides, and projecting, into the center," which was to be applied to the part affected" at bed-time ("M.D.").

Doctors on the whole favored less heroic means of stopping the habit. Strengthening the sufferer's moral and physical tone was the first line of defense; adjuvants included the avoidance of sexually arousing amusements, and temptations such as lolling in bed in the morning. Sometimes sexual intercourse was prescribed (with prostitutes if necessary) in order to redirect desire toward more constructive heterosexual ends (see, e.g., Cantlie, "Spermatorrhoea," "Masturbation", Copeland; "Quack advertisements" 124-26;159-60; 224-25). Occasionally, however, the severity of the case required a more robust approach. The application of caustics to the urethra was recommended in the mid-Victorian period in order to remedy the consequences of chronic masturbation, such as spermatorrhoea and impotence; vasectomy and castration were also practiced, although such radical therapies appear to have been more popular in the United States than in England. In 1870, the use of blisters was recommended by Lancet as a means of "keeping up slight soreness of the body of the organ...sufficient to render erection painful" ("Quack advertisements" 224).

Interest in circumcision as a treatment for masturbation began to emerge in the 1850s. As the medical discourse on sexual hygiene gathered momentum, attention was focused on uncleanliness as a cause of masturbatory activity. The English physician James Copland, one of the first to advocate circumcision in the Anglo-Saxon world, claimed that masturbation was essentially an attempt to relieve, by friction, the "local irritations" caused by smegmatic accumulations under the prepuce. He recommended circumcision as a means of maintaining genital cleanliness, adding that the great physical resilience of the Jewish people was due to the observance of this "salutary rite" (III, 442; 445). By the end of the nineteenth century, the medical pleas for circumcision had become more insistent. The American physician Remondino, author of the best selling History of Circumcision, pitied the "unlucky and unhappy wearer of a prepuce": this "tight-constricted, glans-deforming, onanism-producing, cancer-generating" appendage, he claimed was an "unknown, undiscovered, and therefore unexplored region for some thousands of years," until the medical profession, venturing at last into this "Darkest Africa," had revealed the malign influence it exercised on its unwary victims (255-56) Parents could not make a "better paying investment" for their sons than circumcision: it was like a "substantial and well secured life-annuity," making for greater capacity for labor, a longer life, less nervousness, and fewer doctors' bills (186).

Physicians such as Remondino had little difficulty in persuading their middle-class readers, who already appreciated the importance of hygiene and moral restraint: it was the observance of regular habits that ostensibly set the middle classes apart from the debauched aristocracy and the degenerate working classes, legitimating middle class claims to cultural hegemony. By the early twentieth century, circumcision had become common among the upper and professional classes in Britain and America. In the 1930s, the earliest period for which statistics are available, two-thirds of public-school boys were circumcised as compared to one-tenth of working class boys; the British royal family employed a Jewish mohel for the purpose as late as the end of 1948. By virtue of its association with filth and sexual excess, the prepuce had become a marker of inferior social status: already by the end of the 1890s an equation was being made in America between being "uncircumcised" and being "uncivilized."

As Ronald Hyam has noted, circumcision was central to the late-Victorian re-definition of manliness in terms of sexual restraint and "cleanness." As the purity campaign gathered momentum in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the meaning of manliness shifted from the ideals of moral strenuousness and integrity to a cult of athleticism and robust virility. The offensive on male lust and the double standard of sexual morality presented masculinity as a never-ending battle requiring watchfulness and supervision: muscular Christianity was the goal, attainable through strict mental and physical discipline. Widely believed to dampen sexual desire, circumcision was seen positively as a means of promoting both the chastity and the physical health of the custodians of the empire ("Hygienic value," 271).

The emphasis on sexual hygiene no doubt explains why a Jewish ritual like circumcision was adopted by the British ruling elite, notwithstanding the antisemitism of much Victorian culture: at a time of profound concern about the physical decline of British manhood, the resilience of the Jews in the face of adversity and persecution was held up as proof that sexual hygiene was the mainspring of a nations vigor. While George Eliot's Daniel Deronda (1876) opposed the sustaining values of Jewish culture to the shallow conventions of contemporary Victorian society, doctors and politicians noted with envy the longevity and sturdiness of the Jews, testifying to the rarity of venereal disease, tuberculosis, and cancer of the penis in Jewish communities, as well as to the low levels of infant mortality, illegitimacy, and criminality. Over and over again, commentators attributed the physical and moral superiority of the Jews to the religious rituals and prescriptions observed in their culture (Remondino 161-82). In an influential article published in the Contemporary Review for 1903, Major General Sir Frederick Maurice, one the chief contributors to the turn-of-the-century physical deterioration debate, singled out childrearing practices as a factor contributing to the health and longevity of the Jews; although he did not recommend "stereotyped copying" of the Jews, he conceded that the rest of the nation had much to learn from them (Davin 16). The fact that circumcision had biblical sanction probably facilitated the spread of the practice in Christian Britain and America. The language of purity mobilized religious discourse, emphasizing the intimate connection between physical and moral health: circumcision showed that the divine law had scientific validation (Mort 109-12).


Cantlie, James. "Spermatorrhaea" A Dictionary of Medicine: Including General Pathology, General Therapeutics, Hygiene, and the Diseases Peculiar to Women and Children. Ed. R. Quain. 2 vols. London: Longmans, Green, 1882, II:144-50.

Comfort, Alex. The Anxiety Makers: Some Curious Preoccupations of the Medical Profession. London: Nelson, 1967.

Copland, James, "Pollutions," A Dictionary of Practical Medicine. 3 vols. London: Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans and Roberts, 1858. III: 441-48.

Davin, Anne. "Imperialism and motherhood." History Workshop 5 (1978):9-66.

Englehardt, Tristam. "The Disease of Masturbation: Values and the Concept of Disease." Bulletin of the History of Medicine 48 (1974):234-248.

Hall, Lesley A. "Forbidden by God, Despised by Men: Masturbation, Medical Warnings, Moral Panic and Manhood in Great Britain, 1850-1950." Forbidden History: The State, Society, and the Regulation of Sexuality in Modern Europe. Ed. J. C. Font. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992, 293-316.

Hare, E.H. "Masturbatory Insanity: The History of an Idea." The Journal of Mental Science 108 (1962).

Hyam, Ronald. Empire and Sexuality: The British Experience. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1992, 293-316.

Laqueur, Thomas. Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990.

"M.D." "The Spermatorrhoea Imposture." Lancet 1 (1867): 25.

Mort, Frank. Dangerous Sexualities: Medico-Moral Politics in England Since 1830. London and New York: Routledge, 1987.

"Quack advertisements." Lancet 2 (1870): 72; 89-90; 124-26; 159-60; 224-25.

Remondino, P.C. History of Circumcision from the Earliest Times to the Present. Philadelphia: F.A. Davis, 1900.


Ornella Moscucci took her first degree in sociology at Bristol University and received a Ph.D on the history of British gynecology from the University of Oxford. Between 1987 and 1989 she worked on the history of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and subsequently held a post as Research Fellow at the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine in London. Her research has focused on the history of gender, and on the development of obstetrics and gynecology since 1800. Dr. Moscucci is the author of The Science of Woman: Gynaecology and Gender in England, 1800-1929, and of "Hermaphroditism and Sex Difference: The Construction of Gender in Victorian England" in Benjamin, Science and Sensibility.


Moscucci O. Clitoridectomy, Circumcision, and the Politics of Sexual Pleasure. In: Eds: Andrew H. Miller and James Eli Adams. Sexualities in Victorian Britain. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis 1996: 63-65 (ISBN 0-253-33066-1).


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