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Mental Health and Masturbation: A Centuries Old Misdiagnosis

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I’ve always found it interesting that May is an awareness month for both mental health and masturbation. I’m not sure if the people who scheduled this knew the connection between the two other than they both start with “M.”

Today, we know that masturbation has mental health benefits but that was not always so. Masturbation’s reputation has had its ups and downs over the course of human existence. Depending on the time period and the culture, it can be either a positive or negative thing. Unfortunately, Western society had many periods with an unfavorable opinion of masturbation mostly spurred by religious fervor. I first touched on the problems thought to have stemmed from self-pleasure with articles about Onanism, Sylvester Graham, John Harvey Kellogg, and anti-masturbation devices.

Onanism is the belief rooted in a bible story about Onan. Onan wasted his seed upon the ground instead of impregnating his late brother’s wife, as he was ordered to do. This myth was distorted over time to include not only the use of the withdrawal method as birth control but any emission including masturbation. Books like Onania: or the Heinous Sin of Self Pollution (1710) by Anonymous, Onania: Examined and Detected (1723) by Philo-Castitatus, and L’Onanisme, a Treatise Upon the Disorder Produced By Masturbation (1758) by Samuel-August Tissot, touch on this imagined health crisis.

The authors used their limited knowledge of how the body and mind react to masturbation, and limited understanding of the body and mind in general, to link a wide array of illnesses to masturbation. They thought that the excessive stimulation from masturbation affected mental health causing insanity. This idea grew in popularity during the 19th century. In 1816, Jean-Etienne Dominique Esquirol mentioned in his Maladies Mentales “Masturbation is recognized in all countries as a common cause of insanity.” In 1845, RJ Brodie and Co. released their ridiculously long titled book commonly truncated down to The Secret Companion, A Medical Work on Onanism or Self-Pollution which states due to “the loss of too much semen from masturbation… the ideas are confused and frequently insanity is the result.”

In 1842, Dr. Alfred Hitchcock, not the rotund director but the 19th Century doctor, wrote about his conclusions in the Boston Surgical Journal titled Insanity and Death From Masturbation. Hitchcock states, “Within ten years a number of fatal cases have fallen under my observation, where death was clearly traceable to that cause alone.” He describes meeting a man who had taken ill and recently had an epileptic episode. He then started exhibiting symptoms of insanity. Upon their meeting, Dr. Hitchcock describes a long list of maladies. Since Dr. Hitchcock found his pulse wasn’t sharp, his chest gave health sounds, and no “viscous” was seriously affected that he could easily conclude that masturbation was the cause.

By the mid-1800s, most doctors and psychiatrists were on the masturbation leads to insanity bandwagon. Professor Henry Maudsley coined the phrase “Masturbatory Insanity” in 1868 and wrote, “Self-abuse is the cause of a particular disagreeable form of insanity.” He wrote in his book Physiology and Pathology of the Mind (1880) “Self Abuse is a cause of insanity which appears more frequent or more effective in men than in women.” The book lists many people with maladies, a few of which include self-abuse.

Joseph W Howe published Excessive Venery, Masturbation, and Continence in 1887. He wrote, “Insanity, however, is liable to occur, as a direct result of onanism or sexual excess, without the development of either of the above mentioned affections.” (Epilepsy and pathophobia were those affections he mentioned) Howe also relates a story about a man who masturbated himself into insanity and an early grave.

Dr. David Skae lists “Insanity of Masturbation” in his A Rational and Practical Classification of Insanity (1863). Skae defines Masturbatory Insanity as “A separate nosological disease caused exclusively by masturbation with characteristic features.” Even John Harvey Kellogg of Corn Flakes fame wrote in his Plain Facts For Old and Young (1881) that “The solitary vice is one of the most common cause of insanity is a fact too well established to need demonstration here.”

Many books and articles dedicated to the subject in the last half of the 1800s. Ellen White, along with other authors, had their opinions published in 1870 as A Solemn Appeal. Relative to a Solitary Vice, and Abuses and Excesses of the Marriage Relation (so many long winded titles!) edited by Ellen’s husband, James Springer White. Dr. Allen Hagenbach wrote, Masturbation as a Cause of Insanity published in 1879. In 1887, Edward Spitzka published Cases of Masturbation (Masturbation Insanity) He wrote, “Excessive venery and masturbation have from time immemorial been supposed to exert a deleterious influence on the nervous system and may provoke insanity partly through their weakening effect on the moral nutrition.”

There are medical reports from mental hospitals in Europe and US that list masturbation as a symptom or note having seen patients masturbate openly. The 1890 annual report for the Dunning Asylum in Chicago listed masturbation as a common cause of insanity in male patients. Early medical professionals were quick to believe that people who were masturbating and having similar symptoms that masturbation was the cause.

The list of symptoms their patients exhibited could have been diagnosed today as a wide variety of illnesses from schizophrenia to diabetes to cancer. The masturbatory habits of the mentally ill housed in these horrific asylums were not the end result of the path to venereal sin. It was more likely that some of these patients lacked impulse control or were merely the frustratingly institutionalized enjoying one of the few outlets of pleasure they had.

Unfortunately, the mental health link to masturbation meant that lots of time and energy were taken to dissuade people from practicing self-pleasure. Many of the books and guest lectures recommended ways to keep people’s hands off themselves. It helped fuel health-related industries like Sylvester Graham’s cracker, John Harvey Kellogg’s Sanatorium, and those scary anti-masturbation products. When people didn’t respond to the threat of enfeeblement, disease, or death, they could be subjected to cruel anti-masturbation techniques such as suturing the foreskin, penile cauterization, and clitorectomies.

The masturbation/insanity connection waned after the turn of the century. You could still find doctors writing about it, like Dr. William Malamud who published the article The Role of Masturbation in the Causation of Mental Disturbances in The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease in 1932. By the mid 20th century, the medical community learned much more about the mind and body. There was also a greater understanding of human sexuality thanks to the works of people like Alfred Kinsey, William Masters, and Virginia Johnson.

We also became more honest and open about sex. When you find a majority of people masturbates, and that it’s perfectly normal, the idea that it can cause illness loses its grip. If everyone who masturbates went insane, there wouldn’t be enough asylums to house them. While there are factions that still think masturbation is bad for you, modern science has helped to eradicate the idea from mainstream thought.

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Graham and Kellogg – The Anti-Masturbation Diet

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Graham crackers and corn flakes have such a ubiquitous presence in our lives. As a girl scout, I have fond memories of graham crackers oozing gooey marshmallows and melted chocolate. I also loved the cinnamon sugar covered ones. When I had my kids, it seems like all moms carried those wax rectangles of graham crackers from the moment our kids could handle solid food. I have a not so fond memory of cold cracker mush all over my kid’s mouth and hands, and inevitably on my shirt. I’ve also been a fan of corn flakes, although I preferred them with sugar heavily sprinkled on top. Few are unfamiliar with the large white box with the big rooster on it.

I knew that Kellogg was into an unconventional dietary routine (I saw The Road to Wellville) but knew little about Graham. I was surprised to find out fairly recently that they both shared the same idea that spurred the creation of these staples. Simply put, anti-masturbation. Both Graham and Kellogg felt that people’s diet contributed to their sexual urges. Deviant sexual urges like masturbation. First Graham then Kellogg, inspired by Grahams beliefs, wrote prodigiously about the evils of self-abuse and that diet could curb sexual arousal. They were both practitioners of vegetarianism. They both advocated a simple bland diet and abstinence from tobacco and alcohol. Kellogg condemned the consumption of meat, Graham the consumption of white bread. Some of this actually sounds tremendously modern, except for their fervent belief that masturbation was terrible for your health.

Sylvester Graham, a former Presbyterian minister, spent most of his life writing, lecturing, and developing lifestyle and diet plans. Having gotten on the temperance bandwagon during his minister days in the 1830’s, he continued to preach as a lecturer. Temperance groups at this time focus mostly on alcohol and tobacco. Graham felt that sexual excess, including masturbation, was contributing to ill health, both mentally and physically. He also believed that the refined carb and fatty meat-laden American diet of the early 19th century was terrible for your health. He wanted to get people back to their living off the land roots. He felt that the manufactured food of the time had gotten people away from the wholesome tables of yesteryear. It was true that at the time people were consuming processed white bread like never before. This bread often had added ingredients like alum and chlorine to make them more white and last longer. Refined white bread had become a symbol of upward mobility to middle-class society, a status symbol since it was purchased and not made at home. Graham was convinced that these chemical additives made bread unwholesome. He also believed a vegetarian diet could cure people of alcoholism as well as rid them of sexual desires.

Graham lectured often about how this unhealthy diet increased our sexual desires, which lead to our overall ill heath including mental feebleness and insanity. He believed that “venereal excess” should be avoided, not only masturbation and premarital sex but also only engaging in marital coitus once a month. He created a super bland diet that did away with any stimulants like coffee, tea, and seasonings. It was focused on whole grains with fresh fruit and vegetables plus a recommended regimen of exercise, frequent bathing, and fresh air. You weren’t even allowed to use pepper, a point of contention when Oberlin College made the Graham diet part of its dining plan. A professor there was let go for spicing up his food with some pepper. The diet plan was gone soon afterward.

Graham didn’t create the graham cracker as we know it today. He invented his “Graham flour,” which consisted of specially ground whole-wheat flour where the bran and the germ are ground and combined. This he used to make Graham bread and by 1829 a Graham flour based cracker. He had quite a following, at first, attracting a fan base that was referred to as “Grahamites” who practiced temperance, abstinence from alcohol, and who adopted his rigorous diet and lifestyle plan. He was also ridiculed and threatened with bodily harm, mostly from bakers and butchers who were not happy with his ideas about purchased bread and a meatless diet. At one point there were even boarding houses of “Grahamites” but as Graham’s own ideas became more radical and vocal, and geared more towards abstinence than temperance, his follower lost interest and dispersed. But some carried on his ideals, one such person was John Harvey Kellogg

JH Kellogg took many of these ideas (vegetarianism, whole grains, exercise, fresh air, temperance, and abstinence) and applied it to the regiment at the Battle Creek Sanitarium as a way to gain a longer and healthier life. He was the chief medical officer of the sanitarium while his brother Will was the bookkeeper. He one-upped this with some interesting ideas about enemas, basically water followed by yogurt enemas. He also ascribed to the idea of using bland foods to curb sexual desires. Together with his brother they created a bland yet crunchy corn flake cereal in 1878 that would live on for years under the ubiquitous name of Corn Flakes. JH’s brother wanted to add sugar to better market the cereal but his brother was too busy trying to fight against the depleting effects of masturbation and sexual excess to see the business opportunity here. It’s also rumored that C.W. Post was a guest at the sanitarium and stole the recipe idea for the corn flake then went on to create the Post cereal empire. Will Kellogg would eventually go off on his own and create a company that would later be known at the Kellogg Company we know today. He and his brothers fought about it for years.

Kellogg was an even stronger advocate against masturbation and sexual excess than Graham. He not only believed that a diet and lifestyle stripped of stimulants would lower the desire to self-pollute, he also advocated things like special circumcisions and surgeries to prevent masturbation. He’s been quoted to recommend sewing a silver suture into the foreskin to prevent it from pulling back from the glans thus preventing erections. He also suggested using phenol, an acid, to curb the use to self-pleasure. He recommended everything from cages, administering blisters on genitalia and electric shock. This man would stop at nothing to stop you from rubbing one out. He was adamant in his cause because like Graham he believed that self-abuse, or venereal excess, as Graham called it, would lead to disease and insanity.

Kellogg’s cereal is slightly different today than in the early days. JH’s plain flakes of corn now have some sugar, malt, high fructose corn syrup and other ingredients. The company also makes sugar-laden cereals like Froot Loops and Cocoa Krispies. Graham’s crackers changed a lot after the company changed hands. The crackers are now made with white flour and contain sugar. I was quite fond of the cinnamon sugar covered ones when I was a kid. Reverend Graham would be horrified to see what is now considered a graham cracker, especially when marshmallows and chocolate bars are sandwiched between them. You can find healthier options made of whole grain with low or no sugar at health food stores but what you find in a grocery story is not the tool against onanism from back in the day. We’ve also thankfully learned that masturbation is healthy and can help with many of the ailments it was once blamed for.

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Onanism: From Coitus Interruptus to Self-Pleasure

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Merriam-Webster defines Onanism as 1. Masturbation 2. Coitus Interruptus 3. Self-gratification. Onanism at its most basic is the withdrawal of the penis in sexual intercourse thus ejaculating outside of the vagina. While the original use of the term was for coitus interruptus, it was more widely used in reference to masturbation. Use of this term became more complicated over the ages. The concept of Onanism was used to support the religious idea that masturbation is against God’s will. It was the impetus behind a great many anti-masturbation movements, some of which were fairly extreme. Onanism was derived from bible verse in the Old Testament, Genesis chapter 38 to be more precise. A little story about Onan and his dead brother’s wife.

That is the wife of his dead brother, not the dead wife of his brother… now that I’ve cleared that up the bible story is no less of an uncomfortable read.

Onan was the second son of Judah. Upon his elder brother Er’s death, he is ordered by his father to sleep with his late brother’s wife so that she may produce children. It was his duty as her brother-in-law to raise up offspring for his brother. Since Er was first born, the children he would have with his wife, Tamar, would be considered his late brother’s, not his. Onan apparently was not too happy about these kids he would be fathering not technically being his. He decided to get around this by sleeping with her but pulling out and “spilling his seed upon the ground.” The Lord was not too thrilled with this and supposedly killed him for it.

Oh, and Er died because he was “wicked in the sight of the lord” just like Onan. Seems like an issue in this family.

Before we move on to the wackiness that is getting killed by God for not fathering children with your brother’s wife, let’s talk about why this was a thing. It’s called a levirate marriage, Yibbum in Hebrew. The idea behind a levirate marriage is that a brother is obligated to marry his brother’s wife if said brother dies before producing children. The children produced by the union of the brother-in-law with his brother’s wife were then considered the children of the deceased brother. Since Er was the older brother, this meant that all rights and properties he had as eldest would pass on to his children, and the children his wife had with his brother, not passed on to Onan and his progeny. The origin of levirate marriage was most likely so that the widow would not be left without a husband to care for her and also to keep the widow within the confines of the tribe. It also assured that the son of the eldest child received the inheritance due him when the eldest child dies and not pass on to the next surviving sibling. Levirate marriage occurred in other cultures around the world in places like Turkey, Africa, Indonesia, and even England.

Onan seemed none-too happy to bear children with his brother’s wife that he would have to care for yet receive zero of the inheritance. Instead, he sort of half assed his obligation. He didn’t refuse to sleep with her but went through the motions and prevented pregnancy from occurring. The story continues with Tamar, Er’s widow, being promised Judah’s youngest son when he was old enough. Either she was tired of waiting or Judah reneged on his deal because Tamar felt she had to take things into her own hands to produce this heir. She disguised herself as a prostitute so she could trick Judah to lay with her thus producing an heir. He offers her a goat but will gladly pay her Tuesday for a roll in the hay today. She takes some of his possessions as collateral, which she uses later to prove that she didn’t technically prostitute herself since she never took the goat and the father is actually her husband’s father.

So what does this have to do with masturbation, you might ask? It’s sort of a loose interpretation by those reading the bible. Spill seed on ground became less about birth control and more about self-gratification. Spilling seed in any way that did not result in creating progeny was wicked in the eyes of God. It was first seen in writing about the perils of self-pollution in the early 18th century. 19th century proponents of anti-masturbation would use it often. People like Tissot, Kellogg, Kant, and even Twain wrote papers about the perils of masturbation. It wasn’t until the mid 20th century where studies by people like Kinsey, followed by the sexual revolution, changed people’s minds about Onansim.

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