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Ryan And Jetha On The War On Masturbation

November 17, 2013

Excerpted from Sex at Dawn, by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha:

The merciless campaign against masturbation was just one aspect of the West’s long struggle against the “sinful” yearnings within human sexuality. We’ve discussed the so-called witches burned alive for daring to assert or even suggest their eroticism, and doctors like Isaac Baker Brown, who justified barbaric, dangerous surgery [clitorectomy] as a cure for nascent nymphomania. These were not exceptional cases… Following the advice of such prominent “experts” as John Harvey Kellogg, many parents… subjected their children to brutal physical and mental abuse to stamp out any sign of sexuality. Otherwise reasonable, if confused, people ardently believed that masturbation truly was “the destroying element of civilized society,” in the words of the New Orleans Medical & Surgical Journal.

Though widely considered to be one of the leading sex educators of his day, Kellogg proudly claimed never to have had intercourse with his wife in over four decades of marriage. But he did require a handsome male orderly to give him an enema every morning—an indulgence his famously high-fiber breakfasts should have made unnecessary. As John Money explains in his study of pseudoscientific anti-sex crusaders, The Destroying Angel, Kellogg would probably be diagnosed as a klismaphile today. Klismaphilia is “an anomaly of sexual and erotic functioning traceable to childhood, in which an enema substitutes for regular sexual intercourse. For the klismaphile,” writes Money, “putting the penis in the vagina is experienced as hard work, dangerous, and possibly as repulsive.”

As a medical doctor, Kellogg claimed the moral authority to instruct parents on the proper sexual education of their children. If you’re unfamiliar with the writings of Kellogg and others like him, their gloating disdain for basic human eroticism is chilling and unmistakable. In his best-selling Plain Facts for Old and Young (written on his sexless honeymoon in 1888), Kellogg offered parents guidance for dealing with their sons’ natural erotic self-exploration in a section entitled “Treatment for Self-Abuse and its Effects.”

“A remedy which is almost always successful in small boys,” he wrote, “is circumcision.” He stipulated that, “The operation should be performed by a surgeon without administering an anaesthetic, as the brief pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind, especially if it be connected with the idea of punishment…”

If circumcising a struggling, terrified boy without anesthesia wasn’t quite what a parent had in mind, Kellogg recommended “the application of one or more silver sutures in such a way as to prevent erection. The prepuce, or foreskin, is drawn forward over the glans, and the needle to which the wire is attached is passed through from one side to the other. After drawing the wire through, the ends are twisted together and cut off close. It is now impossible for an erection to occur…” Parents were assured that sewing their son’s penis into its foreskin “acts as a most powerful means of overcoming the disposition to resort to the practice [of masturbation].”

Circumcision remains prevalent in the United States, though varying greatly by region, ranging from about 40 percent of newborns circumcised in western states to about twice that in the Northeast. This widespread procedure, rarely a medical necessity, has its roots in the anti-masturbation campaigns of Kellogg and his like-minded contemporaries. As Money explains, “Neonatal circumcision crept into American delivery rooms in the 1870s and 1880s, not for religious reasons and not for reasons of health or hygiene, as is commonly supposed, but because of the claim that, later in life, it would prevent irritation that would cause the boy to become a masturbator.”

Lest you think Kellogg was interested only in the sadistic torture of boys, in the same book he soberly advises the application of carbolic acid to the clitorises of little girls to teach them not to touch themselves. Kellogg and his like-minded contemporaries demonstrate that sexual repression is a “malady that considers itself the remedy,” to paraphrase Karl Kraus’s dismissal of psychoanalysis. His smug satisfaction in tormenting children is striking and disturbing, but Kellogg’s “no child left alone” policy is anything but unusual or limited to ancient history. The anti-masturbation measures quoted above were published in 1888, but more than eighty years were to pass before the American Medical Association declared, in 1972, “Masturbation is a normal part of adolescent sexual development and requires no medical management.” But still, the war continues. As recently as 1994, pediatrician Joycelyn Elders was forced from her post as Surgeon General of the United States for simply asserting that masturbation “is part of human sexuality.” The suffering caused by centuries of war on masturbation is beyond calculation. But this we know: all the suffering, every bit of it, was for nothing. Absolutely nothing.

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2 Comments
  1. concerned cynic permalink

    Roman Catholic moral theology condemned masturbation as a grave sin. Masturbation was not so much immoral per se, as it violated the following two moral principles:

    1. Only married couples could engage in sexual acts.
    2. The only morally valid sexual act that culminated in ejaculation was PIV between married couples.
    3. Any semen released by a man had to be deposited in his wife’s vagina.

    I am confident that in the English speaking world before the 1950s, everybody paid lip service to these rules, even the atheists. Serious deviations from these rules was deemed the domain of the sex worker.

    • concerned cynic permalink

      Hence Kellogg does not surprise me at all. His hatred of masturbation was simply an extreme version of business as usual in those days. But no form of Christianity agreed that routine circumcision was a valid way to discourage masturbation. In recent decades, however, a growing number of USA evangelical lay people have been justifying routine circumcision by arguing that God would not have commanded the Jews to do something bad or worthless. This amounts to deliberately overlooking Acts and Paul’s Letters.

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