If you were a man living in the Victorian-era and you happened to be experiencing anxiety, irritability or a loss of confidence, a visit to the doctor might lead to a series of embarrassing questions about your love life.
An honest and/or brave man might confess to dabbling in the occasional sport of self-love. This confession would undoubtedly unleash a diagnosis of "spermatorrhoea" — a so-called "illness" that sparked an influx of anti-masturbation devices that looked exactly like penis torture chambers.
Next, your doctor might insist you purchase an anti-masturbation device such as "jugum penis", which was a jagged metal ring that attached to the base of the penis with a screw. Its sole purpose was to stop an unwanted erection because it inflicted so much pain on the poor man that self-love was out of the question.
Manufacturers rushed to construct horrific devices as doctors tried to cure their patients of what was known as the male version of female "hysteria". Why all the fuss? While it's widely agreed today that masturbation doesn't have any dangerous side effects, in the 19th century it was seen as a serious threat to mental and physical health.
Women were also impacted by devices designed especially for them; some were prescribed cloth and leather chastity belts — but these were far less brutal than the devices made for men.
Many physicians believed masturbation led to mental illness, while others went as far as saying it could kill you.
Invented 139 years ago this month, the jugum penis was designed to stop "night-time emissions" (wet dreams) with the idea that if you got an erection in your sleep, the device would cause you so much pain it would wake you up.
Let's take a look at the most common anti-masturbation devices and discover whether spermatorrhoea actually existed or it was a way to shame men who indulged in the "solitary vice".
In the eyes of the Victorian-era doctors, there was only way to stop the spread of "spermatorrhoea": men needed to stop masturbating. It was as simple and as complicated as that.
Masturbation for men has always had a difficult history, dogged by shame and embarrassment. "Self-love" was seen as an ultimate evil, but beyond the moralistic arguments, many physicians thought every orgasm drained a man's energy.
Interesting note: We still see this today when we read about coaches insisting athletes abstain from sex to preserve their energy.
From metal rings fixed to the base of the penis to anti-masturbation corsets, men were shamed into not touching themselves.
Married men were warned by doctors to limit the amount of sex they were having, and unmarried men were urged to conserve their "essence" by avoiding sex altogether, particularly masturbation.
Historian Dr John Woolf, a Victorian specialist and author of The Wonders, told news.com.au masturbation was a huge concern.
"It became increasingly mainstream to believe that masturbation — aka the 'solitary vice'— could lead to mental and physical disorders, including insanity. This was a medical and a moral concern, which had roots in the 18th century following the publication of two tracts: 'Omania or the Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution and Onanism' by French physician Samuel Tissot," Dr Woolf said.
"The fear of masturbation seeped into medical textbooks, marriage guides and advice on morals and manners … but this did not mean that people avoided that secret vice. I've come across Victorian porn that has made me blush, and I come from the generation who reached sexual maturity alongside internet pornography!"
By the mid-19th century, medical professionals put theories out into the field that would be highly contested today.
"In treating on this highly important subject, it is our chief aim to show, by incontrovertible proofs, the manifold evils society endure by licentiousness and unrestrained indulgence of the passions. Sages and moral writers of every age, have described in glowing terms the direful and awful result of Masturbation — a passion that captivates the imagination of its victim imperceptibly, step by step, till every moral feeling is obliterated, and all the physical powers destroyed. You who are addicted to this solitary vice, 'lay not the flattering unction to your souls,' that you are not aware of the enormity of the act," wrote the author of one medical work.
DID SPERMATORRHOEA EXIST?
Victorian physician Albert Haye, who wrote The Science of Life, described spermatorrhoea as "the most dire, excruciating and deadly maladies to which the human frame is subject".
According to Dr Woolf, the word spermatorrhoea was originally coined by French physician Claude-Francoise Lallemard to describe involuntary seminal loss, usually via "nocturnal emissions" (again, wet dreams!) It was basically the word for the male version of female "hysteria".
"Spermatorrhoea was believed to be a serious medical condition causing blushing, crying, breathlessness, melancholy and sensitivity. Masturbation was the primary cause, and impotence was the result. Spermatorrhoea was a popular diagnosis between 1830s and 1860s but then became unfashionable and rare," Dr Woolf said.
Ejaculation was seen as a sexual dysfunction, and because semen was seen as a man's "vital heat", spermatorrhoea was believed to lead to frightening bodily effects.
The symptoms, according to physician John Skelton, included loss of one's confidence, becoming fretful, loss of dignity, being generally disagreeable and somewhat of a hypochondriac.
Most physicians agreed the primary cause of spermatorrhoea was the vice of masturbation. (Others suspected it was caused by reading too much literature and sleeping on soft feather beds).
The main cure for spermatorrhoea was abstinence, and one of the best ways to achieve that was by wearing an anti-masturbation device. And some were truly barbaric.
THE STEPHENSON SPERMATIC TRUSS
Created in 1876, this was a device that attached to the penis via a pouch that was then strapped to your leg. There were upgrades of the truss that included a steel spiky lining, guaranteed to stop any erection. There were also versions that included a mini-cage that didn't do much apart from stopping a hand from having any contact with the penis.
FOUR-POINTED URETHRAL RING
This ring was invented to inflict as much pain as possible as soon as a man gets an erection. It was similar to the jugum penis but said to be even more painful due to the four steel spikes.
THE BOWEN DEVICE
Another way to stop those annoying "night-time emissions" and "self-abuse" was the Bowen device, which consisted of a metal penis cap attached to small cables to be clamped onto pubic hair. If the man had an erection, the device would pull on the pubic hair, causing him pain.
The Bowen device was patented in 1889, and it was described as this: "When a discharge is likely to occur, the device is elevated with the organ, and the connections are drawn sufficiently taut as to pull the hair, the effect of which is to awaken the sleeper, who is thereby enabled to prevent or check the discharge."
Also known as a "pollutions ring", the jugum penis featured a steel clip with serrated teeth that was attached to the base of the penis. If a man had an erection while wearing the jugum penis, he would be in a world of pain.
A WOMAN ALSO INVENTED A PENIS TORTURE DEVICE
In 1908, a woman invented an anti-masturbation device for men. Ellen E. Perkins created a cloth body suit with metal plates. When asked why she created her device she explained," It is a deplorable but well-known fact that one of the most common causes of insanity, imbecility and feeble-mindedness, especially in youth, is due to masturbation or self-abuse."
THE SAD STORY OF GEORGE DRYSDALE
Dr Woolf tells us the story of a man named George Drysdale (1824-1904) who captures the true fear young men felt about masturbation.
"George Drysdale was the fourth son of the city treasurer and Tory leader on Edinburgh council, Sir William Drysdale. George's mother, Lady Drysdale, moved in literary and scientific circles. In around 1835, George discovered masturbation — known as his 'secret shame' — and at the age of 15 was indulging in the habit 2-3 times a day for about a year. He became increasingly convinced that his wanking would lead to a mental and physical breakdown. When he went to Glasgow University in 1841, he began to have wet dreams (or nocturnal emissions), and he became terrified that he was heading towards madness," Dr Woolf said.
"In 1843 he left university and a year later he faked his own death! He needed to get away from his shame and his family. While living secretly in Hungary, he underwent a series of operations to cauterise his penis: to deaden the nerve endings by inserting up his penis a thin metal rod coated in a caustic substance. He submitted himself to this procedure seven or eight times between 1844-1846. He eventually came out of hiding, revealing he had never really died, but his problem was still not cured. He found the best solution to masturbation was sleeping with prostitutes."
"Now, George's masturbation had caused him considerable torment and pain, but he ultimately turned this negative into a positive when he began working on a book — Physical, Sexual and Natural Religion (1854) — which linked free thought and free love. George had found his own personal sexual liberation and printed his thoughts; he advocated contraception and taught that sexual lust was natural," Dr Woolf said.
There are no records on how many men were subjected to the shame and torture of the anti-masturbation devices. It wasn't until the end of the 19th century when Dr James Paget questioned the very existence of spermatorrhoea that the word began to disappear from prominence, and men were most gratefully informed that masturbating was not bad for one's physical and mental health after all.