In 1850, the New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal declared masturbation public enemy number one, warning: “Neither plague, nor war, nor smallpox, nor a crowd of similar evils, have resulted more disastrously for humanity than the habit of masturbation: it is the destroying element of civilized society.”
Children and adults were warned that masturbation was not only sinful, but very dangerous—sure to result in severe health consequences, including blindness, infertility, and insanity. Besides, these atrocities intoned, “normal” women has little sexual desire anyway.
In his Psychopathia Sexualis, published in 1886, German neurologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing declared what everyone already thought they knew: “If [a woman] is normally developed mentally and well-bred, her sexual desire is small. If this were not so, the whole world would become a brothel and marriage and a family impossible.” To have suggested that women enjoyed, indeed needed regular orgasmic release, would have been shocking to men and humiliating to most women. Perhaps it still is.
While the anti-masturbation frenzy has roots deep in Judeo-Christian history, it found unfortunate medical support in Simon André Tissot’s A Treatise on the Disease Produced by Onanism, published in 1758. Tissot apparently recognized the symptoms of syphilis and gonorrhea, which were considered a single disease at the time. But he misunderstood these symptoms as signs of semen depletion due to promiscuity, prostitution, and masturbation.
A century later, in 1858, a British gynecologist named Isaac Baker Brown (president of the Medical Society of London at the time) proposed that most women’s diseases were attributable to overexcitement of the nervous system, with the pudic nerve, which runs to the clitoris, being particularly culpable. He listed the eight stages of progressive disease triggered by female masturbation:
- Spinal irritation
- Hysterical epilepsy
- Cataleptic fits
- Epileptic fits
Baker Brown argued that surgical removal of the clitoris was the best way to prevent this fatal slide from pleasure to idiocy to death. After gaining considerable celebrity and performing an unknown number of clitorectomies, Baker Brown’s methods fell out of favor and he was expelled from the London Obstetrical Society in disgrace. Baker Brown subsequently went insane, and clitorectomy was discredited in British medical circles.
Unfortunately, Baker Brown’s writing had already had a significant impact on medical practices across the Atlantic. Clitorectomies continued to be performed in the United States well into the twentieth century as a cure for hysteria, nymphomania, and female masturbation. As late as 1936, Holt’s Diseases of Infancy and Childhood, a respected medical- school text, recommended surgical removal or cauterization of the clitoris as a cure for masturbation in girls.
By the middle of the twentieth century, as the procedure was finally falling into disrepute in the United States it was revived with a new rationale. Now, rather than a way to stomp out masturbation, surgical removal of large clitorises was recommended for cosmetic purposes.
Recent estimates by the World Health Organization suggest that more than 100 million girls and women are living with the consequences of genital mutilation.
Before the war on drugs, the war on terror, or the war on cancer, there was the war on female sexual desire. It’s a war that has been raging far longer than any other, and its victims number well into the billions by now. Like the others, it’s a war that can never be won, as the declared enemy is a force of nature. We may as well declare war on the cycles of the moon.
If psychiatrist Mary Jane Sherfey was correct when she wrote, “The strength of the drive determines the force required to suppress it” (an observation downright Newtonian in its irrefutable simplicity), then what are we to make of the force brought to bear on the suppression of the female libido?
Sex at Dawn
Ryan and Jethá 2010