The practice of punishing the perpetrator of the act of masturbation is one that can be traced in documented form to the time of the Roman Empire.
The matriarchal society that was a feature of Roman life, tended to view male masturbation as an unwelcome, undesirable act, directly affecting procreation, so important to the future of the Empire.
During the first century AD, Christianity defined the act as a ‘Mortal Sin’ and the spread of Christianity brought with it the firm belief that self-abuse should be strongly discouraged in a Christian household. Even today the Catholic Church still categorises self-abuse as a ‘venal and mortal sin’.
Archbishop Borders of Baltimore, in his 1987 pastoral, ‘On Human Sexuality’, writes ‘Authentic human sexuality should open one to another in a deep and abiding relationship. It is neither unitive (sic.) nor procreative, and is merely sexual actuation with very little true sexual meaning’.
In 1992 Father Mateo wrote on the Internet: ‘In itself, masturbation is a mortal sin because it negates the whole purpose of our most sacred powers, the power to fashion family and procreate human life.’
That then is the view of God and the punishments distributed by Priests throughout history have been many and varied. In Ireland boys were regularly caned and whipped in addition to more normal religious impositions. Irish parents thrashed their male offspring when evidence of self-abuse was discovered, and the same scenario is echoed through many other countries of the Catholic world. What emerges from this investigation is the surprising fact that punishments for masturbation have changed very little over the years and, moreover, that it has been predominantly the female in the household who has been more tasked to seek out and deal with the male self-abuser.
Punishment for self-abuse was at its height during the Victorian era and much of it was delivered by the Nanny, Governess or indeed by other female members of the household staff. In most cases the females were spinsters of mature age and the possibility of their being somewhat disenchanted or even unaware of sexual pleasures, only serves to explain their particular preference in dealing with young male abusers in their charge, by means of potions, restraints and canes. In public schools of the time masturbation was not condoned and discovery of an offender would earn him a severe thrashing as described by an author of the time, Edward Whittaker in his ‘Memoirs of an Eton Housemaster’; “Use of the cane and birch was widespread and the cane was administered by both Staff and Prefects. Offences were the usual acts of high-spirited boys, which led to class or dormitory disruption, lack of hygiene, failure to meet academic standards and general disobedience. These would be promptly and properly punished with a number of strokes from the cane on the tight trousers of the bending boy. The birch was reserved for more serious offences such as stealing or self-abuse, and was administered on the bare backside of the unfortunate pupil, as he lay firmly secured across the birching block. Only the Headmaster flogged with this implement, which was harsh in the extreme!
The most common punishments for this ‘crime’ throughout history were physical denial by various means and flagellation. As remarked on before, more often than not, this was administered by a female to a male in the first flush of puberty. I’m not going to dwell on the psychological damage that was often inflicted as a result of this situation, suffice to say there are many females who are grateful for the fact that it did.
References to the punishment of masturbation prior to the 18th century are few and far between. It may be assumed that in the Middle Ages, Jacobean and Elizabethan eras, a more liberal attitude was adopted by a society which regarded such activities as normal, however it is also true that males were far more likely to be experiencing full heterosexual intercourse often from the tender ages of nine years old. There are many accounts of royal marriages being arranged for couples barely in their teens. In addition the Reformation of Tudor times destroyed the Catholic teachings and spread a somewhat barren moral wasteland before the confused and increasingly apathetic population.
The earliest reference to the use of punishment to deter the masturbator can be found in an account of the Roman household by Peter Moorview in his book, ‘The Roman Citizen’, a factual description of domestic life at the time of the Roman Empire. According to the author, many of the young male slaves had their penis ringed with iron or their urethra pierced to discourage erections and to avoid the possibility of them attempting rape. Other male slaves found they were obliged to carry out ‘bedroom duties’ (sic) as well as their normal domestic chores within the house:
The frequent absence of the Master of the house, (eg. in the case of military personnel), often led to illicit and furtive sexual activity between slave and Mistress and in order to ensure confidentiality, slaves were subjected to the most horrendous acts of cruelty to ensure their obedience and silence. Well-endowed and virile young slaves were much in demand and were available at public auctions to privileged sections of Roman society. Slaves purchased solely for the purpose of providing sexual gratification for their Mistress often had their genitalia permanently restrained within purpose made metal chastity belts to prevent unauthorised masturbation. Those free to masturbate would face a severe flogging with a rod if discovered and subsequently their genitals would be bound in bandages soaked in a mixture of herbs and peppers, which inflicted excruciating pain on the treated parts. Persistent offenders were generally discarded and punished by castration and removal of their tongues to ensure their secrets would never be disclosed.
Before 1700, medical references to the harmful effects of masturbation were scarce. In the eighteenth century two works, Contra: or the Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution, and all its frightful sequences, (by an anonymous author) and Samuel Tissot’s Treatise on the Diseases Produced by Onanism introduced concepts that a certain Sylvester Graham adopted and helped to popularize.
Tissot’s claim that loss of semen under any condition caused health hazards spread rapidly throughout the world’s medical profession and Graham’s Lecture to Young Men (1834) was the first of its kind and launched a whole genre of medical tracts on masturbation, known then as ‘self-abuse’ or ‘self-pollution’. In America, where he lectured, a peculiar flowering of myths involving masturbation took place during the 19th century. The predictable culprits… Victorian prudery, evangelical Christianity, entrepreneurialism are all part of the picture, and Graham, knowing his audience, and with a solid grasp of rhetorical devices made claims that no one could disprove. Or rather, would disprove. According to Graham a masturbator grows up ‘with a body full of disease, and with a mind in ruins, the loathsome habit still tyrannising over him, with the inexorable imperiousness of a fiend of darkness.’
Hardly surprising then that fond parents, Nannies, and Governess’, the world over, felt justified in meting out the most horrific punishments to save their charges from the devastating medical prognoses, and the hell-fire that lay ahead for the unfortunate self-abuser when he was finally laid to rest! Thus, the scene was set for the next 100 years or so…. ‘Punish or He’s Damned! …. was to be the cry.
Treatments for self-abuse, both physical and dietary abounded. Dr John Harvey Kellog, (brother of the founder of the Kellog’s Corn Flakes Company) suggested: ‘A remedy which is almost always effective in small boys is circumcision…. 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…. In females, the author has found the application of pure carbolic acid to the clitoris an excellent means of allaying the abnormal excitement…’ the chance of disease and death’.
General medical opinion weighed in with their recipe for healthy minds and bodies. Sexual moderation (no more than 12 times a year for married couples), exercise (to help prevent nocturnal emissions), no masturbation and a proper diet (to facilitate free peristaltic action of the bowels).
Masturbation led to madness and nocturnal emissions probably would as well. Spermatorrhoea was recognised as a disease, causing complete lack of energy and exhaustion. Rapid dissemination of these theories on the dangers of self-abuse among the upper and middle class citizens of Great Britain in particular during the 19th century led to an explosion in the sale of implements of correction, chastity devices, potions and lotions and increased demand for the services of Governess’ and Nannies to provide 24 hour observation of their charges and to provide the necessary moral guidance, physical treatment, and punishment that would be needed to educate their children and save them from a fate worse than death.
The Governess or Nanny used a wide variety of what we today would consider torture devices as punishment. Some people may still consider masturbation to be a sin, but at least boys are not punished in this way in this day and time. Submissive/masochistic men may allow someone to restrain them from masturbation (a wide variety of male chastity devices exist) or allow themselves to be punished for masturbation, but they have that choice and usually derive pleasure from the experience. However, young boys in the past must have been terrified of leaving evidence of masturbation or even nocturnal emissions, which they had no control over.