The Evils of "Self-Abuse"

Throughout the 19th century, it was widely believed in western society that masturbation had destructive effects on the body and mind. As the public obsession with morality consumed social and medical thought, masturbation or "self-abuse" was targeted as a major social problem among youth, particularly males. Unlike sexual intercourse, masturbation could not be understood as a rational function. It was feared that the inappropriate desire and lack of self-control expressed by masturbation would lead to disability, insanity, and even death.

In the 18th century madhouse, insane people were frequently observed masturbating. Combined with the Victorian focus on moral reform and the asylum movement, masturbation became directly associated with insanity. "Self-abuse" was both socially unacceptable and medically dangerous, so extreme measures were taken to ensure young men refrained from touching themselves. In the 19th century, many young men were committed to asylums as a result of masturbation to receive treatment for the behavior. Mechanical restraints, surgery, and physical discipline were commonly used to prevent masturbation, and the physical and mental deterioration it was thought to cause.

Like many physicians in the 19th century, Dr. R. Maurice Bucke believed in the theory that there was a direct relationship between masturbation and insanity. At the London Asylum, Dr. Bucke trusted that insanity could be treated and even cured by surgery. He treated masturbation by "wiring" male patients to stop the habit. Wiring was the process by which a silver wire ring was surgically inserted through the foreskin, making it impossible to masturbate without pain or injury. Once patients had been conditioned not to touch themselves as a result of the procedure, the wire could be removed to allow for procreative (and socially acceptable) sexual activity.

Although inappropriate sexual expression was commonly observed in the mentally ill, it was inaccurately identified as a cause of insanity in the 19th century. It was also during this period that male circumcision became popular in western culture, largely motivated by its perceived preventative effect on masturbation. While masturbation has since been identified as a normal and healthy behavior, male circumcision remains a common practice in western world, though it no longer has any correlation to mental health.