Princess Honey Bee is a kink blogger, and blogs about Bondage, Discipline, Sadism and Masochism at https://princessbhive.com/about/ . She has been in the BDSM lifestyle for over 15 years, and is a former professor of sociology.
To say that mental health problems were grossly misunderstood in the 19th century would be a vast understatement. Symptoms we would today associate with conditions such as schizophrenia and severe bipolar disorder were lumped in with epileptic seizures, cataleptic or "absence" seizures, and the symptoms of a condition known as hysteria.
Although "hysteria" had been used for centuries to refer to instances of mass panic or collective emotional distress, in the mid to late 19th century it was used as something of a catch-all to describe a wide range of symptoms for which the medical community had no other explanation. Hysteria often included symptoms such as pain with no apparent physical cause, stomach ailments, fatigue, and what would later be described as neurosis or psychosomatic illness. Both men and women could be diagnosed with hysteria, but women were certainly considered far more susceptible to it. Although it was regarded as largely a mysterious disease with no single cause or solution, its connection to sexual misbehavior and disobedience in women was commonly cited.
According to Mary Putnam Jacobi, in 1888, childless women were particularly susceptible to hysteria:
In cases where there is no physical impediment to conception, this is often purposely avoided from mere moral perversity. The patients profess to hate children, are in despair if they become pregnant, and, as already noted, not infrequently commit abortion, under the influence of the intense mental depression to which a pregnancy subjects them. When such women nevertheless have children, the hysteria, if not too profound, may be cured.
Not long after this, the etiology and treatment of the supposed condition would be explained differently with the advent of psychotherapy. However, the central theme of women suffering mentally and physically as a result of their resistance to socially prescribed norms of marriage, sexuality, and childbearing would remain.
For these mysterious and confounding conditions, some physicians had already devised a cure: clitoridectomy.
In 1866, Isaac Baker Brown had published his text, "On the Curability of Certain Forms of Insanity, Epilepsy, Catalepsy, and Hysteria in Females." His surgical procedure included, mercifully but dangerously, the use of chloroform as anesthesia. This was followed by gripping the clitoral tissue with forceps and cutting it away. Cauterization with hot metal tools often followed, along with scarification of the labia minora, if not the entire vulva.
Although many physicians adopted the practice, Brown himself was subject to criticism and eventually removed from the profession. The reason seems to have been his practice of blackmailing his patients. Since revelation of the need for a woman to have the procedure done would imply that she was difficult, barren, or even immoral, husbands would pay dearly to have the information kept secret. To the tune of £200, the equivalent of at least £16,000 today.
A diagnosis of insanity or hysteria did not necessarily imply that a woman was evil, but it was linked to a deeply troubling health problem that stalked the population at the time. No one was immune. It attacked both men and women. Where it struck, it left in its wake a whole host of serious afflictions, including insanity, hysteria, and death. This dangerous enemy went by many names - onanism; self-abuse; the solitary vice. Yes, that unpardonable breach of virtue - masturbation.
To be discovered masturbating by one's parents would lead directly to stern lectures and punishments. The medical and religious establishments agreed that if allowed to continue, the sin of self-indulgence would lead to other unacceptable behavior. Young men and women would become overcome by desire, and engage in fornication, or worse, prostitution. They would be ruined for marriage. Almost as bad, they could become seriously ill and perhaps die.
At the forefront of the charge against masturbation in the United States were Sylvester Graham and John Harvey Kellogg - both known for advocating a bland diet, resulting in the graham cracker and Kellogg's corn flakes, respectively. The bland diet was just one in a series of recommendations made for controlling one's sexual urges. They also advocated circumcision for boys, the use of restraints and vigorous exercise - the chief inspiration for the founding of the Young Men's Christian Association.
Keeping the mind free of salaciousness was a key component of Kellogg's regimen for health:
Purity of life depends upon purity of mind; and the only way to secure the first is by the cultivation of the second. A mind left to revel in voluptuousness will sooner or later lead the possessor to overt acts of sin unless the restraint of circumstances is more than ordinarily strong; and even if this is not the case, the baleful influence of the mental vice will be indelibly stamped upon the physical as well as the mental character of the individual, giving rise to positive and even incurable disease.
For young women, a propensity to masturbation was perhaps even more alarming, representing as it did the debasement of that most noble of Victorian creatures, the future mother. Any women so polluted could never be fit to perform her sacred duty in propagating her species. The physician George Napheys warned the public that such young women were in danger of falling into prostitution. (A woman considered "unfit for marriage" would have had few other choices, but this is, of course, beside the point.)
We refer to the disastrous consequences of soul and body to which young girls expose themselves by exciting and indulging morbid passions. Years ago, Miss Catherine E. Beecher sounded a note of warning to the mothers of America on this secret vice, which leads their daughters to the grave, the madhouse, or, worse yet, the brothel. Surgeons have recently been forced to devise painful operations to hinder young girls from thus ruining themselves and we must confess that, in its worst form, it is absolutely incurable.
The "painful operation" Napheys refers to is of course, clitoridectomy. In a severe case of chronic masturbation, a surgeon might be called on to remove the offending organ. Kellogg describes young women prone to "self-abuse" as suffering from nymphomania, and suggests that: "Cool sitz baths; the cool enema; a spare diet ; the application of blisters and other irritants to the sensitive parts of the sexual organs, the removal of the clitoris and nymphae, constitute the most proper treatment."
The purity and virtue of young wives and husbands was a subject of intense debate and all manner of reactionary recommendations. Masturbation, non-procreative sex within marriage, including the most rudimentary forms of birth control, and even a long engagement, causing excessive sexual excitement, were considered highly injurious to the health.
In 1906, Joseph Richardson Parke noted that in previous times,
the interesting practice of infibulation was resorted to. This consisted in drawing the foreskin of the male forward, over the head of the penis, and passing a ring, or wire, through it, thus effectually preventing the act of copulation. The too amorously inclined young lady was treated in a somewhat similar manner, the lips of her mischief-maker being pierced from side to side, and firmly secured with a clasp, or lock. The latter practice, from its undoubted efficacy, suggests reviving and making it a portion of our modern sacrament of marriage. It ought to prove a source of wonderful comfort to the jealous young husband to know that the frisky organ, which he possesses a not unnatural desire to retain exclusive control of, is securely locked, and the key in his vest pocket.
In a relatively short period of time, Sigmund Freud and his contemporaries would propose a new approach to diagnosing and treating insanity, in which it was not excessive sexual urges that caused mental illness, but the repression of "normal" sexual feelings. Until then, the health of nations depended on maintaining strict control over everyone's frisky organs.
Essays on Hysteria, Brain-tumor, and Some Other Cases of Nervous Disease, Mary Putnam Jacobi, January 1, 1888 G.P. Putnam's Sons
On the curability of certain forms of insanity, epilepsy, catalepsy, and hysteria in females, Isaac Baker Brown, January 1, 1866 Robert Hardwicke
Ladies' guide in health and disease, John Harvey Kellogg, January 1, 1902 Modern Medicine Publishing Company
The Physical Life of Woman: Advice to the Maiden, Wife, and Mother, George Henry Napheys, January 1, 1890 David McKay
Human Sexuality: A Medico-literary Treatise on the Laws, Anomalies, and Relations of Sex, with Especial Reference to Contrary Sexual Desire ... Joseph Richardson Parke, January 1, 1906 Professional Publishing Company
If you would like to submit an article, please fill out a submission on the Contact page