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AskUs: Why did the public become concerned with teenagers masturbating?

So one of our readers asked us this question the other day: Why did the public become concerned with teenagers masturbating?

ANSWER

Much of this answer draws on two key texts: Lawrence Stone’s The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England 1500-1800 and from a French/European context Phillippe Ariès & Georges Duby’s History of Private Life Volumes Three and Four.

Before the late 1600s, the family life was almost unrecognizable to modern eyes. As Stone puts it:

“The family, therefore, was an open-ended, low-keyed, unemotional, authoritarian institution which served certain essential political, economic, sexual, procreative and nurturant purposes. It was also very short-lived, being frequently dissolved by the death of husband or wife, or the death or early departure from the home of the children.”

But beginning in the late seventeenth century (the late 1600’s), changes in family life and marriage began to occur in the middle and upper classes, moving towards a more recognizably modern style. The most profound of these changes was the shift in attitudes towards children and the rise of individuality.

Part of this shift came from the identification of ‘children’ as a “special status group, distinct from adults, with [their] own special institutions, such as schools, and [their] own information circuits, from which adults now increasingly tried to exclude knowledge about sex and death.” The idea of children as a special status group started to develop all the way back in the middle of the Renaissance with the philosophy of humanism, but from the 1500s onward, an increasingly larger proportion of children from all classes began to go to school. Many of these schools were church sponsored or affiliated. In England, this meant they were often controlled by the Anglican Church, in Germany by the Lutheran Church and in France in Italy, the Catholic Church.

All three shared the Renaissance ideals of the purity and innocence of the child, which, during the Reformation, became a “deadly fear of the liability of children to corruption and sin.” The threat of religious, intellectual and political chaos set off by the Reformation “induced moral theologians…to agree that the only hope of preserving social order was to concentrate on the right disciplining and education of children.” Thus, in a particularly convoluted way, the rise of flogging and spanking at home and in school became the first sign of increasing respect and love of children.

However, the BIG influence, the nuclear detonation in a sense, was the publication in 1710, of an anonymous publication titled ONANIA OR, the Heinous Sin OF Self-Pollution, AND All its Frightful Consequences by a clergyman. It was an amazingly resounding success, in a way that would still be considered successful today. By 1760, fifty years later, 38,000 copies had been sold in nearly twenty English editions, and it had rapidly been translated into French, German, Italian and Dutch, and was wildly successful in those editions as well, despite, as Lawrence Stone puts it, its “vapid moralizing and implausible stories of resulting disease:”

“IN [boys] it has been the Cause of fainting Fits and Epilepsies; in others of Consumptions; and many Young Men who were strong and lusty before they gave themselves over to this vice, have been worn out by it. In Women SELF-POLLUTION if frequently practiced… makes ‘em look pale, swarthy and haggard. It frequently is the Cause of Hysterick Fits, and sometimes, by draining away all the radical Moisture, Consumption.”

Indeed, by the late 1700’s, the tract and the idea had convinced even scientists and doctors. One such doctor, the internationally celebrated Dr. Tissot gave the masturbation problem medical recognition. He cited cases of

“masturbating youths – and maidens – falling victims to lassitude, epilepsy, convulsions, boils, disorders of the digestive, respiratory or nervous systems, and even death…”This alarming statement from one of the most distinguished doctors in Europe was the start of a growing onslaught on masturbation in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which has been compared by one scholar with the witchcraft persecutions of the sixteenth century or with modern anti-Semitism.

A final reason for the sudden rise in concerns over masturbation came from the fact that children and adults now had more privacy to themselves to do the things they wanted to do. Whereas houses prior to the mid-1600s had been designed as a series of connecting rooms through which you had to walk to get anywhere (for example, to get to the toilet in the middle of the night you might have to go through other bedrooms), houses in the late 1600’s onward utilized corridors and hallways, which were invented with privacy in mind. Rooms now branched off from central corridors that people could walk through.

However, these innovations only applied to the upper and well-to-do middle classes, who could afford to purchase multiple rooms or have their houses redesigned. Up until the middle of the 1800’s it was still common for the lower classes to share bed amongst an entire family. For example, in Essex, court records recount a man having intercourse with a girl while her sister was in the same bed and of a case in which the girl’s mother was in the same bed–and “Francis Place, who was born in 1771, was still sleeping with his two-year-old brother in a bed alongside that of their parents. When he grew up, for the first nine years of their married life he and wife lived, ate, slept and worked in a single room, during which time they conceived three children.”

Sources

This blog post: Bless with one hand and curse with the other: How Marriage for Love became Good and Masturbation became Bad

and this one how a 14th Century Catholic Philosophy Helped Create Pornography

[1] Family, Sex, and Marriage: 1500 To 1800 — Lawrence Stone

[2] The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution — Faramerz Dabhoiwala

[3] A New Description of Merryland. — Thomas Stretzer *

[4] A History of Private Life, Volume III, Passions of the Renaissance

[5] A History of Private Life, Vol. 4: From the Fires of Revolution to the Great War

[6] ONANIA OR, the Heinous Sin OF Self-Pollution, AND All its Frightful Consequences

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