05 June 2012

The Victorian Age: Circumcision Curbs Masturbation

Circumcision by David Gollaher, 2000, Excerpts

As an omnibus procedure, effective against dozens of widely feared yet poorly understood disorders, circumcision was inevitably enlisted in the late-Victorian war on masturbation. Anglo-American culture was notoriously ill at ease with human sexuality. Indeed, medical thought in the late nineteenth century contained one central principle about male sexuality. The governing assumption was that man’s sexual impulse was by nature aggressive, dangerous, destructive, and indeed the most subversive of human appetites. Just how imperfectly the bonds of work, culture, and society held male lust in check was apparent in the cities, with their rising rates of illegitimate births and epidemics of venereal disease.

In ages past, children’s tendency to play with their genitals had provoked little serious concern; but amidst a general shift in sexual attitudes during the decades of the nineteenth century, popular views of masturbation darkened. Since the Enlightenment, doctors in Western Europe and America had occasionally identified masturbation as a cause of illness. In the course of the nineteenth century it was linked to madness, idiocy, epilepsy, and a multitude of other conditions, all bad.

Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon

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