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The Victorians and Masturbation Hysteria

The Victorians and Masturbation Hysteria - Sh! Women's Store

As we hope you remember, this May is Masturbation Month! In a world where 44% of women will happily admit to using a sex toy (and for the other 56%, Masturbation May might be a nice time to start!) it’s hard to imagine strapping a device to your genitals to actively prevent your going to town on yourself. Or, even more distressingly, being deliberately mutilated to prevent masturbation.

In the Victorian era, male anti-masturbation devices were rife.

Jugum Penis

Inventions from the 1800’s such as the Jugum Penis, designed to torture wayward male genitals into submission, were once relatively common. There was also the Spermatic Truss, a sort of permanent cold shower, and crackers (the idea being that bland food would bore your genitals into submission).    

For female masturbators, there were less weird chastity devices but more in the way of clitorectemies and acid burns.

However, at the same time Doctors were torturing patients fun parts to prevent them sprouting hairy palms they were giving women ‘hysterical paroxysms’ with weird steam punk vibrators to cure their ‘hysteria.'

So what exactly was going on here? Were the Doctors so utterly clueless that they innocently masturbated patients to orgasm, with their dicks innocently trussed to prevent spermatorrhea (basically emitting too much sperm which was supposed to destroy your mind and body).

Part of the confusion comes from a strange mix of competing medical theories.

In Ancient Rome Galen thought that hysteria was caused by women retaining sperm (and that men and women both produced seed). It was also thought that a woman's uterus could drift around her body causing havock. What would solve this? The mighty penis!

Nuns and widows who didn’t get sex on the regular were thought to be the most susceptible to hysteria. A treatment for wandering wombs was massage and there are also medieval cases of physicians and midwives applying oils to or rubbing the genitals to restore sick women.

From these kind of beliefs and practices evolved a practice of Physicians giving women a ‘hysterical paroxysm’ to relieve their hysteria. The world's first vibrators were specifically invented to save Doctors this arduous and time-consuming task.. In 1903 Dr Samuel Howard Monell, writing on the treatment of hysteria, noted that ‘Pelvic massage has its brilliant advocates and they report wonderful results.’ He also went on to hail the vibrator as a godsend for Doctors as a quick and easy method of procuring treatment. 

Early Vibrator

The question of whether or not everyone was slyly aware that a ‘hysterical paroxysm’ might be an orgasm is an odd point.

Seeing as the ‘treatment’ evolved from ideas about replacing sex it would seem weird if no one thought of it as sexual.

On the other hand, penis contraptions like the Spermatic Truss came out of a concerned 1712 pamphlet discoursing on the dangers of self pollution, which was alleged to cause everything from impotence, to epilepsy to (bafflingly) gonorrhea.

These ideas were expanded upon in 1760 by the Swiss physician Samuel Tissot who believed semen was an ‘essential oil’ and that unnecessary emissions would cause Spermatorrhea in men and Vulvovaginitis in women. So the exact opposite of Galen, instead of expelling your semen your needed to hoard it like weird gold. This eventually resulted in a range of baffling devices to kill your erection as hysteria treatment resulted in a range of specialist devices to ‘paroxysm’ your patients. It’s interesting to look at how these two ideas interacted.

One Doctor, Isaac Baker-Brown, thought that manipulation of the clitoris to induce paroxysms just fed a patient’s lust and did nothing to cure their hysteria. You may be smiling knowingly now but I doubt you’ll be a fan of his alternate method.


This wound up being a popular treatment in the US for hysteria, nymphomania, and, interestingly, masturbation. In some ways, despite their completely different approaches, those trying to burn off your clitoris and those trying to steam power your orgasm were trying to deal with the same thing. These are both ideas designed to control female sexuality.

It might be ok for a Doctor to give you an orgasm but god forbid that you masturbate. And if you do, there’s a helpful man over there willing to burn your clitoris right off and fix that for you. That said, let us all be grateful it was the vibrator and not the Jugum Penis that stayed with us; a small victory for fun sex.

And look how far they've come!

Now you can even get one with an a vibrator controlled by an app - that's what we call progress!

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