A gentleman pours himself a glass of claret and settles down to his correspondence. But his mind is wandering to his daughters. What if dear Frances has discovered friction? Or, God forbid, Harriet is handling herself?
Such were the deep-seated fears of Georgian patriarchs, according to a historian. Elizabeth Schlappa reveals in a new study that attitudes to female masturbation changed dramatically during the 18th century, but they always drew on and fuelled traditional misogyny and male insecurities.
Schlappa, a cultural historian at Newcastle University, analysed medical books and pamphlets of the period to show how masturbation — described by terms such as “friction”, “handling” and “self-pollution” — went from being viewed as a vice that most women indulged in, to one practised only by deviants from a virtuous norm.
Nevertheless, she found that in both mindsets, female masturbation amounted to a disease that led to loss of virginity, sexual frenzy, barrenness and death, and that undermined male authority.
In her paper in Gender & History, Schlappa states that Onania, or, the heinous sin of self-pollution, in both sexes (c. 1716), was the product of attitudes that were already dated. “In Onania, any woman is probably secretly a masturbator,” she said. “It doesn’t matter how virtuous she seems — she’s probably secretly doing this because that’s just what women are like. Women are innately lustful and deceitful and need constant moral correction from men.”
The author of Onania was anonymous. While some scholars consider the London surgeon John Marten the most likely candidate, Schlappa disagrees, pointing out significant differences in their physiological claims. The book was the founding work of an influential anti-masturbation campaign led by medical men.
A newer worldview was encapsulated in the responses to Onania, and in particular the pamphlet Onania Examined, and Detected (1723). Schlappa said: “The author very explicitly takes issue with claims in Onania about women. He regards them as a horrible slur and totally unjustified. However, he goes on to say that while he’s sad to admit it, some women are depraved enough to do this. But we must be able to distinguish them from the virtuous majority.”
The author, another anonymous man, apologised for this digression, adding: “I cou’d not pass by setting a Stigma upon such Creatures, who are a Dishonour to God, a Reproach to the Gospel, a Scanda[l] to their Profession, a Pest to Human Society, a Disgrace to their Sex, a Grief to the Innocent whom they falsely accuse; Monsters are they in Nature, having Hearts, Eyes, and Lives full of Adultery.”
“The masturbator becomes the poster girl for the inverse of natural, virtuous femininity.”Elizabeth Schlappa
Schlappa said the perception of women as innately virtuous was entrenched by the 1740s and fed into Victorian ideas of femininity. Attitudes to female masturbators — now allegedly a depraved, if alarmingly widespread, aberration — preserved intact old misogynist ideas, however.
She said: “The masturbator becomes the poster girl for the inverse of natural, virtuous femininity. She’s the poster girl for the old idea of womanhood, who survives in this discourse, as do some very old-fashioned ideas. So you get this little bubble of preserved ideas in this material, which is partly because the stories get repeated so often.”
She said that, while Onania was the “last hurrah” of a particular view of women, it tapped into men’s insecurities about wives’ and daughters’ hidden lives that would persist. “The masturbator embodies these ancient fears about what women are doing behind men’s backs.”
A typical case study from Onania, which sold over 50,000 copies over the 18th century, involved a young woman whose sexual desires were said to have overcome a virtuous upbringing, leading her to masturbate from age 14. The commission of that “foul and enormous Sin” led her into a state of sexual frenzy.
It continued: “The instruments she chose to gratify her Lust with, are by no means proper to be nam’d here; by the Nature of them and the frequency of their Use … a Furor Uterinus seiz’d her … in the Fits … she would extravagantly Scream out, talk obscenely, pull up her Coats, and throw off the Bed-cloaths, calling to and laying hold of any Man she saw, or could come at to lie with her.”
She lived on, in this pitiful state, until she was 23, when “all of a sudden, in a most violent Fit, [she] died raving”. An autopsy found that her clitoris was grossly enlarged as a result of the “Method and Means she had so long taken with her self”.
The various case studies, which may have been fabricated, also describe how girls were led astray by bad company or lewd books. One young woman is quoted as writing: “Had I read more the BIBLE, and other goodly Books, and less in Martial, Juvenal, Ovid, &c. it had been better for me; but those Books, Rochester, Aristotle, and Plays, at first debauched my silly Fancy.”
Other stories described the erring of “pretty Scholars” at boarding schools who “very frequently practiced it, cum Digitis & aliis Instrumentis“.
Schlappa said representations of women masturbators in anti-masturbation texts were much more sexualised than those of men. “Did that have a voyeuristic feel to it? Absolutely. I think what we’re seeing in those more sexualised portrayals is very much reclaiming masturbation for the patriarchy. One of the reasons it’s so threatening is this is a way that women take their pleasure without men being involved.”
Likewise, although male masturbators were depicted in these works as objects of horror and pity, the implications for female masturbators were “more profoundly threatening and alarming”.
As for later attitudes, Schlappa said: “There was a reclamation of masturbation in the second half of the 20th century. Today it’s more normalised. The 20th century concerns about it are different — the 18th century is not at all concerned about whether clitoral pleasure is healthy, or whether there has to be penetration. That’s a Freud problem. In the 18th century, clits are legit. Everybody assumes that this is part of normal procreative intercourse.
“So exactly what we’re worried about with masturbation changes according to our cultural preoccupations at the time.”