The “deluded and solitary vice” is an elusive subject in the Regency period because it does not appear in the primary sources very much. Much as now, it was the great unmentionable. There are mentions in the newspapers but there are problems there as well. Of course, we are using the advertisements form a relative small number of organisations – Goss of Bouverie Street, Dr Solomon’s Guide to Health and Dr Currie of Hatton Garden. They advertised all over the country and used the same vocabulary.
They are very much against it. In the Regency, the solitary vice is presented in the papers as a medical problem with adverse medical consequences. Mentions are to be found in advertisement for surgeons and quack doctors and in books of medical advice. The consequences are muscle weakness, apathy and an imbecility that is similar to old age, sterility and barrenness these are the main ones, but Regency pamphlets on the subjects list many more.
Masturbation is seen as sin of youth and is “unhappily practiced by both sexes”. It starts at school- boarding school- at an age where reason has not taken her hold on the child. As a cynic, I thought that the emphasis on children was dues to the fact that the advertisements were aimed at concerned adults, and these adults would not self –refer if they had this “problem” themselves.
The treatment is rarely mentioned in the advertisements although Dr Currie-another major player in the Regency fight against Onanism- does point out that none of their treatments involve the “violent means” that others use. It does seem however that the cure for this is often the same as the cure for many other things at the same time, which may make people today sceptical, but there seems to be a lot of faith in the universal cure- all. This is from 1810
Solomon’s Guide to Health-circulation about 80,000 when the Times was selling 4000 – adds new medical details and moral condemnation . They argued that Onanism*, or the Secret Venery, tried to recreate those feelings that God had created only for the “commerce between the sexes”. But the emphasis on the moral is fleeting; there is a large number of new medical consequences, including indifference to the “Pleasures of Venus” leading to barrenness, and in males, consumption caused by the draining away of “radical moisture”. Seminal weakness, a separate malady, was related to Onanism; it was all very “four humours” medicine.
True it is that we are ignorant whether the animal spirits and the seminal liquor are the same but experience teaches us those two fluids have an analogy and that the loss of either produces the same effects
Female Onanism had its specific problems.
Virgins who indulge themselves over eagerly in this abuse of their bodies deflower themselves and destroy that valuable badge of their chastity which it is expected they should not part with before marriage but which when lost can never be retrieved
Because of this they will be miserable on the marriage day, dues to the apparent loss of their “sacred badge”
the marriage bed which heaven has designed for the seat of the highest sensual enjoyments when they reflect that their virtue on the first amorous encounter is liable to such suspicions as may never be worn off but which may render uncomfortable the life both of her or otherwise her affectionate husband
As for boys, Solomon believes that the secret vice starts before puberty and before it was regarded as a vice. He suggests that taught (note the choice of word-it tells you a lot about the “great schools” of England) in the great schools from about 8 years old. Reason is not present at this age. The implication is that the activity turns its participants into slaves- they are “deluded votaries” who are enervated by the activity-literally and metaphorically drained.
Onanism becomes an obsession in boys and prevents concentration on anything else; it is a shelving pool, which seems shallow at first and draws people in. Surprising, Dr Solomon uses the word masturbators- not often, but clearly a word that people would recognise.
Onanism is wrong because the context is wrong and the body is being forced too early. The actions would be natural in married adults; indeed it was a good thing, part of God’s gift; while Onanism made a mockery of the sacred duty of procreation.
Solomon, despite being a medicine seller, believes that REPENTENCE and TURNING AWAY FROM SIN is the real cure for Onanism. Indeed he makes no prescriptions at all for the maladies he mentions, expecting you to go and visit him for a personal consultation.
Whatever treatment you required involved a degree of secrecy. Whether it was VD (variously “ Lues Venera” “ the ebullition of passion” “a certain complaint”) the need to for abortion or a cure against the “solitary vice”, companies would allow you to add the postage onto the cost of medicine if you were buying from the provinces to avoid having a perform any financial transaction when the parcel reached you. It was the Regency equivalent of the plain brown wrapper. Goss of Bouverie Street had a secret door- which they then went on to advertise in the paper- but it was the Gentlemen’s Magazine, who were clearly not gentlemen all of the time.
* Genesis 38;8 Then Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.” But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his. So whenever he went in to his brother’s wife he would waste the semen on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother
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