With his treatise decrying the perils of masturbation, Swiss physician Samuel Auguste Tissot dressed up middle class sexual mores in scientific garb.
Illustration: Marco Heer

Men should fight their natural urges

Masturbation makes you infertile and sick. This idea expounded by a doctor from Lausanne spread rapidly in the 18th century, and persisted well into the 20th century.

Andrej Abplanalp

Andrej Abplanalp

Historian and communications chief of the Swiss National Museum.

In the 18th century, Samuel Auguste Tissot was one of the best-known doctors in the territory of what is now Switzerland. The Lausanne physician owed his prominence primarily to a paper he had written decrying the perils of male masturbation. Tissot believed masturbation sapped a man’s strength and ultimately made him infertile. He also linked masturbation to a range of other illnesses. His treatise Von der Onanie (Onanism) was published in Latin in 1758, followed by a French translation two years later. The doctor’s work spread quickly throughout Europe, and was revised around 60 times during the author’s lifetime and translated into a number of other languages. It wasn’t just medical professionals who were interested in the topic.

ARGUMENTS FROM ANTIQUITY

Tissot’s views were somewhat audacious, and were based primarily on the medical theory of ‘humours’ – an idea dating from antiquity which holds that human bodily fluids must be kept in balance. If you lose too many of your ‘natural juices’, you weaken your body and ultimately become ill. For the doctor from Lausanne, male masturbation was a waste of bodily fluids. Samuel Auguste Tissot backed up his theory with the old anatomical notion that seminal fluid originates in the brain, and travels to the penis via the spinal column. So any time you masturbated, the doctor said, you would ‘sacrifice’ a portion of your brain fluid. The consequences: countless afflictions and diseases, damage to the nervous system, and impaired memory and intellectual capacity.

Portrait of Samuel Auguste Tissot, shortly after he was named honorary professor of medicine at the Lausanne Academy.
Université de Lausanne / photograph: Claude Bornand

Scene from Albert Moll’s Handbuch der Sexualwissenschaften (Handbook of Sexual Sciences), 1921.
Wikimedia

Samuel Auguste Tissot’s treatise started a global anti-masturbation movement which influenced society into the 20th century. The physician from French-speaking Switzerland had given a veneer of scientific credibility to the moral ideas of numerous contemporaries, thus supporting the prevailing sexual mores of civil society. While his ideas were not opposed to sex per se, reason and rationality were the top priority. Gratifying one’s baser instincts and sexual desires had no place in this view.

It wasn’t until the 1960s, when young people started to rebel against the prevailing middle class values, that masturbation finally became socially acceptable. Ironically, medical professionals now believe regular masturbation reduces the risk of men developing prostate cancer.

Love and Sexuality in the 18th Century

Château de Prangins

until 11 October

Today sexuality, either overt or implied, is omnipresent in the endless flow of images transported by the media and the entertainment business. “Sex sells!” the marketing specialists all tell us. And yet: hasn’t sexuality always been about dreams and fantasies? Above and beyond the act of procreation, it is now – fortunately – accepted in the West that the pursuit of pleasure should be founded on mutual consent and full awareness. But how did things look back in the 18th century? Where were the barriers of censorship, and where was the dividing line between acceptable and punishable? Were people able to choose their partner, or partners? The exposition offers some occasionally surprising (but invariably documented) answers to these questions.

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Swiss National Museum

Three museums – the National Museum Zurich, the Castle of Prangins and the Forum of Swiss History Schwyz – as well as the collections centre in Affoltern am Albis – are united under the umbrella of the Swiss National Museum (SNM).