Sunday, December 9, 2007

Another Essay Starting from the Same Place

In 1784, a special Royal Commission of the King of France conducted a series of tests to determine the therapeutic utility of the use of "animal magnetism" also called "Mesmerism" on human health. The study itself is generally credited as being the first placebo controlled blind clinical trials. The Commissioners concluded that Mesmer's animal magnetism had no existence and that imagination, imitation, and touch were the true causes of the observed effects in the Mesmeric salon.

One infrequently cited (partly because it was secret and never published) addendum to the study expanded on the "touch" part of the Mesmeric protocol. Specifically, Mesmer was in the habit of stroking certain sensitive areas of many of his female patients, who then subsequently found themselves feeling much better. This was, as it happens, a centuries old technique for dealing with female "hysteria."

About one hundred years after the Royal Commission, the mechanical vibrator was invented, more or less as a medical labor saving device, because physicians were finding the manual stimulation of their patients very tiring. What the Commission wrote in 1784, "The more modest the women, the less likely they are to understand the reasons for these effects," applied even more strongly in Victorian times. Those who advocated "lie on your back and think of England" attempted to de-eroticize sex to the point of making an orgasm a medical procedure.

While it's tempting to ascribe all of this to simple misogyny, it's worth noting that male sexuality wasn't immune to pathological categorization. I have an old book (published in 1872) that I found in one of those weird bookstores that can sometimes be found in college towns (Troy, NY in this case), entitled The Transmission of Life, The Nature and Hygiene of the Masculine Function by one George H. Naphys, M.D. which has an entire chapter on the dread disease, spermatorhea, "the excessive and involuntary loss of the secretion peculiar to the male."

Dr. Naphys notes that this is actually a rare condition, and should not be confused with the occasional nocturnal emission or loss of the secretion "while straining at stool," He then goes on to use it in yet another warning against masturbation, of which there are many in the book.

Dr. Naphys was, in his own way, a modern, enlightened sort of fellow; elsewhere in the book he argues for co-education, for example. In writing about spermatorhea, he also warns against "itinerant practitioners" (quacks, in other words), who take advantage of the ignorance of some young men to sell them all sorts of treatments that basically are against having nocturnal emissions. One of the "cures" that is warned against is cauterization.

Damn, but I'm glad I was born in the latter half of the 20th Century.


JP Stormcrow said...

I hereby direct you to read Rachel Maines great paper:
"Socially camouflaged technologies: the case of theelectromechanical vibrator".
Great stuff. I recall the controversy in the IEEE when it was published.

James Killus said...

There are times I regret letting my membership in the IEEE lapse...