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“Punishments For Masturbation Throughout History”

Device used to prevent masturbation.

Device used to prevent masturbation


The practice of punishing the perpetrator of the act of masturbation is one that can be traced in documented form to the time of the Roman Empire.

The matriarchal society that was a feature of Roman life, tended to view male masturbation as an unwelcome, undesirable act, directly affecting procreation, so important to the future of the Empire.


During the first century AD, Christianity defined the act as a ‘Mortal Sin’ and the spread of Christianity brought with it the firm belief that self-abuse should be strongly discouraged in a Christian household. Even today the Catholic Church still categorises self-abuse as a ‘venal and mortal sin’.

Archbishop Borders of Baltimore, in his 1987 pastoral, ‘On Human Sexuality’, writes ‘Authentic human sexuality should open one to another in a deep and abiding relationship. It is neither unitive (sic.) nor procreative, and is merely sexual actuation with very little true sexual meaning’.

In 1992 Father Mateo wrote on the Internet: ‘In itself, masturbation is a mortal sin because it negates the whole purpose of our most sacred powers, the power to fashion family and procreate human life.’

That then is the view of God and the punishments distributed by Priests throughout history have been many and varied. In Ireland boys were regularly caned and whipped in addition to more normal religious impositions. Irish parents thrashed their male offspring when evidence of self-abuse was discovered, and the same scenario is echoed through many other countries of the Catholic world.
What emerges from this investigation is the surprising fact that punishments for masturbation have changed very little over the years and, moreover, that it has been predominantly the female in the household who has been more tasked to seek out and deal with the male self-abuser.

Punishment for self-abuse was at its height during the Victorian era and much of it was delivered by the Nanny, Governess or indeed by other female members of the household staff. In most cases the females were spinsters of mature age and the possibility of their being somewhat disenchanted or even unaware of sexual pleasures, only serves to explain their particular preference in dealing with young male abusers. in their charge, by means of potions, restraints and canes.
In public schools of the time masturbation was not condoned and discovery of an offender would earn him a severe thrashing as described by an author of the time, Edward Whittaker in his ‘Memoirs of an Eton Housemaster’; “Use of the cane and birch was widespread and the cane was administered by both Staff and Prefects. Offences were the usual acts of high-spirited boys, which led to class or dormitory disruption, lack of hygiene, failure to meet academic standards and general disobedience. These would be promptly and properly punished with a number of strokes from the cane on the tight trousers of the bending boy. The birch was reserved for more serious offences such as stealing or self-abuse, and was administered on the bare backside of the unfortunate pupil, as he lay firmly secured across the birching block. Only the Headmaster flogged with this implement, which was harsh in the extreme!

The most common punishments for this ‘crime’ throughout history were physical denial by various means and flagellation. As remarked on before, more often than not, this was administered by a female to a male in the first flush of puberty. It is not the purpose of this document to dwell on the psychological damage that was often inflicted as a result of this situation, suffice to say there are many females who are grateful for the fact that it did.

References to the punishment of masturbation prior to the 18th century are few and far between. It may be assumed that in the Middle Ages, Jacobean and Elizabethan eras, a more liberal attitude was adopted by a society which regarded such activities as normal, however it is also true that males were far more likely to be experiencing full heterosexual intercourse often from the tender ages of nine years old. There are many accounts of royal marriages being arranged for couples barely in their teens. In addition the Reformation of Tudor times destroyed the Catholic teachings and spread a somewhat barren moral wasteland before the confused and increasingly apathetic population.

The earliest reference to the use of punishment to deter the masturbator can be found in an account of the Roman household by Peter Moorview in his book, ‘The Roman Citizen’, a factual description of domestic life at the time of the Roman Empire. According to the author, many of the young male slaves had their penis ringed with iron or their urethra pierced to discourage erections and to avoid the possibility of them attempting rape. Other male slaves found they were obliged to carry out ‘bedroom duties’ (sic) as well as their normal domestic chores within the house:

The frequent absence of the Master of the house, (eg. in the case of military personnel), often led to illicit and furtive sexual activity between slave and Mistress and in order to ensure confidentiality, slaves were subjected to the most horrendous acts of cruelty to ensure their obedience and silence. Well-endowed and virile young slaves were much in demand and were available at public auctions to privileged sections of Roman society. Slaves purchased solely for the purpose of providing sexual gratification for their Mistress often had their genitalia permanently restrained within purpose made metal chastity belts to prevent unauthorised masturbation. Those free to masturbate would face a severe flogging with a rod if discovered and subsequently their genitals would be bound in bandages soaked in a mixture of herbs and peppers, which inflicted excruciating pain on the treated parts. Persistent offenders were generally discarded and punished by castration and removal of their tongues to ensure their secrets would never be disclosed.

Before 1700, medical references to the harmful effects of masturbation were scarce. In the eighteenth century two works, Contra: or the Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution, and all its frightful sequences, (by an anonymous author) and Samuel Tissot’s Treatise on the Diseases Produced by Onanism introduced concepts that a certain Sylvester Graham adopted and helped to popularize.

Tissot’s claim that loss of semen under any condition caused health hazards spread rapidly throughout the world’s medical profession and Graham’s Lecture to Young Men (1834) was the first of its kind and launched a whole genre of medical tracts on masturbation, known then as ‘self-abuse’ or ‘self-pollution’.
In America, where he lectured, a peculiar flowering of myths involving masturbation took place during the 19th century. The predictable culprits… Victorian prudery, evangelical Christianity, entrepreneuralism (sic.) are all part of the picture, and Graham, knowing his audience, and with a solid grasp of rhetorical devices made claims that no one could disprove. Or rather, would disprove. According to Graham a masturbator grows up ‘with a body full of disease, and with a mind in ruins, the loathsome habit still tyrannising over him, with the inexorable imperiousness of a fiend of darkness.’

Hardly surprising then that fond parents, Nannies, and Governess’, the world over, felt justified in meting out the most horrific punishments to save their charges from the devastating medical prognoses, and the hell-fire that lay ahead for the unfortunate self-abuser when he was finally laid to rest! Thus, the scene was set for the next 100 years or so…. ‘Punish or He’s Damned! …. was to be the cry.

Treatments for self-abuse, both physical and dietary abounded. Dr John Harvey Kellog, (brother of the founder of the Kellog’s Corn Flakes Company) suggested: ‘A remedy which is almost always effective in small boys is circumcision…. the operation should be performed by a surgeon without administering an anaesthetic, as the brief pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind…. In females, the author has found the application of pure carbolic acid to the clitoris an excellent means of allaying the abnormal excitement…’ the chance of disease and death’.

General medical opinion weighed in with their recipe for healthy minds and bodies. Sexual moderation (no more than 12 times a year for married couples), exercise (to help prevent nocturnal emissions), no masturbation and a proper diet (to facilitate free peristaltic action of the bowels).

Masturbation led to madness and nocturnal emissions probably would as well. Spermatorrhoea was recognised as a disease, causing complete lack of energy and exhaustion. Rapid dissemination of these theories on the dangers of self-abuse among the upper and middle class citizens of Great Britain in particular during the 19th century led to an explosion in the sale of implements of correction, chastity devices, potions and lotions and increased demand for the services of Governess’ and Nannies to provide 24 hour observation of their charges and to provide the necessary moral guidance, physical treatment, and punishment that would be needed to educate their children and save them from a fate worse than death.

Let us now examine some of the punishments that were commonly applied in the Victorian and Edwardian households. Most of what follows is derived from information which was freely available at the time in the form of Instruction Manuals and articles published privately by training schools and issued to prospective Governess’ and Nannies. There were variations depending on the original author but all followed similar guidelines and established similar routines and punishments for infractions of the rules.

Minor punishments for masturbation might be applied immediately upon discovery of the lapse. The guilty party receiving a few quick slaps across the palms of both hands with a ruler or leather school strap. Alternatively be might be placed over the Governess’ knee for a quick but intense spanking.

This of course would be only a preliminary punishment prior to making arrangements for a more formal session of discipline which might include an imposition of lines to be completed prior to the boy presenting himself punctually and correctly dressed at the time designated by his Governess. Alternatively she might choose to have the youngster write out the assigned lines post-discipline, when the heat of the freshly applied stripes would sear the lines of education into the freshly amenable mind of her chastened pupil.

Lines suggested included:

‘I will not handle or fondle myself in any way, lest I end up in no good fashion.’ or
‘Self-abuse is the root of all evil and leads to excessive drinking and other forms of self-wastage. I will not therefore engage in this disgusting habit.’ Punishments by means of restraints were commonly carried out, some items serving the dual purpose of discipline and in addition, preventing the miscreant from further handling his genitalia. Some examples include:

Finger Stocks:

A wooden device, which held the fingers and thumbs of both hands. Pressure on the fingers could be increased by tightening down the threaded screws, which held the upper and lower part of the stocks together. The victim would be seated on a low wooden stool with his ankles bound to the front legs. The stocks would be placed on a table or desk before him and he could be left unsupervised for several hours to endure the increasing discomfort in hands, bottom and back with no means of touching his offending parts.

Stool Posture:

This was a supervised punishment. The offender stripped of his trousers and nether garments would be made to kneel upright on a wooden stool with his hands on his head. His Governess would sit facing him holding a wooden ruler and a leather strap. If his member became erect she would beat it with the ruler until it subsided. If his hands left his head, or he began to wriggle, his bare backside was chastised with the strap while he held his position. This punishment, even for a short length of time was humiliating and harsh in the extreme.


Various compounds of wintergreen, peppers, mustard seed, etc. (see below for details) would be prepared and massaged into the genitalia. A custom-made glass vessel was placed over the penis and the neck of the bottle was pressed lightly against the victim’s pubis. Air was evacuated from the bottle by means of a pump, causing the inflamed penis to swell and add further frustration and discomfort to the hapless offender. If he caused the seal to break before his Governess released him, he would earn further punishment. The need to maintain his position required enormous self-control, and was intensely humiliating, as it was carried out as a totally supervised punishment.

The Poultice Pouch:

This was usually made of soft leather with a drawer string top. The bag was filled with a similar compound to that described above (see below for details) and was then positioned to enclose the victim’s penis and scrotum. He was then bound hand and foot, face up on his bed to helplessly suffer the burning agony inflicted on his sensitive flesh. “After an hour the screams from the adjoining room subsided and the rattling of the iron bed gradually diminished. After a further 40 minutes, when I went to inspect, I found the bag was still in place and he had drifted mercifully into a troubled sleep, the cane that would visit his backside the following day, should he be tempted to remove the bag, was still held obediently in his right hand.”

Horse Hair Drawers:

Designed to be worn at night to prevent further masturbation and to punish for the offence; the canvas drawers lined with horsehair fitted tightly around the groin and upper thighs. They inflicted intense irritation to the sensitive genitals during the night. The drawer string around the waist was tightened and sometimes the knot scaled with sealing wax to ensure that they could not be removed by the victim during the long restless night without detection. Penalties for removal were severe.

The Bristle Box:

Constructed of thick cow-hide, the oblong box was made in two parts; upper and lower halves were hinged at one end, and at the other, a padded semi-circular opening allowed the box to enclose penis and testicles. When closed the padded opening fitted tightly around the base of the penis and scrotum. A strap and lock ensured it would remain in place and would deny any access for the purposes of masturbation. Both halves of the box were lined with 3/4″ long Hog’s bristle which caused immense torment. Such devices when worn at night had the advantage of preserving any evidence of ‘nightly emission’ for which further punishment would be awarded. Morning ‘Bed Inspections’ were part of the Governess’ duties and signs of emission were always concluded to be the result of masturbation when the victim had passed the night unrestrained. Restraints were imposed generally as an additional punishment for acts of masturbation as well as providing physical deterrence for any future offense.

Arm Binder:

The victim’s wrists were fastened behind his back. Hands and arms were enclosed within a long narrow canvas bag, which reached halfway up the upper part of his arms. Lacing along the length of the bag was tightened to bring the elbows together and tied securely. A harsh and severe form of restraint.

The Whipping Harness:

A thick leather pouch then enclosed the genitals and was fitted to a waist belt. A bevelled ‘cup and crutch’ strap an inch and a half wide ran from the bottom of the front pouch between his legs and was passed up between the cheeks of his bottom to be fastened to the back of the waist strap. The Governess would grasp the scrotum with one hand, the tip of the penis with the other and pull them back and under his legs before pulling on the crutch strap to secure it.

Care had to be taken not to tighten this strap too tightly as it exerted pressure on the genitals, which could inflict severe pain. When used merely as a night restraint the wrists could be attached to cuffs attached to the broad leather waist strap, which made masturbation impossible and would be sure to act as a further reminder that disobedience would not be tolerated.

As a whipping harness it provided protection for the genitals against accidental damage … easily inflicted when wielding a substantial whippy birch. Moreover when the victim was strapped over a block his legs could be spread and the sensitive inner thighs whipped without the possibility of inflicting damage to his genitals. The broad crutch strap parted the cheeks of his buttocks exposing fresh and sensitive areas of flesh for the attention of birch, whip or cane. This attention to detail and preoccupation with inflicting pain is prevalent in all the factual descriptions of discipline. Corporal punishment was administered in the same efficient and orderly way that was accorded to the running of the Victorian household and in later life the young gentlemen who had experienced this efficiency at first hand were to apply the same principals to run the British Empire. Order and Discipline, the key-note of the Victorian era.

In the more spacious and well-organised residences, rooms were often set aside and furnished specifically as Punishment Rooms. Governess’ were instructed: “The Governess will ensure that she has acquired a proper set of furnishings and implements such that her punishments may be appropriately meted out, ideally an Eton Bench should be available….” Essential implements suggested in the manual are: “a wooden hairbrush, slippers, tawse, tapette, switch, cane, birch, riding crop, martinet.”

Records of all punishments were considered essential and… ‘meticulous details regarding each punishment are advised in order to aid review of the success of each directive and to ensure subsequent punishments for the same offence shall be ever more severe.’ … Victims were always required to read and sign each entry after punishment.

Corporal punishments were formal and ritualistic. The good Governess was quick to appreciate the benefit of the torment and anxiety that could be generated by extending the time he had to anticipate each punishment. Written notes were recommended to announce his impending punishment and an example is given:
‘The punishment note should be contained within a sealed envelope for his trembling fingers to open. It should not be handed to him in person but rather, left in a conspicuous spot for him to chance upon and shiver as he sees his time writ large and bold upon it…’

It might read…

“Dear Tom,

I request your attendance in my study at precisely six pm tomorrow. You will enter the study, go to the cupboard and take down the cane which I have selected for your punishment and to which I have attached a red ribbon. You will place the cane on the top of the whipping block and stand before it after first lowering and removing your trousers and undergarments which will be folded and placed neatly in the comer of the room. You will remove the ribbon from the cane and tie it tightly around the organ that produced the offensive emission.. You will place your hands on your head and await my arrival. Do not increase the severity of your punishment by fidgeting while you wait or by failing to carry out these instructions correctly… the punishment I intend to give you will be harsh enough.’

Your Governess.”

Two other punishments were commonly used:

This guest blog was written by Mrs. Birch, a world class, professional Disciplinarian. She has written several other parts to this blog that can be found on her website www.mrsbirch.net. Whilst this is an accurate historical account and review of modern methods that are used, Mrs. Birch does not endorse that you practice any of these methods. Effects vary between individuals and can be quite severe.