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The Masturbation Taboo and the Rise of Routine Male Circumcision: A Review of the Historiography

From: Journal of Social History
Volume 36, Number 3, Spring 2003
pp. 737-757 | 10.1353/jsh.2003.0047


There is increasing scholarly interest in the history of routine male circumcision in Anglophone countries, but much disagreement as to whether prevention of masturbation was an important part of this development. A review of the historiography of both the masturbation phobia and the rise of routine circumcision shows that it has been widely accepted since the 1950s that discouraging masturbation was a major reason why doctors, educationists and childcare experts sought to introduce circumcision of both boys and girls in the later nineteenth century, a campaign which was successful in the former case, unsuccessful in the latter—an outcome which still colours popular concepts about what constitutes genital mutilation. Mainstream pediatric and child care manuals continued to assert the value of circumcision as a disincentive to masturbation right up until the 1950s. The importance of the original link between masturbation and circumcision was rediscovered at the same time, when belief in the harmful effects of the former was declining, and as medical historians began to investigate the origin, course and effects of the onanism scare during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

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