Journal of the History of Sexuality 12.3 (2003) 365-399
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The Spermatorrhea Panic
Ellen Bayuk Rosenman
University Of Kentucky
A PROMISING YOUNG MEDICAL STUDENT becomes reclusive, tearful, and despondent, neglecting his studies and spending his days in bed. 1 A banker becomes paranoid and aggressive, attacking a fellow businessman on the street for no reason and eventually going completely insane. 2 Desperate to stop masturbating and arrest his physical and mental deterioration, another man ties himself up. 3 If they had consulted their doctors, these men would have received treatments scarcely less frightening than the disease itself: they might find their penises encased in miniature iron maidens or have their testicles surgically removed. 4 These symptoms and responses are part of the panic over spermatorrhea, which we now know to be a nonexistent disease but which preoccupied surgeons and laymen alike for decades. 5 Defined as the excessive discharge of sperm caused by illicit or excessive sexual activity, especially masturbation, the disease was understood to cause anxiety, nervousness, lassitude, impotence, and, in its advanced stages, insanity and death. These tragic tales of ruined lives give a flavor of [End Page 365] the hysteria surrounding spermatorrhea. What led doctors to imagine this disease and patients to produce such symptoms? Why did both doctors and patients respond with such extraordinary and brutal interventions? Why, since it did not exist, did spermatorrhea have to be invented?
As my last question is meant to suggest, spermatorrhea's fictiveness is exactly what makes it important not as a quaint instance of primitive medicine but as a revealing cultural phenomenon. It is, as Stephen Heath says, "one of the diseases which . . . [although they have] nothing to do with the actual diseases of the period (the typhus fever of the slums of the new industrial cities, for example), are strictly Victorian," imagined into existence to embody historically specific anxieties. 6 The disease had one foot in the antimasturbatory hysteria inherited from the eighteenth century, but masturbation was not its sole cause; its pathologizing of all forms of sexual excess (however defined by Victorian writers) and intensity and its symbolic mapping of the male body speak directly to distinctively Victorian constraints on pleasure—including male pleasure—in contrast to the relative permissiveness of eighteenth-century and Regency models of upper-class sexuality. 7 Along with other venereal diseases, it played a key role in the medicalization of sexuality, especially as sexuality came under the auspices of scientific medicine, which introduced new means of diagnosis and new cures. Its moral and medical aspects were so closely intertwined that it seems to have died out as different models of sexuality emerged, though it is difficult to pinpoint the precise time and cause of death: as alienists increasingly linked sex and nervous debility to psychological rather than organic causes (an argument anticipated by some of the more adventurous spermatorrhea doctors discussed below) and as sexologists protested against moralistic definitions of sexual behaviors, spermatorrhea lost its hold on both the medical establishment and the popular imagination. It came and went with nineteenth-century beliefs about male sexuality. 8 [End Page 366]
In its medical and moral pathologizing of sexual experience, spermatorrhea is a prime example of Foucault's scientia sexualis, with its authoritative scientific discourse, its monitory case studies and shameful confessions, and its categories of deviance. But spermatorrhea also complicates the power structure that often emerges in Foucauldian treatments of Victorian medicine, in which middle-class professionals objectify and dominate inferior "others," defined in terms of class and gender. Certainly, Victorian culture provides classic examples of this structure: the Contagious Diseases Acts authorized surgeons to forcibly treat prostitutes for venereal disease by painting their genitals with mercury, and the Anatomy Act of 1832 offered up the corpses of the poor to anatomists for dissection. These laws clearly depended on what one scholar has called a "medico-moral discourse that extensively deployed a set of class and gender related polarities" as a foundation for doctors' professional authority. 9 But, for several reasons, spermatorrhea was considered an ailment of middle...