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Masturbatory Insanity: the History of an Idea

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 February 2018

E. H. Hare*
Bethlem Royal and Maudsley Hospitals, London, S.E.5


A hundred years ago it was generally believed by the medical profession, and particularly by alienists, that masturbation was an important and frequent cause of mental disorder. Today no one believes this; and the masturbatory hypothesis (as we may call it) has in all probability been finally abandoned. If we enquire into the history of this change we find, somewhat surprisingly, that medical references to the harmfulness of masturbation are vanishingly rare before the 18th century. For practical purposes, the whole history of the masturbatory hypothesis is contained within the last 250 years. This history is not one in which the present-day psychiatrist is apt to feel much pride. Yet it is worth studying, not only for its own sake (and the history of psychiatric ideas is a much neglected subject), but also for the light it throws on the peculiar difficulty of refuting causal hypotheses in psychiatry. The aim of the present essay is, first, to give a short history of the idea that masturbation is an important cause of mental disorder and, second, to examine some of the reasons for the rise and fall of this idea and why it persisted for so long (1).

Original Articles
Copyright © Royal College of Psychiatrists, 1962 

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