Revisiting Ellen White on Masturbation

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Those who have studied the writings of Ellen White know that she said some things about the physical consequences of “solitary vice,” a term that many take to be a euphemism for masturbation, which the majority of medical specialists today do not confirm. In An Appeal to Mothers, one of her early publications, she attributes a number of maladies to its practice. These include headaches, dizziness, depression, irritability, insomnia, fatigue, guilt, absent-mindedness, forgetfulness, bodily pain, sullenness, rebelliousness and jealousy, all of which may be at least partly psychological.

She connected masturbation with more physical problems as well. “Everywhere I looked,” she wrote of one of her visionary experiences, “I saw imbecility, dwarfed forms, crippled limbs, misshapen heads, and deformity of every description.” She stated that in females, who possess less vital force than men, the consequences of self-abuse are “seen in various diseases, such as catarrh, dropsy, headache, loss of memory and sight, great weakness in the back and loins, affections of the spine, [and] the head often decays inwardly. Cancerous humor,” she went on, “which would lay dormant in the system in their life-time, is inflamed and commences it eating, destructive work. The mind is often utterly ruined and insanity takes place.” Those who masturbate, she wrote, “are just as surely self-murderers as though they pointed a pistol to their own breast, and destroyed their life instantly.”

Such discrepancies between what Ellen White wrote and what modern medical science thinks prompt some to question whether she was inspired by God, as Seventh-day Adventists generally believe. It is my view that we cannot answer this question unless we look at her life and work as a whole. When we do that, I think she fares very well even though she made many mistakes along the way.

If she did nothing more than help establish Loma Linda University, that would be enough evidence to convince me that God used her in a special way; however, she did this sort of thing several times! Clearly, not everything she said and did will pass the test of time. I think it unreasonable to think that it should.

I find it helpful to compare Ellen White’s remedies for masturbation with what many in the medical community were practicing in her time. Over the last several decades, this has become more evident to researchers. For instance, in the spring of 2003, The Journal of Social History published a review essay by Robert Darby titled “The Masturbation Taboo and the Rise of Routine Male Circumcision: A Review of the Historiography.” Written from the point of view of one who believes that there is no more justification for circumcising infant boys than girls, it summarizes and evaluates many recent historical studies.

According to Darby’s summary,

It can be seen that doctors in English-speaking countries introduced widespread circumcision of male infants in the late nineteenth century. At the time this innovation was justified largely in terms of discouraging masturbation, then regarded as a serious disease in its own right and the cause of many more, but this rationale was increasingly overlaid by others in the early twentieth century.…Mainstream paediatric and child care manuals continued to assert the value of circumcision as a disincentive to masturbation right up until the 1950s.

As late as 1970, one urology text stated that “Parents readily recognize the importance of local cleanness and genital hygiene in their children and are usually ready to adopt measures which may avert masturbation. Circumcision is usually advised on these grounds.”

The circumcision of infant boys to prevent masturbation varied in severity. The more drastic methods cut away enough skin to leave the penis too tight for comfortable erections. In 1895, one doctor wrote that “there must be no play in the skin after the wound has thoroughly healed, but it must fit tightly over the penis, for should there be any play the patient will be found readily to resume his practice, not begrudging the time and extra energy required to produce orgasm.” According to Darby, this same doctor “went on to suggest that a supplementary circumcision might be necessary as the remaining skin stretched.” Some doctors held that the circumcision of boys and men should be done without anesthesia in order to make a more memorable impression. Jagged scissors were sometimes used for the same reason.

For a brief time, some doctors used clitoridectomies to “cure” masturbation among girls and women; however, the outcry against this practice was so swift and intense that it had a short life. A doctor who was expelled from on obstetrical society in 1867 for performing this surgery defended himself “by claiming that masturbation caused hysteria, epilepsy, mania, and, eventually, and insanity and death.”

Circumcision was not the only “cure” for masturbation. Other options provided by some members of the medical community included blistering, acid burns, cauterization, hand restraints, chastity cages, snipping the dorsal nerve of the penis, inserting electrodes, sewing the foreskin with silver wire, douches, spiked penis rings, brass poisoning and castration.

The summaries that Darby and others provide impress me in two ways. On the one hand, I am struck by how similar Ellen White’s accounts of the medical consequences of masturbation are to what a number in the medical community of her time, including John Harvey Kellogg, whom many recall as one of the nineteenth century’s most vigorous foes of masturbation, were saying. The parallels strike me as being unmistakable.

On the other hand, I am startled by how much less severe her remedies were. She emphasized educating youngsters about the dangers of “solitary vice.” She suggested that children not sleep together and that they not eat spicy food. She emphasized the importance of keeping youngsters busy with important projects so as to leave them little idle time. “Be not hasty and agitated, and [do not treat] your children with censure,” she wrote. “Such a course would only cause rebellion in them.”

Unless we are talking about sexual addictions, by today’s standards Ellen White’s views seem odd and perhaps even troubling. But maybe what she wrote is less offensive when we compare it with what other people were writing in her time instead of what people are saying in ours. This is usually the better test.

David Larson teaches in the School of Religion at Loma Linda University.

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