The Victorians were famed for being sexually repressed, but I’d long concluded that the reputation was misleading. However, much of my formative view of the Victorian era was gained at school (back in the 1970s, just in case you’re wondering), where themes of sexual repression abounded, though not in connection with corn flakes.
For instance, my O-Level English teacher would, during our countless, stupefying double-periods on Matthew Arnold, cheerily reveal how the Victorians liked to cover their table and chair legs, such was their fear that the sight of bare wood might inadvertently give them, er, wood. This is a myth, of course. They didn’t.
Instead, as I later discovered, the Victorians enthusiastically explored erotica, both through literature and porn. Indeed, much of their porn rivals anything on the interweb today. This fact may not in itself be a sign that they weren’t repressed, but the sheer variety, weirdness and volume of the material they consumed makes a lie of the claim that they were sexually mummified by countless layers of clothes.
But, today, I came across (no pun intended) this article – Let’s talk about sex: Victorian anti-masturbation devices – on the Chirurgeon’s Apprentice blogsite, about the hideous lengths some Victorians went to to prevent male ‘self abuse’. One of the most intimidating is the ‘jugum penis’, which resembles a stopwatch crossed with a serrated, steel-jawed gin trap.
Says Apprentice blogger, medical historian Lindsey Fitzharris: “Should a man become aroused in the middle of the night, this contraption would clamp down, extinguishing both his desire as well as his erection in a very sudden and painful way!” Just that mental picture can bring tears to the eyes.
But even more disconcerting was my discovery that Dr John Harvey Kellogg – he of the famous breakfast cereal – thought boys should be circumcised without anaesthetic as the pain would “have a salutary effect upon the mind”, thereby preventing spontaneous episodes of self-love.
Girls didn’t get off scot free, either, as he believed the “application of pure carbolic acid to the clitoris [was] an excellent means of allaying abnormal excitement”.
Bizarrely, Kellogg’s views on sex and the world-famous cereal are linked, as the creation of Kellogg’s Cornflakes was the ultimate result of his conviction that a low-taste, high-fibre diet helped dampen lusty urges.
Who would have thought that Kellogg’s Cornflakes were an anti-masturbatory statement? Makes me wonder whether the milk part of the equation has any significance. Either way, I’m going to stick to croissants for the foreseeable future.