History is full of crazy, if not deranged, periods of sexual repression. It comes and goes like seasons, but like hurricanes in Florida or blizzards in New York, some seasons are more severe than others. Every nation, society, and culture has their own unique sexual climate so-to-speak. America, contrary to everyone on Fox News, is no exception.
I’ve discussed current trends in sexual repression on this blog before, from the myths of porn addiction to the toxic proclivities that hinder intimacy in modern society. While it may seem bad now, it’s child’s play compared to what our society has experienced in the past.
To give you just a faint idea of how extreme sexual repression got at one point in American, I’d like to do a quick profile of one of this country’s Grand Poobah of prudes, John Harvey Kellogg. If his name sounds familiar, it should. It’s the same Kellogg behind the breakfast cereal brands that most of us eat or have eaten at some point in our lives. By the time you learn about the man behind the meal, you may never look at cereal the same way again.
So who was John Harvey Kellogg? Well, before his name became synonymous with breakfast food, he was a respected doctor and an active participant in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church.However, as is often the case with the devoutly religious, he took his religion more seriously than most and this is what led him down the road to repression.
By and large, his views didn’t differ much from most other ardent Seventh-Day Adventists of the time. This is a religious sect that is repressive in more than just sexuality. It recommends a strict vegetarian diet, abstinence from alcohol and tobacco, and regular exercise. Kellogg was said to have adhered to this regiment, but he just had to take it several steps further.
Rather than go into the complex theological and psychological underpinnings of Kellogg’s personal views, I’ll just come out and say it as simply as I can. John Harvey Kellogg was obsessed with masturbation. I’m not talking the kind of obsession that leads to 10-hour masturbation contests. I’m talking about the kind of obsession that drove one man to make it his life’s mission to stop men and boys from masturbating.
It sounds like a bad joke from a Sunday morning sermon at a Mormon Church, but it’s true. John Harvey Kellogg really obsessed over masturbation. He wasn’t alone either. During the late 19th and early 20th century, America found itself in a good old fashioned moral panic over masturbation.
Was it logical? No. Did it have any science behind it? Of course not. Moral panics don’t work that way. They don’t have to. It just has to involve a large number of people being totally convinced that all the ills in the world are caused by one thing and one thing only, as though the human condition is ever that simple.
Let’s face it though. We’re human. We like easy answers. Back then, for reasons that religion and bad science helped fuel, masturbation was that easy answer. As such, John Harvey Kellogg took it upon himself to rid the world of this horrific vice.
So how did he plan on accomplishing this? Well, this is where his famous breakfast cereal comes into play. True to some of the other tenants of his church, he sough to use diet as a means of curbing the desire pleasure one’s self. He believed corn flakes would temper dangerous passions and limit the dangerous desires that lead to masturbation. Absolutely none of this is made up.
Remember this the next time you eat cereal with the Kellogg brand. While times have changed, its founder really wanted you to not masturbate. He thought diet and nutrition would accomplish that. The fact that dildos, lube, erotic fiction, and internet porn are still major industries shows just how badly he failed. However, Kellogg didn’t stop at diet. Remember, this guy was really obsessed with masturbation.
When diet and nutrition just weren’t enough, Kellogg favored an even greater extreme. In his seminal (pun totally intended) work, Plain Facts for Old and Young, he also recommended using circumcision as a means to discourage masturbation. Want to know why circumcision is so common among men in America? Well, you have Mr. Kellogg to thank for that.
Before he and his kind came along, circumcision was primarily a Jewish rite. It was rarely performed for medical reasons and was fairly uncommon. However, that changed once masturbation became public enemy number one. The idea was that the presence of the foreskin made masturbation too easy and they can’t have that. If someone is going to self-indulge, they need to make it challenging.
Once again, Cracked.com does an admirable job describing how these fears shaped the modern world that emerged in the 20th century. They also quote one of Mr. Kellogg’s recommendations for using circumcision. If you’re a man and you have a weak stomach, you might want to close this page.
“The operation should be performed by a surgeon without administering an anesthetic, as the brief pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind, especially if it be connected with the idea of punishment, as it may well be in some cases. The soreness which continues for several weeks interrupts the practice, and if it had not previously become too firmly fixed, it may be forgotten and not resumed.”
Still with me? Are you done cringing? Good, because as a man, it is pretty distressing. The idea of a young boy or a baby going through this procedure should make anyone feel queasy. It’s one thing to just preach and lecture others on the evils of enjoying one’s self on one’s own terms. It’s quite another when it involves involuntary mutilation.
This is how far sexual repression can go. People like John Harvey Kellogg can become so obsessed with this one act of sexual expression that they are willing to actually torture and mutilate others to stop it. We still see that happening today with female circumcision, an equally horrifying process that I’ll save for another blog post. However, even today’s ardent prudes would cringe at what Kellogg recommended.
The anti-masturbation crusade of the late 19th century still affects America to this day and not just because of the lack of foreskins on many men. At the time, masturbation was part of a moral panic that believed this one particular vice would destroy society. It set a pattern for future panics.
We had panics over alcohol, which resulted in Prohibition and the crime it inspired. We had panics over marijuana, which are still being fought today. Now, thanks to the likes of Pamela Anderson, we may be on the cusp of a new moral panic over porn.
In every case, there’s no inherent logic to the moral panic. In the same way that the anti-porn crusaders of today shroud their panic under the guise of public health, John Harvey Kellogg did the same with his pro-corn flakes, pro-mutilation policies for curbing masturbation. It’s all for “public health” or “the welfare of children.”
Now it’s easy to ridicule men like Kellogg for their obscenely extreme views on sex, vice, and overall fun. However, I think that ridicule needs to be tempered to some degree because men like him, as well as women like Pamela Anderson, are very likely sincere in their beliefs to some degree. They’ve really convinced themselves that these vices are a problem.
Again, there’s no logic to this conviction, but they don’t care. They just need to grasp at whatever evidence, be it anecdotal or completely made up, will affirm this conviction. John Harvey Kellogg had a valid excuse to some extent because he lived during a time when our understanding of biology, physiology, and sexuality was still limited. However, in the age of the internet and Wikipedia, the anti-sex crusaders of today have no excuses.