Your genitals are connected to your nose. Women are infertile males. Orgasm is necessary to make a baby. Masturbation leads to insanity. Menstrual blood is actually sperm gone bad. At one time or another, medical science believed all these statements. What is it about sex that allows the imagination of doctors and the scientifically-minded to run free?
A walk down the memory lane of misbegotten sex theories reveals that such fanciful “truths” often grow from the fertile soil of bias and prejudice.
Aristotle, for example, believed that “a boy actually resembles a woman anatomically speaking and a woman is, so to speak, an infertile male. She is female because of a kind of inadequacy being unable to concoct semen from nourishment … owing to the coldness of her nature.”
The idea of a woman as an imperfect man was popular in western thought for more than a thousand years because most of the writers were men.
“That’s the most plausible theory we have: fear of female sex," said Rachel Maines, visiting scholar in Cornell University’s Department of Science and Technology Studies and author of “The Technology of Orgasm: Hysteria, Vibrators and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction.” "I mean, the vagina dentata [vagina with teeth]? If there was ever a male paranoid fantasy, that was it.”
The idea of a vagina with teeth dates as far back as Greek mythology and is rooted in the idea that the female body has hidden, dangerous secrets and that a man who has sex with a woman may risk castration. (While largely the stuff of fiction, such as the 2007 movie "Teeth," at least one real-life case has been documented. In 1989, The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology reported a benign embroid tumor containing teeth growing in the wall of a woman's vagina.)
But it's not just women who are the targets of absurd sexual myths. When the female prioress and early medieval medical thinker Hildegard of Bingen wrote “the strength of man in his genital member is turned into poisonous foam,” she wasn’t exactly giving sex with men a big thumbs up.
Myths about sex in the western world waxed and waned depending largely on the state of sexual attitudes. The more restrictive the view of sex, the more prominent medical sex myths became.
By the 1800s, fear of one gender or another had turned into fear of sex itself. Doctors promoted the idea of danger.
While advice to the newly-married up until the 1820s and 1830s often included the idea of female pleasure and the importance of clitoral stimulation, things soon began to change, said John S. Haller, professor emeritus of history and medical humanities at Southern Illinois University and author of “The Physician and Sexuality in Victorian America.”
After about 1840, Haller said, advice manuals began to focus on the vagina. “You begin to see manuals saying that women should not be experiencing that pleasure, and if they do, they are exposing themselves to harm.”
Much of this anti-sex attitude was rooted in economic class prejudice after the industrial revolution started creating the bourgeoisie. The poor, the uneducated, immigrants from southern climes, were the types to enjoy sex. Proper people didn’t.
“The ‘Irish maid’ is a good example,” Haller said. “Bourgeois people did not want them to nurse their children because of what might be carried through the breast milk; it could bring the bad traits of the Irish into the home of the Anglo-Saxon family.”
Masturbate and you'll get flat breasts
Anti-immigrant attitudes even affected the willingness of women to discuss sexual health complaints. “There was a very Protestant focus,” Haller explained, to distinguish oneself from the more swarthy, and lusty, recent arrivals. So “women were not encouraged to discuss or complain about the problems of menopause because they’d be admitting in a public way that they had abused themselves in their youth” since masturbation was thought to bring on menopause later in life.
Masturbation has a been a bugaboo for thousands of years; the Catholic Church still regards it as a disorder. In the Victorian era, after French physician Francois Lallemand published his “Practical Treatise on the Causes, Symptoms and Treatment of Spermatorrhea,” something of a medical panic ensued. Doctors at a Boston insane asylum reported that inmates there masturbated and soon a flood of anxious young men flowed into clinics fearing insanity, wasting, and even death.
Self-pleasuring, a typical advice manual stated, leaves “the nerves wasted and depleted … the entire nervous system will eventually become shattered and ruined beyond all hope of complete recovery.”
Girls could be affected, too, though to a lesser degree. “Girls who have followed masturbating habits … show usually strong indications of it in the failure of their glandular development,” an advice manual stated. “Such persons are apt to be flat-breasted, or, as we term it, flat-chested."
Joy on the job
When mechanical sewing machines arrived, a few lucky women using a model with two foot pedals found that by rubbing their thighs together, they could reach orgasm, which could certainly make working in a garment factory a little more fun, but it also posed a danger. “Doctors thought all sewing machines were bad for women,” Maines explained. “They thought the women would turn into lesbians.”
Some of the advice was an attempt to apply science to what had been largely superstition or religious stricture. But science often fell flat.
In 1897, for example, German physician Wilhelm Fliess published a treatise called “The Relations Between the Nose and the Female Sexual Organs from the Aspect of Biology.” In it, Fliess expanded on an idea he’d been developing for some time, the “nasogenital reflex.”
Perhaps with the bias of his field — he was what we would now call an ear, nose and throat specialist — Fliess argued that the nose was intimately connected to our genitals and that problems with one could manifest as problems in the other. He identified a region inside the nasal cavity, a bony projection called the nasal inferior turbinate, as being especially influential.
He described a set of symptoms like headaches, aches and pains, breathing difficulties, disordered mood and difficult menstruation in women matching the 28-day female cycle (men had a 23-day cycle, he said), and argued that these symptoms often began in the nose. The result could be a full-on neurosis.
Fliess and his friend Sigmund Freud decided that one could treat the neurosis by huffing cocaine. Freud did so and it seemed to work. Voila! You could treat a genital problem — and the mental illness those problems create — by treating the nose. So Freud had Fliess operate on a woman named Emma Eckstein. Fliess removed Emma’s turbinate bone, but left a wad of gauze behind which created an infection. When the gauze was finally removed, she nearly bled to death. The episode left her disfigured for life.
Haller cautions against what he calls “presentism” when we look at such wrongheaded episodes. For example, while much of the Victorian era advice was laughably wrong, it was also progressive. An admonition that women should deny their husbands sex for up to eighteen months after the birth of a child was really a way for women to gain control of their own bodies.
We shouldn’t be too smug about our modern sexual sophistication, he said. Medical science may be getting better at figuring out what makes us tick, but it’s safe to say that some of the dogma we think is true now will later turn out to be false.
Brian Alexander is the author of the book now in paperback.