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  • Writer's pictureNotes From The Frontier

Sex Myths of the 1800s - Part 1

Updated: May 7, 2023

The Victorian era (1837-1901) was a time of incredible contradictions—especially when it came to sex. The Victorian era came on the heels of the Industrial Revolution when factories, automation, and many inventions helped produce a middle class and more leisure time. This gave many people more time to think about more than just mere survival. They started to think about pleasure, too. In fact, the Victorians started to think about sex a lot.

Of course, sex always had risks involved, especially physically transmitted diseases. Even predating the Victorian era, there was a prevalent belief that sexually transmitted diseases were spread through pubic hair. And, here we find the shocking answer to a question many have wondered (even if they wouldn’t admit to it!): what is the origin of the sexual vernacular for a women’s private part that starts with “b” and rhymes with fever? I always assumed the origin came from early mountain men who were trappers and whose most desirous commodities (even above whiskey and women) were beaver pelts. It stood to reason that mountain men would regard women and their naughty bits know...that which was closest to their hearts.

But, no. The truth is even more perverse. The term “beaver” came from the practice of prostitutes wearing pubic wigs made of beaver fur! (I’m not making this up. Honest.) These pubic wigs were called “merkins.” (#6) They not only protected against lice and crabs from clients, they were believed to prevent the contraction of venereal diseases as well. Some merkins were even adorned with ribbons or beads for a fashion flourish. Since the beaver pelt industry was booming in America in the 1800s, the fur was exported all over the world not only for men's top hats, ladies’ collars and coats, but for merkins!

Aside from the age-old physical dangers of sex, new sexual demons were introduced in the Victorian era. Two German doctors (#4) Richard von Kraft-Ebing and Sigmund Freud, published shocking books on sexuality that only fed the paradox of the aversion to or obsession with sex (#1 & #2). Kraft-Ebing’s book, “Psychopathia Sexualis” (#3) diagnosed four categories of serious neurosis: Hyperesthesia (too much sexual desire); Anesthesia (not enough sexual desire); Parasoxia (sexual desire at the wrong time); and Paraesthesia (sexual deviancy). There was scant mention of what was “normal!”

Freud’s book, “Studies in Hysteria,” (#5) introduced the idea of hysteria in women, an uncontrolled emotional excess that originated from the Greek word for uterus, “hystera.” It included nervousness, emotional outbursts, lack of logic, and deviant sexual behavior that could be excessive or deficient. Penis envy was also a part of his theory. Estimates of many in the medical community proclaimed that at least a quarter of the female population suffered from hysteria.

Suddenly courtship and marriage became fraught with sexual fears. The magazine industry was exploding and periodicals like Godey’s Ladies Book, Gentleman’s Magazine, and Harper’s Weekly ran titillating articles about how men and women should behave and how courtship should be conducted. At the back of these publications were pages and pages of ads (#10-#12) for all kinds of sexual aids, remedies, birth control, and enhancements for courting, as well as endless remedies for hysteria (excessive sexual passion), masturbation, lust, and avoiding sexual encounters. The messages were, indeed, mixed!

Needless to say, the medical market was quick to provide remedies for all these sexual “ailments.” The Victorian age boomed with chemical, mechanical and clinical treatments to boggle the mind. Although many remedies addressed women, men were certainly not immune. For both sexes, masturbation was considered a definite no-no. Not just verboten, but extremely dangerous. Masturbation, called onanism, was diagnosed as early as 1812 by Dr. Benjamin Rush as causing, impotence, tuberculosis, blindness, epilepsy, dementia, and even death. This belief persisted throughout most of the 1800s.

In 1870, Dr. George Napheys, wrote: “We distinctly warn that [masturbation] leads to insanity, not rarely but frequently. We have found [that] nearly 9% of males [are so affected] and in one prominent Ohio institution, 14%.” Even in 1880, Dr. Bethenia Ownes-Adair at the University of Michigan and the author of Oregon’s Sterilization Bill, wrote: “I personally know of a young man sent to the insane asylum [caused by] continuous masturbation... At the request of his mother, her son was castrated. Two years later, he was earning a salary of $1,800 a year and married an unsexed girl. Can anyone deny the great benefit of castration to this young man and his mother?”

Other “treatments” for masturbation were metal armatures (#9), metal shafts, the 1876 Spermatic Truss (trust me, you don’t want to see a picture of this!) and the 1915 French Electrical Device in which a man would wear a ring connected to an electrical system. Any arousal set off an alarm bell that alerted everyone within hearing distance what was going on.

Both men and women had available to them chastity belts (#7) that hampered sexual activity and masturbation but were also horrible sources of infection. Some chastity belts for women actually had metal teeth threatening anyone in the vicinity. Speaking of metal teeth, men could also wear a Jugum Penis (#8), developed in 1880, that was a ring with teeth that discouraged arousal and involuntary night emissions (and probably induced nightmares).

See related post:

-Sex Myths of the 1800s-Part 2

"Sex Myths of the 1800s: Part !" was originally posted on July 13, 2019

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Deborah Hufford

Author, Notes from the Frontier

Deborah Hufford is an award-winning author and magazine editor with a passion for history. Her popular blog with 100,000+ readers has led to an upcoming novel! Growing up as an Iowa farmgirl, rodeo queen and voracious reader, her love of land, lore and literature fired her writing muse. With a Bachelor's in English and Master's in Journalism from the University of Iowa, she taught students of Iowa's Writer's Workshop, then at Northwestern University, Marquette and Mount Mary. Her extensive publishing career began at Better Homes & Gardens, includes credits in New York Times Magazine, New York Times, Connoisseur, many other titles, and serving as publisher of The Writer's Handbook


Deeply devoted to social justice, especially for veterans, women, and Native Americans, she has served on boards and donated her fundraising skills to Chief Joseph Foundation, Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), Homeless Veterans Initiative, Humane Society, and other nonprofits.  


Deborah's soon-to-be released historical novel, BLOOD TO RUBIES weaves indigenous and pioneer history, strong women and clashing worlds into a sweeping saga praised by NYT bestselling authors as "crushing," "rhapsodic," "gritty," and "sensuous." Purchase BLOOD TO RUBIES online beginning June 9. Connect with Deborah on, Facebook, and Instagram.

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