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Spermatorrhea: When Male Hysteria Over Seminal Leakage Hit Victorian England

One of the worst times to be a middle-class white guy in Britain.

 DR. BECCY CORKILL

Dr. Beccy Corkill

 DR. BECCY CORKILL

Dr. Beccy Corkill

Custom Content Manager

Beccy is a custom content producer who holds a PhD in Biological Science, a Master’s in Parasites and Disease Vectors, and a Bachelor’s in Human Biology and Forensic Science.

Custom Content Manager

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Spermatorrhea was not a real disease.

Image credit: MIA Studio/Shutterstock.com

Back in the 1800s, there was hysteria over the disease spermatorrhea – the excessive discharge of sperm caused by illicit or excessive sexual activities – and there were some harsh and extreme “cures” for this affliction. Nowadays, it is fairly unlikely you would hear about this disease – is that because we have cured it? No, it is because it never existed.

The origins of spermatorrhea

Spermatorrhea was more of a cultural phenomenon during the Victorian era – a disease it was not. The first mentions of this condition in the public and professional setting were back in the 1840s and the original influencer of the following trend was Claude Francois Lallema, whose work titled “A Practical Treatise on the Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment of Spermatorrhea” was translated in 1847.

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It was originally thought of as a separate sexual disease with its own symptoms, but was later described as a symptom of excessive seminal discharge. Overall, it was thought to have two stages. The first was the excessive leakage (from wet dreams and premature ejaculation), and the second was how the body reacted when exhausted (depression, impotence, shrinking testicles, and semen in the urine).

The causes of disease varied very significantly and were sometimes associated with what people perceived at the time to be an "overly domesticated" lifestyle. Supposed causes included:

  • Flannel trousers
  • Full bladder
  • Sleeping on one’s back
  • Soft beds
  • Sitting in front of a fire
  • Excess reading of sentimental literature
  • Sitting on a railway carriage (in one case someone ejaculated twice on a train because he was sitting instead of standing)

However, most of the ”experts” at the time concluded that masturbation was the main cause. 

What was especially strange about this "disease" is that it mainly affected middle-class men. These people were often wealthy enough to afford medical care, while also being prey to any sexual panic that ran rampant within middle-class society. Men with spermatorrhea often had jobs considered of high standing at the time, such as lawyers, military officers, or even doctors themselves.

What was the “cure”?

When it came to treating the condition, it was not necessarily mainstream doctors who took the helm, but surgeons. During this time, surgeons were not always seen as they are today and so with this disease, came an opportunity to make themselves the experts in the field and improve their social standing.

The cures varied, but some were eye-wateringly invasive compared to others. Some “kinder” cures included anal leeches, enemas, laxatives, diuretics, and suppositories. One particularly torturous-sounding cure was the penis being pierced with metal rings that were coated in chemical irritants. This meant that the patient was so sore that they would not want to masturbate, and unsurprisingly, this usually meant that the patient was unwilling to repeat the procedure.

Another common treatment was cauterization, which aimed to deaden and destroy the nerve endings in the penis so they would not be susceptible to excitement anymore. The procedure involved taking a thin metal instrument with a ball on the end (called a bougie), coated with a caustic substance like silver nitrate and passing it through the urethra. This treatment was a bit controversial – some argued it was safe and fearless, whilst others said that it caused horrendous side effects like “visible agony”, which is not all that surprising.

Success stories?

Despite the existence of torture-like cures, there was a small group that was able to produce some collections of sexual success stories. The players in this corner of the story were Courtenay, Culverwell, Dawson, and Milton, all members of the Royal College of Surgeons. This group took a more holistic approach, where they discussed sexual experiences in the context of relationships, with a special interest in the psychological and emotional dimensions of erotic life.

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Their aim was to try and calm and counsel anxious men and help them to return to sexual potency. They also utilized less scary-sounding treatments than those listed above, prescribing tonics, regular exercise, cold baths, and “moderate sexual intercourse” – which sounds far closer to a night of indulgent self-care in the modern setting.

In this evolution of the disease, this group of surgeons began the process of not condemning their patients, but comfort and minimizing patient anxiety. Despite the imaginary condition, spermatorrhea did help some groups of surgeons to start to understand that sexuality and psychology were very interconnected.  

The end of an era

Along with the surgeons were, of course, the quacks, who preyed on the men who were too desperate for help to question their knowledge (or more importantly fees) for fear of being “outed” as sex fiends.

As soon as the quacks entered the field, however, surgeons went from stressing the prevalence of the disease and its grim consequences to announcing that it was, in fact, not common at all. In the later years, there was a call by surgeons that “false spermatorrhoea” was actually the true epidemic. Nevertheless, the phenomenon did help some groups of surgeons to start to understand the interconnection between sexuality and psychology.

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All “explainer” articles are confirmed by fact checkers to be correct at time of publishing. Text, images, and links may be edited, removed, or added to at a later date to keep information current.  


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healthHealth and Medicine
  • tag
  • sperm,

  • Victorian era,

  • medical history,

  • mass hysteria

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