We are super lucky to be living in an era when many medical conditions are easily treatable. Take erectile dysfunction—if a man is dealing with so-called performance issues today, a little blue pill may be all it takes to cure what ails him. Until recently, however, before medication could regulate blood flow to the penis, men were forced to take more, well, extreme measures.
I first became curious about historical treatments for erectile dysfunction last summer, when the FDA approved Addyi, the first pill that promises to treat sexual desire disorder in women. The drug’s approval was significant, in part, because it validated female lack of sexual disorder as an actual disorder—no small feat, given that, for much of Western history, any sexual issue in women was written off as a sign or symptom of “hysteria.”
This got me thinking—were men subjected to similar indignities before modern medicine deemed men’s impotence a medical problem? While sexual dysfunction in men has certainly been a cause of unnecessary shaming, male problems were surely taken more seriously by medical professionals—right? Right?
Not exactly. When it comes to penises, there’s not much guys haven’t tried to keep them functioning properly. Before little blue pills and vacuum pumps, ancient Egyptian men ingested flower remedies, Ancient Indian and Chinese men drank urine, and in the early 20th century, men inserted radioactive suppositories into their rectums and even underwent goat testicle transplants to ensure their vitality.
But one particularly intense cure really stood out to me in exploring the annals of erectile dysfunction—more intense even than radioactive suppositories. Electrotherapy! Yes, from the 18th century all the way to the 20th century, questionable proprietors pushed electrotherapeutical impotence cures, shocking the penis ’til it worked good again.
How did the world get to a point where electricity seemed like a sensible penis treatment?
Well, today we understand that ongoing erectile dysfunction is a complex condition that can be caused by psychological issues including anxiety, depression, stress, and physical issues including heart disease, tobacco use, alcoholism, and high cholesterol. But this was not always the case. In 16th and 17th century France, impotence was a crime and grounds for divorce. Really! In the book Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, Mary Roach explains that in order for a husband to “win the case,” he had to prove to a jury that he could indeed, achieve an erection by, um, having an erection in front of a bunch of people.
During the Victorian era, medical professionals saw impotence as a consequence of moral weakness. And what signified moral weakness, depravity, and sin in a refined white Judeo-Christian Victorian society? Nothing quite like masturbation.
In several texts from the era, most notably A Practical Treatise on Impotence, Sterility, and Allied Disorders of the Male Sexual Organs by 19th century Philadelphia-based surgeon Samuel W. Gross, “atonic impotence” was induced by chronic inflammation of the penis, which was “usually due to masturbation, gonorrhea, sexual excesses, and constant excitement of the genital organs without gratification of the passions.” Got that? Impotence was caused by masturbation, having sex with someone with an STD, having sex a lot, and not masturbating or having sex enough. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
It was around this time that “electrotherapeutics” was becoming available to the average (well, rich) consumer in England and the United States. Since the mid-1700s, scientists (read: bored/curious white dudes who knew how to write), had been tinkering around with bioelectricity—although at that point, the pinnacle of their research was something akin to making a dismembered frog leg dance.
In the 1870s, however, physicians offered patients galvanic baths—literally bathtubs full of water with electrodes in them, which supposedly restored “sexual power” within six sessions. Other doctors tried a more localized route, directly applying electric currents to the penis, scrotum, and prostate (or submerging the genitals in a “local electric bath,” which I can only assume is like a miniature dunktank for your junk. A junktank?). Another electrotherapy cure included a rod that was inserted into the urethra for internal electric stimulation.
By the late 1800s, savvy businessmen began to capitalize on the novelty of electricity, the ease of mass production, the social stigma of impotence and its sinful causes—and of course, the utter gullibility of consumers. And thus, mail-order electrotherapeutic apparatuses, namely electric belts, hit the market, largely thanks to quack doctors and frauds looking to make a quick buck off of “Weak Men.” (Electric belts were also available for women as sort of a general health device, but the ads mostly focused on men and their biggest source of anguish.) To maintain some semblance of discretion, these ads would often claim to cure kidney pains and backaches and the more thinly veiled “nervous exhaustion.”
(Don’t be fooled by all that talk. We all know what they’re talking about. It’s penises. They’re talking about penises.)
The electrode-packed belts were worn around the hips, and in some designs, there was a “suspensory” attachment that was placed around the genitals for that extra intimate jolt.
And how did they claim to work? Well, given that people believed impotence amounted to a depletion of vital energy caused by sexual excesses, electricity supposedly restored that very energy. Yes, really.
The above ad for a Heidelberg electric belt states, “Our alternating electric current reaches nerve centers and restores weak parts…” So scientific.
Another ad, for a product called Dr. McLaughlin’s Electric Belt, claims that the device “fills the body with electrical vitality, which gives strength to every organ, makes the blood circulate more vigorously, warms the stomach and liver, and overcomes all pain and restores vigorous strength to every part.”
But hey, it worked! No, not the belts, I’m talking about the advertising. As Carlyn Thomas wrote in her book The Body Electric, “Electric belts became the most popular impotence cure between 1890 and 1920 by offering a unique combination of discretion, diagnoses, and deliverance…Masturbation need no longer be the cause of permanent debility and lingering guilt; with an occasional electric charge, masturbation could be reimagined as a benign activity that left a man with plenty of energy in reserve.”
Electric belt manufacturers could give you the answers that real doctors, by oath, could not.
Whereas doctors could not necessarily guarantee their patients would fully recover, businessmen could guarantee whatever made them more money. They could also provide that guarantee without making you actually admit that you’ve been hounding your Moby Dick or Muskateering by yourself or earning your Red Badge of Courage. (THESE ARE AWFUL, I KNOW, BUT I’M TRYING.)
While it’s not certain if anyone actually cured themselves of impotence after using an electric belt, their popularity declined in the early 1900s, as the medical community’s understanding of sexuality and impotence shifted from guilt-riddled sinning toward a more psychosexual neurotic origin (thanks, Freud) and then to a physiological and pharmacological matter.
But there still are folks today who believe that impotence can indeed be treated by shocking the penis. A small 2011 study at Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, Israel, claimed that men who underwent extracorporeal shockwave therapy, using low intensity sound waves, reported improved sexual function. While critics pointed out that such sound waves, usually used to break up kidney stones, are meant to be destructive, perhaps the study could lead to future wavy sexual solutions.
But for the time being, you should probably avoid directly applying electric currents to your sexual organs. I mean, if that’s your kink and you’ve consented to it—then, by all means. Just don’t use this Victorian-era remedy to treat your made-up moral disease of masturbating too much. There’s an easier way.