Diary secrets

A cross for masturbation

Leo Polak used to mark down the days he masturbated in his diary. After all, self-gratification would lead to terrible diseases. Leonieke Vermeer discovered that those marks tell us something about an elusive piece of history.
By Christien Boomsma / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

It was a real struggle. Time and again, he tried to resist the forceful, tempting urge that he wasn’t allowed to give in to. Time and again, his body did what it wanted anyway. But the student, who would grow up to become the famous free thinker Leo Polak (1880-1941), knew that these nightly emissions were extremely unhealthy. And that actual masturbation – or onanism, in the period’s parlance – could have terrible consequences. It could lead to memory loss, which is something he particularly feared during exams. The loss of ‘life force’ would weaken him and leave him exposed to all kinds of diseases.

Polak pondered the possible cause. Was he moving too much in his sleep? Did he sleep on his arm? Did something he ate not agree with him? Was it happening too much? And so he kept meticulous track by marking down little crosses in his diary, which his daughters donated to the University of Amsterdam last year. Sometimes, his diary shows little hashes instead of crosses. On those days he didn’t just have wet dreams, but actively masturbated.

Empty pages

All these symbols intrigued RUG cultural historian Leonieke Vermeer. She uses diaries to research the history of the human body. ‘When I started the research, I thought they would be an excellent source for studying emotions and daily life’, she says.

She wants to know what kind of influence nineteenth-century scientific theories had on people’s personal lives. What did insights on hygiene, such as the 1882 discovery that bacteria caused diseases, and the realisation that washing your hands could prevent them, mean for people? How did the discovery that breastfeeding babies could prevent infant mortality influence mothers? ‘Unfortunately, the sources on that are pretty disappointing. No one actually ever wrote in their diary that they’d washed their hands’, she says. ‘Nor did anyone clarify the reasons for breastfeeding their child, if they recorded it at all.’

But she did find something else. Emptiness. Empty pages, and symbols, like Leo Polak’s crosses and hashes. She found out that what isn’t recorded can actually say a lot, and can also shed light on one of the most difficult subjects: the way people regarded their bodies and their sexuality.

Awful death

Polak wasn’t the only one monitoring his sexual behaviour the way he did. Vermeer found the phenomenon in a total of six diaries, but she’s convinced there must be more. ‘You could compare it to women keeping track of their menstrual cycle by marking it in their diary.’

The only difference being, of course, that ‘onanism’ isn’t as innocent as a monthly cycle. Ever since the eighteenth century, masturbation had been considered an enormous medical problem. ‘It was a “total disease”‘, Vermeer explains. ‘People thought it caused consumption of the spine. It could lead to impotence. But it also led to jaundice, melancholy, fever, epilepsy, and ultimately, an awful death.’

The campaign against masturbation started in 1712, with an anonymous pamphlet: ‘Onania, or the Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution’. This piece not only described the ailments people would ‘suffer’ from, but also told of the solution: a strengthening tincture, to be procured from the local apothecary.

The pamphlet was a hit, and was translated into Dutch, among other languages. And when Swiss doctor Samual Tissot published a book in 1760 about the same subject, ‘self-pollution’ became a problem for the next 250 to 300 years.

Less private

Parents would put their sons – and their daughters – in anti-onanism belts: devices that made masturbation impossible, some having sharp spikes on the insides that would make quick work of any erection. We know that Dutch writer Lodewijk van Deyssel was made to wear one by his father when he was recovering from syphilis.

Parents also made their children keep a diary to monitor their behaviour, including their sexuality. ‘Diaries were often much less private than we’d like to think’, Vermeer says. Parents would read them, people showed them to friends. Polak had his mother read his diaries.’

That meant that codes or symbols for anything people didn’t necessarily want others to see, were all the more important. Sometimes, Polak would write key words or phrases in Latin.

Vermeer believes that the Enlightenment played an important role in this development. ‘It was about disciplining your body, which would make you a better person’, she says. ‘Upbringing was important. Not just for moral improvement, but also where the malleability of the body was concerned.’

Fear of sperm loss

What makes Polak’s diaries even more interesting is the fact that in addition to keeping track of his ejaculations, he also speculated about his sexual behaviour. In March of 1903, he wrote: ‘Why crosses instead of pollution?’ Later, that same year: ‘I have unjustly become melancholic over the fear of losing too much sperm. From 2 to 3 I counted 58 in the total discharge.’

Even more important is Polak’s book Sexual Ethics, which was published in 1936. In this book, he passionately argues for freedom and autonomy of our own bodies, and makes short work of the ‘charlatans’ lies’ concerning masturbation that had made him and others afraid for so long. ‘Masturbation is no more immoral or dirty than the act of copulation’, he writes. ‘And the lonely battle against it, with its sad defeats, is neither a disgraceful evil to be hidden, nor something sick, unhealthy, or abnormal.’

According to Vermeer, this passage speaks volumes. ‘He’s dealing with the exact thing that bothered him so much in his youth’, she thinks. This makes the diaries even more valuable. They provide insight into a part of history that has very few sources. They also show how Polak’s later philosophy concerning ethics and sexuality developed.

Masturbation suit

This is why Vermeer feels she is allowed to use these diaries. Although she does feel a little uncomfortable sometimes, reading such intimate moments, or coming across letters that say ‘burn without reading’. ‘But it’s for a cause: insight into history and Polak’s philosophy.’

After the thirties, masturbation slowly started to lose its negative image. ‘Self-pollution’ became ‘self-gratification’. ‘Pollution’ became ‘ejaculation’. And the anti-masturbation belts were thrown out with the trash. And what is the current disposition towards masturbation?

Vermeer chuckles. ‘There’s even an app to track your masturbation patterns.’ And for women, there’s the ‘masturbation suit’, created last year by design student Maud van der Linden, which allows women to ‘indulge themselves wherever and whenever they want’.

Writing crosses in the margin, Anne Lister, who was openly lesbian, denoted her sexual escapades.

And what about the ladies?

Not just men, but women used symbols in their diaries to mark their masturbation as well. But studying women’s sexuality is even trickier than men’s, Vermeer says. There are much fewer diaries by women from history. ‘Before the twentieth century, only ten per cent of diaries are of women.’

That’s not just because women wrote less, but also because their work was deemed less important. ‘Men’s diaries were often kept in archives, because they were writers or scientists. It’s a gender problem’, says Vermeer.

Moreover, women’s sexuality was quite problematic in the nineteenth century. Women were not seen as sexual beings, but only as mothers and wives.

One famous diary is Anne Lister’s (1791-1840). Lister was openly lesbian and wrote extensive diaries. She used a code to describe her sexual escapades and wrote crosses in the margins to denote when she’d masturbated or had ‘erotic reading sessions’.

Also of interest is the diary of Caroline van Loon (1833-1899), from Amsterdam. During her teenage years, she writes elaborate entries on her piano lessons or what she talks about with her friends, but remained emphatically silent about her developing body. She, too, knew that her diaries would be read. Her fiancé Maurits wrote comments in the margins, while she pasted over passages where she wrote about her ‘passionate love’ for her ‘Mausjen’.


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