Now, we can't prove beyond all doubt that these two organizations were started purely as tools to beat back the masturbation menace -- that's not the sort of thing the organizers of either group would come out and admit. But it seems to have been a big part.
Let's start with the Boy Scouts.
First, you have to understand that in this late-19th/early-20th-century period when the masturbation panic was at its apex, exercise was considered another reliable weapon for slaying the wank dragon. Doctors at the time had already observed that people in sedentary jobs like merchants, students or shoemakers (and presumably writers) were far more prone to masturbation-based insanity. So not only did vigorous exercise strengthen the mind and body and give your hands something else to do, it effectively diverted "superfluous nervous energy" away from the sexual organs. You know, it's hard to argue; you've seen how pro athletes and soldiers both have no sex drive whatsoever.
The only drive this upstanding citizen has is the one that has won him 14 majors.
Anyway, the whole scouting movement goes back to around 1907 -- right in the middle of all this -- and was started by Lord Baden-Powell. And as much as anyone from that era, he was obsessed with stopping boys from masturbating.
Oh, and he was sort of crazy. Baden-Powell seemed to struggle with his own sexuality, spending a lot of time admiring the physical form of men and obsessing over the development of boys. When he finally married at age 55, he refused to sleep in the same bed as a woman, choosing to sleep out on his balcony instead. When it came to his advice about sex and the ultimate destructive evil of self-abuse, he, uh, had a way of phrasing things. He advised that young men should "bathe the racial organ in cold water daily." In the landmark scouting manual Scouting for Boys: A Handbook for Instruction in Good Citizenship, Powell included warnings against masturbation so graphic that the publisher forced him to cut them (they were restored in later editions).
"Make sure to spear your shadow-crotch twice daily."
So what did he think would save his boys from such a horrific vice? Powell's advice followed the thinking of the day, saying that bathing and "exercising the upper part of the body by arm exercises, boxing, etc." would make the urge go away, along with the practice he referred to as "rovering," which was keeping yourself busy with hiking and other outdoorsy things. In his book Rovering to Success, he goes on the usual screed against the health effects of masturbation, then says:
"Young fellows in the rutting stage are apt to get together and tell smutty stories and look at lewd pictures ... If you carry out Rovering, you will find lots to do in the way of hiking and the enjoyment of the out-of-door manly activities. To get rid of the bad you must put something good in its place."
Like motherfucking dragons.
Yes, you'll recognize his anti-masturbation program as pretty much everything Scouts do other than tying knots. No doubt he thought all of those things had other benefits, too, but make no mistake: This was a guy with masturbation on the brain.
AKA "Earning a Merit Badge in Woodworking"
And then we have the YMCA. The Young Men's Christian Association came about earlier than the Scouts, but started getting big into exercise and fitness in the 1880s. So, in this 1901 YMCA report we get talk of how "The chief preventive measure to sexual vice is physical training," and by 1909 their manuals were saying outright that "vigorous exercise" was a way to fight "the sin of masturbation" (along with, you guessed it, a nice bath and some bland foods).
And synchronized beatings.
By 1913, medical books recommended that if a young man was struggling with sexual purity, he go to the YMCA to get that shit cured.
Perfect for those with more sedentary jobs, like Indian Chief or Mr. Slave.
Yes, vibrators. As a means to prevent masturbation.
The thing is, a whole lot of tools and techniques have come along to prevent males from masturbating. For instance, leeches. In one medical case of an afflicted 22-year-old, leeches were shown to be highly effective, since for some reason being in a room with his parents, two doctors and 15 leeches on the back of his neck really reduced his urge to masturbate. The bad news? It wasn't always on the back of the neck.
The "K" stands for "'K guys, where are you putting tha -- oh God oh God OH GOD OH GOD."
And then you have the penis piercings. The ancient Romans would pierce the foreskin of gladiators with a piece of metal to prevent both masturbation and sex. This then made a comeback in the Victorian era, when penile piercings, or "infibulation," was introduced. They'd take a young boy, pierce both sides of his foreskin and then connect the piercings with either a ring or wire that passed over the top.
The Victorians also had less intrusive methods, fortunately. You could buy all sorts of elaborate attachments for preventing masturbation. Some used electricity, some had cooling systems, and others, like Dr. Moodies' Apparatus for Boys, were essentially bike locks for the privates. Now this would actually be a great invention if you were part of a culture that believes in penis theft, but, no, it was just cockblock ex machina.
US Patent 1906
On the upside, it makes your package look huge.
Many of these devices were designed so that they could be worn for months without needing to be taken off, which is good because you wouldn't want several pounds of leather and metal strapped to your penis to become inconvenient.
US Patent 1903
Just like a Slinky ... except without the "fun for a boy" part.
By the way, since many of these devices were made from silver and were remarkably ornate, today they've gone from symbols of celibacy to highly valuable collectables.
$22K to not have sexual activity? Sounds just like freshman year.
But none of these solved the terrible problem of masturbation in women. And, at the turn of the century, it was clear that the dark cloud of masturbation was threatening to overtake our lady folk. Many women were diagnosed with "hysteria," a mental disorder that happened when their genitals got out of control.
This nervous disorder was defined as "a loss of control over the nervous system, expressed in innumerable ways as by convulsions, weeping, laughing, random talk ... and sometimes by indecent words and acts." It was this final symptom that raised particular concern, described more explicitly by leading psychiatrist George Henry Savage in his medical manual Insanity and Allied Neuroses, saying that one symptom was "marked eroto-mania and tendency to masturbation."
And just like a pet dog, there's nothing that a good hosing wouldn't stop.
Masturbation was said to be both a debilitating symptom and, confusingly, a cause of hysteria. Thankfully, however, there was an thrilling new invention to help cure women of this disease. By combining the exciting innovation of electricity with the amazing powers of vibration, i.e., "the greatest curative force known to the medical profession," doctors/electricians invented the vibrator.
The treatment was surprisingly simple and could be done either in a doctor's office or in the comfort of one's own home.
American Journal of Clinical Medicine
"But I'm here because of my sprained ankle ... actually never mind."
The instruction manual for the New-Life vibrator, after already stating that "hysteria is related most intimately and peculiarly with the sexual organs of woman," somewhat coyly goes on to recommend that when using the vibrator, "the disease is sure to manifest itself in some part of the body more decidedly than elsewhere -- treat the nerves and muscles of that part... vibration with the 'New-Life' vibrator is always sure to afford relief."
And as we pointed out recently, the fine manufacturers of kitchen appliances Hamilton Beach soon made a vibrator that any woman could buy over the counter.
Health and how to get it
"Just two or three treatments a day, and I no longer need to masturbate!"
Problem solved! Great job, science!
For more reasons why our ancestors were insane, check out 8 Terrifying Instruments Old-Time Doctors Used on Your Junk and 6 Depraved Sexual Fetishes That Are Older Than You Think.