Thinking Historically about Sexuality, Gender, and the Implications of “Safety”

The title page of Woman and Her Secret Passions (MC 4516 James Waddell family fonds); photo taken at the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick (PANB).

The title page of Woman and Her Secret Passions (MC 4516 James Waddell family fonds); photo taken at the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick (PANB).

Gemma Marr

“The luxurious habits of civilized life lead to many excesses. Those of gluttony and hard drinking have been sufficiently commented upon. Tracts and newspapers showing the fatal results of intoxication, surround us on all hands. But an evil more destructive than any of these has received, comparatively, but little attention. It is time that the warning was given, and that the trumpet was blown within the hearing of every young person. For want of knowledge on this subject, the fairest daughters of the land have gone down to a premature grave, or lingered out existence in wretchedness, without knowing the cause of their misery, or without ever knowing that there was such a thing as enjoyment, in living according to the dictates of nature and virtue”[1]


When I first read these lines, I (like you, dear reader) had very little context. I was in the research room at the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, and had just been handed a folder. “You might find this interesting,” the archivist told me, and walked away. Indeed, I did; indeed, I do. The passage, which aims to strike a fearful curiosity in the reader, comes from a small book called Woman and Her Secret Passions: Containing an Exact Description of the Female Organs of Generation, Their Uses and Abuses, Together with a Detailed Account of the Causes and the Cure of the Solitary Vice. In it author Robert T. Wakely talks about the “secret vice”[2], and is worried about the vitality of young women lost to the evils of masturbation. When this book was first introduced to me, I wondered who read it and why (for titillation or information or instruction?). As I continued my research, a secondary thought emerged. I began to draw connections between the ideas of “safety” in relation to gender and sexuality as presented in Woman and Her Secret Passions and debates around “safety” in relation to gender and sexuality in contemporary conversations around sexual education and school policy.

When Woman and Her Secret Passions was published in 1846, the “evils” of masturbation had been primarily discussed in relation to young men;[3] in his text, however, Wakely attends to how promising young women—those “victims of this most withering calamity”—lose not only interest in socializing with friends and family, busy as they are in their acts of self-pollution, but also their beauty and their interest in “rational pleasures.”[4] My tone here is tongue-in-cheek because there is something a bit funny about the catastrophizing at work in this thinking. Wakely reviews the physical and moral debilitation brought on by masturbation, tells the story of a young girl who attends boarding school and is corrupted into the practice, and outlines a variety of medical conditions relating to women. Many of these conditions are not connected to masturbation at all; instead, there are details about sexually transmitted infections, reflections on pregnancy and its complications, and notes on how to ensure the sexual well-being of one’s husband.

For historians of sexuality, this book is a goldmine for thinking about sex, pleasure, and bodies in the mid-to-late-nineteenth century. It is even more interesting to me in my work on sexuality in New Brunswick because it was found in a home on the Kingston Peninsula that was predominantly occupied by men.[5] In flipping through the small book, one can see which pages were more frequently thumbed, moments of pause when a note was scribbled, and, due to a piece of paper wedged between pages, a reader’s specific interest in impregnation.

Woman and her Secret Passions (MC 4516 James Waddell family fonds) open to a page on impregnation; photo taken at PANB.

Woman and her Secret Passions (MC 4516 James Waddell family fonds) open to a page on impregnation; photo taken at PANB.

It is not particularly shocking that a mid-nineteenth century text selectively demonizes female pleasure through the threat of destruction, and situates the solution, or the realm of safety, in a woman’s marriage to a man. Over forty years later this thinking was still going strong when Priscilla Barker argued in 1888 that girls who masturbate “lose their color, and the eyes grow dull, heavy and weak, the hands feel soft and clammy, and often the smell of feet is unbearable”.[6] Ultimately, such advice texts situate female masturbation as a serious vice, and suggest that there is only one way for a woman to express her sexuality safely: heterosexual union. This information is presented as factual material designed, among other things, to save women from both themselves and from outside sources of contamination (other women at school, young men, and scandalous material).[7]

While believing that masturbation makes your feet smell may seem ludicrous today, I’m struck by how, particularly in Wakely’s text, the rhetoric of controlling female sexuality is couched in the language of safety. His book proports to fill in knowledge gaps which have led those “fairest daughters of the land . . . to a premature grave,”[8] in turn suggesting that proper education will save women from their own desire and allow them to learn the appropriate way to experience their sexuality. A similar positioning of sex, gender, and sexuality as a potential contaminant or, when deemed appropriate, a potential salvation can be seen in New Brunswick, Saskatchewan, and elsewhere, where conversations around sexual education and school policies have erupted.

In New Brunswick, Policy 713, which lays out protections for 2SLGBTQIA+ people in schools and ensures they can see themselves reflected in learning materials, recently received significant push back. This September, for example, protestors argued that learning about 2SLGBTQIA+ people in school would force their children to “be like that.” As coverage of a protest in Saint John notes, the language of “sexualizing” children, as well as “indoctrinating” and “grooming” them, was central to how protestors vocalized their opposition to the policy. Here, information about the 2SLGBTQIA+ community is situated as a kind of contagion; the implication is that information about being heterosexual and cisgender is, of course, safe or an antidote.

There are many examples of connections between 2SLGBTQIA+ people and notions of contamination throughout history, and debates around sexual education are not new; however, the ways that safety has become a rallying cry for those who oppose Policy 713 echoes aspects of Wakely’s comments. In its original form in 2020, the policy “sets minimum requirements for school districts and public schools to create a safe, welcoming, inclusive, and affirming school environment for all students, families, and allies who identify or are perceived as LGBTQI2S+.” On the surface this mandate seemed innocuous enough; however, by the Spring of 2023, debates around the policy emerged, most often in connection to notions of parental rights and the ways that supporting queer and gender non-conforming youth mark a usurping of said rights. There was, and continues to be, much back and forth around the issue of parental control, and central to this conversation is the implicit (and often explicit) suggestion that learning about gender and sexuality outside the scope of the cisgender, heterosexual norm can damage, harm, or pervert the learner.

What is clear to me in debates around such policies is a desire for control. Indeed, the phrase “Leave our kids alone” became a rallying cry for a growing number of people who, to different degrees, want to regulate what information is taught in the classroom and, in turn, what relationships and bodies are deemed appropriate and safe. This is where I see the connection to nineteenth century rhetoric around female masturbation. At the heart of Woman and Her Secret Passions is an emphasis on what is deemed natural (by God and man), on the potential destruction of those whose desire falls outside these parameters (self-pleasure), and on the need to protect vulnerable populations (women) from deviating into activities that will supposedly harm them. This thinking orbits around the threat—and potential destruction—that can come from learning the wrong kind of pleasure. There is a lingering sense of corruption and need for control at the heart of both the “self-pollution” discourse of the 1800s and the debates around sex education in 2023.

The ways in which Wakely and his contemporaries discuss the ramifications of female pleasure can help us think about both the continuation of control when it comes to sexuality and gender, and the ways that these debates shift and change with time. Identifying the threads that remain and those that have fallen away allows for reflection on the constraints placed on desire and, at the same time, allows us to think about the longevity of such constraints. We can look back with historical distance and recognize that ideas about women’s pleasure, and the connection between self-pleasure and death, are rooted in control. We can feel a sense of almost silliness in this thinking and be glad we have grown from it.

It is my hope that, eventually, there will be a similar historical distance from debates around sexual education. I hope that in 200 years a historian of sexuality will be thinking about the language of “protecting children” from learning about 2SLGBTQIA+ communities as part of a debate that had long-since passed. I hope this future historian can write tongue-in-cheek about how some people in 2023 believed that simply learning about queer people would sully their children or that parents not knowing about a teenager’s pronoun choice was an act of indoctrination on the part of educators. I hope this future historian thinks carefully and critically about political leaders who shook hands with protestors holding signs denouncing the rights of the 2SLGBTQIA+ citizens they were elected to represent. I hope they see lawsuits against the New Brunswick government for changing the policy and know that people fought back.


[1] Robert T. Wakely, Woman and Her Secret Passions: Containing an Exact Description of the Female Organs of Generation, Their Uses and Abuses, Together with a Detailed Account of the Causes and the Cure of the Solitary Vice (New York: 1846), 7. This text was introduced to me by Archivist Janice Cook at PANB.

[2] Wakely, Woman and Her Secret Passions, 8.

[3] Alan Hunt notes that much of the masturbation panic from the early 1700s into the late 1800s was “directed primarily at middle-and-upper-class teenage males” (576).

[4] Wakely, Woman and Her Secret Passions, 8.

[5] See MC 4516 James Waddell family fonds housed at the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick.

[6] Alan Hunt, “The Great Masturbation Panic and the Discourses of Moral Regulation in Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century Britain,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 8, no. 4 (April 1998), 597.

[7] In Riotous Flesh: Women, Physiology, and the Solitary Vice in Nineteen Century North America, April R. Haynes maps how, in some cases, women’s groups were able to use material about masturbation to assert their own sexual agendas. However, these potential advances in the realm of women’s sexual politics were limited to white, cisgender, heterosexual women.

[8] Wakely, Woman and her Secret Passions, 7.

Gemma Marr is a SSHRC postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Historical Studies at the University of New Brunswick. Her research focuses on understandings of gender and sexuality in Atlantic Canadian history and culture. 

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