5. Christian wet dreams:

When semen is sin.

If we examine texts about wet dreams from medieval theologians, philosophers and physicians, we find that as the church grew in power, male leaders expressed serious anxieties over wet dreams. I mean they were terrified. They had stopped masturbating, stopped thinking about sex — their waking, libidinal bodies were divinely suppressed, and yet, they couldn’t stop lustful dreams! With wet dreams the male body becomes disobedient (Plato called the genitals in general “disobedient”). And everyone knew that the content of a dream is related to the content of the waking mind, so these monks had to keep their wet dreams secret. But they couldn’t keep them a secret from themselves, or from God. So, for example, Saint Augustine admits in his late fourth century Confessions that nocturnal emissions create “a great gap between myself and myself,” or between his body and his will. For Augustine, wet dreams “spoke to all men, and of one thing alone — of a fatal deposit of concupiscence left there by Adam’s fall.” Concupiscence means “desires.” So you can tell that this is not just cold slime found on your leg in the morning.

Essentially, before Martin Luther and the reformation, Christian monasteries where places where wet dreams were forbidden — which is like forbidding menstruation, or sweating, or sneezing. Can you imagine, a natural flow from the body, a healthy natural flow, being forbidden? Apa Moses, the late fifth century Christian father, was a little compassionate and declared that three uncontrolled semen emissions a year, without sexual fantasies, would be what a good monk might expect. But even the most devout monks, as Augustine confessed, cannot stop the body from leaking semen completely.

Medicinal Wet Dreams

The Judeo-Christian anxiety will flow into Western Medicine’s interpretation of wet dreams, as it flowed into Leonardo’s eyes, and here is when our story gets really gross.

The second century Roman physician, Soranus of Ephesus, says that a wet dream is not itself a disease, but could lead to one, such as epilepsy, insanity, or another illness in which the body “suffers agitation and is shaken.” The immediate cause of the nocturnal emission was a dream image, which was itself the result of perversion and prolonged sexual desire. Because nocturnal emission could develop into a worse problem, the doctor suggested remedial action of two kinds. First, the patient’s mental images had to be turned away from sex to other interests. Second, the patient’s body, evidently too hot and moist, had to be made cold and dry. This could be accomplished in a variety of ways: placing a lead plate on the groin, injecting “cold” juices into the urethra, but mostly by prescribing a cold, drying diet (Kellogg developed corn flakes and promoted circumcision for this same purpose).

Fasting

Fasting was another possible solution. Ian Shaw’s History of the Monks in Egypt includes the teaching of Dioscorus in which he reminds monks that nocturnal emissions of semen “can be reduced by means of fasting: by controlling the intake of food one reduces the buildup of “matter,” or seminal fluid, in the body.” Cassian also recognized the role of diet in the occurrence of nocturnal emissions. He refers to the notion that excess nutrition leads to a buildup of bodily humors, including semen. Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica, states that seminal discharge can result from eating too much food.

Victorian Wet Dreams: Spermatorrhea

Anxiety over wet dreams echoed all the way up into the 19th and 20th century. Victorian doctors invented Spermatorrhea,” pronounced like diarrhea, (in India it was called Dhat Syndrome), which was a catch-all term for the deadly problem of semen-leaking. European and American physicians discovered, described, diagnosed, and, if paid, treated this condition, caused by excessive sexual activity such as “masturbation, wet dreams, and sex more than once a week.” This is when we first find the use of the term ‘wet dream,’ in William Acton’s A practical treatise on diseases, 2nd ed., published in 1858. He says, “Spermatorrhea… is known by many other terms, such as “seminal emissions,” “nocturnal” or “diurnal emissions,” “pollutions,” “wet dreams,” “masturbation,” “onanism,” etc.”

Spermatorrhea was thought to cause anxiety, nervousness, impotency, insanity, and even death. Some historians go as far as to say that during the Victorian era, semen was pathologized as the symbol of everything that is alarming about the body. The male body’s inability to contain itself despite a conscious intention to not leak even led to surgical treatments such as cauterization, and the infamous “spermatorrhea ring” you could order for a dollar fifty, that cuts into the penis when it swells in arousal.

The extremely influential Victorian physician, William Acton, in his most popular work The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs, straight up calls wet dreams, “pollutions.” It was first published in 1857, and an eighth edition came out in Philadelphia in 1894! Acton says that wet dreams can be healthful, a “safety valve,” but he also speaks frankly about wet dreams as being undesirable and dangerous, and as controllable as masturbation and bedwetting. Wet beds, wet dreams, the term was probably used to humiliate. To patients who complained that they can’t control their dreams, Acton declared: “This is only partially true. Those who have studied the connection between thoughts during waking hours and dreams during sleep, know that they are closely connected….” Acton generally recommends a change in diet to blander foods, and not to drink anything after eight o’clock. However, cauterization is his number one recommendation because “both theory and actual practice point it out, in my opinion, as the best means for checking the tendency. As soon as the excessive morbid sensibility of the canal of the urethra has disappeared, the will can assert its force…” Cauterization is dripping silver nitrate into the urethra to destroy its sensitivity. Acton says: “Cauterization may indeed remove morbid irritability from the urethra, and in cases where the emissions arise from this local cause, there is reason to hope that the reflex action on the cord or on the brain may cease.” Because the boy wasn’t masturbating in his sleep [and you can see a video of a wet dream on Wikipedia], the ‘morbid irritation’ couldn’t have been coming from the outside, so they thought it was coming from the inside.

Acton also recommends more mindful dreaming, and prescribes different techniques one can use to become a lucid dreamer. And this is interesting in the way it relates to Tibetan dream yoga and the yoga nidra. For the Tibetans, though, the goal of lucid dreaming is spiritual realization of the nature of mind, and to prepare oneself for death (so when dream images appear as you lose consciousness, you don’t freak out, but instead stay lucid). The Victorians, on the other hand, wanted to develop the ability to lucid dream in order to avoid having hot, erotic dream sex and leaking vital body fluids.

This overvaluation of semen lasted into the 20th century. I found writings from The Alliance-Scottish Council, founded in 1951 for the purpose of sex education, who had clear views about wet dreams. They thought that nocturnal emissions were biologically normal, but they were accompanied by “rather unpleasant dreams” and the loss of this fluid should not , as a rule, be more often than once a week.” If it was more frequent, the child was advised to speak to their father or mother, “as you may need a tonic.” And while boys were told to clean and care for their sex glands,” careless handling was deplored on the grounds that “it may sometimes force some of the semen from the storehouses before nature is ready. Masturbation, or in the terminology of the Alliances literature, self-abuse,” was strongly discouraged as a waste of vital energy, a sign of retarded development, and a negation of the opportunities of Christian manhood.

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