Tiny Symbols Tell Big Stories. Naming and Concealing Masturbation in Diaries (1660-1940)

  • Leonieke Vermeer University of Groningen
Keywords: diary-writing, symbols, masturbation, discourse, narrative strategies


Symbols, encryptions and codes are a way to hide sensitive or highly personal content in diaries. This kind of private language is an important feature of diary practice, regardless of time and place, but it has barely been studied yet. This article highlights symbols for masturbation in diaries from the mid-seventeenth until the early twentieth century. These symbols are interpreted not as ‘silence’, but as disguising, narrative strategies. They form an integral part of the text and should be studied as such. The central question is how authors, by employing disguising strategies (such as symbols) in diaries position themselves within and against public discourses on masturbation. The main body of sources consists of six diaries from different national contexts. The discourse against masturbation which developed from the beginning of the eighteenth century was an international (western) affair. In medical treatises and pedagogical manuals for parents, masturbation became a ‘total illness’: a life-threatening activity that would lead to near-certain (and gruesome) death. Diary writing functioned as a medium to register and control this secret vice. But the diaries also show ways to change or resist this dominant discourse. The symbols for masturbation reflect some crucial aspects of diary writing: the diary as a memory device, between private experience and public discourses.


This article was submitted to the European Journal of Life Writing on February 2nd 2017, and published on July 12th 2017.

Author Biography

Leonieke Vermeer, University of Groningen

Leonieke Vermeer is Assistant Professor of Modern History at the University of Groningen. She studied piano at the Prins Claus Conservatory (1999) and History (2004, cum laude) at the University of Groningen. She wrote her thesis Geestelijke lenigheid. De relatie tussen literatuur en natuurwetenschap in het werk van Frederik van Eeden en Felix Ortt, 1880-1930 (‘Mental sinuosity’, 2010) on the relationship between literature and science. She is the author of several journal articles and other publications, such as the co-authored book Utopianism and the Sciences, 1880-1930 (Leuven: Peeters, 2010).  Her recent research focuses on life writing, illness experiences in self-narratives and the cultural history of medicine in the 19th century. She is editor of the interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed journal De Moderne Tijd. De Lage Landen, 1780-1940.