Tucker Carlson’s discussion of testicular red light therapy is nothing new

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Recently, a clip from Tucker Carlson’s documentary special “The End of Men” went viral. The video shows him discussing “testicular tanning” with a “fitness professional” and praising the value of red light therapy. Responses on social media ranged from humorous discussions of homoeroticism to applause to address the male identity crisis.

Historians have a different view: Testicular tanning can rely on new devices and theories, but it is only the latest in a wide range of treatments and devices designed to increase strength. As the social significance of manhood has changed over the last two centuries, both scientism (trust in the methods and ideas of science) and hucksterism have responded to male concerns about virility with a series of unusual treatments.

Early remedies for treating male potency problems were varied, including recommendations for eating leeks and beans and caking dried goat testicles in wine. In the late 19th century, the new spirit of experimental physiology triggered new approaches to the problem of male strength and power of action. This inspired the French physiologist Charles-Edouard Brown-Séquard to study the rejuvenating effects of testicular extracts. He assumed that male aging and declining strength were due to a depletion of semen and could be reversed by artificially adding it.

He first tried injecting older men with this vital fluid. In the 1890s, he experimented on his own 70-year-old body with injections of a preparation made from ground guinea pig and dog testicles. The treatment was, he told the French Society of Biology, a success. He could walk further, no longer needed an afternoon nap, and his urine flow was strong and powerful.

Brown-Séquard’s report was met with a mixed reaction. Many doctors considered it just the latest in the long history of masculinity enhancers – and just too much information. But others, especially physiologists, who had begun to look more closely at the work of the glands and the mysterious substances they produced, had also begun to think of the testicles in new ways.

As the news of this effort spread, interest in this potential new method of increasing virility and combating the effects of aging grew. Doctors wanted to test testosterone treatment on their own patients. Many men were interested in testing it on themselves, among them the author Émile Zola.

However, injections of liquid testicles did not give the desired results. Neither injections nor pills had the great effect beyond the psychological, and the injections often led to nasty infections. Nevertheless, testicular supplements became available in the 1920s.

The new endocrinological field that Brown-Séquard’s experiments had helped to launch showed success with other glands, such as the thyroid gland, the adrenal glands and – in the very near horizon – the insulin-producing pancreas. Organotherapy – treatment with preparations of glands and organs – was the new medical hope elixir. While Brown-Séquard delivered his carefully prepared liquid for free to doctors, others rushed into the marketplace, selling quickly produced products or simply painting dried testicles in pill form.

New medical knowledge and concerns about masculinity and performance in the turbulent 1920s, based on women’s suffrage, changing gender roles and new employment structures, intersected and provided fertile ground for the sale of testicular cures and for testicular experiments. Modern society, with its bustle, could be annoying to men who are increasingly engaged in indoor “brain” work that seemed to drain their energy.

Doctors sought ways to combat fatigue and loss of sexual power that came from work or aging. Surgeon Leo Stanley applied for a position at the San Quentin Penitentiary so he could perform testicular transplant attempts on prisoners. He took testicles from executed prisoners and implanted them in the bodies of other imprisoned men to see if they had rejuvenating effects. Informed consent and medical ethics did not matter here. During the same decades in France, wealthy older men had surgeon Serge Voronoff treat them by transplanting chimpanzee testicles into their bodies in hopes of regaining their youthful “vitality.”

Salespeople as well as physicians had long provided answers to the problem of diminishing virility. In the 19th century, electric power appliances became popular, and manufacturers sold devices for both home and hospital use to treat many conditions, including loss of sexual prowess. Electrical devices had the tinge of science, but they worked only to separate the anxious from their money.

U.S. nostrum manufacturers also sold male weakness cures, including those made from animal testicles. “Orchis extract” was promoted as “the greatest known treatment for weak men,” allegedly made from testicles from rams, with claims that it had been used successfully in cases of “nervo-sexual problems.” The Huckster who sold it, and before it sold the Vacuum System for the expansion of the male organ, was convicted of fraud.

In the United States, 20th-century federal regulations and enforcement of consumer protection laws removed some male weakness cures from the market along with other useless or dangerous drugs and tamed patent drug advertising. Male concerns, however, remained a potent cultural force, and the production of new objects combining creative advertising with bad science continued, although claims of their effectiveness became more elaborate. Today, men can buy orchid extract – apparently a pharmaceutical offspring of orchid extract – made from cow instead of ram testicles to “maintain healthy testicular function.”

What it means to be masculine has always been changing, and with it have come discussions about and treatments for male anxiety. The blame for masculine weakness has shifted over time, from stress in the fast-paced industrial era, to modernity and the shifting gender roles and sexual policies of the interwar years, to the current world of weak men that Carlson relied on. While we no longer use terms like spermatorrhea or neurasthenia, and rarely talk about weakness and vitality, the modern talk is about declining sperm count and low testosterone.

Remarkably, efforts continue to place testicular products in the body or stimulate their energy. While transplants of animal glands to humans are no longer performed, sales of testicular derivatives continue. Testicular consumption to cure weakness has stopped, but local testicular festivals, for food and fun, continue. External devices have been changed from electric belts to devices that emit red light. The marketing sense of equipment and patent medicine manufacturers to produce new products has not wavered. Carlson’s reference to testicular tanning and his special “The End of Men” are stimulating reminders of this long history of male anxiety and the mixture of science, salesman, and fear that underlies it.

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