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

The long history of concerns about masculinity — and attempts to enhance it

Fox News host Tucker Carlson in March 2017. (Richard Drew/AP)
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Recently, a clip from Tucker Carlson’s documentary special “The End of Men” went viral. The video shows him discussing “testicle tanning” with a “fitness professional” extolling the value of red-light therapy. Responses on social media ranged from humorous discussions of homoeroticism to applause for addressing the male identity crisis.

Historians have a different take: Testicle tanning might rely on new devices and theories, but it is only the latest in a long line of treatments and devices meant to enhance potency. As the social meaning of manhood has shifted over the past two centuries, both scientism (trust in the methods and ideas of science) and hucksterism have answered male anxieties about virility with an array of unusual treatments.

Early remedies for treating male potency concerns were diverse, including recommendations to eat leeks and beans and concoctions of dried goat testicles in wine. By the late 19th century, the new spirit of experimental physiology sparked novel approaches to the problem of male strength and vigor. This inspired French physiologist Charles-Edouard Brown-Séquard to study the rejuvenating effects of testicle extracts. He hypothesized that male aging and declining potency stemmed from a depletion of semen and could be reversed by artificially adding it.

He first tried injecting older men with this vital fluid. By the 1890s, he was experimenting on his own 70-year-old body with injections of a preparation made of 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 stream of urine was strong and powerful.

Brown-Séquard’s report was met with a mixed response. Many physicians viewed it as merely the latest in the long history of masculinity enhancers — and just too much information. But others, especially physiologists who had begun taking a closer look at the work of glands and the mysterious substances they produced, also had begun to think about the testicles in new ways.

As news of this effort spread, interest grew in this potential new method to increase virility and combat the effects of aging. Physicians wanted to test testosterone therapy on their own patients. Many men were interested in testing it on themselves, among them the novelist Émile Zola.

Liquefied testicle injections, however, did not produce the desired results. Neither injections nor pills had much effect beyond the psychological, and the injections frequently led to nasty infections. Nevertheless, testicle supplements became all the rage in the 1920s.

The new field of endocrinology, which Brown-Séquard’s experiments had helped launch, showed successes with other glands, like the thyroid, adrenal glands and — on the very near horizon — the insulin-producing pancreas. Organotherapy — treatment with preparations of glands and organs — was the new medical elixir of hope. While Brown-Séquard supplied his carefully prepared fluid free to physicians, others jumped into the marketplace, selling quickly produced products or, simply, ground dried testicles in pill form.

Emerging medical knowledge and anxieties about masculinity and performance in the turbulent 1920s, against the backdrop of women’s suffrage, changing gender roles and new structures of employment, intersected and provided fruitful ground for selling testicle cures and for testicle experimentation. Modern society, with its hustle and bustle, could be enervating to men increasingly engaged in indoor “brain” work that seemed to sap their energy.

Doctors sought ways to combat the fatigue and the loss of sexual power that came from work or aging. Surgeon Leo Stanley sought a position at the San Quentin Penitentiary so he could conduct testicle transplant experiments on prisoners. He took testes from executed prisoners and implanted them into the bodies of other imprisoned men to see whether they had rejuvenating effects. Informed consent and medical ethics played no role here. In the same decades in France, wealthy older men let surgeon Serge Voronoff treat them by transplanting chimpanzee testicles into their bodies in the hope of regaining their youthful “vitality.”

Salesmen as well as physicians had long supplied answers to the problem of waning virility. In the 19th century, electric current devices became popular, and manufacturers sold devices for both home and hospital use in treating many conditions, including loss of sexual prowess. Electric devices had the sheen of science, but they worked only to separate the anxious from their money.

American nostrum makers also sold male weakness cures, including ones made from animal testicles. “Orchis extract” was promoted as “the greatest known treatment for weak men,” supposedly made from the testicles of rams, with claims that it had been used successfully in cases of “nervo-sexual troubles.” The huckster who sold it, and before that sold the Vacuum System for the enlargement 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 marketplace, along with other useless or dangerous remedies, and tamed patent medicine advertising. Male anxieties, however, remained a potent cultural force, and the production of new items combining creative advertising with bad science continued, even if claims of their effectiveness became more circumspect. Today, men can buy orchic extract — seemingly a pharmaceutical offspring of orchis extract — made from cow rather than ram testicles to “maintain healthy testicular function.”

What it means to be masculine has always been in flux, and with it has come discussions of and treatments for male anxieties. Blame for masculine weakness has shifted over time, from the stresses of the fast-paced industrial era, to modernity and the changing gender roles and sexual politics of the interwar years, to the current world of weak men invoked by Carlson. While we no longer use terms like spermatorrhea or neurasthenia, and rarely speak of debility and vitality, the modern talk is of falling sperm counts and low testosterone.

Remarkably, efforts to place testicle products into the body or to stimulate their energy continue. While transplants of animal gonads into humans are not done any longer, sales of testicular-derived substances continue. Testicle consumption to cure weakness has stopped, but local testicle festivals, for food and fun, continue. External devices have changed from electric belts to red-light emitting devices. The marketing acumen of device and patent medicine makers to bring forth new products hasn’t wavered. Carlson’s reference to testicle tanning and his special “The End of Men” are stimulating reminders of this long history of male anxiety and the mix of scientism, salesmanship and fear that undergirds it.