Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation

Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of MasturbationA Post-Modernist Theory of Wanking: Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation. By Thomas Laqueur (New York: Zone Books, 2003. 501pp.).

In Solitary Sex Thomas Laqueur aims to provide a comprehensive explanation for the anxiety over masturbation which gripped the western world from the early eighteenth to the mid-(or perhaps late) twentieth century. He particularly wants to answer the question posed by Lawrence Stone and other scholars who have tackled this topic: why did the "hysteria" over masturbation appear "at a time when, he thought, all signs pointed to great [sic: greater?] acceptance of sexual pleasure." Laqueur thus focuses on the eighteenth century, though he concludes with a (rather scrappy) chapter on a range of counter discourses, stressing the "redemptive qualities" of masturbation, which emerged in the 1980s. Surprisingly, the nineteenth and most of the twentieth centuries receive only fleeting glances, and their battery of cruel interventions to stop masturbation in children is ignored. The result is a text of 500 pages, including 75 of endnotes, which signals the author's ambition to have written the most serious work in a field already quite crowded: a search on Amazon brings up over thirty books on masturbation, though only one of these (Jean Stengers' recently translated Histoire d'une grande peur) is intended as a full-scale history. Scholarly interest in the phenomenon, as evidenced by a continuing flow of articles in journals, remains strong, and it is likely to be further stimulated by this learned, wide-ranging, provocative, often fascinating, sometimes irritating, yet finally disappointing study.

Despite its misleading sub-title, Solitary Sex is not really a history of masturbation at all, but of western attitudes towards the practice. Even with this qualification the scope of the book is more limited than the title implies. After a brief survey of the contrasting policies of ascetically-inclined Judaism and the sensual paganism of Greece and Rome, and a longer account of the evolution of Christian attitudes, Laqueur concentrates on the eighteenth century, particularly the iconic texts: Onania (c. 1712, now attributed firmly to John Marten) and Tissot's Onanism (1758). He then jumps from Kant to the 1990s with only a few references to the literature of the nineteenth century, and even fewer to that of the twentieth, except for Freud, who is quoted with reverence at every opportunity. There is nothing at all on masturbation as a physical activity, or even a definition, (1) let alone any discussion of whether incidence or technique differs according to social and physical variables, such as education level, religion, age of puberty or whether circumcised--the last a prominent topic in nineteenth and twentieth century debate. The study is situated firmly within the world of discourse. The term solitary sex is itself worrying. As Laqueur's own sources make very clear, most writers against masturbation were even more concerned about the practice in pairs or groups, and equally alarmed at other forms of sexual pleasure not derived from the entry of a penis into a vagina: John Marten denounced fellatio with as much vehemence as masturbation, though not, thankfully, at the same length, and without the additional warning that indulgence would provoke organic disease. (It was merely disgusting, even worse than sodomy.) There is a certain irony in the fact that Marten et al encouraged the very mode of sexual activity which was most efficient at spreading venereal diseases (sexual intercourse), and called it healthy, while trying to prohibit forms of satisfaction which were relatively safe.

Explanations for a big phenomenon like the two and a half century war considered here are generally of two main kinds: one posits the convergence of many small causes, the other looks for one big cause. Most previous students of masturbation, such as Michael Stolberg and Peter Gay, have followed the first strategy. In two recent articles Stolberg has stressed several political, ideological and economic motives, including religious concern with "uncleanness", bourgeois fears about self-control, and the "financial interests of the London venereal trade." (2) Twenty years ago Gay commented that the elements of an explanation of the phobia would be found under four headings: (1) willing ignorance on the part of doctors, arising from their failure to carry out objective research into sexual anatomy and function and from not testing claims that masturbation induced physical or mental disease; (2) the application of the principle of household thrift to bodily functions; (3) the transformation of masturbation from a moral transgression into a medical condition without any reduction in its sinful connotations--indeed, with their amplification; (4) the rising power of the medical profession, who took on much of the pastoral role formerly played by the clergy, yet who were pretty helpless when it came to treating most diseases; the masturbatory hypothesis allowed them to validate their claim to omniscience by blaming the victim. (3) Laqueur rejects particulars like these and seeks a grander theme: nothing less than the onset of modernity and the rise of commercial society. His account takes off from another of Gay's comments: that "the persistent panic over masturbation" was "a cultural symptom laden with baffling meanings that reached ... into [the nineteenth century's] most troubling preoccupations"; Laqueur identifies these as features of modernity which had emerged in the previous century, such as the newly problematic relations of the individual to society, of credit to "real" wealth, and of consumption to production, as well as contentious issues like the virtues and vices of solitude, reading and knowledge.

Laqueur describes the anxiety over masturbation arising as "the evil twin of the virtues of modern commercial society--individual moral autonomy and privacy, creativity, desire and abundance." It was more threatening than it had hitherto been for three reasons: it was "a secret in a world in which transparency was of a premium"; it was more prone to "excess" than other sexual activity; it had "no bounds in reality because it was the creature of the imagination." These themes are elaborated with a great wealth of reference, but I am not convinced that much of it is real evidence, nor that all of these ideas make sense. Do social or economic developments always have an "evil twin"? The metaphor does little more than dramatise the paradox already identified: that masturbation was demonised at a time when restrictions on heterosexual adults were loosening (but those against homosexual acts becoming more severe) and when the Enlightenment was challenging old theological prohibitions. Why was "transparency" more sought after in a society that had rejected the confessional? John Locke had famously declared that all political liberty derived from an individual's property in his own person; for a doctor, priest or philosopher to assert that girls and boys, or even women and men, were not free to do what they wished with their own genitals seems a blank denial of this proposition. Laqueur notes that the strongest objection to masturbation was that it was anti-social, but wasn't the rise of the middle class about the triumph of individualism? The concern with social control seems more like a rearguard action by the ideologues of the old Gemeinschaft, the last stand of the traditionalists against the advance of Gesellschaft, with its social mobility and unsupervised subjects. And if solitariness was the main problem, why did preachers against the practice condemn masturbation in groups and pairs even more vigorously? Laqueur explores these paradoxes in great depth, but I am not sure that he has elucidated the precise ways in which masturbation (rather than something obviously harmful, like stock market manias, quack medicines, cruelty to children, adulterating food, or the ongoing loss of traditional common rights, such as those identified by E.P. Thompson) came to symbolise all that was wrong with the modern world.