Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation
by Thomas W Laqueur
498pp, Zone Books, £22.50
My guess is that more people will be interested in reading this short review than probably any other review I’ve ever written, which has nothing to do with me – it’s just that there are probably more people interested in the subject under discussion than in, say, the history of avant-garde poetry. On this particular topic, everybody’s an expert.
In Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation Thomas W Laqueur, a professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley, reviews more than 2,000 years of thinking and writing about masturbation, and his conclusions are shocking.
Masturbation as we know it, he claims, was invented in about 1712, born of a tract that named a new disease and singlehandedly created a “nearly universal engine for generating guilt, shame, and anxiety”. That tract was Onania; or, The Heinous Sin of Self Pollution, and all its Frightful Consequences.
Before the early 1700s, Laqueur argues, masturbation was not a subject of great interest or speculation. Like God or BBC digital radio it may have existed, but few people took much notice of it. There’s a lot of spilled semen in Greek myth, but Laqueur claims that masturbation didn’t really matter in antiquity, and was not a fit subject for discussion and analysis, because the “cultural contexts that later gave it, or aspects of it, moral resonance were absent”. Satyrs and slaves masturbated, but that’s because it was all they could manage.
In Greek and Latin art and literature masturbation and masturbators are portrayed, if at all, as either comic or pathetic; they’re no great shakes. Even the early Christian era was similarly uninterested in solitary sex, as Laqueur calls it, and the compilers of the Talmuds and midrashim had other things on their minds.
The crux, of course, for the religious, is the story of Onan in Genesis 38. Onan’s brother Er “was wicked in the sight of the Lord”, and the Lord struck him down. Onan is then instructed by his father to “go in unto thy brother’s wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother”. Instead – and here’s the rub – Onan “spilled his seed upon the ground”. Laqueur points out that Rabbinic interpretations were generally concerned with the extent and application of the so-called levirate law, which governed the principles of succession and inheritance.
Laqueur sifts through a few centuries of Christian confessionals and other theological writings to show how masturbation was regarded simply as one unnatural act among many others, a sign merely of man’s and, in particular, monks’, concupiscence. “The silent and inward vices mattered only in very specific contexts until the problem of the individual’s relation to the social order came to loom large in our era.”
Our era, for Laqueur’s purposes, begins in the 18th century, with the development of a new conception of the self and a new secular morality. People came to value desire and pleasure and privacy, and masturbation represented the diabolical aspect of these values: it “pointed to an abyss of solipsism, anomie, and socially meaningless freedom”. It was a selfish act of imagination. It was “uncontrolled privacy”.
Laqueur then rehearses the usual story of the development of the modern and post-modern western self, relating masturbation variously to the rise of laissez-faire economics, democratic institutions, and the novel (which gives a new meaning to FR Leavis’s idea of the common pursuit).
Rousseau and Kant wrote at length on the subject but it is, of course, Freud who emerges as the loudest spokesperson for the quintessentially modern view of masturbation: “Freud traced anxiety neurosis, obsession, narcissism, hysterical vomiting, repressed memories of infantile sexuality, and, arguably, guilt itself to the psyche’s confrontation with its primal source of sexual satisfaction.” At least he never claimed it made you go blind.
Laqueur dates the post-Freudian era from the Kinsey reports of the 1940s and 50s and Masters and Johnson’s Human Sexual Response, published in 1966, which established that masturbation was commonplace into adulthood: a reversal of Freud’s idea of ontogenesis. What was once regarded as a disease, Laqueur seems to believe, has now come to be seen as a cure.
Like the subject itself, voluminous, occasionally repetitive, and undoubtedly fascinating, Solitary Sex is none the less a book almost entirely without charm. It confirms once again that today, more than ever, we luxuriate in our fancies: our vexations, as our pleasures, are our own.
· Ian Sansom’s The Truth About Babies is published by Granta.
Source: The Guardian