Laqueur’s most recent book, Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation, shares with Making Sex the same startling initial premise: that something we take for granted, something that goes without saying, something that simply seems part of being human has in fact a history, and a fascinating, conflicted, momentous history at that.
Masturbation is virtually unique, in the array of more or less universal human behaviors, in arousing a peculiar and peculiarly intense current of anxiety.
This anxiety, Laqueur observes, is not found in all cultures and is not part of our own culture’s distant origins. In ancient Greece and Rome, masturbation could be the object of transitory embarrassment or mockery, but it had little or no medical or, as far as we can tell, cultural significance. More surprisingly, Laqueur argues, it is almost impossible to find in ancient Jewish thought. This claim at first seems dubious because in Genesis 38 we read that Onan “spilled his seed upon the ground,” an act that so displeased the Lord that He struck him dead. Onanism indeed became a synonym for masturbation, but not for the rabbis who produced the Talmuds and midrashim. For them the sin of Onan was not masturbation but a willful refusal to procreate. Their conceptual categories—procreation, idolatry, pollution—evidently did not include a significant place for the sinful indulgence in gratuitous, self-generated sexual pleasure. Some commentators on a pronouncement by Rabbi Eliezer—“Any- one who holds his penis when he urinates is as though he brought the flood into the world”—seem close to condemning such pleasure, but on closer inspection these commentators too are concerned with the wasting of semen.
Medieval Christian theologians, by contrast, did have a clear concept of masturbation as a sin, but it was not, Laqueur claims, a sin in which they had particularly intense interest. With the exception of the fifth-century abbot John Cassian, they were far more concerned with what Laqueur calls the ethics of social sexuality than they were with the ethics of solitary sex. What mattered most were “perversions of sexuality as perversions of social life, not as a withdrawal into asocial autarky.” Within the monastery anxiety focused far more on sodomy than on masturbation, while in the world at large it focused more on incest, bestiality, fornication, and adultery.
Church fathers could not share in particularly intense form the Jewish anxiety about Onan, precisely because the Church most honored those whose piety led them to escape from the whole cycle of sexual intercourse and generation. Theologians did not permit masturbation, but they did not focus sharply upon it, for sexuality itself, and not only nonreproductive sexuality, was to be overcome. A very severe moralist, Raymond of Peñafort, did warn married men against touching themselves, but only because arousal might make them want to copulate more often with their wives.
Reformation theologians did not fundamentally alter the traditional conception of masturbation or significantly intensify the level of interest in it. To be sure, Protestants vehemently castigated Catholics for creating institutions—monasteries and convents—that in their view denigrated marriage and inevitably fostered masturbation. Marriage, the Reformers preached, was not a disappointing second choice made by those who could not embrace the higher goal of chastity; it was the fulfillment of human and divine love. Sexual pleasure in marriage, provided that it was not excessive or pursued for its own sake, was not inherently sinful, or rather any taint of sinfulness was expunged by the divinely sanctioned goal of procreation. In the wake of Luther and Calvin masturbation remained what it had been for the rabbis: an act whose sinfulness lay in the refusal of procreation, the prodigal wasting of seed.
In one of his early sonnets, Shakespeare wittily turns such “unthrifty” wasting into economic malpractice:
Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend
Upon thyself thy beauty’s legacy?
In bequeathing the young man such loveliness, nature expected him to pass it along to the next generation; instead the “beauteous niggard” is holding on to it for himself and refusing to create the child who should rightly bear his image into the future. Masturbation, in the sonnet, is the perverse misuse of an inheritance. The young man merely spends upon himself, and thereby throws away, wealth that should rightly generate more wealth:
For having traffic with thyself alone,
Thou of thyself thy sweet self dost deceive.
Then how when nature calls thee to be gone:
What acceptable audit canst thou leave?
Thy unused beauty must be tombed with thee,
Which usèd, lives th’executor to be.
The young man, as the sonnet characterizes him, is a “profitless usurer,” and when his final reckoning is made, he will be found in arrears. The economic metaphors here have the odd effect of praising usury, still at the time regarded both as a sin and as a crime. There may be an autobiographical element here—the author of The Merchant of Venice was himself on occasion a usurer, as was his father—but Shakespeare was also anticipating a recurrent theme in the history of “modern masturbation” that concerns Laqueur: from the eighteenth century onward, masturbation is assailed as an abuse of biological and social economy. Still, a poem like Shakespeare’s only shows that masturbation in the full modern sense did not yet exist: by “having traffic” with himself alone, the young man is wasting his seed, but the act itself is not destroying his health or infecting the whole social order.
The Renaissance provides a few glimpses of masturbation that focus on pleasure rather than the avoidance of procreation. In the 1590s Shakespeare’s contemporary Thomas Nashe wrote a poem about a young man who went to visit his girlfriend who was lodging—just for the sake of convenience, she assured him—in a whorehouse. The man was so aroused by the very sight of her that he had the misfortune of prematurely ejaculating, but the obliging lady managed to awaken him again. Not, however, long enough for her own satisfaction: to his chagrin, the lady only managed to achieve her “solace” by means of a dildo which, she declared, was far more reliable than any man. This piece of social comedy is closer to what Laqueur would consider authentic “modern” masturbation, for Nashe’s focus is the pursuit of pleasure rather than the wasting of seed, but it is still not quite there.
Laqueur’s point is not that men and women did not masturbate throughout antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance—the brief confessional manual attributed to Gerson assumes that the practice is ubiquitous, and the historian finds no reason to doubt it—but rather that it was not regarded as a deeply significant event. It is simply too infrequently mentioned to have counted for a great deal, and the few mentions that surface tend to confirm its relative unimportance. Thus in his diary, alongside the many occasions on which he had a partner in pleasure, Samuel Pepys jotted down moments in which he enjoyed solitary sex, but these latter did not provoke in him any particular shame or self-reproach. On the contrary, he felt a sense of personal triumph when he managed, while being ferried in a boat up the Thames, to bring himself to an orgasm—to have “had it complete,” as he put it—by the strength of his imagination alone. Without using his hands, he noted proudly, he had managed just by thinking about a girl he had seen that day to pass a “trial of my strength of fancy…. So to my office and wrote letters.” Only on such solemn occasions as High Mass on Christmas Eve in 1666, when the sight of the queen and her ladies led him to masturbate in church, did Pepys’s conscience speak out, and only in a very still, small voice.
The seismic shift came about some half-century later, and then not because masturbation was finally understood as a horrible sin or an economic crime but rather because it was classified for the first time as a serious disease. “Modern masturbation,” Solitary Sex begins, “can be dated with a precision rare in cultural history.” It came into being “in or around 1712” with the publication in London of a short tract with a very long title: Onania; or, The Heinous Sin of Self Pollution, and all its Frightful Consequences, in both SEXES Considered, with Spiritual and Physical Advice to those who have already injured themselves by this abominable practice. And seasonable Admonition to the Youth of the nation of Both SEXES….The anonymous author—Laqueur identifies him as John Marten, a quack surgeon who had published other works of soft-core medical pornography—announced that he had providentially met a pious physician who had found remedies for this hitherto incurable disease. The remedies are expensive, but given the seriousness of the condition, they are worth every penny. Readers are advised to ask for them by name: the “Strengthening Tincture” and the “Prolific Powder.”
But marketing alone cannot explain why “onanism” and related terms began to show up in the great eighteenth-century encyclopedias or why one of the most influential physicians in France, the celebrated Samuel Auguste David Tissot, took up the idea of masturbation as a dangerous illness or why Tissot’s 1760 work, L’Onanisme, became an instant European literary sensation.
Tissot “definitively launched masturbation,” as Laqueur puts it, “into the mainstream of Western culture.” It was not long before almost the entire medical profession attributed an inexhaustible list of woes to solitary sex, a list that included spinal tuberculosis, epilepsy, pimples, madness, general wasting, and an early death.
Modern masturbation—and this is Laqueur’s brilliant point—was the creature of the Enlightenment. It was the age of reason, triumph over superstition, and the tolerant, even enthusiastic acceptance of human sexuality that conjured up the monster of self-abuse. Prior to Tissot and his learned medical colleagues, it was possible for most ordinary people to masturbate, as Pepys had done, without more than a twinge of guilt. After Tissot, anyone who indulged in this secret pleasure did so in the full, abject knowledge of the horrible consequences. Masturbation was an assault on health, on reason, on marriage, and even on pleasure itself. For Enlightenment doctors and their allies did not concede that masturbation was a species of pleasure, however minor or embarrassing; it was at best a false pleasure, a perversion of the real. As such it was dangerous and had at all costs to be prevented.
There were, Laqueur suggests, three reasons why the Enlightenment concluded that masturbation was perverse and unnatural. First, while all other forms of sexuality were reassuringly social, masturbation—even when it was done in a group or taught by wicked servants to children—seemed in its climactic moments deeply, irremediably private. Second, the masturbatory sexual encounter was not with a real, flesh-and-blood person but with a phantasm. And third, unlike other appetites, the addictive urge to masturbate could not be sated or moderated. “Every man, woman, and child suddenly seemed to have access to the boundless excesses of gratification that had once been the privilege of Roman emperors.”
Privacy, fantasy, insatiability: each of these constitutive features of the act that the Enlightenment taught itself to fear and loathe is, Laqueur argues, a constitutive feature of the Enlightenment itself. Tissot and his colleagues had identified the shadow side of their own world: its interest in the private life of the individual, its cherishing of the imagination, its embrace of a seemingly limitless economy of production and consumption. Hammering away at the social, political, and religious structures that had traditionally defined human existence, the eighteenth century proudly brought forth a shining model of moral autonomy and market economy—only to discover that this model was subject to a destructive aberration. The aberration—the physical act of masturbating—was not in itself so obviously dreadful. When Diderot and his circle of sophisticated encyclopédistes offered their considered view of the subject, they acknowledged that moderate masturbation as a relief for urgent sexual desires that lacked a more satisfying outlet seemed natural enough. But the problem was that “moderate masturbation” was a contradiction in terms: the voluptuous, fiery imagination could never be so easily restrained.
Masturbation then became a sexual bugbear, Laqueur argues, because it epitomized all of the fears that lay just on the other side of the new sense of social, psychological, and moral independence. A dramatic increase in individual autonomy was bound up, as he convincingly documents, with an intensified anxiety about unsocialized, unreproductive pleasure, pleasure fueled by seductive chimeras ceaselessly generated by the vagrant mind:
The Enlightenment project of liberation—the coming into adulthood of humanity—made the most secret, private, seemingly harmless, and most difficult to detect of sexual acts the centerpiece of a program for policing the imagination, desire, and the self that modernity itself had unleashed.
The dangers of solitary sex were linked to one of the most telling modern innovations. “It was not an accident,” Laqueur writes, in the careful phrase of a historian eager at once to establish a link and to sidestep the issue of causality, that Onania was published in the age of the first stock market crashes, the foundation of the Bank of England, and the eruption of tulip-mania. Masturbation is the vice of civil society, the culture of the marketplace, the world in which traditional barriers against luxury give way to philosophical justifications of excess. Adam Smith, David Hume, and Bernard Mandeville all found ways to celebrate the marvelous self-regulating quality of the market, by which individual acts of self-indulgence and greed were transformed into the general good. Masturbation might at first glance seem to be the logical emblem of the market: after all, the potentially limitless impulse to gratify desire is the motor that fuels the whole enormous enterprise. But in fact it was the only form of pleasure-seeking that escaped the self-regulating mechanism: it was, Mandeville saw with a shudder, unstoppable, unconstrained, unproductive, and absolutely free of charge. Far better, Mandeville wrote in his Defense of Public Stews (1724), that boys visit brothels than that they commit “rapes upon their own bodies.”
The revealing contrast here is with an earlier cultural innovation, the public theaters, which were vigorously attacked in Shakespeare’s time for their alleged erotic power. The theaters, moralists claimed, were “temples to Venus.” Aroused audiences would allegedly rush off at the play’s end to make love in nearby inns or in secret rooms hidden within the playhouses themselves.
In the late seventeenth century John Dunton—the author of The Night-walker, or Evening Rambles in Search After Lewd Women (1696)—picked up a whore in the theater, went to her room, and then tried to give her a sermon on chastity. She vehemently objected, saying that the men with whom she usually went home were far more agreeable: they would pretend, she said, that they were Antony and she would pretend that she was Cleopatra. The desires that theaters awakened were evidently understood to be fundamentally social: irate Puritans never charged that audiences were lured into an addiction to solitary sex. But that is precisely the accusation leveled at the experience of reading imaginative fiction.
It was not only the solitude in which novels could be read that contributed to the difference between the two attacks; the absence of the bodies of the actors and hence the entire reliance on imagination seemed to make novels more suitable for solitary than social sex. Eighteenth-century doctors, tapping into ancient fears of the imagination, were convinced that when sexual excitement was caused by something unreal, something not actually present in the flesh, that excitement was at once unnatural and dangerous. The danger was greatly intensified by its addictive potential: the masturbator, like the novel reader—or rather, precisely as novel reader—could willfully mobilize the imagination, engaging in an endless creation and renewing of fictive desire. And shockingly, with the spread of literacy, this was a democratic, equal opportunity vice. The destructive pleasure was just as available to servants as to masters and, still worse, just as available to women as to men. Women, with their hyperactive imaginations and ready sympathies, their proneness to tears, blushes, and fainting fits, their irrationality and emotional vagrancy, were thought particularly subject to the dangerous excitements of the novel.
at the beginning of the twentieth century, the whole preoccupation—the anxiety, the culture of surveillance, the threat of death and insanity—began to wane. The shift was by no means sudden or decisive, and traces of the older attitudes obviously persist not only in schoolboy legends and many zany, often painful family dramas but also in the nervous laughter that attends the whole topic. Still, the full nightmare world of medicalized fear and punishment came to an end. Laqueur tells this second part of the story far more briskly: he attributes the change largely to the work of Freud and liberal sexology, though he also acknowledges how complex and ambivalent many of the key figures actually were. Freud came to abandon his conventional early views about the ill effects of masturbation and posited instead the radical idea of the universality of infant masturbation. What had been an aberration became a constitutive part of the human condition. Nevertheless the founder of psychoanalysis constructed his whole theory of civilization around the suppression of what he called the “perverse elements of sexual excitement,” beginning with autoeroticism. In this highly influential account, masturbation, as Laqueur puts it, “became a part of ontogenesis: we pass through masturbation, we build on it, as we become sexual adults.”
Solitary Sex ends with a brief account of modern challenges to this theory of repression, from the championing of women’s masturbation in the 1971 feminist best seller Our Bodies, Ourselves to the formation of groups with names like the SF Jacks—“a fellowship of men who like to jack-off in the company of like-minded men,” as its Web site announces—and the Melbourne Wankers. A series of grotesque photographs illustrates the transgressive fascination that masturbation has for such contemporary artists as Lynda Benglis, Annie Sprinkle, and Vito Acconci. The latter made a name for himself by masturbating for three weeks while reclining in a box under a white ramp on the floor of the Sonnabend Gallery in New York City: “so, art making,” Laqueur observes, “is literally masturbating.”
Conjuring up his childhood in Combray, Proust’s narrator recalls that at the top of his house, “in the little room that smelt of orris-root,” he looked out through the half-opened window and
with the heroic misgivings of a traveller setting out on a voyage of exploration or of a desperate wretch hesitating on the verge of self-destruction, faint with emotion, I explored, across the bounds of my own experience, an untrodden path which for all I knew was deadly—until the moment when a natural trail like that left by a snail smeared the leaves of the flowering currant that drooped around me.
For this brief moment in Swann’s Way (1913), it is as if we had reentered the cultural world that Laqueur chronicles so richly, the world in which solitary sex was a rash voyage away beyond the frontiers of the natural order, a headlong plunge into a realm of danger and self-destruction. Then, with the glimpse of the snail’s trail, the landscape resumes its ordinary, everyday form, and the seemingly untrodden path is disclosed—as so often in Proust—to be exceedingly familiar.
Proust does not encourage us to exaggerate the significance of masturbation—it is only one small, adolescent step in the slow fashioning of the writer’s vocation. Still, Laqueur’s courageous cultural history (and it took courage, even now, to write this book) makes it abundantly clear why for Proust—and for ourselves—the celebration of the imagination has to include a place for solitary sex.