Helping Hands


Those of you hoping for clever lists of bygone euphemisms or a savvy analysis of the “Master of Your Domain” Seinfeld episode will be disappointed by this book, which is very serious and never naughty. Those curious to learn what kind of lubricant 17th-century masturbators favored will likewise find nothing here. Instead, Stengers and Van Neck, both historians, have written an extremely thorough and apparently exhaustive study of anti-masturbation literature in Western culture, religious and medical. It’s a good project but not a particularly good read.

Since the early 18th century, people have believed that masturbation is not only a sin against God and nature but a medical problem that leads to ulcers, convulsions, consumption, impotence, gonorrhea, and insanity. The idea crystallized in the public imagination around 1715 with the publication of an anonymous pamphlet called “Onania.” The same notion, give or take a couple of symptoms, was propagated without challenge until 1875 and even taken up by famous intellectuals like Rousseau, Diderot, Kant, and Freud.

Speckled throughout the book are amusingly antiquated pronouncements on the consequences of self-abuse: “Source of precocious destruction, onanism is a slow and sure poison which, before destroying life, strips it by degrees of all that activates it, and fatally drags its victim to degradation and death.” The book is also full of entertainingly bizarre case studies and horrifying remedies (tie children’s hands to the bedposts; that failing, mutilate their genitals). The problem, however, is that there’s absolutely no conflict or change throughout most of the time period covered, so it reads like a catalog rather than a vital story: “The authors were unanimous,” write Stengers and Van Neck. “There was not a heretic to be found.”

The pace livens up a bit near the end, when Havelock Ellis, aided by a few earlier radicals, insists that masturbation is normal. Much of the medical establishment follows suit, and the Catholic masturbation-detractors are left without support. The description of “self-pollution” as “sin” eventually begins to disappear. The momentum thus generated isn’t allowed to build, though: When they get to 1975, the authors simply stop, jump forward for a quick half-page on the dismissal of Joycelyn Elders, and end the book, just like that—as if the task of investigating contemporary attitudes were simply more than they wanted to bother with.