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Not feeling guilty enough? If the recent War to End All Gas Hikes didn’t elicit your shame and anxiety, historian Thomas W. Laqueur would like you to know that all of Western culture is haunted by a long-standing moral infraction much more immediately, um, at hand. Proffered by an Enlightenment-era quack and upheld by some of the intervening centuries’ most regarded thinkers, this seemingly irresistible transgression is made all the more untenable by the fact that—unlike a bloody romp on foreign soil—it is entirely within our individual control.
In his exhaustive study Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation, UC Berkeley professor Laqueur traces the surprising origin of those quaint myths about the dangers of autoeroticism that have plagued generations of teenagers; argues that, prior to the early 18th century, such behavior was rarely considered an ethical or medical phenomenon; and chronicles the late-20th-century reversal that recast masturbation as a liberating, even revolutionary, act. In the process, he makes a compelling case that despite years of contrary evidence and widespread demystification (think of the “master of my domain” episode of Seinfeld), we have yet to shake the notion that by spanking the monkey we’re asking for a spanking.
The engineer of this enduring angst, it turns out, is John Marten, an English physician and self-appointed moralist who wrote a tract on the evils and ills of masturbation sometime around 1712. Called Onania, after the Old Testament reprobate who “spilled his seed on the ground” rather than impregnate his deceased brother’s wife per Hebrew custom (an act, Laqueur suggests, that was more likely an early implementation of the withdrawal method and not self-stimulation), Marten’s text was a publishing sensation that spawned various critiques, a series of rebuttals, more than 10 editions, and a knockoff or two. It also led to the coining of the term onanism for good and all.
Written in the alarmist, quasi-titillating style that had gotten Marten’s earlier treatise on sexually transmitted diseases banned as pornography by the Queen’s Bench, Onania was pure exploitation: Along with its dire proclamations and gloomy predictions, the pamphlet recommended a curative potion conveniently available from the London apothecary who published and distributed Marten’s works—a marketing scheme AOL Time Warner might have envied.
Laqueur maintains that Onania found an audience for reasons that went beyond its lascivious, preachy allure, however. The dawn of the Enlightenment—”the age that invented the notion of morality as self-governance,” as he puts it—saw the once absolute religious and state hierarchies begin to cede to a burgeoning sense of individual moral autonomy. In such a climate, Laqueur suggests, masturbation was the ultimate ungoverned and ungovernable act: an affront to venerable class distinctions and modern selfhood alike, not least because it represented an unknown form of egalitarianism. “Every man, woman, and child suddenly seemed to have access to the boundless excesses of gratification that had once been the privilege of the Roman emperors,” he writes.
These “excesses of gratification” are precisely what gave masturbation its radical appeal in the 1960s and ’70s, an era Laqueur duly details in the closing chapter. But prior to the boom in celebratory self-love—which produced such indispensables as Our Bodies, Ourselves, Annie Sprinkle’s post-porn career, more Pee Wee Herman jokes than anyone could count, and, arguably, Matthew Barney’s entire oeuvre—were 200-odd years in which onanism went from moral violation to medical malediction to psychological impediment. (In the centuries before that, as the book’s third and most skippable chapter outlines, it was primarily a problem of poor hygiene and questionable impulse control.)
This “extensive commercial medical network [that] profited from the disease and the guilt born in or around 1712” didn’t stop people from masturbating, of course, nor did it inhibit a boom in pornography that’s become ever more mainstream with time. But while such “medico-moral” baggage—supported, disappointingly, by philosophers such as Kant, Rousseau, and Bentham—had been largely left behind by the time Freud declared onanism no more (and no less) than a sign of arrested sexuality, it left an imprint Laqueur insists lingers to this day.
That it took so long for an inquiry like Solitary Sex to appear (Foucault notwithstanding) supports this assertion, as does the vague unease produced by its author’s single-minded devotion to the subject. All jitters aside, Laqueur adeptly proves Freud’s maxim that “the subject of masturbation is quite inexhaustible” by locating the tension between modernity’s boons (autonomy, self-reliance) and its attendant drawbacks (isolation, self-absorption) in the sexual realm. He does so in a colloquial, jargon-free style that’s refreshing for an academic tome.
There are limitations to Laqueur’s approach. His narrow focus can be hopelessly subjective, as with his interpretations of Egon Schiele’s nudes, in which he attributes “angst and haunting self-scrutiny” to paintings that could just as easily be seen as brazenly exhibitionist. The narrative also bogs down in detail, although Laqueur helpfully advises readers where to jump ahead in order to pick up the primary thread. In any case, such weaknesses are more from an excess of authorial devotion than a lapse in judgment, and his fervor, it’s a relief to report, is both contagious and guilt-free.