Spanking the theory

Is the study of the autoerotic more than just mental masturbation?

Published March 26, 1999 7:25PM (EST)

What do Pee Wee Herman, George Michael and hermeneutic discourse have in

If you ask a member of the burgeoning field of masturbation theory, the
answer may be: absolutely everything. Some of academia's finest scholars
these days are making serious work out of the study of -- well, diddling

This brave new academic frontier opened 10 years ago at the annual
conference of the Modern Language Association with a panel called "The
Muse of Masturbation." There Eve Sedgwick, who has since become the queen of queer theory, delivered her notorious paper, "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl." Regarded as proof that the humanities had at last decayed beyond repair, the MLA panel caused an angry ruckus both inside and outside the ivory tower. Every solo-love scholar I surveyed had stories about personal attacks at departmental events, dissertation advisors who wouldn't say the M-word and balking publishers.

When the editors of the 1995 anthology "Solitary Pleasures: The Historical,
Literary and Artistic Discourses on Autoeroticism" placed a call for
papers, they found that "the mere mention of the word 'masturbation' still
raises eyebrows and evokes titters at a time when most forms of sexual
activity have been talked into banality." Dr. Vernon Rosario, co-editor
of Solitary Pleasures, explains such reactions as a perfect illustration
of his work's value. "They're embarrassed by things that they're personally
uncomfortable with in an academic setting," he says.

In other words, most people still can't talk about touching themselves.

"No matter how bizarre or complex we make it, sex is really just about
a muscle spasm," notes Earl Jackson Jr., professor of comparative
literature at UC-Berkeley. "Human beings need constantly renewed meanings." And those meanings, according to these scholars, become the ways by which our culture becomes "socially constructed"; that is, we reinvent our definitions of
everything -- food, religion, sex, beauty -- to suit the needs of our
particular time and place.

This line of thought transformed the study of sexuality; Michel Foucault's
work on the history of homosexual love in the 1970s paved the way for a widely
respected field of queer studies. Deconstructing usually began with a look at
what once was. For example, in ancient Greece, sexual roles were determined
by social status: The "top" was a land-owning male citizen, and the "bottom"
was a foreigner, young man, slave or woman. In some Native
American cultures, the gender of one's partner was determined by the work
he or she did for the community. Today, on the other hand, sexual categories are
based on an assumed preference for the opposite or same sex. New ideas, as
history goes.

Now, that same kind of analysis is being taken from intercourse to
solo-course. By studying the history of masturbation, academics probe where the myth of "hairy palms" comes from and other social inventions. According to
UC-Berkeley history professor Thomas Laqueur, autoeroticism was unremarkable
until the 18th century, when it became transformed into "the first secular
source of guilt" with the development of modernism. "Self-government," he
says, "becomes critical -- when the power of the government of nature,
natural restraints and a seemingly natural hierarchical political
order seem to be waning." In other words, if we allow ourselves to want
things we don't need and waste valuable time on limitless entertainment, we'd spend all of our time masturbating and maxing-out our credit cards at Wal-Mart.

Laqueur's work is primarily concerned with the ways in which sexuality and
desire are constructed -- how historical forces have affected how we see the act. Many of his contemporaries work on the other end of the theoretical spectrum: how the construction of masturbation plays out in the many aspects of everyday life.

For example, Paula Bennett's primary concern is with the relationship
between solitude, autonomy and creativity. She argues that Emily
Dickinson, one of literature's so-called purest little virgins, saturated
her poetry with stock 19th century sexual symbols -- revealing thus her dirty
mind and rich fantasy life. She scandalizes us all with lines like:

Forbidden Fruit a flavor has

That lawful Orchards mocks

How luscious lies
within the Pod

The Pea that Duty locks

For Victorian women, Bennett
asserts, "'cerebral masturbation' was just, if not more, dangerous than
the 'real thing.'" She regards masturbation as "a form of sexual behavior
tied to creativity. I'm concerned less about the act itself than the
thoughts that go with it."

Is Bennett really then writing about masturbation? In many ways,
one-hand lovin' has become an overinterpreted, empty vessel into which
theorists can pour their every inspiration. For Jackson, circle jerks are
really about voyeurism and the age of AIDS. For Duke grad student Greg
Tomso, the issue lies at the intersection of sexuality and illness. For
Rosario, masturbation is about the ways in which the medical profession
has affected our notion of the erotic.

There's no essential problem with the fact that these folks use the same act
to talk about vastly different issues, but only a few of them have actually
said a damn thing about masturbation itself. Sure, it's a bit like
thinking, it's a bit like reading or writing, it's a bit like intercourse
-- but, ultimately, it's none of those things. And while parallels are
sometimes relevant, they can get taken too far in an attempt to understand
an issue that is, by its very nature, very difficult to perceive through an
academic lens.

Masturbation is a fairly easy target for academia's linguistic hooey; even
more than theorizing, it's the ultimate in solitary acts. It's universal,
it's antisocial. Of course, one could well argue that our thoughts and
fantasies are socially constructed, but it's nonetheless difficult to
interrupt the circle of brain to body and check the pulse on "meaning."
It's like getting in the middle of someone else's mirror-gaze -- is it
possible? But that ambiguity may be why the act is so attractive to study
in the first place; there are many conceivable readings, and not much to
dispute a lot of them. Masturbation as ritualized prayer? Sure thing. How
about psychological self-therapy? OK! A representational enactment of
suicide? Why not?

Now this is not to say that studying the historical, sociological and
literary context of self-pleasure -- if done responsibly -- is an empty pursuit. Our body of knowledge is constantly being re-written, and it's necessary to question the validity of our assumptions. Sometimes these scholars have agendas, sometimes they don't. Bennett is upfront about her "feminist
purpose in helping women open up their creativity and erotic lives," and
Jackson's ACT-UP politics are manifest at first glance. Laqueur, on the
other hand, is just in it for the intellectual quest. "I wish I could say
I had a political agenda, but I don't," he says. "It's more direct for me:
The old readings are wrong."

But whatever the intent, the scholarly investigation of sexuality has been
heavily employed by non-academics to further the mission of liberating sexuality. In this vision, our weird hang-ups, inhibitions and generally funky feelings about sex -- as well as the popular misconception that bedroom stuff is actually important -- are societal inventions. If we read some good theory and understand that hang-ups are silly, then perhaps we can then become
comfortable with our own perversions, be less threatened by sexual
diversity and -- heck, have some fun in the process.

Theories about the construction of desire have drizzled subtly into the
pop culture of the gay '90s in little bits and pieces. Every
young adult who says, "I think sexuality is really kinda, um, fluid.
Like, I'm attracted to the person, not the gender, you know?" is verbalizing some of Foucault's most revered philosophies -- even if she simply liked the "I Kissed a Girl" song that was on the radio a few years back.

And, of course, professors do more than just write papers. Arianne
Chernock, a grad student under Laqueur, asserts that theory-spinning is only
the beginning. "I think that the real impact happens with teaching. The
classroom opens up a space for students to think about the issues; academia
can be a way of entering into the personal. It's very liberating for some
undergrads to know that Plato talked about homosexual relationships." Maybe with a professor demystifying the history of masturbation, students can
begin to likewise transform their relationship to their own bodies.

Perhaps someday the true history of one-handed love will become as much
a part of our cultural consciousness as Pamela Anderson's breast size.
Then again, this academic focus of creative interpretation could become
obsolete next week; it's possible, after all, that our academics could actually
get bored on the hamster wheel of constructed proto-sexuality and self-reflective erotic dialectics. And then they can
return to theorizing about really important things -- like Quentin
Tarantino movies and Barbie dolls.

By Danya Ruttenberg

Danya Ruttenberg is author of Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder and Radical Amazement of Parenting. She was named by Newsweek as one of ten "rabbis to watch" and by the Forward as one of the top 50 women rabbis in America.

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