The sound of one hand slapping

A new book explores the history of masturbation -- and why the finest minds of the 18th century suddenly freaked out about it.

Published May 9, 2003 7:16PM (EDT)

Apparently I've been doing it wrong, or by the lights of the gatekeepers of Western morality, I've been doing it right, if I must do it at all. Either way, I blame the school nurse. Mrs. Hirshman was a little truck of a woman with a supposedly enlightened perspective. (I might as well have capped that "e," for as UC-Berkeley history professor Thomas Laqueur explains in "Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation," Enlightenment thinkers were totally freaked out about masturbation.)

They were freaked out about masturbation because it engaged the imagination in ways that disengaged the self from society. Onanism, as they called masturbation, was premised on fantasy, and fantasy dissolved social reality; it would lead to the downfall of the socioeconomic order. So, when Mrs. Hirshman told us that it was A-OK to jerk off, just so long as we didn't go ahead and fantasize when we were doing it, she was, unbeknownst to herself or to any of the boys and girls in my ninth grade health class, teaching from within a framework of anxiety in continuance since the Enlightenment.

She was a regular Samuel Tissot (we'll get to him), that Mrs. Hirshman, and she screwed up my masturbatory technique for years to come. Up until Mrs. Hirshman, I had fantasized while jerking off -- pirates and bandits and sundry molesters -- and after Mrs. Hirshman, I didn't. As the person of Mrs. Hirshman displaced that of a peg-legged captain in my mind's eye, the prospect of guilt kept me from my fantasies. It did not stop me from masturbating. I simply focused, instead, on myself. And so I have remained, an entirely narcissistic jerk-off.

As Laqueur paraphrases the 1930s Freudian, Laura Hutton: "If a single woman must masturbate to relieve tension,..(n)o fantasy at all cost, and 'get over it and forget about it.'" If any self-service was acceptable, the kind bereft of imagination, and as logic would have it, pleasure, was the only acceptable kind, because the limit on pleasure marked the limit on self-sufficiency; a wanker would still need to make relationships with others in order to satisfy his desire for pleasure, and so the engines of society would keep on firing, the markets would remain peopled, the economy would not collapse. And, yet, it turns out, the opposite is true. Bereft of fantasy, I don't need anybody but myself to get it on; I'm autonomous, even, from the images manufactured in the Enlightenment thinkers' beloved marketplace.

Even when I'm in a relationship with someone I find utterly delicious, when I'm alone, I'm alone. I am, at that moment (and thus eternally, for anti-onanistic theory was absolute), the utterly autarkic onanist that everyone from Jean Jacques Rousseau to Sigmund Freud was so uptight about. Thus, having digested the entirety of Laqueur's massive treatment, I cannot now discern whether my narcissistic brand of masturbation would be more or less disturbing to the pre-20th century morality police than the diddler with the vivid imagination.

By now, you may be confused. Well, welcome to the wanking world of cultural history. I was confused until halfway through "Solitary Sex." Form meets content with Thomas Laqueur, and so the layman might be wise to take him at his word when he writes, "There may be more detail here than some readers will find necessary ... ; skip to Chapter 4 to get back to the story of sex with oneself from the eighteenth century on."

Those of us who aren't as turned on by history's daisy chain of names and dates can skip all his poking and stroking and go right for the money shot, the gist of which is this: Around 1712 in London, a quack named John Marten anonymously published a book on the subject so as to market his own remedies for the alleged epidemic of onanism. "Onania" was a shrill, salacious and blatant bit of hucksterism. And yet it hit a nerve. It went into multiple printings, launched a cottage industry of torturous curatives and sent the Western world's intellectual establishment into an anti-onanistic fit. The famed French physician, Samuel Tissot, claimed that the newly coined "self-pollution" was the cause of any number of diseases. Rousseau thought it a fatal addiction. Kant called it worse than suicide. And so on through Freud, who "traced anxiety neurosis, obsession, narcissism, hysterical vomiting, repressed memories of infantile sexuality, and, arguably, guilt itself to the psyche's confrontation with" masturbation.

The hysteria was new. Prior to the 18th century, no one was all that bothered by masturbation. What with wives and prostitutes and boy tutees at hand, the Greeks thought it below the average (read: male) citizen, but if one must, one must. Talmudic scholars, reflecting Jewish anxieties about the survival of the tribe and the coming of the messiah, worried themselves over procreation. The Biblical rebel, Onan, refused to come inside his widowed sister-in-law because the resultant child would be considered his dead brother's and not his. But, despite lending his name to a term for solitary sex, his sin was not masturbation but the spilling of the family seed. The church was so in a froth over sodomy that masturbation got short shrift.

The changes that occurred in the 17th and 18th centuries to hyper-problematize masturbation were, according to Laqueur, the secularization and democratization of society and the concomitant rise of market capitalism. As the hierarchical order overseen by God was eclipsed by modern civil society, the individual took precedence, and self-determination came to the fore. The authority that regulated social behavior was no longer outside the self; it was the self. Reason became primary, and for the sake of the burgeoning market with its many peddled goods, so did its antithesis, desire.

The tensions were built into the relationship between social order and the self, democracy and market. Within "give me liberty or give me death," anarchy loomed. Too much self-determination, and all hell broke loose. The individual expression of the "dark underbelly of civil society" was the errant hand on one's own hot spot: "All those capacities and possibilities on which masturbation thrived -- imagination, the desire for luxuries, reading, privacy -- were those most necessary to the new political and social order ... The struggle against masturbation through education and through medical bullying was thus a struggle to keep the freedom and the desire on which the new order was predicated within ethically livable bounds."

Privacy and private pursuits, of which jerking off was the ultimate, were necessary for the production of individual desire but were dangerous to the reproduction of social relationships. Autonomous self-gratification, fueled by the imagination, threatened to bring the markets to a halt. But if the imagination was so dangerous, then how could the medico-moralists of the modern era account for jerk-offs like me who take pleasure in masturbation without the fantasies? The answer is, they didn't, and neither does Laqueur. The O.G. of anti-onanism, John Marten, insisted that "one could not commit [masturbation] 'free of mental impurity.'" As Laqueur puts it, "imagination is everywhere in eighteenth-century thinking." There was no pleasure without it.

But what happens to imagination, and to pleasure, when we get past Freud to the late 20th century, the era of "the liberation of masturbation," when we're even enlisted to lend a naughty hand to worthy fundraising efforts like the May 18th Masturbate-A-Thon to raise money for AIDS? From the Boston Women's Health Book Collective to the New York Jacks to the Internet, Laqueur provides evidence to show that we're living in the age of communities of masturbation. No longer simply a solitary act, masturbation has become "a new form of sexual sociability," and though Laqueur claims it is "rooted in the celebration of the imagination and its infinite possibilities," the private imagination all but drops out of his analysis of the late 20th century. Far from "a way of reclaiming the self from the regulatory mechanisms of civil society and of the patriarchal sexual order," today's "(m)asturbation creates the sort of self that can live ethically in the social world." The wildest of private practices has somehow been domesticated in a warm and fuzzy group yank. It makes me yearn for the lone perv in the dirty raincoat. And, basically, I don't buy it.

This is where Laqueur's analysis seems to lead us: to a tremendous reduction. The problem lies, I think, in the endeavor to manufacture grand theory. Laqueur is a smarty pants, yes, and his book is enormous. And, yet, in the drive to find the proverbial fingerprints on the genitalia, complexity is lost. Laqueur makes much of the marketplace in the construction of the modern, bourgeois self. But the evolving marketplace of the 18th century was far from monolithic. The phenomenon of the bourgeois purse -- the consolidation of Anglo-European, middle-class wealth -- was born of a complexity of socioeconomic processes. It was a period that saw the displacement of the peasantry, imperialism, immigration, slavery. Beyond the rare appearance of a self-abusive farmer's daughter or two, the low-rent protagonists of these global upheavals are nowhere found in Laqueur's narrative, hands down their pants or otherwise. In fact, in 496 intellectually lubricious pages, there is (outside of the pro-masturbation political victim, Dr. Jocelyn Elders) not one mention of an individual of African descent.

The book gives the impression that the medico-moral policemen of the Enlightenment were unconcerned about the sexuality of the enslaved peoples among them. And yet, we know this to be untrue. Particularly in the 19th century, when politically motivated rape fictions unleashed Reconstruction lynch mobs on black men, depictions of black sexuality by whites who wielded the pens were serious business, and if these folks had nothing at all to say about blacks jacking off, the reader would like to know about it and understand why. The same goes for immigrants and for the indigenous peoples encountered through colonial expansion. After all, these were the days in which Paul Gaugin was getting it on with those libertine Tahitians and Melville's Ishmael was learning how to handle his harpoon at the hands of his "bosom" bed-fellow, Queequeg. And, if Laqueur is correct in labeling masturbation "the first truly democratic sexuality," would it not follow that the tensions played out in the Industrial Revolution between democracy and an increasingly complex class system would find their way into the greased palms of the huddled masses?

Laqueur's book, despite its provocative material, is rather traditional history. Its subject is bourgeois culture. Old-school history's subject used to be the bourgeois sausagefest. Bourgeois women have somehow finally earned our place at the circle jerk. But no one else really seems to count.

History, the discipline, also accounts for one reason the reader might find herself rummaging up her skirt when she's supposed to be engaged with the text. History, as a study, is obsessionally evidentiary. Sometimes the slog through is downright boring; there are just too many cum stains and swollen clits catalogued here. Or, rather, there are texts about cum and clits. And the details of private lives are recorded not in medical self-help books, but in diaries, in songs and jokes and letters, in material objects. After swallowing so much spillage from the pens of the hegemonic, I longed for a deeper dig into other kinds of data.

It is only when he gets to the 20th century that Laqueur really investigates other evidence, namely pro-masturbatory artworks influenced by the feminist and gay rights movements, but by then, "(i)t is too late in the day to say much more about these images than that they exist ..." and that they incorporate concepts of masturbation extant from the 18th century. Thus Laqueur threatens to frustrate the reader, as if he had come prematurely, 200 years previous, while the reader is left waiting for a contemporary climax.

The story of masturbation in the 20th century remains to be fully told. Now that Laqueur has unzipped the fly, someone should out with the details about, for example: fascinations and anxieties over pretty young things and their pretty things, from Brooke Shields' "Pretty Baby" to Calvin Klein ads to recent art world wünderkind, Ryan "The Kids Are Alright" McGinley, and his much-touted, Whitney-exhibited photographs of his nubile friends jerking off; voyeurism, exhibitionism, the stroked cock as advertisement, entrapment and the homophobic policing of public bathrooms and city parks; the masturbatory implications of hip-hop's crotch-grabbing posture; and, as our man mentions in the final pages of his text, the sticky keys and the dubious measurements of the "well-hung" Internet stud.

Of course, critique is easy for me to spurt out, sitting here variously mouthing and wanking off. I did not spend countless hours distilling from the dross a grand theory of why self-service makes us nervous. One must give Thomas Laqueur his due. His book furthers our understanding of the linkages between sexual anxiety, regulation of the self and the market economy at a pivotal time in the development of modern capitalism. And, as the fallout of my junior high health class illustrates, the anxieties Laqueur illuminates are still very much with us. Given the scholarly weight of both Laqueur's rep and his engorged tome, it is hard to see how subsequent analysts can fail to grapple with "Solitary Sex." As the carefully researched theory of an imminent academic, it is, by its very nature, seminal. And there is, indeed, an awful lot of seed to feed upon here.

By Betsy Andrews

Betsy Andrews is a writer living in New York.

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