Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation
by Thomas W. Laqueur
Zone, 501 pp., $34.00
Two years ago, when I was chairing a large Harvard undergraduate program called History and Literature, I had what seemed to me at the time a bright idea. We had a regular forum in which we scheduled lectures by distinguished visiting scholars whose work boldly crossed disciplinary boundaries. I would invite my friend and former Berkeley colleague Thomas Laqueur, who was, I knew, working on an ambitious new book that brought together the history of medicine with cultural history, psychology, theology, and literature.
It wasn’t only a question of friendship; Laqueur’s celebrated 1990 book, Making Sex—on the medical discovery or invention of sexual difference—had a significant impact on a wide range of fields, from the history of science to gender studies, from literary criticism to art history. Discovery or invention: the shared understanding of the difference between men and women was transformed, Laqueur argued, less because of empirical discoveries than because of a complex social reevaluation. His book showed that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries people gradually shifted from a one-sex model—in which the woman’s body was viewed as a providentially inferior version of the man’s—to a two-sex model, in which the organs of generation were understood to be quite distinct. That is, they gave up the ancient idea that the vagina was in effect an unborn penis and grasped that what they had thought were the woman’s undescended testicles were in fact something quite different, something they called ovaries. In literary terms they moved in effect from Shakespeare’s plucky boyish heroines—Rosalind or Viola—toward Dickens’s strange angelic creatures—Agnes Wicklow or Little Dorrit—who seem to be made of different stuff from the men or to have grown up on a different planet or, more precisely, to have different insides.
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. Small wonder then that he seemed a person whose writings and lecture would enliven the semester for the undergraduates in History and Literature. In fact he did enliven the semester, but a strange thing happened along the way: there was a tremendous outbreak of the jitters. Panic set in not among the students—a large number of whom must have come of age watching There’s Something About Mary—but among the core of instructors who lead the seminars and conduct the tutorials. Though sophisticated and highly trained, when they were faced with the prospect of discussing the history of masturbation with the students, many of them blanched. Coprophagia wouldn’t have fazed them at all, sodomy wouldn’t have slowed them down, incest would have actively interested them—but masturbation: please, anything but that.
After a flurry of anxious conversations, I called a staff meeting to discuss the Great Masturbation Crisis. The first thing that I noticed was that everyone had developed overnight an intense sensitivity to double-entendres, as if language itself had become feverish. “When is Laqueur coming?” (chuckles). “His visit raises a number of issues” (giggles). “What do we hope will emerge from this discussion?” (snorts). “I am sorry if his visit rubs some people the wrong way” (loud guffaws). Perhaps in response to this burst of silliness, an experienced and ordinarily quite sensible instructor got up and made an urgent speech. “I have taught sexually charged subjects before,” she said gravely, “and there is one thing that I believe is absolutely crucial: there must be no humor at all. Once you allow the students to laugh, it is all over.”
Given the fact that the subject of masturbation tends to awaken laughter, this was awkward enough, but more awkward was the response of another instructor: it was, he declared, against his conscience to assign students readings from Laqueur’s new book or to require them to attend the lecture. It wasn’t, he conceded, that the subject—the relationship between the medicalization of human behavior and the imagination—was unimportant, but it should only be discussed in what he chose to call “a non-coercive framework.” In this it was different from virtually every other subject that we might assign. Wishing not to violate his conscience, I excused him from the task and told him that, should any students (to whom I would give the option) share his feelings, he could teach them chapters from Laqueur’s fine early book on Victorian Sunday schools and working-class culture. In the event, none of the students chose this option.
Finally, I had a phone call from a giggling Newsweek reporter who told me that she had gotten word of the forthcoming lecture. “Great,” I said, “I would love you to write about the whole series of lectures that History and Literature had scheduled this year.” No, no, she replied, she was only interested in this one. I understand now, I said with defensive coolness, you have a special interest in eighteenth-century nosology—the scientific classification of diseases. She sounded disappointed, and the magazine contented itself with a brief mention that the “modern master of masturbation” had come to talk at Harvard.
I now fully grasped that Laqueur was on to something both weird and important. How could I not have anticipated it? Had I not read Portnoy’s Complaint or watched Seinfeld? During the last administration, the surgeon general, Jocelyn Elders, was fired, or so it was claimed, for her apparent endorsement of the public health values of masturbation. At a Miami news conference, President Bill Clinton said that her views on the subject reflected “differences with administration policy and my own convictions.” 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.
When theologians commented on Genesis 38 at all, it was to condemn Onan not for what he did but for what he refused to do: thus Saint Augustine interpreted Onan as the sort of person who fails to do what he can to help those in need. As befits a religion that rejected the strict rabbinic obligation to procreate and instead celebrated monastic chastity, the argument here has slipped away from the obligation to be fruitful and multiply and changed into a more general moral obligation. 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. It may be better to marry than to burn, but that sort of thing should be kept to a minimum. Only one early-fifteenth-century text—a three-page manual “On the Confession of Masturbation,” attributed to the chancellor of the University of Paris, Jean de Gerson—instructed priests on how to elicit confessions of this sin, and this text does not seem to have circulated widely.
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.”
It all began here, Laqueur argues. The question, of course, is why this shameless piece of mercenary quackery, instead of being thrown in the rubbish where it belonged, should have served as the foundation stone of a serious medical tradition that transformed cultural assumptions that had been securely in place for thousands of years. In part the answer was a clever marketing trick: subsequent editions, and they were many, included titillating letters from readers who breathlessly disclosed their own personal initiation into masturbatory addiction and testified to the liberating power of the patent medicines. 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 was not peddling tinctures or titillation, and he was not taken in by the earlier work whose name and concept he appropriated: the English tract, he wrote, “is a real chaos…one of the most unconnected productions that has appeared for a long time.” But far from rejecting its central idea, 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.
Whatever was driving his intense anxiety—Tissot thought that masturbation was “much the more to be dreaded” than smallpox—it was not, Laqueur argues, the consequence of an empirical increase in masturbation. No one in the eighteenth century claimed that there was more masturbation than ever before—how, in any case, would they have determined this?—and even if statistics proving such an increase miraculously turned up, the terrible anxiety around the issue would still need to be explained. Moreover, there were no new medical observations, discoveries, or even hypotheses that would account for what came to be regarded as so dangerous about the act. And the startling vision of its terrible consequences was not the work of churchmen and cultural conservatives. Their position had not changed.
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.
Confirmation of this surprising conclusion comes from someone who can hardly be accused of prudery: Giacomo Casanova. The great Venetian lover and adventurer recalled a conversation he had in Istanbul in the 1740s with a distinguished Turkish philosopher, Yusuf Ali. “He asked me if I was married.” Casanova, who was still at that time contemplating entering the priesthood, replied that he was not and hoped never to be. “What!” Yusuf Ali answered. “Then I must either believe that you are not a complete man or that you want to damn yourself, unless you tell me that you are a Christian only in show.” “I am a complete man, and I am a Christian,” Casanova answered, adding candidly, “I will further tell you that I love the fair sex and that I hope to enjoy many conquests among them.”
“Your religion says that you will be damned,” said the Muslim sage. “I am sure that I shall not, for when we confess our crimes to our priests they are obliged to absolve us.” In the same spirit of candor, Yusuf Ali replied that he found this idea idiotic, and then he asked, “Is masturbation a crime among you too?” “An even greater crime than unlawful copulation,” the Venetian answered. “So I know,” Yusuf Ali continued, “and it has always surprised me, for any legislator who promulgates a law which cannot be enforced is a fool. A man who has no woman and who is in good health cannot but masturbate when imperious nature makes him feel the need for it.”
Casanova’s response goes to the heart of the history that Laqueur has written, for in it we watch Christian moralism give way to medicalization:
We Christians believe just the contrary. We claim that young men who indulge in the practice impair their constitutions and shorten their lives. In many communities they are closely watched, left absolutely no time to commit this crime on themselves.
Masturbation is a crime not because it violates a divine edict—Casanova is far too worldly to brood on that possibility—but because it is for him what smoking or obesity are for us.
This vision of the health risks of solitary sex entirely failed to impress Yusuf Ali, who was equally contemptuous of the attempts to stop it by surveillance:
Those who watch them are ignoramuses and those who pay them to do so are fools, for the prohibition itself must increase the desire to break a law so tyrannical and so contrary to nature.
This observation seems self-evident, yet for the Western doctors and philosophers whose up-to-date views Ca-sanova reflects, what was contrary to nature was not the prohibition but the act itself.
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.”
There is a second modern innovation that similarly focused the anxieties attached to solitary sex: solitary reading. “It was not an accident” (Laqueur again) that Onania was published in the same decade as Defoe’s first novels. For it was reading—and not just any reading, but reading the flood of books churned out by the literary marketplace—that seemed from the eighteenth century onward at once to reflect and to inspire the secret vice. The enabling mechanism here was the invention of domestic spaces in which people could be alone, coupled with a marked increase in private, solitary, silent reading. The great literary form that was crafted to fit these spaces and the reading practices they enabled was the novel. Certain novels were, of course, specifically written, as Rousseau put it, to be read with one hand. But it was not only through pornography that masturbation and the novel were closely linked. Reading novels—even high-minded, morally uplifting novels—generated a certain kind of absorption, a deep engagement of the imagination, a bodily intensity that could, it was feared, veer with terrifying ease toward the dangerous excesses of self-pleasure.
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. The charge, of course, reveals nothing about what theatergoers actually did (and nothing, for that matter, about the structure of Elizabethan playhouses), but it does reveal something about the fears associated at the time with an art form that seemed in touch with powerful sexual forces. Perhaps, after all, the fears had at least a grain of truth. 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.
Pornographic images of women masturbating—Solitary Sex reproduces several—frequently feature an open book, dropped on the ground at the moment that the overwhelming excitements of reading provoked the urge for immediate relief. In the Nausicaa chapter of Ulysses, James Joyce at once deftly sums up and ridicules this history of male anxiety about women, novel reading, and masturbation. Bored, annoyed by her friends, and half-listening to the liturgy being sung in the nearby church, the teenaged Gerty MacDowell sits on the rocks on the Sandymount shore, pleasantly aware that she is being watched by a stranger—Leopold Bloom. In a dreamy state, she begins to flirt with Bloom, whom in her imagination, filled with the clichés of cheap fiction and popular entertainment, she transforms into a brooding, haunted romantic hero:
She would fain have cried to him chokingly, held out her snowy slender arms to him to come, to feel his lips laid on her white brow, the cry of a young girl’s love, a little strangled cry, wrung from her, that cry that has rung through the ages. And then a rocket sprang and bang shot blind and O! then the Roman candle burst and it was like a sigh of O! and everyone cried O! O! in raptures and it gushed out of it a stream of rain gold hair threads and they shed and ah! They were all greeny dewy stars falling with golden, O so lovely, O, soft, sweet, soft!
We are in the overheated mind of the masturbator, but as the parodic sentences, at once ecstatic and banal, pour forth, the gender shifts, and Joyce discloses the male stake, as it were, in the whole fantasy: “Mr Bloom with careful hand recomposed his wet shirt.”
Joyce’s marvelous parody, published in 1922, was written from the other side of a great cultural divide. For, 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.”
I confess I find most of this silly and disagreeable, but lurking behind these adolescent attempts to shock is one of the greatest artistic triumphs of modern literature. 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.
It is, to paraphrase Laqueur’s book, no accident that this scene appears in the modern novel most centrally committed to probing the deepest inward spaces of the self, throwing over embarrassment and shame, and disclosing the truth, including the sexual truth, that lies hidden in the darkness. 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.