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…
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