Richard Sennett

A few years ago, Michel Foucault and I discovered we were interested in the same problem, in very different periods of history. The problem is why sexuality has become so important to people as a definition of themselves. Sex is as basic as eating or sleeping, to be sure, but it is treated in modern society as something more. It is the medium through which people seek to define their personalities, their tastes. Above all, sexuality is the means by which people seek to be conscious of themselves. It is that relationship between self-consciousness, or subjectivity, and sexuality that we want to explore. Few people today would subscribe to Brillat-Savarin’s ‘Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are,’ but a translation of this dictum to the field of sex does command assent: know how you love, and you will know who you are.

Michel Foucault and I are working, as I say, on two very different historical periods in which this theme of self-consciousness via sexuality appears. He focuses on how Christianity in its early phases, from the third to the sixth century, assigned a new value to sexuality, and redefined sexuality itself. I focus on the late 18th and 19th centuries, and within that period on how medical doctors, educators and judges took a new interest in sexuality. When it became apparent to us that we are asking rather similar questions about our two periods, we decided to set up a seminar to see what connections we could make. We hope to get some rough, tentative ideas about the continuing influence of Christianity on modern culture.

I myself did not set out to study sexuality at all. I set out to study the history of solitude in modern society. I wanted to understand the evolution of experiences of solitude because it seemed to be a good way to study a vast but amorphous subject, the development of subjectivity in modern culture. How has the concept of ‘I’ changed in the last two centuries? To tame this very general subject, I sought to understand the changing circumstances in which people felt alone with themselves, the conditions of family, work and political life which prompted people to consider themselves to be alone. Originally I had focused on such tangible matters as how people felt alone in the midst of city crowds (an incomprehensible notion to someone of the mid 17th century), and how factory conditions changed so that people felt more or less isolated from each other. This history of the circumstances in which people felt alone appeared to me after a while, however, to be inadequate to the subject. In particular, it did not account for the mental tools people use to think about themselves when they are alone. In the last century, one tool of self-definition which has grown ever more important is the perception of one’s own sexuality. For instance, by the end of the 19th century, there existed the notion that when one left the family and went out into the crowd, one was free to have all kinds of sexual experiences which one would have been ashamed to admit one could desire, thinking of oneself as a member of a family. There thus appeared two kinds of desire – one for the anonymous man, one for the family man.

Let me now say something about what the word ‘solitude’ means. We know three solitudes in society. We know a solitude imposed by power. This is the solitude of isolation, the solitude of anomie. We know a solitude which arouses fear on the part of those who are powerful. This is the solitude of the dreamer, of the homme révolté, the solitude of rebellion. And finally, there is a solitude which transcends the terms of power. It is a solitude based on the idea of Epictetus that there is a difference between being lonely and being alone. This third solitude is the sense of being one among many, of having an inner life which is more than a reflection of the lives of others. It is the solitude of difference.

Each of these solitudes has a history. In the ancient world, the solitude imposed by power was exile; in 17th-century France, the solitude imposed by power was banishment to the countryside. In a modern office, the solitude created by power is a sense of loneliness in the midst of the mass. In the ancient world, the detached dreamer whom the powerful feared was a Socrates, one who set against the laws of the state a discourse of superior law, an ideal against an established order of power. The modern homme révolté, an Artaud or a Genet, sets against the order of power the truth of lawlessness. The solitude of difference, of an inner life more than the reflections of other lives, is similarly historical.

In most of the writings on this subject, the emphasis is put on the first two solitudes; people in isolation perceived either as victims or as rebels. Emile Durkheim is probably the greatest spokesman for the solitary as a victim, Jean-Paul Sartre for the solitary as a rebel. The sense of apartness, of difference, is more neglected, and for a good reason. This is an immensely confused experience in modern society, and one reason for the confusion is that our ideas of sexuality as an index of self-consciousness make it hard for us to understand how we stand apart from other individuals in society. It is this third solitude upon which M. Foucault and I have focused.

Confusion about standing apart because of one’s sexuality is partly bred of fear. The first modern researchers on sexuality believed they were opening up a terrifying Pandora’s box of unrestrained lust, perversion and destructiveness in looking at the sexual desires of people alone without the civilising restraints of society. When we come to analyse the texts of Tissot and others about masturbation, I hope some sense of this terror will become apparent. A person alone with his or her sexuality appeared to be a person alone with a very dangerous force. In our seminar we have sought to understand these late Enlightenment and Victorian fears of the Pandora’s box within a person to be not simply blind prejudices, or aberrations of scientific inquiry. These fears expressed ideas about the relation between mind and body, speech and desire, of which the Victorian doctors were themselves unaware. Their attitudes are buried in fundamental Christian formulas about the relationship between desire, discourse and political domination. What is inherited blindly is likely to be passed on blindly. Victorian morality provides not simply the moral foundation of the sort of right-wing clamour for social repression which appeared in the last American election: it is also the foundation of the belief, in more benign circles, that con templation of one’s sexuality is the contemplation of ‘a problem’, of mysteries inside oneself which can do one great damage in the course of giving one pleasure. This highly charged psychological value put on sexuality is a legacy of Victorian wisdom, even though we flatter ourselves that we no longer share their repressive prejudices. The idea of having an identity composed of one’s sexuality puts a tremendous burden on one’s erotic feelings, a burden that for someone in the 18th century would be very hard to understand.

The second way in which our seminar has focused on the disorientations of sexual self-awareness concerns the act of relating the mind to the body. We have used in the seminar the phrase ‘the technology of the self’ to describe how sexuality is used to measure human character. Part of the modern technology of the self consists in using bodily desire to measure whether or not a person is being truthful. ‘Do you really mean it?’ ‘Are you being honest with yourself?’ These are questions people have come to answer through trying to chart what the body desires: if your body doesn’t desire it, then you aren’t being honest with yourself. Subjectivity has become yoked to sexuality: the truth of subjective self-consciousness is conceived in terms of measured bodily stimulation. The notion in American speech of asking whether ‘you really feel what I am saying,’ that idea of using the word ‘feeling’ as a measure of truth between people, is a consequence of this yoking of sexuality to subjectivity, and carries with it the connotation that if something isn’t felt it isn’t true. The origins of telling the truth through bodily desire have been traced back in our seminar work, again, to Christian sources. The modern consequence is that the wayward course of sexual desire has acted like acid on the confidence in one’s own self-consciousness: as bodily desires change, people have to keep telling themselves new or different or contradictory truths about themselves. Faith in oneself, in the integrity of self-conscious ness, is eroded as the truth of one’s self is yoked to the standards of the body.

Sexuality, then, has introduced elements of both fear and self-doubt into the experience of this third solitude, the condition of knowing oneself as a distinct, separate human being It’s a psychological truism that what’s feared or ambiguous becomes urgent to a person. The very uncertainties which sexuality creates for subjectivity magnify the importance of the experience: that is to say, as sexuality becomes more problematical it becomes more important to us in defining ourselves. I think the rhetorical and political view M. Foucault and I share is that sexuality has become too important, that it has become charged with tasks of self-definition and self-knowledge it can’t and shouldn’t perform.

Let me add a final introductory note. One logical response to this problem of sexuality and solitude is to maintain: ‘Forget it. Enjoy the sex and stop thinking about yourself.’ I’d like to say why I don’t think the issue of solitude can be disposed of in this way.

There is a direct relationship between solitude and sociability: unless a human being can be comfortable alone, he or she cannot be comfortable with others. There is a rhythm between the solitude of difference and sociability which ought to obtain in society, and it is a rhythm we do not feel because, in part, the experience of being alone with ourselves is so troubled. I should also like to say that this rhythm is possible for us to experience in a way that it was not in the past, because an immense opportunity has opened up in Western bourgeois society. It is the opportunity to live in a fragmented society.

There exists today an opportunity to escape the organic bonds of religion, family, work and community which have held many societies together before – if not completely in fact, at least as a common ideal. The love of the organic is a love we can begin to do without. Large bureaucracies are not held together by principles of organic solidarity, as Durkheim was the first to point out; the family and the work-place are no longer joined, even physically in the same household, as they were in the 18th-century city or in the countryside. Religion no longer plays the integrating role it played in traditional Catholic or Jewish life. Rather than bewailing these changes as signs of decline in society, I think we have to accept them and try to see what good they serve. The good I see them serving is to create a new opportunity both for solitude and for sociability.

The loosening of organic bonds means that social relations could become more and more matters of choice. The less social relations appear embedded in a scheme of nature, of divine law, of organic necessity, the more people should be able to imagine themselves as creatures with a life apart from their social roles. When we choose to enter into social relations, the more they matter. But that sense of choosing or not choosing whom a person cares about in a fragmented society depends on knowing how to see oneself as a separate, distinct human being in one’s own right. The inflation of sexuality to be a measure of psychological truth has come to disorient this kind of self-knowledge.

Michel Foucault

In a work consecrated to the moral treatment of madness and published in 1840, a French psychiatrist, Louren, tells of the manner in which he treated one of his patients – treated and of course, as you may imagine, cured. One morning he placed Mr A., his patient, in a shower-room. He makes him recount in detail his delirium. ‘But all that,’ said the doctor, ‘is nothing but madness. Promise me not to believe in it any more.’ The patient hesitates, then promises. ‘That is not enough,’ replies the doctor. ‘You have already made me similar promises and you haven’t kept them,’ And he turns on the cold shower above the patient’s head. ‘Yes, yes! I am mad!’ the patient cries. The shower is turned off; the interrogation is resumed. ‘Yes. I recognise that I am mad,’ the patient repeats. ‘But,’ he adds, ‘I recognise it because you are forcing me to do so.’ Another shower. ‘Well, well,’ says Mr A., ‘I admit it. I am mad, and all that was nothing but madness.’

To make somebody suffering from mental illness recognise that he is mad is a very ancient procedure in traditional therapy. In the works of the 17th and 18th centuries, one finds many examples of what one might call truth therapies. But the technique used by Louren is altogether different. Louren is not trying to persuade his patient that his ideas are false or unreasonable. What happens in the head of Mr A. is a matter of perfect indifference to Louren. The doctor wishes to obtain a precise act, the explicit affirmation: ‘I am mad.’ Since I first read this passage of Louren, about twenty years ago, I kept in mind the project of analysing the form and the history of such a bizarre practice. Louren is satisfied when and only when his patient says, ‘I am mad,’ or: ‘That was madness.’ Louren’s assumption is that madness as a reality disappears when the patient asserts the truth and says he is mad.

We have, then, the reverse of the performative speech act. The affirmation destroys in the speaking subject the reality which made the same affirmation true. What conception of truth of discourse and of subjectivity is taken for granted in this strange and yet widespread practice? In order to justify the attention I am giving to what is seemingly so specialised a subject, let me take a step back for a moment. In the years that preceded the Second World War, and even more so after the war, philosophy in continental Europe and in France was dominated by the philosophy of subject. I mean that philosophy took as its task par excellence the foundation of all knowledge and the principle of all signification as stemming from the meaningful subject. The importance given to this question was due to the impact of Husserl, but the centrality of the subject was also tied to an institutional context, for the French university, since philosophy began with Descartes, could only advance in a Cartesian manner. But we must also take into account the political conjunct. Given the absurdity of wars, slaughters and despotism, it seemed to be up to the individual subject to give meaning to his existential choices. With the leisure and distance that came after the war, this emphasis on the philosophy of subject no longer seemed so self-evident. Hitherto-hidden theoretical paradoxes could no longer be avoided. This philosophy of consciousness had paradoxically failed to found a philosophy of knowledge, and especially of scientific knowledge. Also, this philosophy of meaning had failed to take into account the formative mechanisms of signification and the structure of systems of meaning.

With the all too easy clarity of hindsight – of what Americans call the Monday-morning quarterback – let me say that there were two possible paths that led beyond this philosophy of subject. The first of these was the theory of objective knowledge as an analysis of systems of meaning, as semiology. This was the path of logical positivism. The second was that of a certain school of linguistics, psychoanalysis and anthropology – all grouped under the rubric of structuralism. These were not the directions I took. Let me announce once and for all that I am not a structuralist, and I confess, with the appropriate chagrin, that I am not an analytic philosopher. Nobody is perfect. But I have tried to explore another direction. I have tried to get out from the philosophy of the subject, through a genealogy of the modern subject as a historical and cultural reality. That means as something which can eventually change, which is of course politically important. One can proceed with this general project in two ways. In dealing with modern theoretical constructions, we are concerned with the subject in general. In this way, I have tried to analyse the theories of the subject as a speaking, living, working being in the 17th and 18th century. One can also deal with the more practical understanding found in those institutions where certain subjects became objects of knowledge and of domination: asylums, prisons and so on.

I wished to study those forms of understanding which the subject creates about himself. But since I started with this last type of problem, I have been obliged to change my mind on several points. Let me introduce a kind of auto-critique. It seems, according to some suggestions of Habermas, that one can distinguish three major types of technique: the techniques which permit one to produce, to transform, to manipulate things; the techniques which permit one to use sign systems; and finally, the techniques which permit one to determine the conduct of individuals, to impose certain ends or objectives. That is to say, techniques of production, techniques of signification or communication, and techniques of domination. But I became more and more aware that in all societies there is another type of technique: techniques which permit individuals to effect, by their own means, a certain number of operations on their own bodies, their own souls, their own thoughts, their own conduct, and this in a manner so as to transform themselves, modify themselves, and to attain a certain state of perfection, happiness, purity, supernatural power. Let’s call these techniques technologies of the self.

If one wants to analyse the genealogy of subject in Western civilisation, one has to take into account, not only techniques of domination, but also techniques of the self. One has to show the interaction between these types of technique. When I was studying asylums, prisons and so on, I perhaps insisted too much on the techniques of domination. What we call discipline is something really important in this kind of institution. But it is only one aspect of the art of governing people in our societies. Having studied the field of power relations taking techniques of domination as a point of departure, I would like, in the years to come, to study power relations starting from the techniques of the self. In every culture, I think, this self technology implies a set of truth obligations: discovering the truth, being enlightened by truth, telling the truth. All these are considered important either for the constitution or for the transformation of the self.

Now, what about truth as a duty in our Christian societies? As everybody knows, Christianity is a confession. This means that Christianity belongs to a very special type of religion – those which impose obligations of truth on those who practise them. Such obligations in Christianity are numerous. For instance, there is the obligation to hold as truth a set of propositions which constitute dogma, the obligation to hold certain books as a permanent source of truth and obligations to accept the decisions of certain authorities in matters of truth. But Christianity requires another form of truth obligation. Everyone in Christianity has the duty to explore who he is, what is happening within himself, the faults he may have committed, the temptations to which he is exposed. Moreover everyone is obliged to tell these things to other people, and hence to bear witness against himself.

These two ensembles of obligation – those regarding the faith, the book, the dogma, and those regarding the self, the soul and the heart – are linked together. A Christian needs the light of faith when he wants to explore himself. Conversely, his access to the truth can’t be conceived of without the purification of the soul. The Buddhist also has to go to the light and discover the truth about himself. But the relation between these two obligations is quite different in Buddhism and in Christianity. In Buddhism, it is the same type of enlightenment which leads you to discover what you are and what is the truth. In this simultaneous enlightenment of yourself and the truth, you discover that your self was only an illusion. I would like to underline that the Christian discovery of the self does not reveal the self as an illusion. It gives place to a task which can’t be anything else but undefined. This task has two objectives. First, there is the task of clearing up all the illusions, temptations and seductions which can occur in the mind, and discovering the reality of what is going on within ourselves. Secondly, one has to get free from any attachment to this self, not because the self is an illusion, but because the self is much too real. The more we discover the truth about ourselves, the more we have to renounce ourselves; and the more we want to renounce ourselves, the more we need to bring to light the reality of ourselves. That is what we could call the spiral of truth formulation and reality renouncement which is at the heart of Christian techniques of the self.

Recently, Professor Peter Brown stated to me that what we have to understand is why it is that sexuality became, in Christian cultures, the seismograph of our subjectivity. It is a fact, a mysterious fact, that in this indefinite spiral of truth and reality in the self sexuality has been of major importance since the first centuries of our era. It has become more and more important. Why is there such a fundamental connection between sexuality, subjectivity and truth obligation? This is the point at which I met Richard Sennett’s work.

Our point of departure in the seminar has been a passage of St François de Sales. Here is the text in a translation made at the beginning of the 17th century:

I will tell you a point of the elephant’s honesty. An elephant never changes his mate. He loves her tenderly. With her he couples not, but from three years to three years. And that only for five days, and so secretly that he is never seen in the act. But the sixth day, he shows himself abroad again, and the first thing he does is to go directly to some river and wash his body, not willing to return to his troupe of companions till he be purified. Be not these goodly and honest qualities in a beast by which he teaches married folk not to be given too much to sensual and carnal pleasures?

Everybody may recognise here the pattern of decent sexual behaviour: monogamy, faithfulness and procreation as the main, or maybe the single, justification of sexual acts – sexual acts which remain, even in such conditions, intrinsically impure. Most of us are inclined, I think, to attribute this pattern either to Christianity or to modern Christian society as it developed under the influence of capitalist or so-called bourgeois morality. But what struck me when I started studying this pattern is the fact that one can find it also in Latin and even Hellenistic literature. One finds the same ideas, the same words, and eventually the same reference to the elephant. It is a fact that the pagan philosophers in the centuries before and after the death of Christ proposed a sexual ethics which was partly new but which was very similar to the alleged Christian ethics. In our seminar, it was very convincingly stressed that this philosophical pattern of sexual behaviour, this elephant pattern, was not at that time the only one to be known and put into practice. It was in competition with several others. But this pattern soon became predominant, because it was related to a social transformation involving the disintegration of city-states, the development of the imperial bureaucracy, and the increasing influence of the provincial middle class.

During this period we may witness an evolution towards the nuclear family, real monogamy, faithfulness between married people and distress about sexual acts. The philosophical campaign in favour of the elephant pattern was both an effect and an adjunct of this transformation. If these assumptions are correct, we have to concede that Christianity did not invent this code of sexual behaviour. Christianity accepted it, reinforced it, and gave to it a much larger and more widespread strength than it had before. But the so-called Christian morality is nothing more than a piece of pagan ethics inserted into Christianity. Shall we say then that Christianity did not change the state of things? Early Christians introduced important changes, if not in the sexual code itself, at least in the relationships everyone has to his own sexual activity. Christianity proposed a new type of experience of oneself as a sexual being.

To make things clearer, I will compare two texts. One was written by Artemidorus, a pagan philosopher of the third century, and the other is the well-known 14th book of The City of God by Augustine. Artemidorus wrote a book about the interpretation of dreams in the third century after the death of Christ, but he was a pagan. Three chapters of this book are devoted to sexual dreams. What is the meaning, or, more precisely, what is the prognostic value, of a sexual dream? It is significant that Artemidorus interpreted dreams in a way contrary to Freud, and gives an interpretation of sexual dreams in terms of economics, social relations, success and reverses in political activity and everyday life. For instance, if you dream that you have sex with your mother, that means that you will succeed as a magistrate, since your mother is obviously the symbol of your city or country.

It is also significant that the social value of the dream does not depend on the nature of the sexual act, but mainly on the social status of the partners. For instance, for Artemidorus it is not important in your dream whether you had sex with a girl or with a boy. The problem is to know if the partner was rich or poor, young or old, slave or free, married or not. Of course, Artemidorus takes into account the question of the sexual act, but he sees it only from the point of view of the male. The only act he knows or recognises as sexual is penetration. Penetration is for him not only a sexual act, but is part of the social role of a man in a city. I would say that for Artemidorus sexuality is relational, and that sexual relations cannot be dissociated from social relations.

Now let’s turn to Augustine’s text, whose meaning is the point at which we want to arrive in our analysis. In The City of God, and later on in the Contra Julian, Augustine gives a rather horrifying description of the sexual act. He sees the sexual act as a kind of spasm. All the body, says Augustine, is shaken by terrible jerks. One entirely loses control of oneself. ‘This sexual act takes such a complete and passionate possession of the whole man, both physically and emotionally, that what results is the keenest of all pleasures on the level of sensations, and at the crisis of excitement it practically paralyses all power of deliberate thought.’ It is worthwhile to note that this description is not an invention of Augustine: you can find the same in the medical and pagan literature of the previous century. Moreover Augustine’s text is almost the exact transcription of a passage written by the pagan philosopher, Cicero in Otensius.

The surprising point is not that Augustine would give such a classical description of the sexual act, but the fact that, having made such a horrible description, he then admits that sexual relations could have taken place in Paradise before the Fall. This is all the more remarkable since Augustine is one of the first Christian Fathers to admit the possibility. Of course, sex in Paradise could not have the epileptic form which we unfortunately know now. Before the Fall, Adam’s body, every part of it, was perfectly obedient to the soul and the will. If Adam wanted to procreate in Paradise, he could do it in the same way and with the same control as he could, for instance, sow seeds in the earth. He was not involuntarily excited. Every part of his body was like the fingers, which one can control in all their gestures. Sex was a kind of hand gently sowing the seed. But what happened with the Fall? Adam rose up against God with the first sin. Adam tried to escape God’s will and to acquire a will of his own, ignoring the fact that the existence of his own will depended entirely on the will of God. As a punishment of this revolt and as a consequence of this will to will independently from God, Adam lost control of himself. He wanted to acquire an autonomous will, and lost the ontological support for that will. That then became mixed in an indissociable way with involuntary movements, and this weakening of Adam’s will had a disastrous effect. His body, and parts of his body, stopped obeying his commands, revolted against him, and the sexual parts of his body were the first to rise up in this disobedience. The famous gesture of Adam covering his genitals with a fig leaf is, according to Augustine, not due to the simple fact that Adam was ashamed of their presence, but to the fact that his sexual organs were moving by themselves without his consent. Sex in erection is the image of man revolted against God. The arrogance of sex is the punishment and consequence of the arrogance of man. His uncontrolled sex is exactly the same as what he himself has been towards God – a rebel.

Why have I insisted so much on what may be nothing more than one of those exegetic fantasies of which Christian literature has been so prodigal? I think this text bears witness to the new type of relationship which Christianity established between sex and subjectivity. Augustine’s conception is still dominated by the theme and form of male sexuality. But the main question is not, as it was in Artemidorus, the problem of penetration: it is the problem of erection. As a result, it is not the problem of a relationship to other people, but the problem of the relationship of oneself to oneself, or, more precisely, the relationship between one’s will and involuntary assertions.

The principle of autonomous movements of sexual organs is called libido by Augustine. The problem of libido, of its strength, origin and effect, thus becomes the main issue of one’s will. It is not an external obstacle to the will. It is a part, an internal component, of the will. And it is not the manifestation of petty desires. Libido is the result of one’s will when it goes beyond the limits God originally set for it. As a consequence, the means of the spiritual struggle against libido do not consist, as with Plato, in turning our eyes upwards and memorising the reality we have previously known and forgotten. The spiritual struggle consists, on the contrary, in turning our eyes continuously downwards or inwards in order to decipher, among the movements of the soul, which ones come from the libido. The task is at first indefinite, since libido and will can never be substantially dissociated from one another. And this task is not only an issue of mastership but also a question of the diagnosis of truth and illusion. It requires a permanent hermeneutics of oneself.

In such a perspective, sexual ethics imply very strict truth obligations. These do not only consist in learning the rules of a moral sexual behaviour, but also in constantly scrutinising ourselves as libidinal beings. Shall we say that after Augustine we experience our sex in the head? Let’s say at least that in Augustine’s analysis we witness a real libidinisation of sex. Augustine’s moral theology is, to a certain extent, a systematisation of a lot of previous speculation, but it is also an ensemble of spiritual techniques.

When one reads the ascetic and monastic literature of the fourth and fifth centuries, one cannot but be struck by the fact that these techniques are not directly concerned with the effective control of sexual behaviour. There is little mention of homosexual relations, in spite of the fact that most ascetics lived in permanent and numerous communities. The techniques were mainly concerned with the stream of thoughts flowing into consciousness, disturbing, by their multiplicity, the necessary unity of contemplation, and secretly conveying images or suggestions from Satan. The monk’s task was not the philosopher’s task: to acquire mastership over oneself by the definitive victory of the will. It was perpetually to control one’s thoughts, examining them to see if they were pure, whether something dangerous was not hiding in or behind them, if they were not conveying something other than what primarily appeared, if they were not a form of illusion and seduction. Such data have always to be considered with suspicion; they need to be scrutinised and tested. According to Cassian, for instance, one has to be towards oneself as a money-changer who has to try the coins he receives. Real purity is not acquired when one can lie down with a young and beautiful boy without even touching him, as Socrates did with Alcibiades. A monk was really chaste when no impure image occurred in his mind, even during the night, even during dreams. The criterion of purity does not consist in keeping control of oneself even in the presence of the most desirable people: it consists in discovering the truth in myself and defeating the illusions in myself, in cutting out the images and thoughts my mind continuously produces. Hence the axis of the spiritual struggle against impurity. The main question of sexual ethics has moved from relations to people, and from the penetration model to the relation to oneself and to the erection problem: I mean to the set of internal movements which develop from the first and nearly imperceptible thought to the final but still solitary pollution. However different and eventually contradictory they were, a common effect was elicited: sexuality, subjectivity and truth were strongly linked together. This, I think, is the religious framework in which the masturbation problem – which was nearly ignored or at least neglected by the Greeks, who considered that masturbation was a thing for slaves and for satyrs, but not for free citizens – appeared as one of the main issues of the sexual life.

Richard Sennett

In concluding, I wish to show how certain Christian ideas of confronting oneself through confronting one’s sexuality have reappeared in modern society. I shall do this by tracing some of the history of ideas about masturbation from the middle of the 18th to the end of the 19th century.

In setting out this theme, I use the word ‘reappear’ on purpose. At the opening of the 18th century, auto-eroticism was not of much interest to medical and educational authorities. Of course, onanism was a sin, but there was a gap between the Christian rule and the medical diagnosis of it. Auto-eroticism was simply grouped as one of a number of disorders which would occur if a person was sexually over-indulgent. In Boerhaave’s Institutes of Medicine, published in 1708, the general diagnosis of sexual over-indulgence is given as follows: ‘The semen discharged too lavishly occasions a weariness, weakness, indisposition of motion, convulsions, leanness, dryness, heat and pains in the membranes of the brain, with a dullness of the senses, more especially of the sight, a tabes dorsalis, foolishness and disorders of the like kind.’ By the time of Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathology of Sexuality in 1887, these symptoms are confined to masturbation. Moreover the cause of these symptoms is no longer ‘too lavish a performance of the sexual act’, but sexual desire. Sexual desire, when experienced alone and continually, will lead to masturbation, thence to homosexuality, finally to madness. From the time of Boerhaave to Krafft-Ebbing, sexuality is displaced from how a person behaves to how he or she feels.

Perhaps the single most critical medical document in this shift is the work of the French-Swiss physician Samuel Tissot: Onania, or a Treatise upon the Disorders Produced by Masturbation, published in Lausanne in 1758. Tissot’s was not the first book on this subject in the 18th century: that dubious honour belonged to the anonymous Englishman who published a work also called Onania in 1716. The Englishman asserted, for the first time, that masturbation was a special disease with a special clinical profile, but his assertions were made in so lurid and loose a way that, while the book had a success among collectors of erotica, it was not taken seriously by the scientific public. Tissot’ book, however, was: he set out to explain why, physiologically, masturbation should lead to insanity.

Tissot asserted that masturbation was the most powerful sexual experience a person could have physiologically. More than any other sexual act, it pumped blood to the brain. ‘This increase of blood’, he wrote, ‘explains how these excesses produce insanity ... The quantity of blood distending the nerves weakens them; and they are less able to resist impressions, whereby they are enfeebled.’ Given the theories of blood/nerve relations current at the time, this seemed perfectly logical. What was new, shocking, and seemingly scientifically certified by Tissot’s theory, was that the pleasure a person can give himself or herself is more erotically powerful than the pleasure he or she can derive from intercourse with a member of the opposite sex. Without social restraints, left alone to follow the purest dictates of pleasure, everyone was in danger of being consumed by auto-eroticism and so eventually driven insane.

In his text, Tissot argues against the clinical profile established a half-century earlier by Boerhaave. Tissot adduces eight reasons why masturbation is more dangerous than sexual excesses committed with women. The last and strongest is psychological. The masturbator is overcome with ‘shame and shocking remorse’ as no Don Juan is. This inner psychological recognition pumps so much blood to the brain that a veritable flood of the nerves occurs. Again the physiological explanation made sense to his contemporaries, and the shocking fact it seemed to prove was that the psyche can literally drive itself mad through unrestrained desire. The notion of being driven mad by oneself as an internal process is something that appears with Tissot. A wholly inner system of desire, recognition and destruction is set up; Tissot defined the boundaries of a terrifying enclosed inner erotic life. More passionate, more important, more dangerous than any other form of erotic experience: We must rescue man, Tissot says, from this solitude.

It is significant in Tissot’s text that he applies his Calvinist puritanism to this particular sexual phenomenon. He makes a distinction between the dispassionate, scientific attitude the doctor must have about other forms of sexual disease, like over-indulgence, and the moral attitude the doctor must take toward masturbation. Masturbation is a ‘crime’ which ‘more justly entities’ the masturbator to ‘the contempt than pity of his fellow creatures’. Boerhaave fought to establish a scientific discourse about sexuality free of Christian morality. Tissot brings it back in, but selectively: only auto-eroticism is worthy – if that is the right word – of Christian censure.

Tissot set in motion three attitudes about auto-eroticism that profoundly influenced medical and educational opinion later in the 18th and throughout the 19th century: sexuality in solitude is, first, profoundly arousing; auto-eroticism is, secondly, the condition in which a person is most aware of him or herself. To be both sexually aroused and self-aware, alone, is, thirdly, dangerous: the body is on the road to madness and the soul on the road to perdition. What is important about Tissot’s legacy, and about the phenomenon of auto-eroticism generally in the 19th century, is that through the prism of auto-eroticism authorities attempted to understand eroticism itself. Armed with these three assumptions, researchers set out to try and understand sexuality. Rather than considering people making love together as constituting a domain of knowledge about which the doctor would learn, the notion was to separate the individual and to study him by himself, because it was in isolation that the person felt his sexuality most strongly. It was an application to the study of sex of other forms of 19th-century individualism, this assumption that a person was to be considered as an isolated individual.

The Tissot approach to auto-eroticism became a method of conceiving of sexuality itself during the 19th century in the following ways. First, because of their beliefs about auto-eroticism, doctors and educators became accustomed to think that sexual desire existed prior to, and was separable from, sexual attraction. Desire was thought to be normally experienced as a secret. That is, if desire belongs to the body in and of itself, it’s something prior to desiring anyone else, and is strongest when kept a secret. This sexual desire belongs to the individual: it is satisfied rather than created by the attraction to another human being. The problem for the doctor or teacher was to find out about this desire, since it was hidden within the individual. We are all aware of the bizarre symptoms Victorian medicine had to invent for the masturbator: hair suddenly growing on the palms of the masturbating hand, the tongue swelling up, the eyes distending, or, in the case of women, the radically distended clitoris. Victorian doctors had a reason for inventing these symptoms: since sexual desire itself was secret, hidden within the individual, the doctor or other authority could get control over the individual only by creating symptoms which would give sexual desire away. The extreme of this fantasy-invention appeared in 1876 in a text by Pouillet on female masturbation, one of the first texts in the medical literature on the subject. The diagnosis of female masturbation was peevishness, surliness towards strangers, and lying. These are the invariable signs that a woman has been masturbating. Finally, says Pouillet, ‘there is a certain aspect, a je ne sais quoi, easier to recognise than to express in words.’ Tissot had maintained that auto-eroticism drew the offender into an inner, self-contained world. By the time of Pouillet, the very idea of sexual desire had become privately enclosed. Someone else can get power over this desire only by finding signs on the body which betray its presence. It has to be something perceptible if that power relation is to be exercised.

The second way auto-eroticism became a prism for understanding eroticism concerns the relation between sexual desire and the imagination. It will be recalled that Tissot believed auto-erotic experience to be the most powerful sexual experience a person could have. In the 19th century, this was extended to the sexual imagination. In isolation, it was believed that a person’s sexual desires went wild. In solitude, writes Lallemand in 1842, a person invents an erotic life the world can never sufficiently fulfil. The doctor must tamp down the fires of sexual desire by externally repressive measures. According to Lallemand, marital sex was seen as the great chastiser of desire. What is aimed at in these external, social technologies of control is the counteracting of the influence of imagination. There is a basic antagonism between fantasy, and social order.

Finally and crucially, the lesson of auto-eroticism was that sexuality itself could be a barometer for measuring human character. In the course of the 19th century, the physiological view of Tissot fell by the wayside, but his connection of auto-eroticism to the moral character of an individual grew even stronger. Here is how a popular ‘sex hygiene’ guide for young people put the matter in 1917 (it is Robert Willson’s The Education of the Young in Sex Hygiene): ‘The boy who can look his father and mother fully and laughingly in the eye, who can throw his shoulders back and breathe deep, that boy who regards his father as his comrade and his mother as his best friend, does not masturbate.’ The boy can look his parents fully and laughingly in the eye because he has nothing to hide: he has no private, solitary secret about sex. It is this way of thinking which becomes more general. Truthfulness with other people will depend on how a person has managed his or her own sexuality. What makes this management difficult is that sexuality has come to be seen as an inner-drawing, powerful, enclosed experience of desire. The problem in telling the truth about sex thus becomes enmeshed in telling the truth about a self that resists revelation.

Augustine believed that the definition of sexuality revolved around the question of feeling, rather than, as Artemidorus believed, questions of action or social position. That is also the case here. Sexuality is the architecture of the whole realm of inner desire. And the notion is shared in the medical and the Christian texts that confronting what one desires rather than what one does is what really constitutes self-knowledge.

There is a power relationship implicated in this knot of truthfulness, sexuality and personal self-knowledge. The knot is tied in so complicated a way that an outside authority is necessary for the person to unravel it: the Christian confesses to the priest, we go to the doctor. It was not in its advocacy of sexual repression that Victorian medicine returned to the Christian roots of the culture, but in the psychological importance assigned to knowledge of oneself through the counsel and control of another, more knowing human being.

This analysis of Tissot’s legacy may be related to the issue of difference which I raised at the outset. Sexuality is something every human being experiences, yet our inheritance from the medical and educational theories of the last century is that by understanding our sexuality we believe we will understand what is distinctive and individual about ourselves. The universal is used to define the particular. If there is one element in the Victorian heritage which makes this process confusing, it is the definition of sexuality in terms of desire rather than activity. ‘Everyone makes love,’ said one of Krafft-Ebings’s subjects, ‘but each person is thinking of something special when they do.’ It is in point of fact difficult, if not impossible, to deduce from private sexual desires a person’s capacity for loyalty, courage, or truthfulness with others. That these thoughts, these desires, these fantasies should be seen as privileged, as of importance in defining the whole of an individual personality, is what creates such a mystery about individual difference. The privilege accorded to desire is a Christian heritage. We are today far from being able to cope with what we have inherited.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 3 No. 11 · 18 June 1981

SIR: Theorising has its place in every sphere of human life, and sexuality is not exempt: but there are certain points on matters of form and content with which one would not concur with Michel Foucault and Richard Sennett (LRB, 21 May). One is a simple philosophical hypostasis. It is surely plain ingenuousness on Michel Foucault’s part suddenly to exclaim that he has discovered a link between Hellenistic and Christian sexual doctrine. Their similarity has been self-evident for some considerable time. In The City of God St Augustine is more concerned with chastity than with erection. In Bertrand Russell’s interpretation: ‘Chastity is a virtue of the mind, and is not lost by rape, but is lost by the intention of sin, even if unperformed.’ For Augustine, erection would only be one facet of a many-sided crystal representing unredeemed sin. He in fact quotes II Thessalonians: ‘God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie, that they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.’ Sexual fantasy is therefore not self-willed, but an external percept imposed by God. It is a temptation strongly to be denied. The delusion may be caused by solitude, but God himself is no less than the omnipotent recluse: ‘Being condemned, they are seduced, and, being seduced, condemned. But their seducement is by the secret judgement of God, justly secret; even His that hath judged continually, ever since the world began.’ Whether elect or reprobate, whether you masturbated or not, Augustine states that all alike deserve damnation: which may, or may not, tell us a lot about St Augustine. The medieval doctor already provides the prescription for any strong delusions that a reader of his work may be under (such as that human motive is entirely due to auto-eroticism). He tells us to forget the self, and think upon God.

Richard Sennett mentions Epictetus. He does not mention that the ancient philosopher was averse to Epicurus. He addresses the latter in the following terms: ‘This is the life of which you pronounce yourself worthy: eating, drinking, copulation, evacuation and snoring’ (Discourses). What kind of scorn would he have heaped upon a theory of copulation? Onanism was no more important to him than it was to Augustine – or, indeed, than it is to any of us. He was more interested in the idea of the body as an imprisoner of soul: ‘Thou art a little soul bearing about a corpse.’ He was much too hard-pressed to worry about the problem of sexual identity. He was much more concerned with stressing the central importance of human freedom:

I must die. But must I die groaning? I must be imprisoned. But must I whine as well? I must suffer exile. Can any one then hinder me from going with a smile, and a good courage, and at peace? ‘Tell the secret.’ I refuse to tell, for this is in my power. ‘But I will chain you,’ What say you, fellow? Chain me? My leg you will chain – yes, but my will – no, not even Zeus can conquer that.

This is the real drama of solitude, of that imprisonment and exile that Richard Sennett mentions; and this drama is no less urgent today than it was in the first century AD. Libidinous vacuity is not a pressing philosophical concern, but the violation of fundamental political rights is. Freedom is a larger concept than either Foucault or Sennett seems to realise. And it surely will just not suffice to pick at important philosophers in order to sustain an eclectic thesis.

Lastly, Michel Foucault sternly claims that he is not a structuralist. If this is the case, can he please explain to a layman what he means exactly by ‘technologies of the self’? And why no citations from women themselves? And why no analysis of sado-masochism? Nietzsche’s aphorism, ‘Thou goest to woman? Do not forget thy whip,’ tells us more about recent history surely than the theories of Tissot and Boerhaave, or, come to that, the obsessively self-centred memoirs of Casanova, ever can.

William Milne
School of English Language and Literature, University of Newcastle upon Tyne

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences