Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation 
by Thomas Laqueur.
Zone, 501 pp., £21.95, March 2003, 1 890951 32 3
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Lounging in a boat​ anchored near his home, daydreaming about a ‘pretty wench’ he’d spotted in Westminster earlier that day, Samuel Pepys became so aroused that he ejaculated spontaneously, having ‘it complete avec la fille … without my hand’, as he recorded complacently in his diary, the ‘first time I did make trial of my strength of fancy of that kind’. The pride was that of a world-class wanker, an inveterate fantasist delighting in imaginary ‘sport’ with bevies of accommodating lovelies, including Mrs Steward, Charles II’s inamorata, and the queen (even in fantasy, Pepys was a staunch royalist). ‘The best that was ever dreamed,’ he chortled over a night-time’s romp with the delectable Lady Castlemaine, another of Charles’s mistresses. Only masturbating in church occasioned any qualms. ‘God forgive,’ he scribbled into his diary after a sermon spent mentally fornicating with a friend’s teenage daughter.

In May 1667, 18 months after the no-hands episode, Pepys recorded another delicious hour spent alone in a boat. This time, however, it was not the thought of pretty girls that diverted him but his friend John Evelyn’s ‘pretty’ new book ‘against Solitude’. Evelyn’s Publick employment and an active life prefer’d to solitude, published in 1667, was written to refute Sir George Mackenzie’s 1665 work, A Moral Essay, Preferring Solitude to Public Employment. The exchange was an exercise in paradox, with both disputants adopting positions contrary to their convictions. Evelyn’s text drew on a stock repertoire of arguments against solitude, including solemn warnings against the low appetites it unleashed. ‘He ought to be a wise and good man indeed that dares trust himself alone: for Ambition and Malice, Lust and Superstition are in Solitude, as in their Kingdom.’ Solitaries, Evelyn claimed, ‘have . . . no passions, save the sensual’.

Reading these strictures, or the many other 17th-century jeremiads against solitude, Pepys would not have thought to apply them to his solitary sexual pleasures. It took another finger-wagging text to make the connection: 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 . . . etc was published anonymously sometime between 1708 and 1716. In solitude, men’s ‘vices find them out and attaque them’, Evelyn had quoted Seneca; in Onania, autoeroticism, the ‘filthy Commerce with oneself’, became the solitary crime sans pareil, ‘man’s vice of vices, sin of sins’.

With the publication of Onania, masturbation, previously a second-order sexual offence, soared to the top of the register of vices. Clerics condemned it and doctors, led by the eminent Samuel Tissot, catalogued its devastations. Intellectuals, too, went on the offensive, with Rousseau, the ‘promeneur solitaire’, labelling it the ‘most fatal’ of habits and Kant denouncing it as a moral madness more destructive than suicide. By the early 19th century, masturbation had become the ‘moloch of the species’, as J.H. Kellogg, the American health reformer and cereal king, described it in the typically apocalyptic rhetoric of anti-onanists. Female masturbators, previously sidelined, acquired new prominence, and the prevention of infantile masturbation became a Europe-wide obsession. French doctors performed genital surgery on children, and German educationalists spread anti-masturbation propaganda. By the beginning of the 20th century, a host of contraptions – penis alarms and cases, sleeping mitts, electric shock equipment – were being marketed to parents. The phobia raged on, unabated, until the end of World War Two, when it began to subside. Today, hundreds of chirpy websites offer online communal wanking sessions. In America, masturbation is described as ‘self-dating’, and in the UK we are treated to TV adverts featuring women writhing on top of washing machines. A recent Australian study found that frequent male masturbators have a lower incidence of prostate cancer than the more abstemious. ‘Keeping the tubes clean . . . is good news for blokes,’ one journalist concluded.

Transient moral panics of this sort are hard to interpret. Pepys’s insouciance about masturbation was echoed in early modern child-rearing practices: nurses routinely caressed the penises of baby boys to calm them, and parents and doctors looked forgivingly on infantile autoeroticism. How did a universal sexual act become a site of such debilitating fear and shame? Why, in the course of the 18th century, as Thomas Laqueur asks in this rich and lively history, did a practice tolerated by the ancients and largely ignored by Judeo-Christian moralists, come to be seen as the height of erotic depravity?

Laqueur, who teaches at Berkeley, is the author of Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (1990), one of the most heavily cited and argued about books of the last few years. With the publication of this new work he’s become almost a celebrity, lecturing internationally and appearing on chat shows and innumerable websites. ‘Professor Wank’, one American site calls him, which in a nation that recently fainted at the glimpse of a pop star’s breast is quite a moniker. But Laqueur is an experienced scholar and presumably can take the heat. He is also slyly humorous, tantalising the reader as he hints at, partly exposes and at last triumphantly reveals the secret of the masturbation panic.

Ancient Greeks and Romans thought masturbation a lowly and humiliating practice, condonable in slaves and satyrs but not in free citizens. Jewish and Christian moralists could be harsher in precept, but in practice they too tended to view it with contempt rather than alarm. Why did this unconcern give way to frantic hostility in the early 18th century? For the answer, Laqueur turns to what was once called the rise of the bourgeoisie but is now known in academic circles as the advent of modernity. Anti-masturbation, he shows, was not a hangover from a sexual dark age, but a quintessentially modern phenomenon, a reaction to a capitalist culture founded on appetitive egoism.

Modern culture encourages individualism and self-determination and is threatened by solipsism and anomie; it asks that individuals always desire more than they have and imagine far more than is real and at the same time that they learn to moderate their desires and limit their imaginations themselves . . . Masturbation is the sexuality of the [modern] self par excellence, the first great battlefield for these struggles.

Libido, Foucault said, is ‘one’s will’ going ‘beyond the limits God originally set for it’, and it was capitalism’s dependence on this boundless libido, the limitless desires needed to stoke its fires, that made solitary sex a site of such anxiety. Sex has ‘nothing natural’ about it, Laqueur quotes Foucault in the introduction to Making Sex; rather it is ‘a sort of artwork’. The sexual body is a historical phenomenon; eroticism is not an instinctual force to be released or repressed, but a cultural artefact. ‘The "too much” in sex is of course always a very relative concept,’ Ernst Schwabe, a German physician, declared in 1787, and it is the production of this excess and its normative antitheses, in different times and places, that Laqueur, like Foucault before him, seeks to illuminate.

In Making Sex, Laqueur traced over two millennia the transformation of biological gender from a classical one-sex model (woman as a lesser version of man) to the modern two-sex model (woman as the antithesis of man), showing how in the course of this transition woman became ‘what culture demanded despite, not because of, the body’. The ‘too much’ of femininity – that is, women’s physiological similarity to men – was suppressed in favour of an imaginary biological dimorphism. This radical scepticism about sexual categories is also evident in Solitary Sex, which, like Making Sex, takes the long view, beginning with Greco-Roman medicine, moving through Judeo-Christian sexual teachings to Enlightenment anti-masturbation discourses, post-Enlightenment sexual psychology and psychoanalysis, and concluding with present-day representations of solitary sex in art, politics and the popular media. But the heart of Laqueur’s argument, as in Making Sex, lies in his interpretation of the Enlightenment.

Once seen as an age of reason, tolerance and emancipation, the Enlightenment is now routinely characterised as repressive, paranoid and incipiently totalitarian, its logic one of control and domination, not liberation. This indictment – the work mostly of Foucault and his acolytes – has come under heavy fire from Enlightenment champions such as the late Roy Porter. The polarities echo tensions in the period itself, when images of a brave new world of self-governing, go-getting individuals collided with fears of moral anarchy. The elevation of once despised, divinely forbidden desires – for wealth, pleasure, worldly insights and freedoms – into goals whose pursuit was deemed not only legitimate but socially beneficial (the key argument of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations) triggered widespread concern about personal and political ‘licentiousness’. Luxury, leisure, the proliferation of mental stimuli such as novels, music, conversation: all were claimed to inflame the senses and promote lustfulness. Solitude, increasingly valued as a space of contemplative inwardness, also kept its reputation for encouraging solipsism and vice. The delights of getting and spending, especially the thrills of financial speculation, were simultaneously encouraged and condemned. (Laqueur’s discussion of the parallels between anti-masturbation and anti-credit rhetoric is one of the book’s chief joys.) Everywhere, as Isabel Hull showed in her pioneering Sexuality, State and Civil Society in Germany 1700-1815 (1996), civilisation teetered on a cliff edge of excess. One leading Aufklärer, quoted by Hull, expressed the dilemma well. While some increase in luxury was an inevitable concomitant of commercial progress, Dr Peter Kürn wrote in 1792,

when the sum of sensual pleasures surpasses the sum of more noble and more useful pursuits, when natural needs can no longer be distinguished from the crowd of imagined and fantastic ones, when reason does not choose, but only sensuality, and especially when all of this occurs among people who have become used to consumption that outstrips their wealth; this lays the foundation for their ruin.

By the end of the 18th century, onanism had become a key emblem of this ruin, a ‘kind of Satan to the glories of bourgeois civilisation’.

The diabolic force that drove masturbators was the imagination, and the reverence with which 18th-century thinkers viewed it – ‘a celestial flame’, ‘the highest prerogative of man’ – was matched only by the horror with which they contemplated its excesses, its ‘inflaming’ Rabelaisian energies. Solitary fantasy was regarded with particular anxiety, as conducive to an ‘invisible riot of mind’, a ‘secret prodigality of being’, which, according to Samuel Johnson, was as deadly as ‘the poison of opiates’. Fly from yourself, Johnson advised solitary fantasists, lest you succumb to these inner delights which – most anti-onanists agreed – were more tempting than anything real life could offer. The dizzier pleasures of imaginary sex were a popular theme. Since fantasies of erotic objects are much ‘more seductive than the objects themselves’, Rousseau wrote in Emile, it is essential that such images not be dwelt on, especially by young people who are liable to become addicted to them. Never leave a boy alone with his thoughts, he advised parents: ‘At the very least, sleep in his room . . . it is up to you to protect him from himself.’

This was not a counsel for sexual repression. Enlightened men and women, Laqueur reminds us, were keen on heterosexual pleasure; even unmarried love had its apologists. The masturbator’s sin was not lust per se but lust incited by imaginary objects. ‘In this way,’ Kant argued, ‘the imagination brings forth an appetite contrary to nature’s purpose.’ Or as a 1767 ditty put it:

But what more base, more noxious to the body
Than by the power of fancy to excite,
Such lewd ideas of an absent object,
As rouse the organs formed for noble end
To rush into th’embraces of a phantom,
And so do the deed of personal enjoyment.

Embracing phantoms, men and women turn away from each other, preferring shadow to substance. This was not just illicit sex, outside the laws of God and man, but sex unconstrained by the needs or feelings of others. It was this view of erotic desire as a closed circuit – self-activating, object-inventing, self-fulfilling – that so frightened anti-masturbators, Laqueur argues, since it exposed the solipsism latent in modern culture. In a period when personal autonomy and self-exploration were more highly valued than ever before, masturbation revealed the dangers of autonomous selfhood: the possibility that it could descend into a free-floating, irresponsible egoism detached not just from moral conventions but from human sociality tout court. In a world where ‘the old ramparts against desire had crumbled’, masturbation became the ‘vice of individuation’: ‘It pointed to an abyss of solipsism, anomie and socially meaningless freedom that seemed to belie the ideal of moral autonomy. It was the vice born of an age that valued desire, pleasure and privacy but was fundamentally worried about how, or if, society could mobilise them. It is the sexuality of the modern self.’

Like most​ recent cultural histories, this presumes a caesura between the modern and the premodern. The modern masturbator stands on the near side of a cultural divide whose far side is a world where the moral hazards of sex were not those of rampant individualism but violations of a hierarchical, providential order. Laqueur follows the line of Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self (1989) and argues that premodern men and women knew little of the angst of self-governance, the seedbed of anti-onanism. Authority lay without: in God, monarch and a ‘hierarchic, organic universe’. The displacement of this world-view by one in which nature replaced God as the source of moral order, and doctors and educationalists took over from priests as arbiters of right conduct, set the scene for modern masturbation: ‘In the absence of divine authority . . . guilt about solitary sex arose because there was nothing else, nothing external, to restrain solipsistic pleasure.’ With the fading away of God – the Great Inhibitor – internal inhibitions were needed, and the regime of sexual shame inaugurated by Onania was an ideal candidate.

This argument, linking previously unrelated phenomena in the fashion of the best cultural histories, yields a host of new insights; but is it the whole story? God and sexual guilt have both, after all, shown remarkable staying power. Pre-18th-century men and women may not have fretted much about solitary sex, but they had plenty else to worry about on the sexual front. From Augustine, who claimed that Adam covered his sexual organs because they moved without his consent; to centuries’ worth of divines excoriating adultery, homosexuality, and any sex that promised fun without penalties; to the author of Onania, for whom lust was a ‘Satan within’, the shamefulness of concupiscence was a constant of Christian teaching. Protestantism, by drawing God – and the Devil – into the individual psyche, upped the ante. The inner world of the believer became a cosmic battleground, with sex as its front line. Accusations of witchcraft and diabolic possession flourished, and masturbation was a key sign of the Evil One’s presence. The spread of natural religion in the 17th century lowered the temperature, at least in advanced intellectual circles. But the moral primacy of sex, its centrality to the spiritual struggles that defined Christian subjectivity, remained unaltered.

Anxieties about autoeroticism played an important part in these belief systems, and not just in accusations of witchcraft, but they were articulated in very different terms from those used later. Such anxieties were unavoidable: loving God is the key Christian duty, but the intensity of transcendent passion in some believers – ‘a torrent of pleasure for the most voluptuous’, according to the Reverend Jeremy Taylor in his bestselling Rule and Exercises of Holy Living (1650); a ‘mighty ecstasy’, a ‘bliss completely full’, in the words of the popular 1690s poet Elizabeth Rowe – made its source and nature constant concerns. The Protestant emphasis on inner divinity, on private experience as a touchstone of moral truth, heightened the dilemma: how to distinguish sacred love from the profane variety? Jeremy Taylor summed up the problem. ‘Our vices,’ he wrote, ‘are in love with phantastic pleasures and images of perfection, which are truly and really to be found no where but in God.’ Make sure your devotions are ‘prudent, and without illusion’, believers were warned, unlike those mystics who had ‘Christ on their lips, but Epicurus in their hearts’.

As in later anti-onanist discourses, the culprit here was the imagination which, stimulated by the passions, led believers to confuse inner states with outer objects, to mistake their own desires and fantasies for the living God. The early modern word for this was ‘enthusiasm’, which, positively employed, meant a commendably intense piety, but in its more common, negative usage referred to a delusional psychic condition, a ‘fever of superstition’ in Coleridge’s phrase. Critics of enthusiasm were plentiful in 17th-century Britain, especially after the Civil War had demonstrated the dangers of religious emotions run rampant; but they increased in number and stridency in the early 18th century – just as the masturbation panic began. The ‘ardour of celestial fire’ that sparked Elizabeth Rowe’s devotional verse in the 1690s was by the 1730s deemed ‘too enthusiastic’ to be holy. ‘Enthusiasm grows upon us insensibly,’ a critic of Mrs Rowe warned his daughter: ‘Take care to guard against it.’

Solitude bred enthusiasm. While privacy was increasingly valued from the mid-17th century, private devotions were regarded with suspicion, as likely to lead vulnerable minds to confuse eros with agape. Laqueur gives a lovely account of the moralists’ obsession with the hazards of private novel-reading, but solo Bible-reading was also thought likely to induce those enthusiastic fantasies of ‘immediate intercourse with the Deity’, in Locke’s words, so detrimental to true religion. Far from pushing God aside, Enlightenment thinkers worked hard to defend religion from such superstitious errors, arch-enemies of a rational Christianity.

Did the roots​ of the anti-masturbation panic lie here, rather than in the predicaments of a secularised subjectivity? Throughout the 18th century, enlightened minds trod a narrow path between passions that elevated the self and those that convulsed and destabilised it. Refined sentiments might deteriorate into febrile effusions, sublime transports end in mania, transcendent devotion in enthusiastic delusions. Dilemmas abounded. If personal experience was the standard of truth, as Locke had claimed, how to choose between the ‘visions of an Enthusiast, and the Reasonings of a sober man’? One way was by gender. Women – with their weak minds, strong emotions and overactive imaginations – were natural enthusiasts. ‘When the Mind finds her self very much inflamed with her Devotions,’ the Spectator, that great populariser of Enlightenment values, lectured its readers,

she is too much inclined to think they are not of her own kindling, but blown up by something Divine within her. If she indulges this Thought too far, and humours the growing Passion, she at last flings her self into imaginary Raptures and Extasies; and when once she fancies her self under the influence of a Divine Impulse, it is no wonder if she . . . refuses to comply with any established Form of Religion, as thinking her self directed by a much superior Guide.

The enthusiast is a spiritual masturbator: the parallel was implicit in anti-enthusiastic rhetoric in which the sexiness of enthusiasm – its ‘bridal sensuality’, as one critic described it – was a major theme. The feelings that the enthusiast mistook for divine inspiration were widely assumed to be erotic in origin, again especially in the case of women, whose proneness to sexual overexcitement was notorious. Jon Mee, in Romanticism, Enthusiasm and Regulation,* has tracked this association, from Swift’s representation in A Tale of a Tub of a female preacher prophesying through her vagina – a reworking of an older image of the sibyl – to the opponents of Methodism, who regularly blamed women Methodists for the ‘love-sick visions of heaven’ that dominated Methodist worship. Celibate women, or those crossed in love, were seen as particularly at risk. Lamenting the ‘sensual extravagancies’ of Mrs Rowe’s poetry, Hester Chapone expressed surprise that they emanated from a happily married woman: ‘When I hear persons addressing the Supreme Being in the language of the most sensual . . . human love, I cannot help fancying they went mad on a disappointment of that passion, when it was placed more naturally.’ Bernini’s Saint Teresa swooning in spiritual ecstasy was a Catholic figure, but British Protestantism harboured many rapturous female devotees. Once revered for their privileged relationship to God, by the time Onania appeared they were pathologised, their fervour interpreted as sexual lunacy. Mystic, fanatic, masturbator, nymphomaniac: over the centuries the figures, surreal in their hypereroticism, leached and blurred into each other.

Masturbation, in either sex, was never a virile act. In women, it exploited and heightened existing weaknesses, and self-abusing men – their bodies emaciated and trembling, their conjugal potency destroyed – were feminised by it. Solitary Sex tracks the vicissitudes of the female masturbator, from her early appearances in the 1720s and 1730s up to 21st-century performance onanists like the fabulous Annie Sprinkle – née Ellen Steinberg – with her ‘post-porn’ marketing of black marble dildos. But why the masturbator was consistently a feminine figure is not explained. Laqueur sees the female onanist as a ‘prototypical’ modern masturbator because she produces no seed, only pleasure, but surely the issue is more one of mastery. Desires that sweep the body, shake the soul, overthrow the will: these are seldom seen as manly. Church and society may work to protect men from their passions, but desire is the ever-present serpent, awaiting its opportunity. The temptations of solitude beckon. Returning from his island – a masturbator’s paradise, if ever there was one – Robinson Crusoe looked back to his years of exile with nostalgia but also, recalling some ‘ill time spent there’, a degree of guilt: ‘A man may sin alone in several ways.’ The soul must master the body, Crusoe/Defoe insists, in the same way that a man with money in his pocket must know his intentions when he reaches ‘to take it out, or pay it, or dispose of it by his hand’.

Spending money in the 18th century, especially that fanciful money called credit, was a famously feminine activity, in both sexes. From antiquity, desires and fantasies that outrun and overturn reality have been associated with women. If the masturbator symbolised the hazards of modernity, it was not, as Solitary Sex shows so convincingly, the heroic individualism of an all-conquering capitalism, but a much frailer, more troubled image of the age. Yet her significance went beyond this. Laqueur situates the masturbation panic at the centre of a new relationship between self and society, but self’s relationship to self was also at stake. Staring at the female masturbator, as cultural producers and commentators did, and do, endlessly, revealed a core truth about subjectivity: we are none of us, female or male, masters in our own houses. The shame of the onanist is directed not at what she thinks or does, but at the hidden desires propelling her, the unconscious wishes that mould the sexual personality. Freud, as Laqueur says, may have been old-fashioned in his disapproval of masturbation, but in his anatomisations of the sexual conscience, of the unconscious dynamics of forbidden desire, he was surely onto something. ‘Shame,’ Jacqueline Rose wrote recently, ‘is one of the ways we try to forget part of ourselves,’ and it is this amnesia that ultimately lay behind the masturbation panic.

Solitary Sex concludes on an ambiguous note. Surveying representations of masturbation on film, television and the internet, Laqueur sees in them residues of the ‘old demons of guilt and obsession’ blended with a new sexual sensibility – uninhibited, super-sophisticated, overtly pornographic – that, one senses, isn’t entirely to his taste. Are some erotic pleasures better, more life-enhancing, than others? Reading recent magazine articles about masturbation, I’ve been struck by their fastidiousness, the way writers who begin on a jaunty, letting-it-all-hang-out note invariably later start to use adjectives – ‘sad’ is the favourite, closely followed by ‘futile’ – that, if not unequivocally damning, are certainly contemptuous. Solitary sex is a ‘solipsistic moral quicksand’, Barbara Ellen, a career cheerleader for the outré, declares, while Edward Marriott solemnly cites research showing that men who indulge regularly in porn are unfit for true intimacy. ‘Lost in a world of fantasy, such men become unable to form lasting relationships.’ In an ethical contest between imaginary and actual sex, reality must take the prize, seems to be the message. It’s a pity then that reality and desire aren’t always compatible bedfellows.

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