Too Much

Barbara Taylor

  • Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation by Thomas Laqueur
    Zone, 501 pp, £21.95, March 2003, ISBN 1 890951 32 3

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.

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[*] Oxford, 330 pp., £50, May 2003, 0 19 818757 2.