Going it alone

Jenny Diski is the author of the memoirs "Skating to Antarctica: A Journey to the End of the World" and "Stranger on a Train: Daydreaming and Smoking Around America With Interruptions" and the novel "The Dream Mistress."

Some things, you would think, have been going on forever, but everything has its starting point. Didn’t Philip Larkin tell us in “Annus Mirabilis” that sexual intercourse began in 1963 (though you may feel -- and he would likely have agreed -- that he was not the best person to consult on such matters)? And prior to sexual intercourse? Masturbation, naturally:

Up to then there’d only been

A sort of bargaining

A wrangle for the ring,

A shame that started at sixteen

And spread to everything.

Now, Thomas Laqueur, in a compendious and witty analysis of the subject, would have us know that masturbation had its beginnings too, though on a more global timescale than Larkin’s self-scrutinizing view. It was a lot later than you’d think: Laqueur’s thesis is that masturbation began in 1712, give or take a year or two. He is not, of course, suggesting that no one had thought of or performed the act of solitary sex before that date, any more than Larkin is implying that human beings had no idea how to get their genitalia together pre-1963. According to Laqueur, masturbation was quite specifically invented as a profound cultural concern in an anonymous pamphlet published in England entitled “Onanism,” which coincided with the early days of the European Enlightenment. No coincidence actually, Laqueur says. Cultural historians permit few coincidences. His history searches for the meaning behind the brouhaha caused by “Onanism” -- with its bold new claim that masturbation debilitated the body even unto death and the mind to madness -- and the bandwagon response to it of quacks, medical men, educationalists, clerics and philosophes alike.

In a comprehensive survey of attitudes toward masturbation before the early 18th century, Laqueur suggests that the subject had very little of the weight that would be attached to it. For the Greeks it was a matter of hygiene; in the interests of maintaining a healthy balance of bodily fluids, Diogenes was applauded by Galen when he relieved himself by hand while waiting for a prostitute who turned up late. In antiquity, masturbation was either a joke about those sad enough not to have a partner in their sexual activities (no change there), or it was a useful outlet. Overheated pubescent girls were advised by the 13th century churchman and philosopher Albertus Magnus to rub their clitorises in order to preserve their chastity.

The problem in Jewish law was the spilling of seminal fluid -- the seed that Yahweh made so much of in his promises to Abraham. The hapless Onan, unwilling husband of Tamar (and martyr, it would seem, to coitus interruptus rather than masturbation), is endlessly debated by the rabbis in the Talmud and Midrash, and their labyrinthine discussions are followed with mild exclamations of panic by Laqueur, who seems to be seeking a single thread in a world where threads come always in delightfully intricate bunches. “But just when we think we recognize the vice whose history we are tracing, we are brought up short. Immediately after Rabbi Yosi’s citation of Genesis 38:10, Rabbi Eliezer is reported to have asked, ‘Why is it written, ‘Your hands are full of blood’? ... These are those who commit adultery with their hand.’ Aha! But this is followed by the Tannaitic authority, who specifies that ‘you will not be subject to adultery, whether committed by hand or by foot.’ ”

Christianity, on the whole, was against masturbation in its grudging recognition of the sanctity of marriage (“It is better to marry than to burn,” according to St. Paul) but more in the sense that masturbation belonged to a group of sexual behaviors that were “contrary to nature,” that is, nonreproductive, such as sodomy, homosexuality and bestiality. Burchard of Worms in 1007 suggested 10 days on bread and water for masturbation, whereas sodomy drew a penance of 10 to 15 years. Even if Laqueur is not entirely convincing that pre-Enlightenment masturbation was inconsequential, he makes a plausible case for its being at least not a major source of anxiety before the 18th century.


The pamphlet “Onanism” was written with the purpose of describing a new medical condition for which the author and his doctor associate could, for a fee, provide medicine. Again, not much change. In January, the British Medical Journal criticized research funded by drug companies that detected a new condition called female sexual dysfunction, the treatment for which is Viagra, says its manufacturer, Pfizer. A good way for Pfizer to sell 50% more Viagra but a bogus illness, says the journal.

What Laqueur finds when he considers the overwhelming response to the scurrilous pamphlet designed to enrich its anonymous author by playing on the fears and salacious fancies of its readers is that solitary sex had come into its own (it is almost impossible to write about the subject without making even unintentional double entendres) as an autonomy too far in a world that was suddenly debating the nature of self-governance after the decline of religious and state authority: “As the purchase of natural restraints and a seemingly natural hierarchical political order underwritten by God and the heavens seems to wane, the importance of individual reason, restraint, transparency, sensibility, imagination, and education waxed. How the individual was to become part of the new social order is the great problem of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century moral philosophy and political theory.”

The new social order demanded society and sociability -- a commitment to the exterior world, an acknowledgment of its overriding importance because of its material reality. No daydreaming, now. Obedience to nature replaced the old forms of obedience and ensured that civil society remained orderly. Masturbation, on the other hand, requires nothing and nobody else. It is the supremely self-sufficient act, done in private, needing no resources beyond what is readily available -- the body and an imagination -- and having no natural brakes on its implementation. It is freedom gone mad, radicalism unfettered, the releasing of the beast in humanity -- which was apparently quite a different thing, to those expressing concern at its unnatural state, from acting in accordance to Nature.

It was not the sex so much as the solitariness of the sex that worried people; after all, the Enlightenment approved of sexual pleasure. But if pleasure is to be highly valued, and if it could be obtained whenever one wanted, without the constraining factor of the willingness or availability of others, then why should anyone ever do anything else beyond what is absolutely necessary for survival? Bang goes the social contract. Bang goes empire. Bang goes capitalism. Masturbation is, as Laqueur says, “the crack cocaine of sex,” an “equal opportunity vice.” It was the dark underbelly of Enlightenment, liberty beyond reason, mental activity in the service of its own satisfaction, and worst of all, there were no witnesses to police it. The terrors of excess, of unlimited interiority, “the derangement of sociability” were too much for the likes of Rousseau, Diderot, Tissot, Voltaire, Kant and later Freud. The answer to uncontrollable pleasure was to instill fear and guilt.

Of course, Foucault already has claimed this political territory. Laqueur agrees that the history of masturbation corresponds almost uncannily with Foucault’s theory that authority incites (or excites) the desire, then controls it by medicalizing and professionalizing it. The highly respected physician Tissot followed the original pamphlet with a bestseller of his own, providing acres of detailed masturbatory behaviors, describing the terrible consequences and then offering cures. But Laqueur -- a bit of a showman, inclined to elaborate on other theories only to knock them into the shadows -- says that political control is no more than part of the story. Masturbation also came of age at the time of an exploding “commercial credit economy that magically promised undreamed-of abundance, shakily linked to the concrete reality of real goods and services.” The insatiable lust for orgasm meshes neatly with the crazed desire for wealth, especially if it comes from nothing -- as did the tulip mania and other greed-driven speculations offering chimerical riches. The relationship between self-induced (the imagination and the hand) sexual pleasure and fantasies of wealth based on nothing more than dreams and paper is clear enough. In a new economy that depended on the desire for more, the self-pleasuring, ever-renewable bottomless wealth of masturbation was both caricature and a dangerous emblem of the disappearance of the market. The masturbator needs no credit; she keeps unlimited cash under the mattress.

And on the bedside table lies a novel. Laqueur surveys the role of fiction, that hothouse of privacy and imagination, and finds that it is everywhere blamed for women’s masturbatory practices. Pictures (designed for men) show women reclining exhausted, otherworldly in their recent pleasure, with a fallen book beside them. The remnant of this that bookish children suffer from adults (“Take your head out of that book and go and do something!”) relates directly to the fear of what the solitary reading of words on a page might bring a person to.

Then along came Freud. Organicist and social conformist that he was, at first he concurred with the notions of physical damage that masturbation was believed to cause, but masturbation was an irresistible addition to his theory of socio-sexual development. The innate polymorphous perversity of infancy required masturbation -- the finding of the organs of pleasure that would come to be so important later in life. Whereas before children had to be policed to prevent them from playing with themselves, now it was a proper part of social development that would be given up at puberty in favor of heterosexual desire. Easy enough in boys, who were, as it were, only practicing, but a true giving up for girls, who, Freud claimed, had to relinquish their “masculine” clitoral self-penetration for the passivity of becoming vaginal receivers. Not to do so was to become a stunted form of human being. And then, of course, there was the guilt, the primary guilt for the primary addiction, that drives us all on, sublimating and transforming itself into work and art.

Which brings Laqueur to the mid-20th century -- 1963, in effect -- when all of a sudden, so it seems, feminism and the gay movement turned masturbation on its head, declaring not so much that it was after all a supremely social act but that its solipsism fitted perfectly with the new creed of self-discovery. Only experiment, and what better to experiment on than oneself? Feminists proclaimed masturbation vital in the search for self-value, countering the normalizing strictures of Freud by declaring the clitoral orgasm the only one that counted. Books appeared called “The Sensuous Woman” and “Sex for One: The Joy of Self-Love,” and they were not intended for the rapacious male gaze but as radical manuals for women. Liberationists of every kind celebrated masturbation as a route to self-knowledge and a new utopian acceptance of our bodies. The Me Generation took the most Me activity to its heart. Now, Good Vibrations, a sex shop, promotes a National Masturbation Month. The Internet globalizes masturbation by providing easy access to pornography and with Web sites devoted to the activity. The gay San Francisco Jacks site, among others, endorses group and solo masturbation with pictures and discussion groups at the touch of a button. What Rousseau called “books to be read with one hand” are now supplemented by chat rooms for single-handed typists.

Even so, the demons remain. Laqueur closes his excellent history of the creation of modern guilt by pointing out that President Clinton fired Joycelyn Elders, his surgeon general, for seeming to endorse masturbation and that a Christian Web site advises worried young men against the activity, suggesting that it’s a substitute for healthy relationships: “God is explicit on this topic: ‘He who chases fantasies lacks judgment.’ ” Masturbation is on our screens in “American Pie,” in “Something About Mary” and in the abstaining from it in “Seinfeld,” but it always contains the troublous history of solitary sex. These days the guilt may be ironized, but it’s still there.