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Going it alone

Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation, Thomas W. Laqueur, Zone Books: 495 pp., $34

March 16, 2003|Jenny Diski | 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.

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