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Thread: The Lonely Pleasure, From Sin to Symbol

  1. #1

    Default The Lonely Pleasure, From Sin to Symbol

    April 26, 2003
    The Lonely Pleasure, From Sin to Symbol
    By EMILY EAKIN


    The dangers of self-abuse: An illustration from "The Sexual System and Its Derangements," a popular medical book published in Buffalo in 1875.

    Thomas W. Laqueur is a scholarly gumshoe with a specialty in sex. His last book, "Making Sex: Body and Gender From the Greeks to Freud" (1990), was a highly original investigation of a tantalizing mystery he had stumbled on in the archives: Why did female orgasm, long considered essential to conception, all but disappear from the historical record during the Enlightenment?

    Now, in "Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation," Mr. Laqueur, a professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley, tackles another enigma from the annals of sexual history: Why did masturbation, an activity regarded with benign indifference for millennia, provoke sweeping moral and medical panic around 1700?

    Mr. Laqueur's preoccupations are hardly the kind destined to endear him to the cultural right. In particular, his latest tome which features a floating, naked woman wearing an expression of glazed-eyed ecstasy on its cover and a couple dozen graphic illustrations inside seems designed to inflame critics convinced that the academy is populated by tenured radicals bent on selling students a morally suspect and intellectually trivial bill of goods.

    But try reading his books. Mr. Laqueur's scholarship is dense, high-minded stuff. Ultimately, it isn't even about sex. "Making Sex" described a seismic shift in the way biological differences between men and women were understood before and after the Enlightenment: from a "one-sex model" in which women were regarded as smaller, imperfect versions of men (and thus no less orgasmic), to a "two-sex model" in which women and men were seen as incommensurable opposites. But the book's larger aim was to show how something as seemingly incontrovertible as a body a set of biological facts can be subject to changing, even contradictory, interpretations depending on the social and political agenda.

    Similarly, "Solitary Sex" is about much more than a simple act of genital manipulation. It's a long, thoughtful, occasionally tedious meditation on privacy, solitude, the imagination and what Mr. Laqueur calls "the morally autonomous, modern" self. These, he argues, were among modernity's signal achievements, cultural inventions for which masturbation became a particularly fraught and prominent symbol.

    It's a grand claim. But Mr. Laqueur makes an intriguing case. To the ancient Greek and Romans, he persuasively demonstrates, masturbation was seen as little more than a practical solution to the problem of excess sperm. Galen, the second-century physician, approvingly cites Diogenes the Cynic, who after being kept waiting by a prostitute with whom he had made an appointment, decided to perform her job himself.

    Medieval Christian theologians devoted pages to sexual sins, but they lacked both a word for masturbation and a pressing interest in the subject. "Burchard of Worms, a major late-10th-, early-11th-century figure, was far clearer than most in specifying what we understand as masturbation," Mr. Laqueur writes, "but he thought little of it: 10 days of mild penance if a boy did it alone; three times that if in company."

    The first appearance in English of the word occurred only in 1621, in Robert Burton's "Anatomy of Melancholy." In a passage detailing the afflictions of celibate women, Burton listed "mastuprations" (from the Latin "masturbor," which combined manus, meaning hand, and stuprare, to defile). But Burton's target was actually the Catholic Church, which "encouraged sexual depravity through its immoral and unbiblical insistence on celibacy."

    In short, for centuries there was little evidence of mounting moral outrage until about 1712, when an anonymous diatribe appeared in England bearing the ponderous but alarming title: "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 Injur'd Themselves by This Abominable Practice."

    Taking its name from the Genesis story of Onan, who was struck down by God for choosing to "spill his seed on the ground" rather than sleep with the wife of his dead brother, "Onania" bore terrifying news. "Willful self-abuse" was epidemic, its author announced, and without the aid of commercially available medical remedies, the prognosis for victims was dire. The tract, which Mr. Laqueur speculates was the work of an English quack surgeon named John Marten, amounted to crude medical hucksterism, but it inspired legions of sophisticated disciples.

    By the time of the Enlightenment, masturbation's dangers had become an obsession. Voltaire denounced it as "perverted self-love." Rousseau condemned it as the equivalent of self-enslavement. By the mid-19th-century, Mr. Laqueur relates, the tools for combating the allegedly ubiquitous vice included "erection alarms, penis cases, sleeping mitts, bed cradles to keep the sheets off the genitals, hobbles to keep girls from spreading their legs." Long after modern medicine had proved the Enlightenment authorities wrong, masturbation continued to be seen, as one early-20th-century headmaster put it, as "the most inevitable and fatal peril of all."

    Mr. Laqueur's explanation for this prolonged bout of cultural hysteria is complex. Eighteenth-century society, he points out, was in the throes of drastic change. There was a new commercial economy dedicated to the satisfaction of individual desire. And for the expanding middle class, there was a new emphasis on private life, including novel reading which took place in solitude and allowed free rein to the imagination.

    In this context, he contends, the panic over masturbation makes sense. It represented the "dark side" of social transformation, an activity associated with "imagination, solitude and excess" precisely when those concepts were "newly important and newly worrisome." It was the mark of the individual, an alarming new creature whose existence unfolded largely beyond the reach of the state. Masturbation was "the sexuality of the modern self."

    Today, masturbation may serve as a running joke on "Seinfeld," but few are willing to publicly defend it as "a morally innocent and socially benign sexual practice." And that, Mr. Laqueur suggests, may not change. Too much solitary pleasure is unlikely ever to be looked upon as an unmitigated social good.


    Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

  2. #2

    Default The Lonely Pleasure, From Sin to Symbol

    "Sleeping mitts."

    LMAO

  3. #3

    Default The Lonely Pleasure, From Sin to Symbol

    In case you'd think of warming your hands the wrong way.

  4. #4

    Default The Lonely Pleasure, From Sin to Symbol

    I like Woody Allen's word on masturbation, "sex with someone I love".
    I was also moved by the scene in Mulholland Drive that depicted a very dark side of masturbation. It was a little more subtle in Evangelion, but still associated with a sense of failure and desperation.

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    Default The Lonely Pleasure, From Sin to Symbol

    The erection alarms sound intriguing, if not down right fun.

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    Default The Lonely Pleasure, From Sin to Symbol

    I forget the site, but if you search Google for something along the lines of "Americans for Purity," which may or may not be a joke site, they have a store section where you can buy all sorts of anti-masturbation aids.

    One which really disturbed me was a device you put in your child's bed that would shock him if he had a nocturnal emission.

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