Scholarly examination of the evolution of public perceptions about masturbation, from a threat to the civil order in the early–18th century to a form of cyberspace expression in the 21st.
Laqueur (History/Berkeley; Making Sex, not reviewed, etc.) tackles with aplomb what has been called the last taboo. He devotes a long chapter to masturbation’s prehistory, noting that it was largely disregarded in ancient Rome and Greece, in Jewish tradition, and in centuries of Christian teaching. As the relationship between the individual and the social order became a paramount concern during the Enlightenment, masturbation was seen as a reflection of modern life’s deepest problems. This view was widely disseminated, it seems, with the 1712 publication of an anonymous tract titled Onania, a reference to the Bible’s Onan, who “cast his seed upon the ground.” Launching a new “disease” and new guilt upon the Western world, Onania railed against the sin of “self-pollution,” cited its dire consequences, and touted a cure. As the belief that it caused death, disease, and madness waned toward the close of the 19th century, Freud put a new spin on the subject: masturbation was the lowest, most primitive sexuality, a stage to be passed through in the process of becoming an adult, with a host of problems caused by the failure to do so. This view has been challenged since the 1960s, says Laqueur, by those who champion masturbation as not only healthful but a path to individual autonomy and spiritual self-realization. Feminists touted it as a means of liberation from a repressive heterosexual regime; Internet chat rooms made it the basis for a new kind of sexual sociability. As a cultural historian, Laqueur casts a wide net, snaring Samuel Pepys and Pee Wee Herman, Rousseau and Seinfeld, philosophers and pornographers, Greek urns and contemporary photos.
Sheds bright light on an aspect of human behavior hitherto relegated to history’s shadows. (32 b&w illustrations)