Thomas W. Laqueur, Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation, New York, Zone Books, 2003, pp. 501, illus., £22.50 (hardback 1-890951-32-3)
Is there anything new to be said about the history of masturbation? A fifty-year tradition of articles as well as at least one preceding monograph have explored the perennially intriguing cultural construct of masturbation within the Western medical tradition as a medically, as well as morally, deleterious practice, enduring from the first decades of eighteenth century until the early twentieth century. Although a number of questions remained outstanding, these have not all been addressed in Solitary Sex.
Laqueur displays a curious (in more than one sense) interest in female masturbation. In gazing at the masturbating female, he seems to have overlooked the extent to which the discourses about the evils of onanism were to a significant extent about anxieties to do with the male body and masculinity. Undoubtedly there were recurrent, if highly localised, panics about self-abuse among women, but a case could be made that for long periods the masturbating woman was largely perceived as an innately pathological figure with some physical or mental defect, rather than anywoman.
Whereas for men, masturbation was seen as something which could, unless precautions were taken, overcome any male, with dire consequences. All men were menaced by this spectre, as can be seen from the vast torrent of literature, from sermons to commercial quack handbills, directed towards the habit. Laqueur does not engage with, or even acknowledge, several articles which have taken this approach, although he has, on internal evidence, encountered them. He even tries to account for the differential between the vast number of anguished queries received by Marie Stopes (not, as Laqueur implies, a medical doctor, but a PhD in botany, one of a number of in themselves minor, but cumulatively irritating, errors) from men about the harm potentially done by masturbation, and the extremely few, largely much less agonised, queries from women, by arguing that women were worried about it, but would not have written to Stopes. Given the lack of other resources of advice for the sexually perturbed at the time, it is hard to believe that if women had been as concerned as men were about autoerotic practice, they would have failed to consult her in large numbers. His argument for this line of reasoning, that "in the clinical casework of Freud and his colleagues, women seemed to suffer the most from solitary sex" (pp. 374-5), is not entirely convincing. One is tempted to murmur, given the pervasive male fears on the topic among that very generation, "projection".... And indeed, does not Laqueur’s claim that female masturbation has been, historically, characterised as "liberating, ecstatic, dreamy and lyrical", in contrast to the male act, perceived as "abject, humiliating, and decidedly second-rate" (p. 406), speak of a cultural disgust at the sexual male body, from which this practice liberates the fortunate woman?
While some accounts of masturbation have made far too much of the Victorians, or perhaps one should say "the Victorian" as popularly imagined, is it really possible to make a segue from the late eighteenth century to the very late nineteenth or early twentieth century with only passing allusions to the interim period (refreshing though the absence of William Acton may be)? This tends to lead to an assumption that once it was in place, the masturbation discourse was fixed and unchanging until it was eventually superseded or eroded (there is also little attention paid to the significant variations between different national cultures). This is related to what appears to be the ambition to create a grand narrative of the rise and decline of masturbatory panic. Might it not rather be possible that there is not one story, but several, overlapping and intertwining, stories? Perhaps the reason for the initial success and enduring significance of the fears begun by Onania was that they could occupy many niches, that they enabled a variety of narratives.
Solitary Sex, in spite of its length, and although some areas are dealt with in minute detail, fails to provide an exhaustive or definitive account of the rise and decline of masturbation mania. It will doubtless be of interest to the general reader unacquainted with the existing historiography, but for specialists in the history of gender, sexuality, and medicine, it will come as something of a disappointment.
Lesley A. Hall
Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine