Master of his domain

Tom Morton

Thomas Walter Laqueur Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation, Cambridge (Mass.), Zone Books, 2004 (498 pp). ISBN 1-89095-133-1 (paperback) RRP $36.95.

One Saturday afternoon not long ago, I happened to be in the local supermarket, waiting in line with my trolley, and idly scanning the magazines arrayed at the entrance to the checkout. ‘Deadly Diets!’ trumpeted one, above a triptych of emaciated models and pubescent pop stars. Another promised to reveal yet more shocking details of plastic surgery gone horribly wrong. I turned from this depressing prospect to see a young woman striding past, wearing a T-shirt with the legend: ‘Masturbation is not a sinA public service announcement brought to you by Porn Star’. This cheery inscription made a stark contrast with the gloomy warnings of the magazines. ‘Just do it!’, it seemed to proclaim, ‘it’s harmless, wholesome—and non-fattening!’.

The T-shirt might not have caught my attention so readily had I not been reading Thomas Laqueur’s Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation. As Laqueur demonstrates, masturbation has come a long way in the last two-hundred-odd years. At the height of the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant proclaimed it the worst conceivable defilement of a person’s humanity, worse even than suicide. For Woody Allen, two centuries later, it was simply ‘sex with someone I love’; and it’s only a small step from there to a slogan which sells T-shirts.

Yet the story Laqueur tells is not simply one of emancipation, of self-pleasuring’s liberation from medical and moral strictures. In his account, masturbation is the ‘sin of the moderns’ par excellence. In the early 18th century, this previously obscure and insignificant vice embarked on a dazzling new career. Thanks to one or two energetic anonymous pamphleteers, and a succession of respectable physicians who took up the cause, ‘filthy Commerce with oneself’ became a central preoccupation of Enlightenment philosophers such as Kant. Masturbation moved from the ‘distant moral horizon to the ethical foreground’ (p. 18). It is at the centre of modern understandings of sexuality, from Rousseau to Freud, and at the same time inextricably entwined with the development of ideas of the self and self-cultivation.

A small example may help to illustrate how much of a shadow masturbation was casting over the inner lives of individuals by the late 18th century. In the spring of 1784 the German writer, explorer, and naturalist Georg Forster set off on a journey from Kassel to Vilnius, in what was then Polish Lithuania. Forster had been offered a professorship in natural history at Vilnius, and was on his way there to negotiate the terms of his contract. Before leaving he had become engaged to Therese Heyne, the daughter of one of the most eminent classical scholars of the German Enlightenment. The journey would take him through the Harz mountains and then to Vienna, where he met the Emperor and flirted with a number of the most eligible young women in Viennese high society.

Masturbation is the ‘sin of the moderns’ par excellence.

Along the way he kept a journal—nothing unusual for the time, when diaries and letters were public documents passed around amongst circles of friends and often written quite self-consciously with an audience in mind. But one aspect of Forster’s journal is somewhat surprising. Along with details of what he has for breakfast each morning—raspberries and milk, usually—the geological formations he sees and who he meets each day, he meticulously records each time he masturbates. Sometimes the entries are confined to a single word—Onanie—but more often they describe at some length the inner struggles which precede the act.

Laqueur does not mention Forster’s journal, and he may not know it (though he seems to have read everything else even remotely associated with masturbation, as the book’s 70 pages of footnotes attest). But if he did, he would almost certainly see it as further proof of his central thesis: that Forster and his contemporaries inhabit an historical moment crucial to the shaping of modern attitudes to masturbation, and indeed to the development of modern sexuality per se.

It’s unlikely that Forster himself had read the foundational text of modern attitudes to masturbation, Onania or the Heinous Sin of Self Pollution and all its Frightful Consequences, a short tract published by an anonymous author in London around 1712. Onania quickly became a minor sensation. Its publisher plainly understood the value of vertical integration, and was soon marketing medicines and tinctures to combat the effects of the heinous sin. Laqueur describes Onania and the many imitations which quickly followed it as a ‘shameless effort to invent a new disease and at the same time offer its cure at a steep price’ (p. 16)—an innovative business practice not unknown in our time.

His larger point is that masturbation had generally been regarded as a rather harmless and insignificant vice until the early 18th century. Both medicine and theology had considered it a victimless crime, if they considered it all. Even the biblical Onan who spilled his seed on the ground instead of inseminating his dead brother’s wife was ‘probably not a masturbator at all’, Laqueur tells us (p. 20). But Onania set in train a medical and moral avalanche which would gather force and momentum as the century progressed.

By the time Forster was writing his journal, masturbation had moved from the margins into the medical mainstream. In 1760 Tissot, one of the century’s most famous, influential and respected physicians had published L’Onanisme (1760). It was, says Laqueur, ‘a genuine bestseller’ and was translated into all the major European languages.

Onania set in train a medical and moral avalanche.

In 1762, Tissot sent a copy to Rousseau, who had just published Emile, one of the canonical texts of the Enlightenment. In Emile Rousseau wrote that if an adolescent male ‘were to know even once the dangerous supplement … the most disastrous habit to which a young man can subjugate himself … he would be lost’. Rousseau and Tissot made common cause against masturbation; and according to Laqueur, nowhere did their pronouncements find a bigger audience than in Germany. Although the young Georg Forster almost certainly had read Emile, if not Tissot’s work as well, moral panic about masturbation and its effects on a person’s physical and moral constitution was widespread by the time he embarked on his journey to Vilnius.

But why? If, as Weber argued, one of the qualities which contributed to the rise of the Protestant middle classes was their capacity to delay gratification, then this is a truly Protestant book. Laqueur tantalises and teases us for nearly three hundred pages before he finally offers us his explanation for the centrality of masturbation in modern discourses about sex and sexuality.

When it comes, it’s an impressive thesis. Masturbation, says Laqueur, is the ‘evil doppelgänger of modernity’ (p. 419), the ‘dark underbelly of a new social and cultural order’ (p. 249). It represents the shadow side of the Enlightenment, bourgeois society and market capitalism—a realm of secrecy, excess and imagination. These three distinctive features of solitary sex fuel the moral panic about masturbation which reaches its crescendo in the late 18th century. Masturbation became ‘emblematic of all that was beyond social surveillance, beyond the disciplines of the market, all that threatened a well-ordered world’ (p. 277).

Masturbation is a threat to the disciplines of the market because it offends against the laws of supply and demand. Sex between two individuals is governed by availability and desire, by ‘a calculus of pleasure and pain that involved others’ (p. 289). Masturbation, by contrast, is a little like The Magic Pudding: a limitless resource. As Mandeville, the author of the famous Fable of the Bees put it, ‘the privacy, safety, convenience and cheapness of this gratification are very strong motives’. But because masturbation is not just cheap but free, it cannot be ‘prudently managed’.

At a larger level, anxiety about ‘filthy Commerce with oneself’ reflects ambivalence about the nature of capitalism itself. The new bourgeois culture of the 18th century, was permeated by an ethic of self-government, of thrift, restraint and self-control. But the new economic freedoms which this same bourgeoisie pursued seemed to lead in the direction of excess, of an economy which ‘depended on the desire for more and always more’ (p. 277). Laqueur makes some fascinating connections between the expansion of credit in the 18th century, which ‘magically promised undreamed-of abundance’ (p. 279), and a mounting cultural obsession with masturbation—an apparently endless line of sexual credit repayable to no-one.

Laqueur makes similarly compelling arguments about masturbation’s ambivalent relationship to imagination and the social contract. Its private, secretive nature was at odds with an age that sought to create citizens and nurture civil society. A domain of sexual fantasy which could be acted out and consummated without the involvement of another human being was abhorrent to the prophets of Enlightenment. It represented a kind of internal frontier, a ‘realm of privacy into which the civilising process could not reach’ (p. 232).

Masturbation is a little like The Magic Pudding.

This, perhaps more than anything, explains Kant’s extraordinarily violent condemnation of the vice which he thought ‘indecent even to call … by its proper name’ (p. 59). In Kant’s famous definition, marriage was a contract between two people for the mutual use of the sex organs; but one which required both partners to treat each other as an end rather than a means. But masturbation, in Kant’s view, necessarily involves using oneself as an object for one’s own pleasure. It is a self-enslavement, a reversal of the very process of Enlightenment itself. As such, it amounts, in Laqueur’s formulation, to an ‘abandonment of both reason and society’ (p. 60).

The claims which Laqueur makes for masturbation are very ambitious. It’s no accident, he tells us, that Onania was published in the same decade as Daniel Defoe’s first novels and the first stock market crashes. Onanism’s rise to infamy coincides with the birth of modern capitalism, and the emergence of the quintessential political problem of liberal capitalism: the relationship between the individual and society. As Laqueur says, Defoe’s most famous creation, Robinson Crusoe, has been regarded as ‘the prototypical modern homo economicu’, a man free from social and moral constraints (p. 269). The moral dangers of Crusoe’s world, where he lives completely free of the responsibilities of the citizen, are ‘the moral dangers of the masturbator’ (ibid).

In our own era, this equation has become reversed. The sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s freed masturbation from the shackles of the Enlightenment. Solitary sex became an act of insurrection against patriarchy, ‘a way of reclaiming the self from the regulatory mechanisms of civil society’ (p. 277). If Jim Morrison led the way, more recently it’s been women who have made masturbation part of the repertoire of an assertive, autonomous sexuality. Whether it’s the Divinyls’ Chrissie Amphlett proclaiming ‘I don’t need anybody else’ in their 1980s hit I Touch Myself, or more recently country singer Lucinda Williams moaning into the microphone in a heavy Southern drawl—or black female R&B artist Tweet pretending to pleasure herself in front of a mirror—there can be little doubt that sisters are doing it for—and to—themselves.

And yet, there are some striking parallels between the cultural anxieties of our own times, and those of the late 18th century, the ‘Golden Age’ of moral panic about masturbation. A number of recent books have explored the social consequences of excess and over-consumption in the era of global capitalism, from Robert Frank’s Luxury Fever. Why Money Fails to Satisfy in an Era of Excess, to Clive Hamilton’s Growth Fetish, which explores many of the same issues as Frank’s in an Australian context. Central bankers, Treasurers, and the high priests of economic orthodoxy in the economic think-tanks have developed a new, moralising discourse about credit, and our over-reliance on it. In the realm of popular culture, there’s the (in)famous episode of Seinfeld, in which Jerry, Kramer, Elaine and George compete to see who can remain ‘master of his domain’—in other words, who can go longest without masturbating. These four deeply narcissistic and dislikeable individuals are everything the good citizen is not; they live in a solipsistic, self-obsessed world, a domain of childish fantasies and selfish pleasures. Yet we can’t help being fascinated and amused by what we recognise as our own anti-social tendencies writ large.

In the early 21st century, however, masturbation is no longer the prism through which these cultural anxieties are usually refracted. One might argue that food has replaced sex as the arena in which new regimes of self-government and self-surveillance are acted out. But that, as they say, is another story.

Tom Morton is the author of Altered Mates: The Man Question (Allen&Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW, 1997). He is currently writing a novel based on the life of Georg Forster.


Frank, R. 1999, Luxury Fever: Why Money Fails to Satisfy in an Era of Excess, Free Press, New York.

Hamilton, C. 2003, Growth Fetish, Allen&Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW.

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