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Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation, by Thomas W. Laqueur, Zone Books, New York, 2004, 498 pp. This is a book that would seem to be of direct relevance to psychoanalysts, a book which has drawn considerable attention, and which has received extremely enthusiastic reviews, and laudatory send-offs by Adam Phillips and Stephen Greenblatt. Its importance for us as psychoanalytic clinicians lies neither in its intrinsic merits nor in the strength of its underlying arguments (both of which can be questioned on varying disciplinary grounds); it lies in the connections Laqueur makes between sexuality and cultural values and assumptions, in the questions he raises, knowingly and unknowingly, about the nature of privacy, the self, and sexuality. Laqueur’s thesis is simple and strikes root in the current orientation of cultural studies and social constructivism. ‘‘Masturbation,’’ he writes, ‘‘is the sexuality of modernity and of the bourgeoisie who created it. It is the ﬁrst truly democratic sexuality’’ (p. 18). ‘‘Modern masturbation can be dated with a precision rare in cultural history.’’ It originated in 1712, and is ‘‘a creature of the Enlightenment’’ (p. 13). Laqueur dates modern masturbation to the publication of Onania, its founding text. He continues: ‘‘Situating this text—and the years around 1712—in the history of sexuality and selfhood is in some measure an exercise in the history of medicine’’ (p. 15). Many of the books that might have helped him formulate his ideas about the cultural history of ideas of the self (e.g., Bruno Snell, Aries, H. Ellenberger, E. R. Dodds) are missing from his footnotes, and there is no bibliography. Thus Laqueur makes an historical assumption of dubious merit: he assumes that the publication of a book on masturbation in 1712 demonstrates how masturbation was thought about and experienced by those of the period, an assumption which even the bravest of those French historians associated with ‘‘l’Histoire des mentalites’’ might shy away from. While Foucault in his work on the history of madness makes similar sorts of claims, he has a somewhat ﬁrmer grasp of history, of philosophy, and of the very complicated task of exploring what dead people seem to have thought. Moreover, as a specialist in literature, Laqueur assumes on the basis of having read Emile that Rousseau is the herald of modern individualism and a fountainhead of our contemporary notion of the self, a notion which has raised the eyebrows of historians for generations. Laqueur sets himself a double task. First he must demonstrate that the history of masturbation can help deﬁne modernity and modern notions of the self and modern sexuality, whatever that might be deﬁned to be. Then he must demonstrate that before 1712, masturbation either did not deﬁne sexuality and modernity in the same way or was not on the radar screen. ‘‘The more general problem is this: Why, in or around 1712 (at the dawn of the Enlightenment), does masturbation move from the distant moral horizon to the ethical foreground?’’ (p.18). Apart
0002-9548/06/0300-0097/1 Ó 2006 Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis
desire. Laqueur asks a question which would have occurred to nobody who did not already have a thesis for which ‘‘evidence’’ was needed.’’ (p. of creativity. 21). morally or medically’’ (p. according to Laqueur. Why and how does masturbation become more reprehensible than inﬁdelity to one’s wife. ‘‘One thing is clear. 141). p.. 138). Laqueur fails to examine what makes sexual acts pleasurable and/or sinful. solitary sex came to represent the relationship between the individual and the social world. and of excess. How reliable is it to make assumptions on the basis of ‘‘lexical silence’’? For Laqueur. ‘‘What we think of as masturbation did not ﬁt their conceptual categories: idolatry. since the very act of identifying an act as extraordinarily pleasurable above all others would seem to imply a need for a hierarchy of pleasures to match the hierarchy of sins. Laqueur. As analysts we might ask how the link between pleasure and excess became focused around masturbation. whatever it was. With the same sort of bludgeoned reasoning. 21). He writes: ‘‘The Enlightenment project of liberation—the coming into adulthood of humanity—made the most secret. meant little before the 18th century.. and the self that modernity itself had unleashed’’ (p. pollution and procreation’’ (p. private vice. his reasoning seems circular. Laqueur concludes (on scant evidence) that ‘‘it was clear that the Greeks and Romans had a concept of masturbation similar to ours but that they regarded the act itself as not especially problematic or interesting. His argument for the virtual nonexistence of masturbation as a problem before 1712 suffers from the same want of depth.. It is a guilt born of a newly problematic relationship between the individual and society’’ (p. Laqueur concludes of the Jewish tradition. it was prone to excess as no other kind of venery was. solitude and privacy’—became suspect’’ (p.g. and it had no bounds in reality. (e. for masturbation. of limits. because it was the creature of the imagination’’ (p. ‘‘Beginning in the eighteenth century. private. Between the late sixth and the twelfth century there was no word. tends to equate thought and language. became horrifying because it was ‘‘secret in a world in which transparency was of a premium. In short. 22). So far as the Classical sources are concerned. the crack cocaine of sexuality. following in the cognitive-linguistic tradition which has produced both the structuralists and the antistructuralists (the postmodernists). 19). 111). a sort of crossroads where men and women. or than promiscuity in general? While Laqueur insists repeatedly that the more pleasurable the sexual act. 183). and leaving aside how variegated both reason and faith (even assuming these to be the same for us as they were for the inhabitants of the 18th century) were during the 18th century.’’ although he adds that it ‘‘may be difﬁcult to know what this lexical silence signiﬁes’’ (p. seemingly harmless. 124). Masturbation. Laqueur claims . no class noun. masturbation ‘‘became a problem when its core elements ‘imagination. boys and girls could go terribly wrong. the more sinful it was believed to be.98 BOOK REVIEWS from the difﬁculties in assuming that a change of millennium ushers in a period like the Enlightenment. More generally. excess. ‘‘The history of the new modern regime of guilt is thus part of a larger history of the self. and most difﬁcult to detect of sexual acts the centerpiece of a program for policing the imagination.
we may ask. masturbation represented ‘‘socially inappropriate and uncontrolled privacy’’ (p. there is not a single social or political theorist from Plato to the present who has not seen this relationship as problematic. let me note that Laqueur simpliﬁes both guilt and shame. 249). stands ‘‘at the beginnings of a modern sense of secrecy’’ (p. sexual pleasure. 210).’’ which entails the sort of guilt he is speaking about. since shame is above all shame in one’s own eyes. however we judge their accuracy. it pointed to an abyss of solipsism. anomie. Laqueur makes masturbation stand for unquenchable desire. and G.BOOK REVIEWS 99 that the kind of guilt that makes masturbation the democratic and modern form of sexuality is itself created by a ‘‘newly problematic relationship between the individual and society. ‘‘perfectly outside civilization’’ (p. It is ‘‘a moral problem of the modern self. it cannot escape shame. believes Laqueur. he bypasses the obvious relation of shame to superego conﬂicts and makes a statement of dubious reliability. But what. and it was immoderate (the more one did it. and it is addictive because it is secret. who held the view that ‘‘masturbation is the most perfect vice and sin’’ (quoted on p. according to Laqueur. too much of a good thing. Laqueur’s arguments. it was private. he fails to describe in any detail what this ‘‘newly problematic relationship’’ is. ‘‘Masturbation thus became the vice of individuation for a world in which the old ramparts against desire had crumbled. He would appear to be saying that masturbation is secret because it is addictive. 293). and socially meaningless freedom that seemed to belie the ideal of moral autonomy. one was shamed in the eyes of someone else. 236). ‘‘To masturbate was to masturbate excessively. it was motivated by fantasy (and not a real object of desire). to be in the throes of unquenchable desire. and about our efforts to sort behaviors and practices out into one category or the other? And to what extent and in what ways do cultural values contribute to that secrecy that makes masturbation (or any sexual activity) pleasurable? How are sexual pleasure and shame related? And how do the injunctions against masturbation serve as a reﬂection of attitudes toward privacy? Toward . as he simpliﬁes the concept of the self. Masturbation escaped all this’’ (p. Credit and masturbation traveled in the same linguistic circles’’ (p. But here his logic breaks down. a reﬂection of the very deepest problems of modern life’’ (p. the more one wanted to do it) (p. 226). Laqueur mentions William Stekel. Since masturbation is necessarily done by the self (and not the Other). In passing. ‘‘Shame was almost by deﬁnition public.’’ The sexuality of the modern self. Here. and discusses Freud brieﬂy (‘‘masturbation became his transitional object for going from seduction to libido theory’’) (p. 51). it would appear. 241). and masturbation. Stanley Hall. even when they think that it can be dealt with using a simple solution. So far as I know. raise fundamental questions about perceptions and experiences of sexuality. What do we as analysts think the nature of perversion and its relation to secrecy and privacy to be? How self-conscious are we about our judgments of both normality and perversion. makes masturbation any more addictive than other forms of sexuality? Laqueur’s answer would be: secrecy. In the 18th century solitary sex became unnatural because. However. When he writes. Masturbation. 389). who believed masturbation was harmless. 232).
Let us hope that we will manage to make our voices heard with greater effect on future authors tackling these subjects.100 BOOK REVIEWS the imagination and fantasy life? These are fundamental questions with respect to which we as analysts have something to say of relevance to cultural theorists and all those writing on these questions. Benjamin Kilborne 5 Lenox Road West Stockbridge MA 01266 Bkilborne@aol.com .
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