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Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbationby Thomas Walter Laqueur
Synopses & Reviews
This is the first cultural history of the world's most common sexual practice: masturbation. At a time when almost any victimless sexual practice has its public advocates and almost every sexual act is front-page news, the easiest and least harmful one is embarrassing, discomforting, and genuinely radical when openly acknowledged.
But this has not always been the case. The ancient world cared little about masturbation: it was of no great concern in Jewish and Christian teaching about sexuality. In fact, as Thomas Laqueur dramatically shows, solitary sex as an important medical and moral issue can be dated with a precision rare in cultural history: the solitary vice, self-pollution, or self-abuse came into being around 1712. A creature of the Englightenment, masturbation at first worried not conservatives — for whom it had long been but one among many sins of the flesh — but rather the progressives who welcomed sexual pleasure but struggled to create an ethics of self-government. The first truly democratic sexuality, masturbation was of ethical interest to both men and women, young and old.
Solitary Sex explains how and why this humble and once obscure means of sexual gratification became the evil twin of the great virtues of modern commercial society: individual moral autonomy and privacy, creativity and the imagination, abundance and desire. It shows how a moral problem became a medical one, how some of the most famous doctors of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were convinced that solitary pleasures killed or maimed. In the early twentieth century, Freud and his successors transformed this tradition: masturbation defined a stage in human development, the foundational sexuality that culture transformed for its own purposes. And, finally, in the late twentieth century, masturbation became for some a key element in the struggle for sexual, personal, and even artistic liberation.
Working with material from the prehistory of solitary sex in the Bible to third-wave feminism, conceptual artists, and the World Wide Web, historian Thomas Laqueur uses medical and philosophical texts, as well as diaries, autobiographies, and pornography to tell the story of what has become the last taboo.
"Laqueur calls masturbation both the 'first truly democratic sexuality' and the 'crack cocaine of sex': at once addictive and readily accessible to all. His writing is free from embarrassment and needless jargon (though it does not shy away from complex formulations of manual sex's complexes), and, with 32 b&w illustrations, it should be a big hit on campus." Publishers Weekly
"Laqueur tackles with aplomb what has been called the last taboo....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." Kirkus Reviews
"[A] compendious and witty analysis..." Jenny Diski, The Los Angeles Times
"An engaging writer, [Laqueur] has a penchant for with-it language...and in the later part of his book he devotes too much attention to transgressive artists whose cultural importance is marginal. His assertion that after the 'post-porn' performance art of Annie Sprinkle masturbation 'will never be the same' seems, to say the least, unlikely." The New Yorker
"The narrative...bogs down in detail, although Laqueur helpfully advises readers where to jump ahead in order to pick up the primary thread. In any case, such weaknesses are more from an excess of authorial devotion than a lapse in judgment, and his fervor, it's a relief to report, is both contagious and guilt-free." Mark Holcomb, The Village Voice
A historical account of masturbation as a moral issue and cultural taboo.
The claim that masturbation isnand#8217;t good for you didnand#8217;t just come out of nowhere. As April Haynes shows, a range of feminist reformers in nineteenth century America all agreed that the solitary vice caused untold suffering and death; that women and girls masturbated as frequently as did men and boys; that they did so because they lacked access to sexual information; and that therefore, female sex education would save lives. Haynes, in short shows that nascent feminists remade what might have been a puritanical crusade into a basis for envisioning their own sexual self-masteryand#151;with mixed results, for Haynes also tells the story of how, before the advent of sexology or even the professionalization of medicine, a and#147;great silent armyand#8221; of evangelical female reformers first popularized, then institutionalized, the normative sexual discourse of the nineteenth century.
Nineteenth-century America saw numerous campaigns against masturbation, which was said to cause illness, insanity, and even death. Riotous Flesh explores womenandrsquo;s leadership of those movements, with a specific focus on their rhetorical, social, and political effects, showing how a desire to transform the politics of sex created unexpected alliances between groups that otherwise had very different goals.
As April R. Haynes shows, the crusade against female masturbation was rooted in a generally shared agreement on some major points: that girls and women were as susceptible to masturbation as boys and men; that andldquo;self-abuseandrdquo; was rooted in a lack of sexual information; and that sex education could empower women and girls to master their own bodies. Yet the groups who made this education their goal ranged widely, from andldquo;ultraandrdquo; utopians and nascent feminists to black abolitionists. Riotous Flesh explains how and why diverse women came together to popularize, then institutionalize, the condemnation of masturbation, well before the advent of sexology or the professionalization of medicine.
At a time when almost any victimless sexual practice has its public advocates and almost every sexual act is fit for the front page, the easiest, least harmful, and most universal one is embarrassing, discomforting, and genuinely radical when openly acknowledged. Masturbation may be the last taboo. But this is not a holdover from a more benighted age. The ancient world cared little about the subject; it was a backwater of Jewish and Christian teaching about sexuality. In fact, solitary sex as a serious moral issue can be dated with a precision rare in cultural history; Laqueur identifies it with the publication of the anonymous tract
About the Author
Thomas W. Laqueur, winner of the Mellon Foundation's 2007 Distinguished Achievement Award, is Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley.
Table of Contents
1. The Gender of Solitary Vice
2. Licentiousness in All Its Forms
3. Making the Conversation General
4. A Philosophy of Amative Indulgence
5. Flesh and Bones
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