In the 19th century, physiology could be a controversial business. When the Vienna-based psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing claimed that women – like men – could have orgasms, he was challenging not only assumptions about female passivity, but also the widespread belief that sex was something that could take place only between a woman and a man. Krafft-Ebing was certainly no radical sex reformer, yet his observations on female orgasm were nevertheless excluded from the English translation of his main work, Psychopathia Sexualis, one of the founding studies of modern sex research. The omission indicates that physiological knowledge, when concerned with female sexual pleasure, remained anathema for many fin de siècle observers.
April Haynes’ magnificent Riotous Flesh shows that in 19th-century America – despite the taboo of female sexuality – it was a concern with women’s bodies that lay at the heart of anti-masturbation campaigns. This argument challenges existing histories of masturbation that have focused on anxieties over masculinity – most famously, perhaps, in relation to the idea that men only had a finite amount of sperm and that it would run out if they indulged in the secret vice. Equally prevalent was the belief that masturbation would cause nervous and physical illnesses, which, in the worst-case scenario, could lead to the premature death of the afflicted man. Haynes’ meticulously researched study takes a broader look at the issues at stake. Turning to the history of physiology, it puts women centre stage as it explores how, why and to what effect diverse female reformers, abolitionists and educators spoke publicly about the solitary vice.
Riotous Flesh is a treasure trove of historical insight. It traces the connections between events as diverse as the “physiology riots” of the 1830s – when public lectures about the female body were met by fierce attacks against the speakers and their audiences – to the classes taught on the subject by Sarah Mapps Douglass, the African American abolitionist. Perhaps the most compelling discussions centre on the strange political allegiances that formed around anti-masturbation debates. Middle-class moral reformers, black abolitionists and radical feminist utopianists all utilised anti-masturbation rhetoric in their claims for gender and racial equality. While their politics was in many ways progressive, Haynes is quick to point out that when it came to matters of sex, the anti-masturbationists shared a socially conservative agenda: the promotion of heterosexual relationships.
Her book does a fine job of documenting the gendered and racial intricacies of 19th-century sexual debates. It concludes with a thought-provoking epilogue on sexual politics, media representation and commercialisation in the 20th and 21st centuries. Haynes argues that masturbation today is not only normalised but positively encouraged in mainstream culture, where solitary sex has become big business. According to her, the problem now is that female masturbation tends to be represented not as something women should do for their own pleasure, but to attract and please their male partners. If the analysis here seems a little condensed, it nevertheless successfully sums up the main argument, which is so aptly put forward by Riotous Flesh: that masturbation should be understood less as a solitary pleasure than as the subject of social and political contestation.
Heike Bauer is senior lecturer in English and gender studies, Birkbeck, University of London, and editor of Sexology and Translation: Cultural and Scientific Encounters across the Modern World (2015).
Riotous Flesh: Women, Physiology, and the Solitary Vice in Nineteenth-Century America
By April R. Haynes
University of Chicago Press, 248pp, £59.50 and £19.50
ISBN 9780226284590, 4620 and 4767 (e-book)
Published 29 September 2015