Masturbation, the "solitary vice" of Victorian handbooks, has long been theoretically demystified. In the 1880s, one Rev Richard Armstrong warned that this "unwholesome indulgence" led to a situation where "the average life-value of young men at 25 - as tested by the infallible test of the insurance tables - is only half the average life-value of the boy of 14". By the 1960s, however, masturbation seemed well on its way to becoming the effective means of sexual pleasuring, as the new generation of sex therapists explored the best ways of achieving the perfect orgasm. Yet echoes of a dismal history remain, whether in the form of schoolboy insult ("wanker") or in the fears of our elected leaders. When the US surgeon general, Jocelyn Elders, attempted to reassure children of the "normality" of masturbation in December 1994, the subsequent uproar from Christian fundamentalists forced President Clinton to sack her.
Intimations of danger, rather than safety, have haunted the history of masturbation since the 18th century, when the anonymous Onania (1710) and Samuel Tissot's Onanism (1761) helped propel a century and a half of moralising and medical intervention. Some of the contributors to Solitary Pleasures carry the scars of that history. The book began life as a session on "The Muse of Masturbation" at a Modern Language Association convention in the United States. One paper, by the presiding genius of the book, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, soon found its way, as a fearful case study, into Roger Kimball's polemic against political correctness, Tenured Radicals. The subject? "Jane Austen and the masturbating girl".
Sedgwick is the reigning queen of queer studies in the US, and her trenchant essay on Sense and Sensibility, reprinted in this volume, was predestined to set the cat among the pigeons. To the horror of good Janeites everywhere, she argues that the character of Marianne Dashwood in the novel shows advanced signs of masturbatory preoccupations. Other essays in the book are as likely to confirm the worst nightmares of the anti-PC campaigners.
But literary subversion combines with more conventional social and cultural analysis in this book to provide a fascinating overview of how, and why, innocent pleasures have become the object of so much fevered writing and moral sanction. The book has two guiding preoccupations. The first is with the relationship between the individual act and artistic creation. This is tackled in a number of ways. Masturbation may be the covert theme of a work. Alternatively, it can be seen as a metaphor for the act of creation itself: the solitary action and self creation through fantasy parallelling the creative loneliness of the artist. More profoundly, it can be argued that writing and eros are intimate partners in the modern discourse of sexuality. If the history of sexuality is a history of the incitement rather than the repression of bodily pleasures, then what could have been more stimulating than writing about forbidden joys. As Christopher Loobya and Roy Porter point out, the texts which forbade also informed: they simultaneously tabooed masturbation, and told people how to do it.
So why did masturbation become so central to the sexual imagination in the 18th and 19th centuries? This, the book's second main preoccupation, is tackled in a number of ways. Porter, in a characteristic flurry of scholarship, surveys the various theories. But the most intriguing explanation comes from Thomas Laqueur. Pondering on why the Victorians began to use two new phrases - the "social evil" for prostitution and the "solitary vice" for masturbation. He argues that "while masturbation threatened to take sexual desire and pleasure inward, away from the family, prostitution took it outward". As the market economy and industrialisation portended social fragmentation, social moralists sought a haven in the solidarities of family life. Masturbation, on the contrary, celebrates unconstrained desire, and individualisation.
Given such a history, it is perhaps not surprising that contemporary moral conservatives are again preoccupied with solitary pleasures, as Dr Elders found to her cost.
Jeffrey Weeks is professor of sociology, South Bank University, London.
Solitary Pleasures: The Historical, Literary, and Artistic Discourses of Autoeroticism
Editor - Paula Bennett And Vernon A. Rosario II
ISBN - 0 415 91173 7 and 91174 5
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £40.00 and £12.99
Pages - 286