Illustration by Dana Collins

Early last fall, the Mattel Co. found itself enmeshed in a controversy involving a Harry Potter tie-in, the Nimbus 2000 flying broom, which featured a batterypowered vibrating function meant to simulate the sensation of flight. What it may or may not have also simulated was the action of a sexual device. “The toy was No. 1 on my daughter's Christmas list,” read one customer review. “It wasn't until after she opened her gift and started playing with it that I realized that the toy may offer a more than sensational experience. The broomstick has cute sound effects and VIBRATES when they put it between their legs to fly. Come on — what were the creators of this toy thinking? She'll keep playing with the Nimbus 2000, but with the batteries removed.”

Before long, parents and conservative groups began complaining, and the product was taken off the market by Mattel. I'm not sure what this says about the Nimbus 2000, but it does suggest a few things about contemporary culture — beginning with our apparently bottomless capacity to uncover prurience in everything, to turn a toy into a metaphor for masturbation, and frame it in the language of right and wrong.

Masturbation, of course, has long been marked by such a dialectic — since the earliest days of the Enlightenment. In Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation, Thomas W. Laqueur details the, er, rise and fall of the so-called “solitary vice,” arguing that all our tortured attitudes can be traced to a single publication, the pamphlet Onania; or, The Heinous Sin of Self Pollution, and all its Frightful Consequences . . ., issued in England in 1712.

With Onania, masturbation went from being a minor indiscretion, a sign of sexual inadequacy (which is how it was regarded throughout much of the ancient world), to a full-blown medical condition, a source of physical and emotional decay. Although originally developed for commercial purposes — its anonymous author, Laqueur tells us, is a surgeon named John Marten who used it to promote anti-masturbation medicines — Onania's ultimate legacy was to associate self-love with the sin of Onan, who, in Genesis, “spilled his seed upon the ground rather than into the wife of his dead brother and was struck down.”

Because of this, Laqueur writes, “Modern masturbation is profane. It is not just something that putatively makes those who do it tired, crippled, mad, or blind but an act with serious ethical implications. It is that part of human sexual life where potentially unlimited pleasure meets social restraint; where habit and the promise of just-one-more-time struggle with the dictates of conscience and good sense; where fantasy silences, if only for a moment, the reality principle; and where the autonomous self escapes from the erotically barren here and now into a luxuriant world of its own creation. It hovers between abjection and fulfillment.”


Unfortunately, the same could be said about Solitary Sex, which exists in the uneasy middle ground between academic and popular writing, scholarship and reportage. On the one hand, the book is exhaustively researched, featuring everything from etymology lessons to a brief history of silent reading in the effort to create a context for masturbation as a matter of cultural anomie. Among the most compelling connections Laqueur makes are those between masturbation and privacy, and privacy and individual liberty. In his view, these issues are intimately related to the Enlightenment ideal of self-governance, which, in the early 1700s, was literally changing people's perceptions of the world. Without privacy, after all, there is no imagination, and without imagination, no liberty. Yet liberty carries with it the risk of excess, of self-indulgence as opposed to self-examination, lusts unmediated and undeterred. For philosophers like Emmanuel Kant and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (himself an avid masturbator in his youth), the key conflict is between imagination and reality, since, in giving over to fantasy, the masturbator withdraws from life.

The emergence of masturbation, then, as a social evil illustrates a deep unease on the part of 18th-century thinkers over expanding definitions of personal responsibility, and the balance of the private and the public spheres. “In other words,” Laqueur explains, “all the elements of what was so terribly wrong with masturbation were themselves highly valued, praised, and discussed. But this made their abuse all the more threatening; one might almost think that if the solitary vice did not exist, it would have had to be created, a kind of Satan to the glories of bourgeois civilization.”

All of this makes for a fascinating bit of cultural investigation, and explains why, even after it was proved to be physically harmless, masturbation continued to be considered a taboo. Yet as Solitary Sex progresses, Laqueur gets increasingly waylaid by his argument, repeating basic ideas ad infinitum, and losing himself in details that often seem beside the point. In one particularly glaring instance, he spends six-plus densely woven pages decoding a three-page piece of writing, and his interpretation of the Onan story is almost Talmudic in its analysis, offering layer upon layer of commentary from rabbinical and Christian scholars, all to establish that Onan does not, in fact, appear to have masturbated at all, but was struck dead either for having unnatural (read: anal) sex with his brother's widow, or for refusing to impregnate her, as tradition required.

Masturbation is the final frontier of sexuality, the one aspect of pleasure we still do not discuss. This is its power and its fascination, the fact that everybody does it but no one talks about it, which makes it a shared secret on the grandest scale. Were Solitary Sex more nuanced in its treatment, it might approach the power of its subject. As it is, however, the book is hardly more transgressive than the Nimbus 2000, if a little less available to kids.

SOLITARY SEX: A Cultural History of Masturbation | By THOMAS W. LAQUEUR | Zone Books | 501 pages | $23.80 hardcover

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