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Solitary Sex
By Thomas Laqueur
Zone Books, 498 pp., $34.00

You'll want to take Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation to bed with you at night ... but not in that way.

This 500-page book is all about masturbation. It even has pictures. However, except for the rare few who get off on Talmudic tractates, Solitary Sex isn't a racy novel, nor even a how-to manual. It's more of a freshman history class assignment.

Author Thomas Laqueur, a University of California-Berkeley historian, tells the history of the most common sexual practice in the world through the cultural history of the Bible, the Enlightenment and Seinfeld. First, Laqueur teaches us that masturbation with a capital "M"--masturbation with all its sin and vice; masturbation as Rogaine of the palm--was invented in the year 1712 A.D. (Masturbation with a little "m" was probably one of the earlier inventions, perhaps the one following hands.) In Roman or Greek literature, any reference to masturbation was usually a joke about sexual frustration. It was an activity for the lowest rungs of society, considering the plethora of slaves, young boys, prostitutes and goats available to citizens of any acceptable stature.

The guilt-wracking Biblical verse used to such great effect in 1712 was Genesis 38:10:

What he [Onan] did was so displeasing to the Lord that He struck him dead.

Fair enough: God hates masturbation. But let's back up for a second, to Genesis 38:8-9:

Then Judah said to Onan, "Go in to your brother's wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her; raise up offspring for your brother." But since Onan knew that the offspring would not be his, he spilled semen on the ground whenever he went in to his brother's wife, so that he would not give offspring to his brother.

According to Laqueur, for hundreds of years, most Rabbis thought the passage meant that Onan practiced coitus interruptus. A few even translated "spilled semen in an unnatural place" to mean anal sex. Most Talmudic Rabbis believed that the sin of Onan was that he denied his brother the only afterlife they knew in the Torah: immortality through children. Onan was supposed to enter into a "levirate marriage," whereas any children he sired with Tamar would be considered Er's lineage. (By the way, Martin Luther estimated Onan's age at the time to be about 12.)

It was the very rare scholar who prescribed against masturbation, and it wasn't until John Calvin that anyone association Onan's sin with the activity. The Rabbis' prescription was against the "spilling seed" part of Onan's sin, no matter how it was spilled.

By the 12th century, masturbation settled into the "second-order position of vices," below the head honcho sexual vices--bestiality, incest, concubinary, adultery and sodomy.

It comfortably stayed there until the early eighteenth century, when John Marten, a doctor and soft-core medical pornographer, wrote the best-selling Onania, a diatribe against the evils of "self-pollution." Doctors, who were quickly becoming McCarthyistic purveyors of morality and truth, embraced onanism as a way to explain tuberculosis, neurasthenia (probably disorders we now know as OCD), and even a sallow complexion. These same doctors also just happened to invent potions to cure onanism, at a week or so worth of wages a pop.

Laqueur brings us right up to the 1960s and the present, when books telling women how to masturbate, such as The Sensuous Woman, became "a lunch-counter sit-in of the body." The feminist movement in particular brought masturbation out from simply being tolerated to acceptable, and then to a preferable way to learn how the body experiences pleasure. Laqueur is clearly an academic before a writer. But not many history books offer such cool statistics as only 20 cases of homosexuality were tried in court in Sweden between 1630 and 1734 (versus 1,500 cases of bestiality). Besides, after reading 10 pages, you'll fall asleep so quickly you won't have time for any self-pollution.

More by Alex Leviton


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