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DIY down the ages

22 March 2003

12:00 AM

22 March 2003

12:00 AM

Solitary Sex Thomas W. Laqueur

MIT, pp.501, 22.50

One balmy summer afternoon in my final year at prep school, a group of my fellow-prefects and I gathered under the apple trees on the slope by the croquet lawn where only prefects were allowed, and reminisced about the five years we’d spent together. ‘Do you know, Delingpole,’ said one of them, ‘it was you who taught us all how to wank.’

This is possibly the nicest compliment anyone has ever paid to me and even though it was completely unwarranted – branleur? moi? – I have endeavoured to live up to it ever since by broaching the subject with friends, acquaintances and strangers as often as decently possible; by collecting wanking anecdotes (the man caught in flagrante by his au pair; the man whose father decided to appear on a ladder outside his bedroom window just when. . .); and by including worryingly long, squirm-inducing passages on the subject in two out of three novels.

The thing I like about wanking, apart from the obvious, is that even though almost everyone does it, possibly even you, dear reader, it’s still one of those subjects that hardly anyone talks about. For a writer with no shame this is an absolute gift: you can talk about the very familiar while yet coming across as daring and original.

You may argue, as Thomas W. Laqueur does in his – ahem – seminal new book Solitary Sex that since it was reclaimed in the Seventies as a vital form of self-expression in a constrained and uptight world, masturbation has lost its stigma. And yes, it’s true that things have come a long way since Victorian parents bought special spiked devices to stop their children indulging. But you only have to ask yourself which would be more hideously embarrassing, to be caught making love to your boyfriend/girlfriend or to be caught having a furtive Jodrell, to realise how much of a taboo this innocent pleasure still is.

And so it has been, claims Laqueur, since 1712, the estimated first publication date of the massively influential work Onania, or, The Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution, and all its Frightful Consequences. It was written by a quack doctor called John Marten, who not only invented the disease but also had the monopoly on the cure which he would sell to gullible subscribers. And if any of them stopped buying his expensive ‘Strengthening Tincture’ and ‘Prolific Powder’, they could always be blackmailed.

Onania caught on like wildfire, running to 80 editions, influencing thinkers such as Rousseau and Kant (who considered masturbation worse than suicide) and earning the ‘solitary vice’ a reputation as ‘the crack cocaine of sexuality’. Laqueur reproduces some choice illustrations taken from an 1875 American publication The Sexual System and its Derangements. They show a 16-year-old masturbator with slack mouth, lolling head, dishevelled clothes, bent wrists (natch) and crooked gait, and a 21-year-old abstainer, all spiffy and upright with bright eyes, brilliantined hair and splendid waxed moustache.

This is not to say that before 1712 masturbation was thought a good thing. In ancient times, it was considered an activity fit only for slaves and satyrs. In Chaucer, too, it was the last resort – he comically describes his Priapus ‘sceptre in honde’ – of those who couldn’t get the real thing. But rarely if ever was it considered a heinous crime. Pepys, for example, shows no guilt when recalling a quick one inspired by Her Majesty (‘to bed, sporting in my fancy with the Queen’); only when he does it in church, while thinking of a friend’s teenage daughter, ‘God forgive’.

So why did the hysterical ravings of a quack doctor so readily transform themselves into received medical and social opinion? Because, Laqueur persuasively and ingeniously argues, it was widely considered to be the dark flipside of the very qualities that made the 18th century great: the increased power of the individual, the birth of the imagination. Thinkers like Mandeville and later Adam Smith were beginning to recognise that the private vice of human desire could lead to the public virtue of a healthy economy. Yet checks and balances were needed if the system was not to go awry. The problem with masturbation was that it allowed no such checks and balances. It was the sexual equivalent of the South Sea Bubble.

Laqueur is Professor of History at Berkeley, California and one of the great joys of the book is its breadth of erudite reference: everything from the writings of Galen and Aristophanes to literary wanking puns (Master Bates appears in both Swift and Dickens). Another is its gentle humour and general lack (surprising from Berkeley) of PC cant. It’s a bit long, though, and probably not the sort of thing you’d pick up for fun. It will, it almost goes without saying, become the standard work on the subject.

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