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With the Hand

A History of Masturbation Mels van Driel Reaktion

Mels van Driel Reaktion

Long gone are the days when quivering schoolboys were told the sin of Onan would lead to hairy palms at best, blindness at worst. Despite this, Mels van Driel, a Dutch consultant urologist and sexologist, says: “Of all sexual actions, masturbation remains the most difficult one to discuss openly.” Really? Harder than swinging, autoerotic asphyxiation or getting jiggy with a goat? Has Van Driel brushed up against much popular culture of late? He clearly hasn’t watched The Inbetweeners, read early Roth or listened to Prince’s Darling Nikki (“I met her in a hotel lobby, masturbating with a magazine”). However, any conviction that we’re living in a sexually open society wavers when you remember that Joycelyn Elders, the former US surgeon general, was asked to resign by Bill Clinton in 1994 after saying of masturbation: “I think that it is part of human sexuality, and perhaps it should be taught.”

It is still professional suicide for anyone in a position of civic authority to suggest self-pleasuring should be integral to sex education. So Van Driel has taken up the cause. His book is part polemic, part social history, part anthology. I remain grateful to have read Anne Sexton’s moving poem The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator.

Van Driel draws heavily on Thomas W. Laqueur’s 2004 history Solitary Sex, which concludes that modern anti-masturbatory censure is rooted in the Enlightenment. Many in the classical world considered the practice beneficial. Marcus Aurelius even proposed that abstaining from self-pleasuring could cause fits and madness, while the Greek philosopher Diogenes rated masturbation as the acme of pleasure. Laqueur blames the 18th century British surgeon Thomas Marten for the dramatic change in public attitude. In 1712, Marten published the inflammatory pamphlet Onanaia, or The Heinous Sin of Self Pollution and all its Frightful Consequences. This propagated the notion that masturbation was dangerous “self-abuse”, practiced out of ignorance and laxity. His treatise became a sensation and was published all over Europe. Marten’s theories chimed with the Enlightenment belief that rational beings kept animal urges under control, and struck a chord with church moralists.

The Swiss Catholic physician Samuel-Auguste Tissot, an adviser to the Vatican, wrote his own influential medical treatise, which proposed that semen was an “essential oil” and its loss would cause untold harm. Many influential thinkers repeated his line; Immanuel Kant said that masturbation was worse than suicide. All of which makes you even prouder of the Scottish surgeon John Hunter (1728-1793), who wondered why, if masturbation was truly so bad for you, the young were so healthy. Hunter was more spot-on than he knew; recent studies show it can combat stress, lower blood pressure and help boost fertility.

You need nerves of steel to read all the terrible cures inflicted on suspected self-abusers for two centuries in the interests of their physical and moral welfare. Infibulation was one deterrent, and the German-American paediatrician Abraham Jacobi (1830-1919) advised that any child suspected of frotting should have the head of his penis delicately lacerated to induce ulcers. Meanwhile, in 1866, the gynaecologist Isaac Baker Brown carried out 48 clitoridectomies on children in his London Surgical Home. It took the horrors of the First World War to move medics’ minds from the supposed ills of masturbation.

A few persistent souls pressed on: between 1932 and 1956 the US authorities granted 33 patents for devices to prevent self-pleasuring, including an alarm that went off if a child’s bed shook. The fear and disapprobation continues to this day. A few years ago, toy manufacturer Mattel introduced a battery-powered, vibrating Harry Potter broomstick. Shortly afterwards, it was quietly taken off the market.

With the Hand is a curious book. The last third of the volume is really a list of the instances in philosophy, poetry, art and film where masturbation is cited or inspires a work. Van Driel’s prose can be over-excitable, the heavy-handed jokes can misfire and sometimes his drift is hard to follow. Sometimes he can seem like a sex-obsessed uncle, insisting every last detail of intimacy should be open, when you treasure a little privacy. Still, you can’t help admiring his determination to break the rusty shackles of the masturbation taboo.

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