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Masturbation: The History of a Great Terror…
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Masturbation: The History of a Great Terror (1998)

by Jean Stengers, Anne van Neck

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The authors seek to explore the process by which condemnation of masturbation changed from the moral to the medical; from one in which the danger was to one's soul to one in which the danger was to one's body and mind. Confining their attention to Europe and America, they locate this event very precisely at the beginning of the eighteenth century, and show how such a point of view was elaborated and maintained over the following two centuries until modern medicine and psychiatry came to accept that masturbation is really a pretty harmless activity. The authors express their belief that their argument shows "the force of ideas as well as an illustration of the role the individual can play within phenomena reputed to be collective." That is to say, the ideas did not depend on a social context for their success; indeed, the originating document that they believe sparked off the whole shift in attitude was simply a puff for quack medicine.

Therefore anyone expecting to find a general history of masturbation will be disappointed. There is nothing here about other cultures, or the attitudes of the Greeks and Romans, or masturbation in art. Indeed, although the story originates in London, the treatment is heavily reliant on sources emanating from mainland Europe, and while the situation in Britain is not ignored - "Eric" and Baden-Powell both figure in the story - it is mainland Europe that is the focus of attention, which is perhaps not surprising as the authors were academics at the University of Brussels and the book was originally published in French. It does mean, however, that the treatment feels circumscribed, giving a doctoral-thesis impression that artificial limits have been imposed to make the research do-able within the time available. To the authors' credit, however, is their recognition that female masturbation was deemed as much of a problem as that of males, and the description of the steps that were proposed in Paris in the middle of the nineteenth century to cure a five-year-old girl of the habit makes sickening reading.

Nevertheless, within their self-imposed limits the authors have provided what appears to the non-expert to be a reasonably thorough exploration of their subject, and have written it up in a lively fashion. They use extensive quotations to show the extent to which youths were terrorised by the descriptions of the fate that would await them if they persisted with their self-pollution, and show how these ideas were transmitted, picked up, and expanded upon by a succession of publications that owed little to contemporary mores and a great deal to the obsessions of those who wrote them. Masturbation could be invoked as the cause of almost any ailment, mental or physical, a theory that was very attractive to doctors for whom causes in general were almost a complete mystery and entirely speculative. Particularly entertaining are doctors' attempts to rationalise a belief in the dire medical consequences of losing a precious bodily fluid, namely semen, at a time when bleeding was deemed beneficial for virtually all ailments; and why the loss of semen did *not* lead to dire consequences if it occured during normal sexual intercourse.

The authors also make clear the gullibility of doctors and patients alike, and their willingness to be convinced by almost impossibly overblown and largely imaginary case-studies - a willingness that only dissipated during the latter part of the nineteenth century when more rational and objective methods of assessing evidence and drawing conclusions came to be generally accepted. In this respect, the authors could have explored a little the extent to which the change in attitudes towards masturbation were part of the more general divorce of religion and morals from scientific activity: this was, after all, the period that gave rise to the modern conception of the scientific specialist. In general, the authors do not explain just why masturbation had such a hold on the minds of an admittedly very small number of writers.

English readers will probably wish for a more thorough treatment of the situation in Anglophone countries. In England, particularly, with its penchant for boarding-schools where homo-eroticism was rife, and in which Games were more or less invented to dissipate the energies that might otherwise have been expended in masturbation, the distinction between the medical and moral effects is perhaps not so clear, particularly given that so many headmasters were men of the cloth. Nevertheless, there is much to enjoy and inform in this book which, as far as I know, is original in its scope and treatment. ( )
  franhigg | Aug 17, 2006 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Stengers, Jeanprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
van Neck, Annemain authorall editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0312224435, Hardcover)

Masturbation: The History of a Great Terror is a funny and frightening look at the attitudes towards masturbation throughout history and how they have affected the sex lives of anyone living and breathing today. The French biologist, Tissot, was the original spoil-sport who turned masturbation into the scourge of young men everywhere. Saying that a little self-induced pleasure caused wasting, insanity, and finally death, Tissot put the clamps (literally, in some cases) on the greatest relaxation inducer known to humankind. From Tissot's work to the punitive postures of the German courts to the surgical preventatives of continental Europe and England to the handbook of the Boy Scouts of America, spanking/wanking, yanking/choking, and other assorted diddling became the big no-no. Stengers and Van Neck give us the whole story and it isn't pretty, but it will fascinate everyone who agrees with Woody Allen when he said "Hey, don't knock masturbation! It's sex with someone I love."

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:23:29 -0400)

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