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Modern Inventions: According to Laqueur, the practice of masturbation began in 1712.

Pleasure Principles

History and the lost art of self-defilement

By Chip McAuley

Libertines today might call it "self-gratification." The very term, however, conjures up monkeys pleasuring themselves madly in between feces-tossing games. The ancients had different ideas, or at least some ancients did. Masturbation, from the Latin word for self-defilement, has a long and sordid history--some might call it a lost art.

In the Christian eye, masturbation has historically been considered a sin because it stems from lust and does not directly lead to procreation. The catechism of the Roman Catholic Church calls it "a gravely disordered act." To ancient Taoists, however, the concentration of chi--or life force--was vital and to be savored in the quest for immortality. (That said, the Taoists also had some kinky sex rituals to increase chi.) Masturbation was only avoided as to stem the loss of potential energy, and not considered "sinful." Ancient Buddhists felt it to be a waste of potential future life, a karmic spoiler, leaving the individual lost in the fog of samsara.

Of course, as most religions became dominated by the patriarchy, much of what has come to be known in the history of masturbation has been twisted toward the male perspective. Many religious males through the ages have seemed quite concerned about containing and maintaining their "essence." However, isn't there another side to the story of self-gratification throughout history? Perhaps we find it by going back further, to the Bacchanalian cults of ancient Greece, the Orphic mystery religions and beyond.

One need only find a well-thumbed copy of The Good Vibrations Guide to Sex, dubbed "the most complete sex manual ever written," for a synopsis of masturbation's history. Noting there was no specific injunction against the practice in the Bible and claiming that Taoist sexual techniques involve men controlling ejaculation and channeling semen "back up into the brain" (something that obviously must only be attempted with the assistance of a true master), the guide relates that masturbation was falsely considered to cause disease from the 16th century onward, peaking with crazed 19th-century "cures" for the practice, until Freud and Kinsey brought masturbation out of the closet in the 20th century. The practice is now recognized as "universal," assure the editors of Good Vibrations.

A more scholarly approach to self-gratification is Thomas W. Laqueur's highly readable 2003 book Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation. Laqueur, a professor of history at UC Berkeley, presents what is perhaps the most comprehensive analysis of the origins of self-gratification up to the present day's relative acceptance of what was once taboo.

In considering pure freedom vs. cultural norms, 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; 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." Laqueur then charts the rise of modern acceptance of masturbation in the '70s with the burgeoning feminist movement and then by gay rights activists as a practice in the "service of freedom, autonomy and rebellion against the status quo. . . . Far from signaling abjection, it came to represent, for the first time, the affirmation of something positive and different. Sex with oneself came to stand for autonomy, even autarky. It was not reprehensible or frightening, but liberating, benign and attractive."

Of course, there are still those meanies out there who say it'll send you straight to hell. However, by reading Laqueur's 500-page tome, you can engage in some high-end--even poetic--intellectual masturbation and give yourself a hand when you're through.

Modern psychology tells us it's OK if you do and OK if you don't. Masturbation even seems to have entered the mainstream. Pop princess-philosopher queen Britney Spears became the most vocal proponent of such self-gratification when she sang, "Another day without a lover / The more I come to understand the touch of my hand."

Now, there's an anthem for a new generation of libertines, especially as Brit is a Christian. There's a revolution in the making there somewhere.

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From the February 9-15, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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