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  • Masturbation: The History of the Great Terror
  • Lisa Z. Sigel
Masturbation: The History of the Great Terror. By Jean Stengers and Ann Van Neck. Translated by Kathryn Hoffmann (New York: Palgrave, 2001. ix plus 232 pp.).

In Masturbation, Stengers and Van Neck document the fears about masturbation that reached crisis proportions during the nineteenth century. Although most historians are familiar with the exhortations against “onanism,” the volume will provide much new information for specialists and generalists alike, such as the relatively late emergence of that term, the debilities associated with it, and the medical model upon which those debilities were based.

Stengers and Van Neck demonstrate that religious authorities condemned the practice of masturbation in the Middle Ages despite medical opinion that saw an excess of sperm, rather than the release of it, as debilitating. Only in the eighteenth century, with the anonymous publication of Onania, did masturbation become a medical, rather than a moral, failing. This work gave the practice symptoms, a progression, and a terrifying prognosis and then hawked a cure as did most quack medical pamphlets of the day. (The authors do a good job of proving the quackery of the pamphlet and of the writer’s science.) The popularity of Onania sparked ever-expanding editions and imitations; anti-masturbation ideas permeated society, and Enlightenment writers such as Voltaire and Rousseau further popularized the terrifying consequences of the act. Even the great doctors of the eighteenth century like Tissot began to see masturbation as causal in illness and proceeded to treat it as a real and deadly ailment. Trips to the brothel and/or early marriage became necessary to help boys avoid the terrifying consequences of masturbation that included gonorrhea, exhaustion, enervation, and death. Stengers and Van Neck provide fascinating accounts of the ways that early mis-readings of the Bible provided anti-masturbatory moralists with evidence and the ways that faulty scientific methods served to confirm medical fears.

By the nineteenth century, masturbation supposedly robbed youth of their vital energies, debilitated the body, caused insanity, and eventually led to death. Because masturbation had such dreadful consequences, educators, doctors, and parents needed to terrify and sometimes torture children for their own good. Remedies included providing gruesome illustrations, lectures, and exhortations and proceeded from the psychological to the physical including tying children’s hands down at night, maintaining careful regimens of exercise, bland food, and exhaustion, and providing constant supervision. In cases where the child continued to masturbate, brutalities like clitoridectomy, penis piercing, and spiked penis sheaths became warranted.

Stengers and Van Neck follow the illness to its fairly abrupt demise; they liken the shift to finally seeing the emperor without clothes as doctors began to doubt masturbation as a cause of illness at the turn of the twentieth century. Once doubt set in, scientists began to accumulate statistics about the practice, finding that a large minority and then a large majority of people masturbated. The implications were clear: if most people masturbated and did not experience insanity, debility, and early death, then masturbation could not be held accountable to the etiology that had been assigned it. Masturbation quickly lost its hold over the medical community, and parents followed in making masturbation an ordinary part of [End Page 1065] first childhood and then human sexuality. The Church tried to maintain its anti-masturbatory stance in the latter part of the twentieth century but few were listening. A small proportion of respondents to questionnaires still think that masturbation can be harmful, but most people seem to have quickly absorbed the new ideals of masturbation’s normality.

The strengths of this book are also its weaknesses: its attempt to show a cycle of an emerging problem, a culmination, and a retreat create a story that is terse, dramatic, and demonstrative of fallacies about sexuality. Stengers and Van Neck open their volume with the crisis in full swing to play up the dramatic tension and then return to the origin of the great terror before following its progression until today. The organization of the book works well as an example of how to chart the history of an idea without losing a narrative thread. However, the drama of the...

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