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Journal of the History of Sexuality 12.3 (2003) 345-364

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Friction of the Genitals and Secularization of Morality

Patrick Singy
University of Chicago


IN THE VOLUMINOUS and ever-growing scholarship on the history of sexuality, a fair portion deals in one way or another, explicitly or implicitly, with the complex issue of the secularization of morality. Whether one is interested in the relation of sodomy to homosexuality or of theological perversion to psychiatric perversion, for instance, the question of the transfer of a sexual practice from a theological sphere to a scientific discourse is raised—or at least should be raised. In this essay I will tackle this question by focusing on one important example from the history of sexuality: masturbation.

Historians usually agree that the pivotal event in the secularization of masturbation was the anonymous Onania; or, The Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution, and All Its Frightful Consequences, in both Sexes, Consider'd (1716). 1 It is this book, we are told, that is responsible for the transformation of the sinful practice into a medical and secular issue. In what is the most recent and comprehensive work on the subject, Thomas Laqueur follows the interpretation of most historians when he holds that "there is one indisputable novelty [with the publication of Onania]: the claim that masturbation per se makes those who do it sick unto death. Its fundamental evil was visited, first and foremost, in the body, and anything that wreaked such [End Page 345] havoc in the flesh had to be very bad indeed. A new, secular morality was thus forged, articulated, amplified, and legitimated in the language of medicine." 2 It is precisely this conclusion that I aim at overturning. 3

My essay has both a historical and a methodological purpose. I want to show that it is historically inaccurate to read Onania as participating in the secularization of morality: it was the spectacular if somewhat clumsy swan song of the weakened Christian discourse of the flesh rather than the starting point of a new secular tradition. And I will proceed with my argument both by digging up the methodological weaknesses implicit in the dominant scholarship on the history of masturbation and by offering what I think is a more appropriate methodology for the study of the secularization of morality.

In order to make my case I will compare Onania with that other essential milestone of the history of masturbation, Samuel Auguste Tissot's L'Onanisme: Dissertation sur les maladies produites par la masturbation (1760). The contrast of Onania with L'Onanisme constitutes a particularly interesting methodological case study. It illustrates how a great similarity at the level of words and sentences is compatible with a total discrepancy at the level of concepts and statements. As we will see, these two books have in common the condemnation of masturbation on theological grounds (it is a sin) and on medical grounds (it causes disease). Onania puts more weight on the religious side of the balance, while L'Onanisme insists above all on the pathological consequences of masturbation, but theological and medical terms are present in each text. It is because both mention the physical diseases caused by masturbation that both are said to be "part of a common trend in the Enlightenment: the secularization and medicalization of morality." 4 However, I argue that the lumping together of these two books is the consequence of a methodology limited to a work of lexical analysis. Against this view, which treats concepts like words and [End Page 346] statements like sentences and which assumes that two lexically identical sentences are necessarily equivalent, I defend the necessity to consider the conceptual structures of texts. At the level of concepts and statements, Onania and L'Onanisme will appear to be categorically different, with only L'Onanisme inscribing masturbation into a secular discourse, even though both books claim that masturbation causes disease. 5

My text is organized into four parts, evolving from the more concrete and particular to the more methodological and general. The first part is concerned with...


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