Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Telling the truth about masturbation

Jamie Condliffe, contributor


Masturbation. Auto-eroticism. Solitary sex. There are plenty of words to describe the age-old practice of solo sexual gratification, yet it remains perhaps one of the most taboo physical acts of all.

Despite presumably being undertaken by most people at some stage in their life, society still turns away from masturbation; it declines to comment on the topic and, when it does, chooses to do so pejoratively.

As such, Mels van Driel?s With the Hand: A history of masturbation is a rare and welcome exploration of the topic. With a distinct lack of similar historical texts available, Van Driel attempts to cover all the bases, guiding the reader through a swift - if sometimes superficial - tour of the scientific, medical and religious aspects of the practice, along with a more cultural take through the study of art, literature and philosophy.

Unsurprisingly, the history of our medical understanding of masturbation makes for amusing - though at times disturbing - reading. Van Driel traces much misunderstanding back to the 18th-century physician Samuel-Auguste Tissot. A world-renowned doctor, Tissot produced one of few texts of the time about masturbation, despite knowing little about the topic. Sadly it was his fame, and not the document's content, that made it an influential work.

Tissot assumed that sperm was a form of concentrated blood, so release without the prospect of impregnation was not just wasteful but dangerous. His list of ailments afflicting those who masturbate - including, as you may expect, eye disease and blindness - fills pages. Fortunately, we now know Tissot's thinking was incorrect, and some evidence even points to masturbation reducing incidence of prostate cancer and restless leg syndrome in men, though that doesn?t do much to change the effect of his work on society.

Historical remedies brought about by these aged theories range from the hilarious to the gruesome. Van Driel points out that one British medical journal went so far as to suggest placing a bird cage over the genitals to remove temptation to masturbate, for instance, while his accounts of deliberate scarring, mutilation of even removal of the genitals - in both sexes - demand a strong stomach.

It's tempting to point to religious institutions for inspiring Tissot?s treatise and the ensuing madness, but Van Driel suggests otherwise. Counterintuitively, he concludes that it was the scholars of the Enlightenment - the first "men of science" - who pushed the concept of masturbation as self-abuse and self-pollution, rather than clerics.

Van Driel?s analysis of the history of medicine and cultural reactions surrounding masturbation holds together, but his forays into literature, art and entertainment feel shallow and hurried by comparison.

Such criticisms aside, Van Driel has produced an enthusiastic, amusing and eye-opening exploration of a topic which remains disappointingly taboo. Given the lack of previous exploratory literature about masturbation, it becomes the seminal text on the subject almost by default - but it deserves to hold that baton firmly on its own strengths.

Book information:
With the Hand: A history of masturbation by Mels van Driel
Reaktion Books

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