Original Paper

Sexuality & Culture

, Volume 16, Issue 3, pp 306-320

First online:

Masculinity, Pornography, and the History of Masturbation

  • Steve GarlickAffiliated withDepartment of Sociology, University of Victoria Email author 

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This article takes as its starting point the observation that contemporary pornography is, in a significant sense, about masturbation. This connection has been largely ignored in recent research on pornography. Yet, if it is reasonable to posit that the heritage bequeathed by three centuries of concern over masturbation has not been entirely dispelled, then a question presents itself: What can an examination of the history of masturbation tell us about the digital pornography that circulates around the internet today? This article seeks to provide an answer to this question via a genealogical rereading of the history of masturbation from the perspective of the present. It suggests that the campaign against masturbation in the eighteenth- and nineteenth centuries was characterized by a heteronormative framing that situated the practice as a threat not only to the social order, but also to a natural order presumed to underlie and ground human social relations. In this context, masturbation was especially problematic for boys and men as it represented a loss of control over (their own) nature, thereby undermining their masculine status. Ultimately, the article argues that a focus on the history of masturbation allows us to appreciate the extent to which it is central to the way in which masculinity is produced via pornography.


Masculinity Masturbation Sexuality History Pornography Heteronormativity