Masculinity, Pornography, and the History of Masturbation
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- Garlick, S. Sexuality & Culture (2012) 16: 306. doi:10.1007/s12119-011-9125-y
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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.
“Granted that this is the deepest and strongest of all our world evils, that which is the most firmly based on the original forces of our nature, and that part of our nature which has shown the deepest disorder—does not all this point to some great issue?” (Hopkins 1899: 216).
Ellice Hopkins, a central figure in the late-nineteenth-century purity movement, could not bring herself even to name the evil from which she exhorted mothers to protect their sons. Indeed, despite significant shifts in the intervening century, including growing critical attention to ‘pornification’ or the ‘sexualization of culture’ (Paasonen et al.2007; Attwood 2009), it can be said that masturbation still remains largely an unspoken presence in current debates around sexuality (Gudelunas 2005). The proliferation of new and old pornographies on the internet in recent years has sparked a range of responses veering from condemnation (Jensen 2007; Dines 2010; Walter 2010) to more diverse or positive explorations of new forms of sexual subjectivity within pornographic cultures (Lillie 2002; Jacobs 2007; Attwood 2010). Yet, with few exceptions (Tuck 2003; Strager 2003; Aydemir 2007; Tuck 2009), there has been a paucity of critical reflection on the relation of masturbation to contemporary pornography. Even Linda Williams’ (1999) groundbreaking study of hard-core porn has little to say on the topic. It may be that the connection seems too obvious. Yes, porn is for masturbation; but so what?
This article takes as its starting point the observation that contemporary pornography is, in a significant sense, about masturbation. Consider the fact that the conventions of porn prescribe that the dénouement of the action is accomplished via an act of masturbation, often known as the ‘money shot’. Ejaculation does not usually occur within another body, but in a controlled release onto it. In its ability to facilitate this norm, the act of masturbation is vital to the stories that the majority of pornographic texts tell us. While the prevalence of this manually-assisted climax is undoubtedly determined by a panoply of conscious and unconscious motivations, what of its implications? This article is grounded in the belief that it is important to think through the meanings, anxieties, and forces that accompany this act that has been for so long invested with cultural and economic significance. In particular, I argue that masturbation is central to the way in which masculinity is produced via pornography.
In recent years, historians have put considerable effort into the task of deciphering the construction of masturbation as a peculiarly modern concern. The most comprehensive example of this work is Thomas Laqueur’s (2003) Solitary Sex, which presents a provocative argument about the centrality of masturbation to modern forms of subjectivity. More generally, the puzzle of why it was that masturbation suddenly became the repository of all manner of fears about the health of both the individual and society in early eighteenth century Europe has now generated a considerable body of scholarship. If it is reasonable to posit that the heritage bequeathed by three centuries of concern over masturbation has not been entirely dispelled by the more ‘liberated’ world of networked digital pornography, then a series of questions present themselves. What is the significance of the fact that contemporary pornography revolves around men’s masturbation? What can an examination of the history of masturbation tell us about the workings of the pornographies that circulate around the internet today? Are similar anxieties and forces at work today, and to what effect?
In what follows, I attempt to provide some answers to these questions via a genealogical rereading of the history of masturbation from the perspective of the present (Foucault 1998). After first engaging in a critical review of recent literature on this topic, I turn to closer examinations of three texts that formed part of the anti-masturbation movement of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Beginning with one of the key works in this tradition—Samuel Tissot’s (1766) Onanism—and proceeding by way of analysis of the nineteenth-century phrenologist O.S. Fowler’s (1856) Amativeness, and finally Hopkins’ (1899) The Power of Womanhood: Or, Mothers and Sons. I wish to draw attention to certain ideas and themes that tie these texts together, and which can be seen to still inform the contemporary significance of masturbation. In particular, I suggest that the anti-masturbation campaign 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. Finally, the article offers some brief considerations on the present, where I argue that a focus on masturbation allows us to appreciate the extent to which representations of men’s bodies in pornography are crucial sites for the production of masculinity via a struggle for control over nature.
Imagination, Medicine, and Nature
A significant body of historical scholarship on masturbation has emerged over the past 20 years. This literature attempts to answer the question of why, after centuries of relative inattention, masturbation suddenly became a prominent social issue and suffered harsh condemnation in the early eighteenth century and for the following two centuries. Within the framework of medical knowledge at the time, masturbation was a plausible cause of the unknown diseases that afflicted people in significant numbers, but this was also true of earlier eras. What was it about this moment in history that sparked such concern over a practice that was formerly little noticed? The answers given generally revolve around several factors—the interests of medical doctors in using the issue to promote their professional standing, the decline of religious authority in favour of appeals to science and Nature, and concerns over the development of individualism in the context of a developing capitalist society—which together situate anti-masturbation discourses as dense signifiers of economic and social changes.
The panic over masturbation can be seen as an element in the formation of modern, secular societies. For Laqueur, masturbation is problematic in the eyes of Enlightenment moralists because it is ‘unnatural’ in several senses: it is secret and private, rather than sociable; it is a product of the imagination and has no real object of desire; and it is excessive, going beyond natural limits (2003: 210). At the heart of these objections to the unnaturalness of solitary sex are widespread anxieties over commercial culture, individualism, and civil society. Masturbation, with its excessive and private desires, can be seen to represent deeper concerns about the fate of the social good within the emerging capitalist consumer society. Laqueur argues that masturbatory desire, unbounded and running out of control, conjures up underlying fears about social disorder and the issue of where the private desires of the individual might lead. In this sense, masturbation threatens modern society with moral dissolution.
Laqueur’s argument is insightful and holds much force. Nevertheless, there are other relevant considerations. In particular, Laqueur gives little thought to the issue of how the condemnation heaped upon masturbation fits in with the social construction of heterosexuality in the eighteenth century. The exception is a brief section that discusses Randolph Trumbach’s (1998) assertion that the censure of masturbation goes along with a crackdown on sodomy as part of a new heteronormative economy of sexual pleasure. For Trumbach, heterosexuality and homosexuality are socially constructed aspects of an increasingly dichotomous gender system. Laqueur, however, claims that this position cannot explain why solitary vice is now more significant than in previous crackdowns on sodomitical behaviour throughout Western history. Yet, he doesn’t consider what is distinctive about the period under discussion—much of which is in fact intimated in his own earlier work on the emergence of a dualistic ontology of sex, or the ‘two-sex model’ (Laqueur 1990). Laqueur asserts that sodomy, and by extension heteronormativity, has no special place in relation to masturbation, as the latter is associated ‘not only with sodomy but with every other sort of sexual and moral deviance as well’ (2003: 267). This neglects, however, the connections between an emergent dualistic (hetero)sexual difference, heteronormativity, and the authority of a natural order, which effectively frames all forms of transgression in the period. In this context, as Anna Clark notes, the role of the imagination in masturbation not only threatened sociability, it evoked fears of ‘sodomy between boys and tribadism between girls, harming their procreative mission’ (2008: 107). What is crucial here is not so much a fear of homosexuality per se, but the potential for self-absorbed masturbation (as with other forms of sexual ‘deviance’) to disrupt the marriage of the two sexes as telos of both natural and social orders.
The ‘unnaturalness’ of masturbation can be connected to its ambiguous sexual character. Its condemnation in terms of excess alludes to the waywardness and wastefulness of nature, and to its potential transgression of heterosexual ends. As Alexander Cook (2009) has shown, sensual pleasures were valorized during the Enlightenment, but at the same time there was a concerted effort to circumscribe the proper type of pleasure that should be allowed. It wasn’t simply that masturbation lacked a real object of desire; rather, it lacked a natural object that would ground it in a secure (hetero)sexual order taken to guarantee the reproduction of society. This concern that sexual activity should be grounded in a natural order of things paradoxically reflects the fact that nature was anything but a stable concept at this time. Particularly in the latter half of the eighteenth century, ideas about nature were changing as proto-evolutionary thinking began to emerge. This is obliquely documented in shifting concerns over masturbation. Whereas Enlightenment-era thinkers such as Rousseau and Condillac worried that the solitary sexual imagination stimulated by the new commercial society would corrupt the timeless order of nature, the nineteenth century saw the rise of concerns that masturbation was a gateway to the unleashing of untamed natural desires that would disrupt the social order (Rosario 1995).
The body, as manifestation of nature within society, was a primary signifier of this shift. For example, Michael Stolberg (2000) points out that an altered notion of the body was crucial to the success of the anti-masturbation campaign. While Stolberg acknowledges the role of numerous factors in this process, he insists that a new medical conception of the body was crucial in positioning it as more susceptible to damage from masturbatory exertions. This was because the eighteenth century saw the emergence of a ‘new’ body —‘a body which was more self-contained, whose physical boundaries were more sharply defined, and whose fibres and nerves guaranteed its inner cohesion and strength’ (Stolberg 2000: 19). Excretions were thus more troubling and, importantly, this meant that masturbation was increasingly incompatible with men’s bodies, which were normatively strong and integral. As Stolberg puts it, ‘masturbation was the “unmanly vice” par excellence. The male masturbator’s flabbiness, softness, incontinence, and irritability made his body increasingly similar to that of a woman’ (2000: 10–11). This insight is left undeveloped in Stolberg’s work, however, as he provides little analysis of the relationship between men, masculinity, and masturbation.
Indeed, connections between gender and masturbation are rarely analyzed in depth in the historical literature, even though they become more apparent as we move into the nineteenth century with its increasingly severe prohibitions against masturbation. It is well established that self-control is central to the ideals of masculinity that emerged at this time and, as documented in Michael Kimmel’s history of American manhood, ‘This mania for self-control focused… on sexual appetites and how to avoid the temptation of masturbation’ (1996: 45). Similarly, Lesley Hall claims that attitudes concerning masturbation were tied up with notions of masculinity in late nineteenth-century Great Britain: ‘A “real man” had sexual urges, or at least the potential for them; however, a true man was able to control these’ (1992: 375). Moreover, Alan Hunt provides further nuance in arguing that the anti-masturbation panic was mainly concerned with middle- and upper-class young men whose ‘habits of indulgence in sensual pleasure [would] cause the loss of self-control’ (1998: 589). He further points to a remarkable consistency in prescribed ‘cures’ for masturbation over the years, which all revolve around ‘heightening the self-consciousness of the techniques of self-control’ (1998: 601).
It should be noted here that these fears over ‘self-control’ are, in an important sense, focused on the control of nature in the form of men’s bodies. This is also registered in nineteenth-century medical practice, particularly in its concern with ‘spermatorrhoea’ or involuntary seminal loss. Elizabeth Stephens (2009) points out that masturbation was considered a primary cause of spermatorrhoea—an invented condition that drew on a long history of association between seminal incontinence, the lack of self-control, and failed masculinity. Similarly, a shift in the attitude of the medical sciences towards the male body is at the heart of Robert Darby’s (2005) study on the rise of circumcision in English-speaking countries during the nineteenth century. Darby shows how the belief that men’s sexual drives needed to be brought under control underlay medical objections to masturbation, and how the latter were crucial in the rise of circumcision as a presumed deterrent. He sums up the spirit of the times in his comment that, ‘The central aim of nineteenth-century sexual medicine was to control and regulate the penis, to make it more predictable and better behaved’ (2005: 14).
What is important to recognize, I suggest, is that this pervasive demand for control over men’s bodies, and especially for self-control as a masculine project, which emerges out of the anti-masturbation campaigns is essentially a struggle for control over nature. In much the same way that heteronormativity and dualistic gender or (hetero)sexual categories expressed a desire to impose order upon nature in the eighteenth century, the taming of sexual drives via masculine self-control attempts to enact a natural order in which social relations can be more securely grounded. Masturbation represents the spectre of social dissolution not merely because it is an excess of the imagination and privatized desires, but because it also threatens the putative natural foundations of society as they are embodied in sexual desires. More specifically, it is a problem for men—masturbation is practice in which men confront nature and seek to dominate it, yet are continually threatened with losing control in the process. The following section offers rereadings of three anti-masturbation tracts with the intention of explicating this theme and demonstrating its continued relevance.
Masculinity, Heterosexuality, and Masturbation
Samuel Tissot’s (1766) Onanism is considered by many commentators to be the most influential text in the spread of the anti-masturbation campaign. While the earlier, anonymously published Onania had been crucial in popularizing the idea that masturbation has deleterious consequences for one’s health, it was Tissot’s renown throughout Europe as a prominent Swiss doctor and Fellow of the Royal Society of London that gave the imprimatur of medical science to the notion of post-masturbatory disease. Onanism, first published in 1760, was translated into all the major European languages and quickly established Tissot as the leading authority on the subject. Its success and wide dispersal played a key role in the process of consolidating the belief within the medical profession that masturbation was a major problem (Stengers and van Neck 2001; Laqueur 2003: 40).
While is has often been noted that women’s sexuality emerged as a site of medical concern in the eighteenth century (Rosario 1995), the first point to notice about Onanism is that it is both addressed to men and focused on the problems that masturbation causes for men. There is one, short section entitled ‘The Effects of Masturbation Among Women’, which does not so much contradict this bias as acknowledge its presence throughout the rest of the book. Indeed, this section itself struggles to maintain a focus on women, although it does allow that they are more often afflicted by ‘the indifference which this infamous practice leaves for the lawful pleasures’ (1766: 43). Even when Tissot attempts to mark out the bounds of a specific female concern with ‘clitorical pollution’ he seems ineluctably drawn back to the masculine, writing that: ‘Nature has been pleased to give some women a semi-resemblance to man… The supernatural size of this part which is naturally very small… produces all the miracle, and the shameful abuse of this part, all the evil’ (1766: 46). The frame of heteronormativity appears as he directly links this evil with women who [seize] upon the functions of virility’ and ‘have been known to love girls with as much fondness as ever did the most passionate of men’ (1766: 46–47).
The accidents to which women are liable are accounted for upon the same principles as those of men. The humour which they lose being of more or less value, and not so elaborate as the sperm of man, its loss does not perhaps weaken so soon; but when they are guilty of excess, their nervous system being weaker than our’s, and naturally more subject to spasms, the accidents which arise therefrom are more violent (1766: 71).
What is of interest here is not so much the contents of Tissot’s claim, but its mode of address. ‘Our’ nervous system is stronger than ‘their’ nervous system. The passage makes apparent what is assumed throughout—that this is a discourse conducted among men and about men. As such, despite the medical logic that dictates a parallel concern with women’s masturbation, Tissot’s work effectively becomes a discourse on masculine sexuality. His concern is animated by the belief that masturbation robs men of that which makes them men. To understand why, we need to consider his answer to the question of what is lost via seminal emission, and why that loss is all the greater if experienced in an ‘unnatural’ manner.
Although he is a man of modern science, Tissot operates within the general framework of a humoural theory of the body inherited from the ancient Greeks, whom he cites to provide authority for his position. Within this paradigm, health is determined by the balance of fluids within the body and, for Tissot, semen carries the pure and vital essence of the (male) body excreted by all its humours. His claim is that, ‘the semen is an active liquor, the presence of which produces effects necessary to the play of the organs, which ceases upon its evacuation; for which reason it is a liquor, the superfluous emission whereof, is doubly injurious’ (1766: 53). As Patrick Singy (2003) points out, Onanism is organized around a principle of ‘bodily need’, which provides the criterion for determining whether seminal emissions are healthy or harmful. Semen is not principally produced in order to be expelled from the body. On the contrary, for Tissot, the seminal liquor is temporarily separated out in the testicles primarily so that it may ‘acquire in those reservoirs a degree of perfection that qualifies them for fresh functions, when they return to the mass of humours’ (1766: 54). As semen is absorbed back into the body it reinvigorates the whole man. The danger of masturbation is that it threatens to upset the natural balance.
It is not, however, merely the excessive emission of semen that is at stake here. As Laqueur (2003) argues, the faculty of imagination is central to the problem. Tissot provides clarification of the source of the problem: ‘It is imagination, habit, and not nature, that importune [masturbators]. They drain nature both of that which is necessary, and also of that which she herself would have taken care to dispose of’ (Tissot 1766: 74). Heterosexual coitus, on the other hand, does not have this deleterious effect because there is a reciprocal exchange of ‘a very subtle humour’ that bodies perspire and admit when engaging in such relations (1766: 82–83). A man’s body attains its strength through this exchange with women. Hence, an addiction to women is to be preferred to an addiction to the solitary vice. The former brings a more healthy form of pleasure; it is a ‘joy’ that ‘aids digestion, animates circulation, accelerates all the functions, restores strength and supports it’ (1766: 83). Thus, it is a matter of sustaining a putative order of nature and of maintaining equilibrium. Again, a heteronormative frame gives shape to this conception of (masculine) health. As Tissot sums it up: ‘In this case, the loss is compensated by the gain. In that of masturbation, the masturbator loses and receives nothing’ (1766: 83). Physical intercourse sustains men and negates the potentially damaging effects of wayward sexual thoughts and fantasies by attaching them to women’s bodies.
Ultimately, a natural economy of sexual exchange governs the health of the male body. We see this clearly when Tissot finally turns to the topic of a cure for post-masturbatory illnesses. Rather than trying to sell his readers on commercial tonics or medicines, he recommends a healthy diet and exercise because ‘ailments and remedies are nothing more than instruments which nature uses to support herself, repair her losses, and remove those irregularities which happen in the body’ (1766: 100). Men’s bodies are part of a natural reproductive economy, and the coherence of masculine identity demands that the natural order be restored.
Like Tissot, O.S. Fowler was a man of science—phrenology, to be precise. Born in New York in 1809, and well established as a leading phrenologist and popular science writer in the United States by mid-century, Fowler’s writings on sexuality and masturbation reflect both the translation of European ideas into the American context and the spread of post-masturbatory disease as conventional wisdom. His most comprehensive statement on masturbation is contained in Amativeness: Or Evils and Remedies of Excessive and Perverted Sexuality (1856), which was published as a supplement to his popular book Love and Parentage, Applied to the Improvement of Offspring (1844), and is said to have sold over half a million copies (Laqueur 2003: 46). In the phrenological lexicon, ‘amativeness’ referred to that part of the brain that governed sexual character and function. A diagram in the opening pages of the book shows this ‘organ’ to be located at the very back and bottom of the brain, as if forming the base of the other 36 functions displayed.
Although ideas about nature had been changing throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, we find only fragmentary evidence of such shifts in Fowler’s text. He is insistent that there is a stable natural order of life, along with natural laws that must be obeyed, yet these claims are now situated in relation to the temporality of nature and concerns over the degeneration of ‘our race’. Phrenology alone, according to Fowler, is able to understand the ‘primitive constitution’ of human being, and thus provides a guide to living in harmony with nature. Specifically, the problem is that, ‘the sexual function… was instituted to perpetuate our race, but has been perverted to a depraved use, more, probably, than any other faculty, and occasioned more misery’ (1856: v). Such sensual perversions are wide-ranging and include licentiousness, abortion, and prostitution, yet ‘its worst, because most common, form remains untold. We refer to SELF-ABUSE’ (1856: 12). It is the worst perversion because there is ‘the substitution of an imaginary partner for a real one’, thus making it a ‘more unnatural and effectual violation of nature’s laws’ (1856: 48). Again, the authority of a natural order based on a heterosexual economy of exchange underlies the claim that masturbation is especially deleterious. Indeed, Fowler’s argument in this regard appears to depend on the assumption that solitary sex inevitably leads to excess in the absence of the ‘native modesty’ that is stimulated by ‘the presence of the other sex’ (1856: 49). Only when exercised under the aegis of ‘love & parentage’ does sexual expression achieve its proper balance.
The discussion throughout the book makes it clear that this problem primarily afflicts boys and men. Although Fowler maintains a formal parallel between the effects of masturbation on men and women, insofar as he claims that it injures health, exhausts the body, and enfeebles the mind of both sexes, women remain an afterthought throughout the text. He cites approvingly a claim attributed to a medical doctor that ‘sturdy manhood, in all its vigour, loses its energy and bends under the too frequent expenditure of this important secretion’ (1856: 23). While concerns over female masturbation were present in the nineteenth century, as physicians understood it to be incompatible with women’s natural desires for motherhood and marriage (Mason 2008), Fowler’s work expresses the dominant sentiment that this was an affliction that threatened the ability of men to realize their inherent masculine nature. Gender is clearly at stake insofar as ‘whatever impairs the physical sexuality, thereby impairs the mental sexuality’; hence, for Fowler, ‘whoever gives way to this passion proportionally impairs his manhood’ (1856: 28). As with Tissot’s physiology, the rationale for Fowler’s concern is based on a view of the male body wherein the manufacture of semen to replace that which is lost draws vital energy away from the remainder of the body’s organs. Numerous examples of the dire consequences that follow for young men are provided to the readers of Amativeness. As evidence, Fowler reproduces cases drawn from medical texts that describe the severe effects of masturbation; for example, ‘the wretched victim drags out a miserable existence, till, superannuated, even before he had time to arrive at man’s estate, with a mind often debilitated even to a state of idiotism, his worthless body tumbles into the grave’ (1856: 32). The threat to a natural condition of manhood is clear, the diminished body cannot claim that which rightfully belongs to it.
Importantly, however, the diagnosis of post-masturbatory illness does not merely depend on the medical profession. As a phrenologist, one of the distinctive features of Fowler’s work is his claim that there are visible signs of this evil that may be read by the trained eye. What is most remarkable about the list of signs that follows, however, is their prosaic ordinariness. Readers are instructed, for example, that, ‘The solitary libertine… avoids meeting the glances of females, yet steals every opportunity to look at them’ (1856: 51). Indeed, Fowler constructs a list of the signs of masturbation that necessarily spreads suspicion far and wide. On this account a man might fall under suspicion if compelled to work long hours—for ‘if his indulgence has been carried very far, he will have black and blue semi-circles under his eyes, and also look as if worn out’ (1856: 52)—or if awkward in social interactions—‘He will also have a certain quickness yet indecision of manner…The same incoherence will characterize his expressions’ (1856: 52). Indeed, any manifest lack of masculine traits may be taken as a sign of having indulged in self-abuse: ‘Little things will agitate and fluster [the private sensualist]. Nor will he be prompt, or resolute, or bold, or forcible’ (1856: 52). The effect is to construct masculinity as the outward performance of competence, as the ability to give off signs of being in control, in order to banish suspicion of sexual abnormality. In this way, Fowler’s text on masturbation illustrates Kimmel’s (1996) claim that masculinity became a matter of anxious homosocial performance in the nineteenth century. No longer securely grounded in traditional social roles, men were compelled to perform masculinity with the perpetual risk of failure hanging over them. Or, as Fowler puts it: ‘Let every sensualist, especially private libertine, remember, that he is marked and known, and read by all men who have eyes and know how to use them’ (1856: 53). Moreover, his text reveals how masculinity is constructed through bringing sexual desires under control, yet while simultaneously maintaining the illusion that such control is in fact the product of a natural order that is independent of human influence.
The final and related aspect of Fowler’s text that I wish to touch on here concerns the way in which it manages the tensions that arise between religious and scientific discourses on masturbation. The former appear throughout Amativeness, and Fowler emphasizes that masturbation is a sin, as well as being a crime against natural law. Yet, it is ultimately scientific knowledge of nature that takes precedence. Masturbation is described as evidence ‘of mental derangement induced by physical disorder. Its subjects are sinful, but they are also sick, and their physical derangement occasions their moral dereliction’ (1856: 70). Thus, in the context of an emerging awareness of change in the natural world, if there is blame to be attributed for this problem it can only lie in man’s culpability for the degeneration of his nature. Fowler attempts to reconcile his religious faith with his science by stating that his aim is ‘to aid in rendering after generations better by nature—more intellectual, more pure and holy in soul’ (1856: 38). Time, history, and change are acknowledged only as a fall from an original state of natural order. Masturbation expresses a force of nature, but this is only insofar as the latter has been artificially stimulated and cast into disorder. Again, an implicit discourse of heteronormativity is evoked in order to tame nature: ‘The one ultimate end designed to be secured by this propensity, is offspring…To exercise it merely for its own sake… is a violation of its laws, and must necessarily subject the offender to suffering’ (1856: 67). Hence, when Fowler turns to the topic of remedies and prevention, his science appeals to nature as the agent of God and morality. As was the case with Tissot, human action is required only ‘to give to Nature, your great physician, an opportunity to repair the breach’ (1856: 57). Repair re-establishes the natural order of gendered heterosexuality that is represented by men’s self-control.
The Power of Womanhood. Or, Mothers and Sons
Ellice Hopkins was one of the most prominent activists in the social or moral ‘purity’ movement of the late nineteenth century. Her advocacy was focused on overturning the double-standard that prescribed chastity and purity only for women. Evangelical in outlook and middle class in social standing, Hopkins was well known as a prolific author and an energetic campaigner for men’s sexual restraint, the elimination of prostitution, and the improvement of working-class morals. In contrast to Tissot and Fowler, Hopkins approaches men’s sexual vices from a perspective that explicitly prioritizes Christianity as ultimate authority. Furthermore, two other features of her text mark important differences in her approach. First, she is a woman writing for other women about men. The preface announces her intention to provide ‘some service to the educated mothers of England and America’ (1899: iii). This situates her analysis of men’s sexuality as one that is less overtly concerned with sustaining the performance of masculinity than with its consequences. Secondly, although masturbation lies at the conceptual centre of The Power of Womanhood, she does not actually use the word itself. Instead, it is merely alluded to via the use of terms such as ‘vice’ and ‘evil’. While this is not unusual for the period, it has significant consequences. As Hunt points out in relation to late-Victorian purity literature: ‘The discursive significance of euphemism as a trope was that it made possible both to speak the impossible and to suggest linkage to other fields of moralized behaviour’ (1998: 586–587). In this way, the spectre of masturbation attains a reach beyond particular sites and is implicated in an amorphous threat to the foundations of life and society.
In setting out her ‘First Principles’, Hopkins claims that ‘the evil which we are now considering is no disease of the extremities, but a disease at the very heart of life’ (1899: 26). The precise character of this evil is undefined, but the reader is left in no doubt that it is manifest in men’s sexual expression. At first it seems as though the adoption of celibacy until marriage—thereby preserving women’s purity via the institution of men’s purity—will banish the unnamed evil. Yet, Hopkins clarifies: ‘That a celibate life, combined with rich feeding, French novels, and low thinking, does a great deal of physical harm goes almost without saying’ (1899: 34). Almost unsaid, the evil lies in wait, as Hopkins relies upon almost two centuries of writing on masturbation to conjure up fears of ‘true manliness’ corrupted.
Despite privileging Christian morality, natural law is a central, although ambiguous, source of authority in Hopkins’ text. Nature is both cause and solution to the problem at hand. She claims that the causes of moral problems ‘often lie deep within human nature’ (1899: 39), yet simultaneously she appeals to a natural order that determines what is right and proper in its own sphere. The rational mind must exert control over the sensuous body; for ‘a healthy animal is just what man cannot be except by being a true and high-minded man, all his conscious energies taken up and absorbed on a higher plane, with none left over to filter down and disorder the animal instincts’ (1899: 46). In this regard, Hopkins’ critique of men’s sexual practices draws on the normative value of self-control to masculinity and might even be said to play to men’s anxieties: ‘The true function of man’s will is… to rule his instincts and appetites according to those higher interests’ (1899: 47). Here, natural forces appear to disrupt the moral order. At the same time, however, Hopkins also contends that ‘man’s true nature [is] to love the woman, and, if needs be, to give himself for her’; almost paradoxically, she exhorts mothers to direct their efforts towards training their sons ‘to recognize and strengthen this true nature of man’ (1899: 108). It is an underlying heterosexual impulse that must be fostered in order that it may establish the authority of natural order over human social relations.
The great danger that threatens to corrupt the true nature of manliness is to be found within schools. Boarding schools, in particular, are of concern to Hopkins because ‘we were never intended to pile a lot of boys together without girls and largely without any feminine influence whatever. To do so is to insure moral disorder’ (1899: 70). Natural order is defied, and disorder produced, when evil is secretly allowed to circulate without the restriction of (hetero)sexual difference. The result is `the self-defilement which taints the moral nature and stimulates the lower nature into unhealthy and abnormal activity’ (1899: 71–72). This is the closest that Hopkins comes to naming the object of her attention, or to making it clear that the threat of masturbation concerns the undoing of masculine (self-)control over nature. Again, however, this dominance over nature is itself something that is posited as natural law. Mothers are directed to guard their boys `from impure knowledge being thrust upon him before nature has developed the instincts of manhood’ (1899: 79). This is a recurrent argument throughout the history of writing on masturbation. Here, at the turn of the twentieth century, Hopkins evokes the understanding of nature and society popularized by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1979) some 150 years earlier.
It would seem that religious morality is required in order to allow nature the time to develop its natural functioning. Yet, even this belief is not secure. Hopkins warns that religious schools may also be ‘a hot-bed of impurity’. Indeed, she claims that ‘we must boldly face the fact that there is some mysterious connection between the religious emotions and the lower animal nature’ (1899: 81). Religion should be ‘practical’ and based in duty. Indeed, it begins to appear questionable whether religion is in fact required at all. After a long discussion on the education of boys using both natural science and religious examples, Hopkins remarks that, ‘I have known men who have never come under any strong religious influence, but have grown up sceptical scientific men, yet have led lives as pure as any women’s’ (1899: 114). This is inevitably to put the status of institutionalised religious morality into question. In her call for ‘a simple, practical religion, based more on facts of life and conscience than on doctrines and dogmas’ (1899: 115), Hopkins effectively subordinates Christian doctrine to natural law. Ultimately, despite the threat that unrestrained natural forces pose to morality, her readers must remember that ‘the evil here is due to man’s disorder, and not to Nature’s order’ (1899: 207).
Ultimately, for Hopkins, as for Tissot and Fowler, masturbation is a matter of masculinity and the control of nature. Each of these writers deploys gender in order to stabilise the heteronormativity that is essential to their visions of natural and social order. Masturbation is troubling because it threatens to upset the balance and to thereby expose the fragile underside of that order. Neither religious morality nor scientific knowledge is secure in the face of this evil.
Masturbation and Pornography
To return to where we began, it remains to consider briefly the possible implications of this analysis for contemporary pornography. What does internet porn look like when viewed from the perspective of the history of masturbation? The fact that concerns over masturbation emerge in European culture at the same time as pornographic writings are beginning to circulate in greater quantities is generally passed over in commentaries on both topics. Notably, however, anti-masturbation campaigns reach their height in the nineteenth century contemporaneous with the emergence of ‘pornography’ in the peculiarly modern sense of the term (Hunt 1993). The two have always maintained something of a symbiotic relationship throughout the last three centuries. With this in mind, we might ask whether contemporary silences over masturbation constitute an almost euphemistic discourse that, like Hopkins’ writings, allows the concept to circulate and surreptitiously infect ideas about pornography.
Certainly, the explicit representation of women’s masturbation has become a stable of heterosexual porn, as well as becoming a valorized practice for women more generally as a part of feminist activism since the 1970s (Juffer 1998). Yet, men’s masturbation remains largely at the margins of sexual culture—a situation that is related both to the lack of research into the experiences of men who consume pornography (Attwood 2005), and to the lack of a developed cultural language with which to discuss pornographic representations of men’s bodies (Eck 2003). Greg Tuck (2009) makes the same point in raising the question of why anxieties around men’s masturbation persist. Following Laqueur’s (2003) historical analysis, Tuck connects contemporary unease over masturbation to persistent concerns over social relations under consumer capitalism. For Tuck, ‘As a moment of pure consumption masturbation seems to generate exactly the type of individual consuming subject required by capitalism. Yet at the same time it appears a wasted production and a failure to invest, particularly for men’ (2009: 86). No doubt masturbation discourses draw on the entanglement of sexuality and economics within modernity (Bennett 1999), and my argument here is not intended to dispute this connection, but I suggest that there is more at stake. Notably, the question that Tuck implicitly raises concerning the relation of masculinity to masturbation remains to be explored.
Developing a critical analysis of masculinity, masturbation, and pornography requires taking the materiality of the practice into account. The penis, ejaculation, and the production of semen maintain an ambivalent status in contemporary culture that can be traced back to the same concerns about the dangers of orgasm that fed into the anti-masturbation campaigns (Stephens 2007). This has significant implications for the cum-shot in pornography. As Murat Aydemir points out, semen ‘[grants] a solid and secure shape neither to its material effect, nor to the male body that produces it’ (2007: xxii). The climactic moment of the pornographic narrative is an ambivalent one in which masculinity is simultaneously produced and thrown into question as the boundaries of the body are breached. Focusing on the uncertain materiality of the cum-shot and its product forges a connection between older anxieties around masturbation and newer pornographies. As Aydemir notes, ‘The pornographic formation of masculinity largely depends on the manual, instrumental, utilitarian, and quasi-technical control over the male body’ (2007: 127). This endeavour to gain control over the body marks the masturbatory character of contemporary pornography as an aspect of a broader project of masculinity as the (self-)control over nature.
What we learn from examining the history of anti-masturbation campaigns is the persistent importance of this connection between masculinity and the establishing of control over nature. The texts examined in this article are part of a more generalized response to changes in the status of nature in the modern era, and to uncertainty over the extent to which nature can be relied upon to ground social relations. The writings of Tissot, Fowler, and Hopkins are linked by a desire to re-establish natural order (and it is this onto-theological project that allows religion and science to co-exist in their texts). The heteronormative framing that is evident in their work is central to the case against masturbation, not because the latter necessarily threatens to lead to homosexuality, but because the former facilitates the establishment of a natural order. Masculinity is the crucial pivot on which discourses on masturbation turn, as they seek to construct a position of control over nature. If contemporary pornography is about masturbation, then the historical status of the latter as a focal point for the constitution of masculinity in relation to nature appears as relevant to the former. As such, I suggest that the relationship between men, masculinity, and the control of nature should be of interest to researchers of contemporary pornography.