The Advent of the Solitary Vice

In June 2020 members of the Solitudes Network met to discuss work and ideas related to the theme of Voluntary Solitude. In this paper from the colloqium Thomas Laqueur returns to his book Solitary Sex to explore the medicalisation and pathologisation of masturbation in the eighteenth century.


Modern masturbation can be dated with a precision rare in cultural history. It was born in, or very close to, the same year as that wild and woolly and profoundly self-conscious exemplar of “our” kind of human, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It arrived in the same decade as Daniel Defoe’s first novels and the first stock-market crashes. (Readers will remember the repeated jokes – new at the time – in the first chapter of Gulliver’s Travels that Swift began in 1719: “Mr. Bates, my master”; “my good master Bates.”) It—by which I mean masturbation as a moral and medical problem that attracted the serious attention of the likes of Kant, Rousseau, Samuel Johnson, Voltaire and S.A.D. Tissot, the most read medial authority of the century– is a creature of the Enlightenment. And more specifically it is intimately bound up with the question of solitude in eighteenth century thought. 

To be precise, sometime between 1708 and 1716 – “in or around 1712” – the then-anonymous author of a short tract with a long title not only named (Onan had not before been associated with masturbation) but actually invented a new disease and a new highly specific, thoroughly modern, and nearly universal engine for generating guilt, shame, and anxiety.  Its title: Onania; or, The Heinous Sin of Self Pollution, and all its Frightful Consequences, in both SEXES Considered, with Spiritual and Physical Advice to those who have already injured themselves by this abominable practice. And seasonable Admonition to the Youth of the nation of Both SEXES…. 

Onanism was loosed upon the world. 

The problem that had been so long ignored but that would come to play such a large role in the modern Western understanding of self and sexuality was this:  That unnatural Practice by which persons of either sex may defile their own bodies, without the Assistance of others. Whilst yielding to filthy imagination, they endeavor to imitate and procure for themselves that Sensation, which God has ordered to attend the Carnal Commerce of the two sexes for the Continuance of our Species.  

Modern masturbation is profane. It is not just something that putatively makes those who do it tired, crippled, mad, or blind but an act with serious ethical implications. It is that part of human sexual life where potentially unlimited solitary pleasure meets social restraint; where habit and the promise of just-one-more-time struggle with the dictates of conscience and good sense; where fantasy silences, if only for a moment, the reality principle; and where the autonomous self escapes from the erotically barren here- and-now into a luxuriant world of its own creation. It hovers between abjection and fulfillment.  

“The solitary vice” as the most common synonym for masturbation is an early nineteenth century neologism but the perceived moral and medical dangers of solitary sexual pleasure— solitary both in the sociological sense of being alone and unwatched and, more importantly in the psychological sense of the self being alone with itself—were there at the start. Notice in the description I just quoted “for themselves,” “without the assistance of others,” “yielding to filthy imagination.” Onanism as a paradigmatic pathology of solitude, of the mind un-moored.  

Barbara Taylor in her review of my Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation (LRB, 6 May 2004) argued that the book was essentially a history, writ on the body, of a new sort of self in society: “the sexuality of the modern self” I called it. Laqueur, she notes,  “presumes a caesura between the modern and the pre-modern. The modern masturbator stands on the near side of a cultural divide whose far side is a world where the moral hazards of sex were not those of rampant individualism but violations of a hierarchical, providential order.” In other words a new pathology of solitude, a new and powerful engine of shame, was born and flourished as a bulwark against rampant individualism, against the hazards of un-moored moral autonomy.  The roots of Onanism in Laqueur’s account lie in “the predicaments of secularized subjectivity.”  

Taylor accepts these claims but argues, rightly, that it does not fully account for the novel shamefulness of Onanism, the new pathology of solitude. The shame, she continues, is rooted in the Christian notion of concupiscence, the idea most profoundly articulated by Augustine, that the estrangement of the soul from God is marked in the flesh by the autonomy of sexual desire—and speaking as he does from a male perspective— signaled by the un-unruliness of the sexual organs. Adam’s shame at his nakedness came from an unwilled erection. (For Augustine the key is un-willed and un-willable.  In a letter to Paulinos of Nola that he wrote in his old age he said that his present impotence was just as much a sign of concupiscence as the erections of his youth.)  

If we think of the new shame of Onanism as grounded in the old shame of concupiscence then the stakes of a history of the solitary vice has to account not just for “a new relationship between self and society but [the] self’s relationship to the self.” “We are none of us, female or male, masters in our own house,” Taylor writes:  Augustine redux without original sin.  She concludes with a Freudian twist: “Shame’ Jacqueline Rose wrote recently, ‘is one of the ways we try to forget part of ourselves’ and it is this amnesia that ultimately lay behind the masturbation panic. 

We do not have to choose between these perspectives. On the one hand there is the novelty of a new pathology of solitude that cannot be explained by adducing an abiding engine of shame.  Something changes on or around 1712 that demands an explanation. On other hand we need to account for the wild success of Grub Street pamphlet that makes its way into the inner sanctums of the high Enlightenment and generates torrents of guilt at a practice that before had received almost not attention. It somehow mobilized a deep disquietude about the self’s relationship to its desires that did not suddenly appear with the early philosophes. 

I propose briefly to make the case for my history of self and society. That is I want to offer an explanation for what it was about solitary sex—as opposed to sex that was not practiced in solitude–that was purportedly so dangerous—medically and morally– in the particular circumstances of the eighteenth century and beyond. I then want to return, by offering the sketchiest of sketches of a social and cultural history of shame, to Taylor’s argument about the persistent shamefulness this one particular form of sexual activity–sex with ones self– that had for so long gone un-noticed. Shame is an emotion that precisely bridges the space between society and self, outer and inner. As Protagoras tells Socrates, after Prometheus had distinguished humans from other animals by giving them fire Zeus gave them all equally both shame (Aidos) and justice so that they could live together in harmony. I will end with a modern redemptive twist on the solitary vice as a form of healthy self-discovery in solitude. 

Readers will have to accept, for the purposes of this discussion, that there is something specifically modern about the medical and moral anxiety surrounding sex in solitude. It really did emerge more or less from nowhere around 1712.  The editors of the most exhaustive of the nineteenth-century medical encyclopedias allotted more than twenty- six pages and a long bibliography to the article “Onanisme.” No problem more deserves the attention of philosophers and doctors, the author announces, which is presumably why it deserves so much space. entitled Onania had enormous repercussions.  The rabbis had had all sorts of views of how exactly Onan had spilled his seed upon the ground—anal sex, intracrural sex, coitus interruptus, and, yes, perhaps also masturbation—but what became his eponymous sin in the eighteenth century was of no concern. God struck him dead because he refused to have a child from whom would grow “the tree of Jesse” with his widowed sister in law Tamar.  The backstory as But the ancients—Galen, Hippocrates and the nearly two thousand year tradition built on their work viewed it “with the most serene indifference.” Only in the eighteenth century, the article continues, did onanism become important:  “book to why this was so bad fills volumes but is irrelevant to this conference.  

A long line of Church fathers and the theologians who followed them developed an exquisitely refined hermeneutics of sexuality– concupiscence was a central but by no means the only issue—but they had almost nothing to say about solitary sex. St. Thomas includes what we might interpret as the act—mollities, from the L. mollius-e, condition of softenss—but they are included in a long list of non-reproductive sexual acts and are not singled out as worth especial note. One unpublished fourteenth century tract by Jean Gerson about which Foucault makes a great deal does seem to address the subject but it is a rare exception that proves the rule. Solitary sex is a problem connected somehow with modern questions of the condition of the self with her or himself and outside the nexus of society. 

What then is the problem that captivated the world of doctors and moral philosophers and through them and through them made men and women, boys and girls guilty and ashamed of a practice that in earlier ages would have passed notice. It was not sexual excess per se. S.D. Tissot, the best read doctor of the century whose 1759 book on Onanism was translated into twenty languages over hundreds of editions that it is “far more pernicious than excesses with women” because these were mitigated by some measure of reciprocity and engagement. (Although much was made of the dangers of solitary sex for women– and  for children of both sexes– no-one made the comparative argument about excesses with men.) 

When Tissot and the Encyclopédie – the obscure pamphlet of 1712 had made its way to the inner sanctum of the Enlightenment in half a century–pronounced on the subject, they located the evil genius of masturbation not in the lusts of the flesh but in a generally benign faculty of the mind. Both distanced themselves from theological condemnations based on violation of the telos of sex—reproduction– or the triumph of concupiscence. Menuret de Chambaud, writing for the Encyclopédie, was more straightforward. Leaving theology aside, as he clearly wanted to do, masturbation would not be so bad if – and here comes the big “if” – it were not in the thrall of an unmoored psyche: “Masturbation which is not so frequent, which is not excited by a fiery and voluptuous imagination, which is, in a word, spurred only by one’s need,” is not harmful at all.  

In other words, if masturbation were natural – that is, the result of real sexual need – it would be fine. de Chambaud’s point in the Encyclopédie article is that it is not so easy to maintain moderate masturbation simply as an alternative way of satisfying ordinary, sociable sexual desire. Solitary sex was almost by its nature immoderate, because the imagination was not easily restrained. It had “the greatest part of the crime,” and thus the seat of the imagination – the mind and all that is connected to it – was most severely punished for doing it. A central problem with solitary sex as understood by the canonical text of the high Enlightenment was that it was generally driven from within, driven by a “voluptuous, a fiery imagination” that had only the most tenuous connections with all those charms, tricks, arrangements – and physiological natural processes – that drive a more social passion.  

Rousseau, always ready with the psychologically astute reflection, always poised to transform a personal anxiety into a general truth, got it right when he considered masturbation in his Confessions. It was, he famously said, “the dangerous supplement”: there was always something more, something unbounded, something that could not be satisfied and laid to rest. When he masturbated, the greatest and most original of the philosophes tells us, he would conjure up a sexually exciting image or story, become excited, and satisfy his desire, all without recourse to anyone. There was nothing to stop him from doing it again and again, “with” whomever he wanted, whenever he wanted, and without any natural satiety. Masturbation was outside not just this or that form of restraint but all bounds whatsoever. There was no stopping it because it was so terribly easy, because it was so alluringly free, because it seemed to escape from any and all consequences, because it was so perfectly outside civilization. 

The moral foreboding about masturbation that haunts the sexual awakening of Emile, Rousseau’s eponymous protagonist, and, by extension, that of all adolescents has to do with the threat poised by the solitariness of a practice born out of the self, out of the imagination.  And the secrecy of the act makes it all the more difficult to teach the practitioner that it is shameful. “If he [an educator’s pupil] were to know one time the dangerous supplement” as a way of satisfying his sexual instincts, “he is lost,” declares Rousseau unequivocally. Not only would “he carry the doleful [triste] effects of this habit, the most disastrous to which a young man can subjugate himself, to the grave,” but by the very act he would be lost to his teacher. But even more troubling is the fact that through masturbation Emile would become hopelessly enslaved to himself. Better to fall in love with an inappropriate woman; from such a fate, Rousseau is sure, he might be saved. But to be rescued from himself as the engine of sexual desire and satisfaction would be altogether another matter.  

Ambivalent as Rousseau’s feelings were about the role of society in making us who we are, society still offered grounds for redemption; pure interiority was harder, perhaps impossible, to reach. And pure interiority, driven by the possibility of endless, self-generated sexual pleasure was the most extreme case. “Deceitful” and “counterfeit” were the adjectives that came to Rousseau’s mind when he wrote about the teacher’s worry in Emile about the collapse of his whole educational project should his pupil succumb to the secret vice.  

Taylor is right: for the old fashioned “concupiscence”—desires of the flesh as a sign of the estrangement of the soul from God, of the lack of singleness of heart– we could substitute “the fiery imagination,” something unbounded that could not be laid to rest– even if the doctors and moralists of the eighteenth century wanted to distance themselves from so theologically loaded a term. And she is right that “Protestantism, by drawing God—and the devil—into the individual psyche upped the ante. The inner world of the believer became a cosmic battleground, with sex as its front line.” But it is not the only line of battle.  A fiery imagination stimulated by the passions  “led believers to confuse inner states with outer objects, to mistake their own desires and fantasies for the living God.” Enthusiasm. I might add that other forms of secular concupiscence were also creatures of the Enlightenment; “alcoholism” was another eighteenth century neologism.  

The question remains why this one particular sign that we are “none of us, male or female, masters of our own house,”—solitary sex– became a new and lasting and paradigmatic engine of shame.  If the gods gave humans shame to allow us to live together the pedagogues, doctors, and philosophers of the Enlightenment worked so hard to make sex with ourselves shameful in an effort to allow us to live alone. It was a hard road to make something private—solitary—shameful because shame is an emotion evoked in public through the the real or imagined gaze of others.  It was their project to make it shameful in the eyes of the self. And, in the long Augustinian tradition, they located it in the desiring flesh: a secular appropriation of concupiscence. 

I find it puzzling how difficult it has been to shake off what they wrought: a new engine of shame, a new purported pathology of solitude.  In an age when the desiring flesh and the fervid imagination seem triumphant masturbation remains if not contemptuous then embarrassing: in need of defense. There is a redemptive feminist tradition beginning in the 1970s: Betty Dodson’s Liberating Masturbation: A Meditation on Self Love for example, straightforwardly makes the case that autoeroticism is not only a politically but also a personally liberating act. A lively market in sex toys and a trove of articles in women’s magazines makes the case. An avalanche of porn is in its service.  

But solitude still bears something of the sense that it is had behind closed doors. There is a passage early in Swann’s Way in which the narrator, certainly no enemy of he imagination writes of a room at Combray: it was the only room whose door I was allowed to lock. Whenever my occupation was such as required inviolable solitude: reading or day-dreaming, tears or sensual pleasure. 


Thomas W. Laqueur is Helen Fawcett Professor of History Emeritus at UC Berkely.