Sexual “deviates” are.. .an enigma, and it is the future of culture that they are challenging us to decipher through their obsessions.

(Sylvere Lotringer 1988)


Within the Western tradition, masturbation was the first “disease” of sexual desire to become a matter of continuing public preoccupation. From the eighteenth century forward, though known to be a common temptation, masturbation was conceived as a major source of sexual perversions. The speed and intensity with which the masturbatory prohibition was adopted, its capacity to endure for almost two centuries, as well as its continuing capacity to generate powerful feelings of guilt and anxiety, cannot be explained simply by the ideological functions the prohibition might have initially served. The Foucaultian hypothesis (1978) that the widely broadcast masturbatory prohibitions introduced in the mid-eighteenth century actually served to advertise and dramatically valorize the significance of the sexual and make the body itself give testimony to the deployment of power may be only partially valid. It is possible that in the changing patterns of individual development from the mid-seventeenth century on, there were conditions that were already in the process of increasing the actual number of individuals engaged in masturbation and, at the same time, altering the psychic content of the masturbatory experience. What remain unclear are the experiences that might have lent credibility to such horrific conceptions.

Involved in the elevation of the significance of masturbation may have been simultaneous experience of conflicting desires within the self, an experience that may have terrified individuals as often as they enchanted them. In other words, the plausibility of the fear of masturbation did not necessarily rest exclusively upon its “visible” consequences for others, but in the fear of what initially were invisible possibilities within the experiences of the very architects and theoreticians of the masturbatory prohibition, such as Kant and Freud themselves. Masturbation was in all likelihood not an experience that was totally alien to them, which requires that we ask, however rhetorically, what was it about their experience that confirmed their fears regarding the experience? And the answer can only be anxieties generated by the imagery of desires enacted or merely suggested within the reality of the imagination. Neither the capacity for nor the content of fantasy is a constant; they both necessarily vary between cultural settings and individual histories. As a result, it would be a mistake to chart the history of sexual behavior without a corresponding history of the self.

The experience of internally generated desires that reference the external world without being subject to the immediate surveillance of the external world understandably generates collective anxieties. As dramatization of the fullest experience of desire, masturbation might well have been a critical, enhancing developmental experience that is most essential to many post-Freudian models of the human: the divided self, the primacy of the wish, and the centrality of symbolic processes (Weeks 1985; Gagnon and Simon 1973; Hillman 1975, 1979). It must be understood that masturbation could have such character – altering consequences only because of the kind of personalities that were evolving in the changing circumstances of emerging modern Western social life. Unfortunately, the evolution of attitudes towards masturbation to its present status as a danger-laden but normal, age-specific development has largely occurred without examining the kinds of sexual actors and actions that were being evoked or with any substantial attention to its uses beyond adolescence.

There is no reason to believe that the sexual is universally a major part of the narrative of the self. For many it may achieve this status at only certain limited moments in their lives and, though such moments may have significant consequences for individuals, the occasioning element need not be immediately sexual. This occurs mostly in individuating social contexts, where the future of the self is recognized and experienced as uncertain. Sexuality is most likely to become a significant problematic in social contexts where individuals need not always be what they are, which is also one in which individuals need not always be what they appear to be. Fantasy, sexual and nonsexual, becomes significant only in circumstances where individuals can fantasize being something other than the statuses into which they were born. In such contexts, individuals must not only bargain with the world for what they desire to be, but must also bargain with themselves for who they are. Such a world encourages a shift in the narrative of the self for many from self-stability to self-similarity, much as a changing social order learns to exchange similarity for stability.