The Lonely Pleasure:

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The dangers of self-abuse: An illustration from The Sexual System and Its Derangements, a popular medical book published in Buffalo in 1875. (‘Masturbators’ are on the left, ‘abstainers’ on the right.)

From Sin to Symbol

Thomas W. Laqueur is a scholarly gumshoe with a specialty in sex. His last book, Making Sex: Body and Gender From the Greeks to Freud (1990), was a highly original investigation of a tantalizing mystery he had stumbled on in the archives: Why did female orgasm, long considered essential to conception, all but disappear from the historical record during the Enlightenment?

Now, in Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation, Mr. Laqueur, a professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley, tackles another enigma from the annals of sexual history: Why did masturbation, an activity regarded with benign indifference for millennia, provoke sweeping moral and medical panic around 1700?

Mr. Laqueur’s preoccupations are hardly the kind destined to endear him to the cultural right. In particular, his latest tome— which features a floating, naked woman wearing an expression of glazed-eyed ecstasy on its cover and a couple dozen graphic illustrations inside — seems designed to inflame critics convinced that the academy is populated by tenured radicals bent on selling students a morally suspect and intellectually trivial bill of goods. NY Times