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Books, Journals, New Media
September 17, 2003


Author Affiliations

Books, Journals, New Media Section Editor: Harriet S. Meyer, MD, Contributing Editor, JAMA; David H. Morse, MS, University of Southern California, Norris Medical Library, Journal Review Editor.

JAMA. 2003;290(11):1524-1525. doi:10.1001/jama.290.11.1524

In this sprawling book, by turns deeply learned and luxuriantly repetitious, Thomas Laqueur, a noted historian of sexuality, tackles the solitary vice.

In the postmodern manner, he argues that, although masturbation as a mode of self pleasuring is as old as mankind, it was invented as a disease in the 18th century, more precisely in 1712 in a text entitled Onania; or, The Heinous Sin of Self Pollution. . . . The author, whom Thomas Laqueur reveals to have been a profiteering surgeon named John Marten, linked the practice to the biblical "sin" of Onan, who spilled his seed on the ground rather than obey his father's request to "go in unto" his dead brother's wife; whereupon he was slain by God. Onan's crime was to refuse the injunction of ancient Hebrew levirate marriage, a remote concern for 18th-century British Protestants. But Marten's real aim was to link onanism, as he named it, to a host of ailments for which he was willing to provide cures, for a price of course. But Marten's text took off. It was augmented, excerpted, and emulated, and onanism, later known as masturbation, was incorporated into mainstream enlightenment medicine as a cause and a symptom of a wide variety of degenerative physical and mental disorders. Thus was the concept of masturbation invented by a peddler of nostrums.

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