Skip navigation
Paperback | $27.95 Trade | £19.95 | ISBN: 9781890951337 | 501 pp. | 6 x 9 in | October 2004

Solitary Sex

A Cultural History of Masturbation


At a time when almost any victimless sexual practice has its public advocates and almost every sexual act is fit for the front page, the easiest, least harmful, and most universal one is embarrassing, discomforting, and genuinely radical when openly acknowledged. Masturbation may be the last taboo. But this is not a holdover from a more benighted age. The ancient world cared little about the subject; it was a backwater of Jewish and Christian teaching about sexuality. In fact, solitary sex as a serious moral issue can be dated with a precision rare in cultural history; Laqueur identifies it with the publication of the anonymous tract Onania in about 1722. Masturbation is a creation of the Enlightenment, of some of its most important figures, and of the most profound changes it unleashed. It is modern. It worried at first not conservatives, but progressives. It was the first truly democratic sexuality that could be of ethical interest for women as much as for men, for boys and girls as much as for their elders.

The book's range is vast. It begins with the prehistory of solitary sex in the Bible and ends with third-wave feminism, conceptual artists, and the Web. It explains how and why this humble and once obscure means of sexual gratification became the evil twin—or the perfect instance—of the great virtues of modern humanity and commercial society: individual moral autonomy and privacy, creativity and the imagination, abundance and desire.


"... courageous ... the celebration of the imagination has to include a place for solitary sex.", Stephen Greenblatt, New York Review of Books
"... [A] long, thoughtful meditation on privacy, solitude, the imagination and what Mr. Laqueur calls 'the morally autonomous, modern' self.", E. Eakin, New York Times Website
"... the best sort of contemporary historical scholarship, combining historical detective work and detailed explication with a long view." , Jeffrey Weeks, Times Higher Education Supplement
"[Solitary Sex ] will, it almost goes without saying, become the standard work on the subject." , James Delingpole, The Spectator
"A compendious and witty analysis of the subject." , Jenny Diski, Los Angeles Times Book Review
"A superb new volume ... it's a helluva ride.", Emma Tom, Weekend Australian
"As a work of scholarly research... Professor Laqueur's hefty tome is without equal." , Alexander Waugh, Sunday Telegraph (UK)
"Deeply learned...", Robert A. Nye, PhD, JAMA
"Enlightening." , Patty Lamberti, Playboy
"His writing is free from embarrassment and needless jargon...."—Publishers Weekly
"Laqueur argues entertainingly that 'onanism' went on to shape the way that we experience ourselves as modern, autonomous individuals." , Heather Findlay, Girlfriends
"Laqueur is an impeccable historian of ideas ... he writes in an elegant, almost mesmerizing prose...." , Davenport-Hines, TLS
"Laqueur is persuasive. An engaging writer." , Briefly Noted, The New Yorker
"Laqueur tackles with aplomb what has been called the last taboo."—Kirkus Reviews
"Laqueur's penetrating analysis will fascinate social historians and the intellectual public. Recommended." , Martha Cornog, Library Journal
"This is no cute 'n' frothy pop-cultural round-up: it's a very scholarly work...." , T. Glyde, Time Out


"Laqueur's scholarly courage—for it took courage to write this book—has reaped ample rewards: Solitary Sex is a brilliant exploration of the shadow side of the Enlightenment."
—Stephen Greenblatt, Harvard University
"That masturbation has unsettling truths to tell us about our sexuality has always seemed likely; that the history of masturbation has so much to tell us about the history of freedom and individualism—about the political paradoxes of solitude—is startling. The sheer wit and verve of Laqueur's scholarship—his marvellous possession of the facts and fantasies—makes Solitary Sex a remarkable and compelling book."
—Adam Phillips, psychoanalyst