I make a point of telling my Intro Psych students that Freud's special interest in masturbation, and his ambivalent and quite personal thinking about it, are one of the reasons we still read him. I've just suggested to my Psych of Adolescence students that Moroccan youth 20 years ago in a rural town were more ashamed to talk about masturbation than were their American counterparts. I explain some of the biographical connotations of Freud's thinking and writing in the late 1890s, and I suggest a historical critique in terms of Victorian mores, but I do not develop this. In the latest New York Review of Books I've found a fine summary of the history of masturbation as a theological and social concern in 18th century Euope:
There were, Laqueur suggests, three reasons why the Enlightenment concluded that masturbation was perverse and unnatural. First, while all other forms of sexuality were reassuringly social, masturbation—even when it was done in a group or taught by wicked servants to children—seemed in its climactic moments deeply, irremediably private. Second, the masturbatory sexual encounter was not with a real, flesh-and-blood person but with a phantasm. And third, unlike other appetites, the addictive urge to masturbate could not be sated or moderated. "Every man, woman, and child suddenly seemed to have access to the boundless excesses of gratification that had once been the privilege of Roman emperors."Which brings us to Freud:
Privacy, fantasy, insatiability: each of these constitutive features of the act that the Enlightenment taught itself to fear and loathe is, Laqueur argues, a constitutive feature of the Enlightenment itself. Tissot and his colleagues had identified the shadow side of their own world: its interest in the private life of the individual, its cherishing of the imagination, its embrace of a seemingly limitless economy of production and consumption. Hammering away at the social, political, and religious structures that had traditionally defined human existence, the eighteenth century proudly brought forth a shining model of moral autonomy and market economy—only to discover that this model was subject to a destructive aberration.
Joyce's marvelous parody, published in 1922, was written from the other side of a great cultural divide. For, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the whole preoccupation— the anxiety, the culture of surveillance, the threat of death and insanity —began to wane. The shift was by no means sudden or decisive, and traces of the older attitudes obviously persist not only in schoolboy legends and many zany, often painful family dramas but also in the nervous laughter that attends the whole topic. Still, the full nightmare world of medicalized fear and punishment came to an end. Laqueur tells this second part of the story far more briskly: he attributes the change largely to the work of Freud and liberal sexology, though he also acknowledges how complex and ambivalent many of the key figures actually were. Freud came to abandon his conventional early views about the ill effects of masturbation and posited instead the radical idea of the universality of infant masturbation. What had been an aberration became a constitutive part of the human condition. Nevertheless the founder of psychoanalysis constructed his whole theory of civilization around the suppression of what he called the "perverse elements of sexual excitement," beginning with autoeroticism. In this highly influential account, masturbation, as Laqueur puts it, "became a part of ontogenesis: we pass through masturbation, we build on it, as we become sexual adults."Freud's puzzled fascination with feminine eroticism fits Laqueur's thesis (as summarized by Greenblatt) quite nicely. Now, I need a class in which to try to explain Freud's place in the history described by Laqueur. Perhaps I can try to sketch the rural Moroccan adolescent male’s attitude toward his own and a female partner’s sexuality, comparing and contrasting my picture with Freud’s…