A Short History of a Small Act


In this modern world that celebrates the freedom of the individual, do we still carry the stigma of the solitary, defiling act?


The autonomy of independent self-expression, be it auto-eroticism, autobiography, self-indulgence, solitary living, or even creativity itself, has long been seen as a threat to the fabric of any society dedicated to duty and coherence. Perhaps the act of providing one’s self with independent sexual pleasure has been vilified as the most dangerous of these. To take charge of one’s own gratification and to be free of control by the ruling body, be that social authority or spouse, was too subversive to be tolerated.


Ever since the Biblical story of Onan “spilling his seed on the ground” was interpreted as a condemnation of masturbation, - religious, cultural and medical doctrines have been employed in an attempt to control the purportedly polluting effects of this solitary activity. The word masturbation derives from the Latin manu-stuprare meaning to defile with the hand, and the practise was originally linked with the wasting of vital energy, or humours; the God-given bodily fluids.


In the late 1700’s a Swiss clinician named Tissot began to identify the “solitary vice” as the direct cause of certain behavioural and physical anomalies and as such instigated a pervasive and lasting dogma that both socialised and medicalised morality. As the distribution of ideas through printing and the press became easier, this model of how clean lives should be lived gained the overwhelming acceptance of generations of 20th century parents through the much publicised work of the American health guru, John Harvey Kellogg.    


Yet not even Dr. Kellogg’s dire warnings of the physical and mental deformities that would befall the perpetuator, nor his daubings with caustic soda, or his development of the curative corn flake would shake the population from their natural bent. It was only in 1972 that the American Medical Journal declared masturbation to be “normal” and the guilt of generations might even begin to lift.


The internal world of fantasy and subversive thought fuels the autonomous self. It might be said that masturbation rarely occurs without recourse to the self-constructed, internal world of the imagination, generating a suspicious link between creative thought and the visceral body. In the 18th century the over exertion of literary or exotic imaginations was thought to cause softening of the muscles and effemininity. The writer and philosopher Rousseau feared the polluting effect of civilisation in his upholding of the ideal of the noble savage, and even warned of the dangers of books, pointing out the dreadful temptations they offered when read with one hand.


It is the imagination that drives the hand to self-pleasure and it is the same imagination that guides the hand to embroider the flower with “ the rounding cheek of each bud great to bursting grown”  - each act, rich with the power of the creative process. The image of the deft hand comes from the poem “Pomegranate-Flowers” written in 1861 by Harriet Prescott Spofford, and stands as an allegory for female pleasure. In this space the woman reaffirms her independent sexual identity. There’s nothing like independence and going it alone for teaching us about choice and responsibility; about what we want from the world, and our relationships within it.  So perhaps acts of self-determination can also be seen as a vital part of understanding the self, and of the personal growth necessary for a healthy and mature society. In the introduction to the book “Solitary Pleasures – The Historical, Literary, and Artistic Discourses of Autoeroticism” the authors write that acts of self-determination are “deeply implicated in the creative process” reflecting the “emerging autonomous subject in the democratic era.”


The Enlightenment saw the gradual emergence of ideals based on a liberal, secular and democratic society that looked towards the experience of the individual. At this time, autobiography appeared as a new genre in writing, sometimes in the form of the confessional diary, which blurred the boundary between the public face of the individual and the private internal drive of the imagination. In the west since the 18th century the development of the importance of the individual, both politically and socially, has promoted a dialogue which continues to this day about our rights and responsibilities within society and the balance between the public and the private.   


This exhibition engages with our uneasy response to personal pleasures, which still implies an ambiguous choice between celebration and censorship.