With the Hand: A History of Masturbation

Image of With the Hand: A Cultural History of Masturbation
Release Date: 
April 15, 2012
Reaktion Books
Reviewed by: 

“With the Hand does a great job of looking at an entire range of ways that masturbation is and has been perceived over the years.”

From spanking the monkey or jerking off, to fingering, squeezing the peach, and parting the red sea, masturbation is one colourful topic—and seldom discussed in polite society.

In that respect masturbation is a bit like picking your nose or farting: just about everyone does it, but barely anyone will own up to it, much less write a book about it. Mels von Driel’s latest book, With the Hand: A History of Masturbation, is a well thought out, broadly focused addition to the public discussion of this very private activity.

Mr. von Driel writes well and approaches the difficult topic of masturbation with openness and academic rigor. The book looks at a raft of different opinions and perspectives on masturbation and contains elements that may be confrontational for people on either side of the debate.

He cites the conservative doctrines of Catholicism and Enlightenment Philosophy as well as quoting extensive passages from the blog of a dedicated and compulsive masturbator who claims self-pleasuring as his sexual preference.

There is very little judgement here. While his own opinions are certainly not hidden, Mr. von Driel is careful to report all sides.

Mr. von Driel, while obviously a proponent of the healthful benefits of masturbation, clearly tries hard not to make overarching statements about the rightness or wrongness of other people’s arguments. Where a group’s philosophical underpinnings dictate that any form of self-touching is morally wrong, Mr. von Driel states that fact. When the opposite is true he acknowledges that as well.

Perhaps the strength of With the Hand is the author’s approach to its construction. Masturbation is looked at in a variety of contexts starting with facts, figures, and statistics about who does it when and where.

He tells us that 90% of males over 15 masturbate and that 70–80% of women over 18 do as well. He rather cheekily includes a quote from celebrated gynecologist Hector Treub, “We’ve all masturbated and those who say they’ve never done it are still doing it!” This may or may not be true, but it does give a good indication of just how powerful a taboo is stamped upon masturbation.

The author continues, discussing physical aspects including circumcision, the clitoris, and multiple orgasms. He also discusses more contentious subjects like masturbation and the mentally handicapped.

From there Mr. von Driel delves into the fascinating world of sex aids. He investigates the historical use of all sorts of toys and stimulants that have been used to enhance sexual pleasure in men and women. Interestingly, along with subheadings such as “Dildos, vibrators and pins” and “The volume, smell and taste of sperm,” is the heading “Bill Clinton”—surely some good reading to be had there. . . .

After a look at the masturbatory habits of the animal kingdom at large, author von Driel moves away from the purely physical, measurable side of self-pleasuring into the far more murky philosophical realm.

Starting with the many and varied opinions of the medical and scientific communities, Mr. von Driel looks at the way masturbation has been represented across history.

Since time immemorial there have been competing opinions on whether masturbation is right or wrong. As our scientific understanding of the body and mind has developed, the effect of self-pleasuring, ejaculation without procreation, clitoral vs. vaginal orgasm, to name but a few, has evolved.

Yet there has always been conjecture over the place of masturbation. For years many scientists and doctors have insisted that the loss of vital bodily fluid and the intense feeling of pleasure at orgasm, have a negative effect on the body and mind. Mr. von Driel looks at how these ideas arose and where we’re at now.

This science based section provides a great bridge between the strictly factual and statistical, and the theories born of opinion and upbringing. It also leads us into the second half of With the Hand that investigates societal perspectives of masturbation as represented by diverse cultural, religious, and philosophical groups, before looking at the arts and how masturbation has been represented in literature, art, and entertainment.

This is where the real contention seems to lie. Facts are facts, and they are always measurable and provable. But opinion, dogma, and faith are different beasts altogether.

With the Hand does a great job of looking at a entire range of ways that masturbation is and has been perceived over the years—from the idealist opposition of Kant and Schopenhauer, to the permissiveness of some of the classical Greeks, to the explicit descriptions of Phillip Roth and the photography of Andre Serrano, history is full of competing ideas and ideals.

Mr. von Driel presents these disparate views and conceits in a fairly objective manner.

And that is what makes this a very good piece of writing. It seems that Mr. von Driel’s motivation is not to promote or to vilify masturbation, it is to open the whole murky topic up to discussion and examination.

Overall With the Hand is sometimes a bit steamy, and some of the opinions represented here will be inflammatory, but the topic is masturbation, after all. Whether you do it or never have, masturbation is unclothed in a most revelatory and detailed manner in With the Hand.