Reaktion Books, £20

With the Hand: A Cultural History of Masturbation By Mels van Driel (trans. Paul Vincent)

Would a culture of solitary delight mean life in vivid colour, or a hundred shades of grey?

This book is a follow-up to Mels van Driel's critically celebrated compendium Manhood: the Rise and Fall of the Penis. This time he turns his hand to masturbation, still something of a taboo, he says. With the Hand is an enjoyable, human and humane study of attitudes to masturbation in science, sexology, education, religion, philosophy, art, song and literature, from ancient Egypt to the present.

Enthusiastic wankers have a bad reputation, says van Driel, whose goal is to rescue him and her from the category of the sad and lonely. He explores the history of self-love, "spanking the monkey", "jerking off", "bashing the bishop" (there are more terms for male masturbation than for female), and hopes to rehabilitate the regular masturbator to the realms of sexual legitimacy.

The history of masturbation is necessarily a history of attitudes to the body, to fantasy, love and intimacy. The book abounds with interesting material. There's a chapter on zoology, which shows that many animals masturbate. We can reassure ourselves that it is indeed "natural". Van Driel provides a history of the dildo from classical Greece on; Claude le Petit, a 17th-century French poet, wrote erotic verse and hoped that an aroused reader might roll the book up and use it as a dildo. Reading and masturbation have a long-standing association. Perhaps some clever techno-entrepreneur can find some way of amalgamating the Kindle and Rampant Rabbit?

Most religions have something to say on the matter and the author looks at Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Taoism, offering surprising insights. He also looks briefly at philosophers such as Kant and Schopenhauer. The chapters on writers, poets and artists feel a bit like lists of references to masturbation without deeper analysis. The chapter on art looks at images from classical Greek pottery to Tracey Emin, and reveals how many artists have depicted images of masturbation. Coy critics have been reluctant to discuss the obvious.

Current research shows that almost everybody masturbates, men and women, throughout their lives. Once we've got over the belief that it causes moral and physical degeneracy (held well into early 20th-century Europe and still at work in many parts of the world), it becomes an empty idea, one that can only be filled with meaning (or its lack) by the way we think about it.

The author has an eye for a good anecdote. He highlights anxieties over the sexual development of children, for instance, in the story of how worried parents wrote to toy manufacturer Mattel about their concerns that their 12-year-old daughters were enjoying playing with the Nimbus 2000 broom too much; it was a vibrating Harry Potter broomstick.

This book raises questions that I found pleasing and unsettling, especially about the impact of easy access to sexually explicit material on the Internet. The author wants us to ditch the taboo on masturbation but is also sensitive to the emotional dimensions of sexuality. Clearly some forms of masturbation are not healthy, such as the guilty spouse who secretly watches pornography rather than work at meeting needs with a partner.

I was left wondering if we should hope to dispense with this taboo altogether. Do we want "masturbation lessons" alongside swimming and traffic-awareness, as van Driel suggests? Surely part of the magic of our sexuality is its hiddenness, its unspokenness. Van Driel wants us to love ourselves guilt-free, which sounds like a good idea, but he also predicts a sad vision of the future where increasing numbers are single and our sexuality is plugged into our laptops. We're in danger, he suggests, of turning into a bunch of square-eyed, hi-tech wankers.

Rebecca Loncraine is the author of 'The Real Wizard of Oz: The Life and Times of L Frank Baum' (Gotham)

Buy With the Hand (Reaktion Books) from independentbooksdirect.co.uk for £18 (RRP £20) including postage or call 0843 0600030

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn