Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘sex!’

12 MARCH, 2014

Mary Roach on the Science of Masturbation and the Outrageous Vintage Pseudoscientific Techniques for Controlling It

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A cautionary tale of what happens when religious dogmatism attempts to subvert science.

Human sexuality has a long history of intellectual fascination, from the first ejaculation on Earth to Malcolm Cowley’s parodic vintage prediction for sex in the techno-future to Susan Sontag’s poignant meditation on the gap between love and sex. But the recent perusal of Mark Twain’s entertaining treatise on masturbation brought to mind the most intensely interesting and illuminating account ever published on the subject: Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex (public library) by science writer extraordinaire Mary Roach. Among a wealth of other phenomena, Roach examines the subject of Twain’s fascination, particularly the outrageous pseudoscientific techniques physicians, parents, and disciplinarians in the 18th and 19th centuries used to control the religiously abominable human urge — a tragicomic testament to society’s long and rather futile quest to judge and punish pleasure without understanding the underlying biology or the psychological repercussions of such misguided “treatments.”

Roach outlines the inhumane devices invented to abate the urge:

On the simple side, there was the Penile Pricking Ring. Invented in the 1850s, this was an adjustable, expandable metal ring slipped onto the penis at bedtime. If the sleeper’s penis begins to expand, it forces the ring open wider, exposing metal spikes….

Many of these devices included an option for daytime use, along with a lock-and-key mechanism. For the true target customer was not the penitent masturbator, but the worried parent and, even more so, the insane asylum caretaker. . . .

Happily, parents of K-through-8 masturbators were encouraged to try less drastic preventive measures. Little hands were tied to headboards, and trousers fashioned without pockets. Hobbyhorses were taken away, and climbing ropes removed from school gymnasiums. One of the biggest spoilsports in the antimasturbation crusade was American physician William Robinson. His 1916 Practical Treatise on the Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment of Sexual Impotence and Other Sexual Disorders in Men and Women includes a long chapter on preventing the premature awakening of the sexual instinct in children. “I strongly urge parents to keep their boys away from sensuous musical comedies and obscene vaudeville acts,” tutted Robinson … “Many of my patients told me that their first masturbatory act took place while witnessing some musical show.”

Jazz hands were not mentioned.

Illustration from Pixar's 'The Ancient Book of Sex and Science.' Click image for details.

Another antimasturbation crusader, a Dr. Crommelinck, prescribed “memorizing difficult passages on philosophy or history when overcome by the desire to masturbate.” And a book admonished citizens that masturbation could cause impotence, blindness, heart disease, insanity, stupidity, and “suppurating pustules on the face.” Even “mental masturbation” was strictly discouraged. Roach marvels at the pseudoscientific absurdity of it:

Truly it seemed that any activity undertaken — sleeping, thinking, eating spiced food, taking in a matinee of Mame — led the heedless male down the path to self-pollution. A man couldn’t even relieve himself without having to worry. Crommelinck urged gentlemen to avoid touching their genitals at all times, lest they inadvertently arouse themselves — even at the urinal. “Urinate quickly, do not shake your penis, even if means having several drops of urine drip into your pants.”

Those who could not manage to curb their impulses with philosophical tracts and antimasturbation gadgetry faced a withering assortment of brutal treatments. Robinson casually states that in two or three cases he applied “a red hotwire” to a child’s genitals.

In those days, masturbation was termed onanism — after the Bible’s Onan, who spilled his semen on the ground and was slain by God for this sinful transgression — and condemned as “self-abuse.” Applying not iron to a child’s body was, evidently, not abuse but the cure for “self-abuse.” But beyond this gobsmacking moral irony lies a biological one. Roach circles back to science:

The bitter irony here is that regularly spilling one’s seed serves a valuable biological function. [S]perm which sit around the factory a week or more start to develop abnormalities; missing heads, extra heads, shriveled heads, tapered and bent heads. All of which render them less effective and headbanging their way into an egg. [Sex psychologist Rob] Levin speculates that that’s why men masturbate so much: It’s an evolutionary strategy.

The point, of course, isn’t that evolution explains everything or that our ancestors were ignorant brutes, but that the true power of science lies in illuminating, rather than controlling or punishing, the human condition so that we can live more intelligently and more freely, driven by a desire to understand rather than a blind righteousness.

Bonk is a fascinating read in its entirety. Complement it with Dorion Sagan’s scientific history of sex and see Roach’s most recent book, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal.

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23 JANUARY, 2014

The Future of Love: Malcolm Cowley’s 1930 Parodic Prediction for the Age of Data

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The Stimulus and the Response go on a date.

In 1930, as the culturally raucous Jazz Age was coming to halt with the onset of the Great Depression and America was dreaming up a brighter, technologically advanced world of tomorrow, a curious anthology titled Whither Whither, or After Sex What?: A Symposium to End Symposiums (public library) crept onto bookstore shelves. Exploring the futures of such diverse subjects as prosperity, history, literary criticism, art, music, and the atom, it featured parodic predictions from a formidable roster of future literary titans, at the time in their early and mid-thirties, including E. E. Cummings, Edmund Wilson, E. B. White, and James Thurber (the latter two had just come off their own collaboration on a piece of equally entertaining cultural commentary, the 1929 gem Is Sex Necessary?: Or Why You Feel the Way You Do), illustrated with charming cartoons by the Bill Gropper.

One of the best contributions, both for its humor and its unintendedly poignant prescience, comes from the beloved novelist, poet, journalist, and literary critic Malcolm Cowley — he who contemplated the stages of the creative process some three decades later — and considers a subject that has occupied humanity for millennia: Love.

After a series of parodic predictions poking fun at the era’s scientific novelties like psychoanalysis and eugenics, some of which were dismissed as appropriately laughable decades later, Cowley considers “what Love will be — and society in general” in the envisioned new age, beginning with the concept of childbirth:

First, the children of the future will no longer be conceived by the methods unthinkingly adopted by our parents. Children will be had at special pharmacies out of glass vials — tied with blue ribbons for boys, tied with pink ribbons for girls, and tied with variegated ribbons to indicate all the new sexes that we may confidently expect to see developed by the intensive application of modern laboratory methods. Life will thus be greatly simplified. And to think of the relief to bashful parents who hesitate to reveal the biological facts to their children! Little boys and girls will no longer have to be told that the doctor brought them or that the stork dropped them down the chimney. They will know darned well that they came from the corner drug store.

'One of the possible methods of reviving the stork ceremony of birth in the future. A child is produced by laboratory methods, thus avoiding the present system of procreation which is disagreeable to some people and which can henceforth be reserved purely for purposes of debauchery. The infant is placed in swaddling clothes, attached to the beak of a mechanical stork. The expectant mother, who is trained from early girlhood for this serious task, is then given a large butterfly net, and at a signal from the head obstetrician the bird is released, to soar eagerly in swift mechanical flight. The young mother leaps forward, captures the stork with its precious burden, and an heir is born.'

Cowley, writing in the age of truly gobsmacking rules of romance, then moves on to the question of courtship in the future:

We may confidently predict that the mating pattern will be changed by the application of scientific Behaviorism. The post-adolescent male will have learned to condition away the fear reflexes which inhibit hugs and kisses. By producing a box of candy at every visit, he will offer a stimulus certain to produce a favorable response to himself. By taking his girl to the movies (if he can’t make love at home), he will behavioristically surround himself with an atmosphere proportious to the development of heterosexual affection. By gifts of jewelry and flowers, he will condition the sweetheart to a belief in his own prosperity.

But while Cowley’s intent was purely satirical in 1930, a time long before the discovery of DNA and the invention of the modern digital web, the prescience of his parody turns tragicomic in the context of today’s quantified self and personal genomics, where we obsessively measure our psychophysiology and proudly advertise its high points in online dating profiles — ours is, after all, love in the age of data. Cowley continues:

And when the moment comes to pop the question, he will not be so foolish as to say, “Will you marry me?” That would smack of the old Victorian repressions — and besides, marriage will long since have been abolished. Instead the lover (hereinafter to be known as “the Response”) will exclaim to the sweetheart (hereinafter to be known as “the Stimulus”):

“My IQ is satisfactory, my blood count satisfactory, my basic metabolism satisfactory, my male hormones present in satisfactory qualities. My instincts are wholly mature, my thyroid and pituitary glands properly adjusted, and I am capable of following the higher mammalian mating pattern. Will you live with me happily ever after in heterosexual matehood?”

“Let’s synthesize!” the Stimulus will reply, as hand in hand these twain go marching into the heterosexual dawn.

'The eternal triangle is not always husband, wife, and lover. It is sometimes, as we learn from the more prosperous psychologists, husband, wife, and child -- or, to bring the matter nearer home, husband, wife, and Pomeranian. This is but one of the problems which will be solved by a careful reading of the present Symposium, this last Symposium, this Symposium to end Symposiums.'

Though long out of print, Whither, Whither, or After Sex, What? can be found online and is well worth the hunt. Complement Cowley’s contemplation with its modern, non-satirical counterparts exploring the natural history of love, the math of its odds, and its alleged science, the very concept of which Cowley so elegantly derided.

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14 JANUARY, 2014

Love, Sex, and the World Between

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“Part of the modern ideology of love is to assume that love and sex always go together… And probably the greatest problem for human beings is that they just don’t.”

“Is sex necessary?” young E.B. White and James Thurber asked in their endlessly delightful 1929 collaboration. More than eight decades later, philosopher Alain de Botton asserted that to think more and better about sex is to reclaim our humanity. And yet for all of our musings on sex, it remains oddly disconnected from our best understanding of love.

In Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview (public library) — the superb 1978 conversation with Jonathan Cott that ranked among the best biographies, memoirs, and history books of 2013 and also gave us the beloved author on the false divide between “high” and pop culture and how our cultural polarities imprison us — Sontag, one of the most celebrated minds of the last century, who spent decades contemplating love and being discombobulated over sex, zooms in with her characteristic precision on our culture’s impossible expectations of the relationship between the two:

We ask everything of love. We ask it to be anarchic. We ask it to be the glue that holds the family together, that allows society to be orderly and allows all kinds of material processes to be transmitted from one generation to another. But I think that the connection between love and sex is very mysterious. Part of the modern ideology of love is to assume that love and sex always go together. They can, I suppose, but I think rather to the detriment of either one or the other. And probably the greatest problem for human beings is that they just don’t. And why do people want to be in love? That’s really interesting. Partly, they want to be in love the way you want to go on a roller coaster again — even knowing you’re going to have your heart broken. What fascinates me about love is what it has to do with all the cultural expectations and the values that have been put into it. I’ve always been amazed by the people who say, “I fell in love, I was madly, passionately in love, and I had this affair.” And then a lot of stuff is described and you ask, “How long did it last?” And the person will say, “A week, I just couldn’t stand him or her.”

Susan Sontag's private thoughts on love, culled from her published diaries, illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton. Click image for details.

Sontag, whose timeless and often radical wisdom has addressed everything from why photography is a form of violent consumerism to how to improve education to the creative benefits of boredom to why lists appeal to us, explores platonic love as another concept loaded with cultural ambivalence:

I have loved people passionately whom I wouldn’t have slept with for anything, but I think that’s something else. That’s friendship — love, which can be a tremendously passionate emotion, and it can be tender and involve a desire to hug or whatever. But it certainly doesn’t mean you want to take off your clothes with that person. But certain friendships can be erotic. Oh, I think friendship is very erotic, but it isn’t necessarily sexual. I think all my relationships are erotic: I can’t imagine being fond of somebody I don’t want to touch or hug, so therefore there’s always an erotic aspect to some extent.

Ultimately, however, she returns to the toxic age-related stereotypes and polarities to which we subscribe as a culture, to which she points as the root of our unease about love:

Our ideas of love are terribly bound up in our ambivalence about these two conditions — the positive and negative valuations of childhood, the positive and negative valuations of adulthood. And I think that, for many people, love signifies a return to values that are represented by childhood and that seem censored by the dried-up, mechanized, adult kinds of coercions of work and rules and responsibilities and impersonality. I mean, love is sensuality and play and irresponsibility and hedonism and being silly, and it gets to be thought of in terms of dependence and becoming weaker and getting into some kind of emotional slavery and treating the loved one as some kind of parent figure or sibling. You reproduce a part of what you were as a child when you weren’t free and were completely dependent on your parents, particularly your mother.

Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview remains a most highly recommended read in its entirety. Complement it with Alain de Botton on how to think more about sex and Sontag’s illustrated meditations on love.

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