Corps de l’article

I take as my point of departure Jurgen Habermas’s notion that the public sphere in the eighteenth century translated private vices into public virtues: from the intimate spaces of the conjugal family came the public virtues of companionate love, voluntary association, and self cultivation; from private commerce came acquisitiveness, competition, and rational calculation. This translation enabled the “formation of a public consisting of private persons whose autonomy based on ownership of private property wanted to see itself represented as such in the sphere of the bourgeois family and actualized inside the person as love, freedom, and cultivation—in a word, as humanity” (Habermas 55). It is my contention that this shift from vice into virtue was far from smooth—and that the enormous medical literature on pleasure—luxury, sexual pleasure, masturbation, nerves—should be seen as policing this transition. Insofar as the eighteenth century understood virtue and vice in simple terms of empirical bodily experiences of pleasure and pain—pleasure was associated with virtue, vice with pain—the key was to explain why certain pleasurable experiences (acquisitiveness for its own sake and sexual intimacy outside the normative middle-class family) were not legitimately or even empirically pleasurable, despite potential somatic evidence to the contrary. Knowing how properly to experience sexual pleasure, moreover, helped justify one’s inclusion in the public sphere. Medical literature helped to efface this gap between the ideal proper experience of sexual pleasure and the somatic experience of that pleasure in part by pathologizing those bodies that did not understand the true meaning of pleasure, and in part by attempting to give form (embodiment, moderation) and directionality (heterosexuality, marriage) to sexual pleasure and sensation. That such form and direction needed to be given, however, suggests that these were potentially open to debate.

My larger interest here is in how Habermas helps us to rethink Foucaultian histories of sexuality.[1] The standard Foucaultian wisdom is that the move from sex to sexuality—from sex as acts, or merely as a dimension of human life that may include sexual subjectivity, to sex as a totalizing feature of identity—did not take place until the advent of sexology in the 1860s, when the homosexual became a personage.[2] At stake in this narrative for Foucault is a shift in the ways power works: power through sex as acts (or something less than sexual orientation) works juridically as a negation, whereas power through sex as identity—sexuality—enables identity to produce power as pleasure. Insofar as Habermas understands middle-class power to hinge upon the proper translation of private vices to public virtues—only certain sexual acts and attitudes towards pleasure can be passed off as human and thus be used to legitimate power—sex works both juridically to repress certain vices and constituitively to make the public sphere and its legitimacy (humanity). Whereas Foucault believes that sex cannot be liberated from power because “the formation of sex is an enactment of power” (Butler 349), Habermas insists that the middle class “wants to” define the public sphere in terms of the intimacy of the bourgeois family and to actualize love inside the person. The gap between wanting to and being is where power potentially unravels. More crucially, Habermas suggests that sex shades into sexuality in the eighteenth century as privacy shuttles back and forth between the intimate spaces of the family and the public sphere: as the privacy of the bourgeois family must be made public to justify a public sphere based on autonomous property-owning persons, bourgeois sex acquires humanity (identity). In Romanticism, the gap between humanity and individual identity is closed as being human is being an individual. If Foucault helps us to see sexuality as always already power, Habermas makes it possible to think about how the public sphere in the eighteenth century structures the relationship between sexuality and power.

Medical literature of the Romantic period enables sex to shuttle back and forth from the private to the public sphere and thereby also puts pressure on the Foucaultian sense of how sex and power work and on his version of when sex became sexuality. The general shift from a seventeenth-century vascular understanding of the body to an eighteenth-century sense of the body as a complex network of the organs of sensation, the nerves, solidifies the links between individuality and sensations—sexual and aesthetic. It is this solidifying connection between sexual desire and identity fostered by the medical literature of the period that concerns me here: as Habermas helps us to see, having an appropriate relation to pleasure and sexual pleasure makes humanity—one’s right to participate in the public sphere—intelligible. That sexuality begins the century as being an appetite and bodily urge and ends the century as taking place in the head (Porter, “Barely Touching” 74-5), moreover, undermines the neat binary oppositions some historians of sexuality insist upon between pre-sexological acts and post-sexology identity, sex and sexuality, as well as the constituitive power of sexology. Once sex is linked with the mind and sensibility, as the physiologist Albrecht von Haller argued in 1755, and once humanity is understood in terms of having refined organs of sensibility, then can sexual acts be divorced from identity? And once sex is hard-wired into the body’s organs of sensibility, the nerves, sexual knowledge can no longer come from anatomy and pathology but must come rather from a nascent psychiatry and interviews with patients. In Arnold Davidson’s terms (though he would object to my appropriation here), existence is becoming sexistence in Romanticism (xiii). Elsewhere, I have suggested that Victorian Sexology and its proprietary claim upon sex as identity makes Romantic sex a kind of foreplay to the real thing.[3]

Before delving into some of the voluminous medical literature on sexual desire, I begin with moral philosophy because moral philosophy in the eighteenth century predicates its understanding of virtue and vice upon the ways in which bodies recognize and process pain and pleasure. Moral philosophy and medical literature thus can be seen as parallel discourses with medicine seemingly providing the empirical foundations for that philosophy. Locke’s notion of “psychological hedonism” stipulated that human beings will avoid pain (vice) and seek pleasure (virtue).[4] Building upon Locke, Frances Hutcheson in A System of Moral Philosophy (1755), argues that “turbulent appetites and particular passions [. . .] naturally arise on certain occasions, and that often with great vehemence. To govern and restrain them an habit is necessary (1: 102). The incentives for forming this habit are that one will experience the true and lasting pleasures of calm reflection of the soul and that one will thereby avoid the permanent and deleterious violent effects of an all-too-brief pleasure upon the body. “Lasting misery and remorse have ensued from some transient gratification,” he warns (1: 102). More importantly, “frequent meditation [. . .] abate[s] the force of passions [. . .], and [thus] we obtain true liberty and self-command” (1:102).Yet if Hutcheson initially argues for the slow inculcation of a calm dispassionate reflective ability—a moral aesthetics—that will help make clear that only a long-term view of happiness can help distinguish true mental pleasures from false bodily ones as well as give true self-government, he must concede the power of the body’s sexual experiences of pleasure. That reflection is at a level of remove from empirical sensation hints at some of the problems endemic to psychological hedonism. His concession takes the form of bourgeois moderation. Hutcheson writes, “All sensual gratifications are not opposite to mental enjoyments. There is a moderate indulgence perfectly innocent, sufficient to allay the uneasiness of appetite; [. . .] the temperate, and such as, after proper self-government in celibacy, have made a wise choice in marriage, may have as high sensual enjoyments as any” (1: 127). Hutcheson’s description of sexual pleasure as a negation of a negation—an “allaying of unease”—makes moderation seem more pleasurable even as it makes self-government readily attainable. The “gentle sway” of moderation, moreover, “generally allows such gratifications as may be of the highest kind; or where it does not, it makes abundant compensation for the loss, by the joyful approbation of such abstinence and self-government” (1: 127). In a language remarkably prescient of Wordsworth’s sense of “abundant recompense” for the loss of his animal appetites and “coarser pleasures of [his] boyish days,” Hutcheson initially argues that moderation yields as powerful experiences of pleasure as immoderation (that is, non-marital pleasures): moderate pleasures “may be of the highest kind.”[5] As soon as he makes this claim, however, he must retract it. His choice of “may” puts the assertion under erasure even as he attempts to make the case that “joyful approbation of such abstinence and self-government [. . .] abundant[ly] compensates for the loss of pleasure.” Once Hutcheson concedes that pleasure is lost in moderate indulgence, can some potential future approbation compensate for certain loss? And who bestows this approbation? Like Wordsworth in “Tintern Abbey,” perhaps Hutcheson too “would believe” in abundant compensation if he could. Finally, is it possible to know moderation without knowing excess?

But Hutcheson’s argument for the superior pleasures of reflection further unravels when he treats the pleasures of the sexual perversions. “Vicious customs and habits can often weaken or almost extinguish many natural dispositions in some individuals. To follow the brutal impulse, in opposition to the natural restraints of modesty, as early and as frequently as it appeared, would be pernicious to the bodies of the parents, as well as those of their posterity [. . .]” (2: 153). Whereas he had earlier claimed that one had to acquire habits to govern the sexual appetite, here that habit seems ancillary to one’s “natural” modesty. The problem, of course, is that natural modesty would seem to make the habits he so values unnecessary. More to the point, perversions begin as “custom and habits” yet follow the brutal impulses making them at once social and natural, a confusion that undermines any clear solution. Such confusion nonetheless makes the emergence of sexuality possible because sex here transcends anatomy. Hutcheson continues: “promiscuous fornication would [. . .] defeat the natural purpose of this instinct [. . .], partly by the barrenness of women, and partly by their neglect of their offspring” (2: 154). “Many instincts of the most useful sort may be monstrously perverted,” Hutcheson stipulates, “and this one among others; either by being turned toward a different species, or the same sex” (2: 155). He grows increasingly shrill, commenting, “the horrid evils to be apprehended from such perversion, if they frequently prevailed, are obvious; tho’ the effects of a few rare instances, in a nation generally educated with an abhorrence of such lusts, be not considerable [. . .]. Such monstrous lusts are therefore to be severely restrained in every society” (2: 155). If one has to be educated in the evils that accrue to perverted sex so as to restrain it, then, not only the ontology of perversion, but also its relation to private vice and public virtue would seem to be less clear than Hutcheson would like. Indeed, much depends upon the contest between apprehension and impulse.

Hutcheson already enables us to see that as private vices became public virtues, the distinctions between the two became confused and sexuality became an important ground for sorting out true vice from virtue. We can witness this confusion even where we might least expect it: in the Society for the Suppression of Vice’s founding 1803 Address to the Public, written by John Bowles. That the group was based on a voluntary association of private persons put considerable pressure upon its invocation of the purity of the private in order to legitimate its sanitizing of the public sphere.[6] Since marriage is the “primary relation from which all others emanate” (94), sexuality becomes the training ground for societal and governmental relations. Yet not all private vices were translatable into public virtues: to wit, the Society’s need to sexualize corresponding societies and the media, and its need to delegitimate those sexualized forms of publicity. My point is that if all relations are born out of marriage, then how can only some be sexualized and thereby delegitimated? The Society points its finger at both Corresponding Societies, which have “by design [. . .] let loose infidelity, blasphemy, treason, and licentiousness” (37), and the press, which have “raised into existence a pestilent swarm of blasphemous, licentious, and obscene books and prints” (43). This swarm “insinuates its way into all recesses of private life, to the destruction of all purity of sentiment” (43). In the wake of the French Revolution, the Society could take advantage of a knee-jerk linking of licentiousness, the poor, and political rebellion. Here Habermas’s sense of how privacy is used to transcend the political even as it defines privacy in terms of legitimate forms of exchange is helpful.

So far there does not seem to be much confusion; yet, when the Society must contemplate how it will correct these licentious and sexualized institutions—institutions which have improperly made public certain private forms of pleasure—it must learn how to distinguish between “ordinary gratifications” and other kinds of gratification:

It is by no means their intention to enforce those provisions of the law, which from the evident change of manners, may be considered to be obsolete; or to shock the feelings of modern life, by attempting to circumscribe those ordinary gratifications, which the enlarged freedom of the present times has sanctioned and prescribed.


At pains to describe itself as moderate lest the Society’s private zealousness against vice itself become perceived as a vice, the Society must try to find a way to define its notions of vicious gratifications in contradistinction to public or “ordinary” gratifications. Insofar as gratification implies the brutal satisfaction of animal appetite, the choice of this term as opposed to pleasure, seems to concede considerable ground to the public. The Society’s need to appear moderate is intensified by negative attitudes towards reformation: at the Spring Assizes in York in 1788, William Hey’s constables were successfully sued for false arrest of a profane swearer. The judge in this case remarked that “reformation generally produces greater evils than those it attempts to address” (Edward Bristow 38). Although the Society’s language above frowns at modern, enlarged freedoms, it must at least seem to acknowledge recent changes in public manners. The problem is exacerbated by shifting notions of “indecency”: “indecency at one period of civilization, is considered as decency at another” (Bowles 62-3). Hence, like Hutcheson, Society members turn to “moderation” because it will “instruct them, on the one hand, to be wary in the detection of vice, and resolute in its correction; on the other, to be mild and forbearing in prevention: it will generally instruct them to act with delicate regard to the character and interest of individuals, and yet not weakly to compromise, when individual irregularity is rashly persisted in, and threatens to deteriorate the public morals” (64). My point here is that what initially looks unambiguous—the suppression of vice—becomes in the act of choosing which gratifications are ordinary and which are vicious mired in paradoxes. How will members be both resolute and delicate, attentive to the permissible freedoms of private individuals yet cognizant of public implications? When does a private vice remain a vice even in the public sphere? How does the Society’s privacy—its independence from the State—compromise its right to speak for the public and to determine what is a public vice? What enables gratification to become a virtue as opposed to a vice? Such a determination would seem to move away from morality and impinge upon the disciplinary purview of medicine. All of this confusion is intensified by the Society’s admission that “vice is quick and rapid in its progress; it suits the temper of man, and all his faculties naturally conspire to cherish and uphold it” (82). If man’s faculties “naturally conspire to cherish and uphold” vice, then the Society for the Suppression of Vice is paradoxically working perversely against nature. Indeed, these natural faculties further undermine confidence in the democratic rational exchange that Habermas argues falsely guarantees legitimate public access to the public sphere.

Medicine would provide Hutcheson’s moral philosophy and the Society for Suppression of Vice’s claims of the damaging effects of vicious gratification with a physiological foundation. Indeed, Hutcheson’s equation of promiscuous fornication with barrenness is a standard medical claim of the period. The notion that a rational pursuit of pleasure is essential to health, not to mention fecundity, was substantiated by an essentially neurological understanding of the body, developed in the eighteenth century. Robert John Thornton, the Linnell family physician and employer of Blake, argued—contra Blake—that pleasure leads to public virtue only if it is the “seasoning, not business of life” (4: 743) in his four-volume Medical Extracts. “Every pleasure which is pursued to excess, converts itself to a poison. In all the pleasures of sense, it is apparent, that only when indulged within certain limits, they confer satisfaction” (4: 739-40). Thornton believed that pleasure was necessarily of short duration because “the organs cannot hold on their emotions beyond a certain length of time” (4: 896), and he warned that “if you endeavor to compensate for this imperfection of their nature, by the frequency with which you repeat them, you will lose more than you gain by the fatigue of the faculties and diminution of sensibility” (4: 896). The problem, of course, is that no two persons have the exact same experience of pleasure. A neurological understanding of the body that connected vast nerve networks to the brain made it even more difficult to separate the person from the act, especially since nerves were governed by the brain-mind. That medical literature of the eighteenth century increasingly put the blame for disease on the patient for failures in dietary and exercise regimens, bowel habits, and sleeping patterns, on the one hand, helps explain the disciplinary force behind the medicalization of sexual desire. On the other hand, since dissenters were denied education at English universities, as well as careers in parliament, the law, and the church, they chose careers in medicine and commerce (Christopher Lawrence 17), thus making medicine a less monolithic discourse of power than Foucault would allow. Medicine was nonetheless a crucial way of making connections between what an individual private body did and the larger implications of those actions for a social body—it was instrumental for policing individualism. Sexuality fulfilled this particular mandate insofar as it offered the illusion of democratic participation—sexuality seems ontological and therefore non-exclusive—even as it enabled finer distinctions between kinds of sexuality that were not acceptable in the public sphere.

The persistent linking of sexual climax with epilepsy helped to pathologize sexual pleasure and to make sexual pleasure itself an important index to one’s medical condition. Of course, many medical men still ascribed to the idea that having sex was essential to one’s health. The author of an article on generation in Rees’s Cyclopedia of 1819 insisted that “if the designs of nature are not fulfilled; if, by refusing to satisfy the imperious calls of love, we prevent the excess of vital energy, which soon animates the generative organs, from being carried off in its natural channel, the accumulated irritability of these organs will frequently disturb the whole frame by its re-action” (“Generation”). Here sexual desire is figured as a surplus that must be spent, else bodily havoc will result. Robert Couper likewise claimed that sex makes women healthy: the “delicate female becomes plump by coition” (159). Another medical writer insisted that “half the diseases of women are owing to the want of th[e] natural intercourse of the two sexes” (Douglas 49). Yet if sex was essential to health, it also opened the door to pathology. Such proximity between sexual climax and epilepsy or nervous disease should give significant pause to ahistorical Barthesian readings of sexual pleasure as liberating jouissance even as it helps us understand how far William Blake’s “lineaments of gratified desire” were from medical teachings (Erdman 474). The linkage between climax and epilepsy goes back to the Greeks; in his Onanism, Tissot quotes Democritus, who claimed that Coition is a kind of epilepsy (58). The Physician of Bristol argued that coitus was a kind of “convulsion” that left the body open to the morbid condition of consumption (9). In John Theobold’s Everyman his own Physician, coition is an albeit wonderful pathology: “the action of coition is very impetuous, and comes near to a convulsion. The animal heat is greatly lessened thereby, the habit of the body weakened wonderfully, and the whole nervous system largely injured” (60). Michael Ryan also argued that too frequent coition “exalts the excitability of the whole nervous system” (53) and that carried to excess, coition “is a fertile cause of an immense number of diseases” (54). The famous quack James Graham thundered that “every act of self-pollution and even every repetition of natural venery, with even the loveliest of the sex, is an earthquake, a blast, a deadly paralytic stroke, to all the faculties of both soul and body!” (Lecture 26). In making practitioners of both natural and unnatural venery open to disease, Graham attempted to widen the pool of patients from whom he could extort one guinea for a consultation.

Fears that coition was unhealthy were not confined to popular medical literature: the famous anatomist and physiologist John Hunter explained in his Essays and Observations on Natural History that “perhaps the final reason of this spasm weakening so much, is to prevent the testes from secreting until the constitution is again restored [. . .]. [A]ll this is from a design to limit venery; for as the pleasures arising from such practices are too great to be checked by reason, it was necessary that a stop should be put to the desires” (194). In his medical lectures, the surgeon Astley Cooper linked male genitals with disease; he went so far as to suggest that “nine tenths of surgical diseases we meet with are in the male organs of generation” (6).[7] At once necessary to health and proximate to pathology, coition and sexual pleasure had a key role to play in the public sphere.

Having given a brief overview of why sexual pleasure became medicalized, I now focus on a few important medical works of the Romantic period. William Buchan’s Domestic Medicine, the first comprehensive medical book published in Britain addressed to the general reader, appeared in 1769 and went through nineteen editions in Buchan’s lifetime. The work sold for an affordable six shillings.[8]Domestic Medicine is helpful for understanding how medicine helped to police the translation of private bourgeois vices to public virtues for two reasons: one, like many other popular medical writers, Buchan is skeptical that acquisitiveness can be a public virtue because it is deleterious to health, and, two, he argues for the need to make medicine a public discourse—open to the poor—so that medical theories can truly be tested and that the differences between quackery and medicine can be made clear. He condemned, for example, the use of Latin in medical works even though Latin was often used as a mark of authentic medical knowledge (C. J. Lawrence 25). Far from guaranteeing autonomy and pure humanity because privacy isolated the bourgeois family from the market, privacy in Buchan’s view explains the rampant spread of venereal diseases. In an age when doctors limited their physical examinations of their patients to their face because of notions of privacy and decorum (Porter, Greatest Benefit 257), Buchan’s distrust of privacy, and linkage of it with concealment, is especially noteworthy. Nonetheless, Habermas’s sense of how publicity works to substitute one form of domination, “rational-critical debate” (28), for another, autocratic rule, alerts us to the way in which Buchan’s notion of publicity helps consolidate the power of the doctor over the patient even as he helps to prevent the poor from being duped by quacks.

In the popular Domestic Medicine, Buchan argues that acquisitiveness is no virtue from the standpoint of health. Although mechanics (the poor) may not have what it takes to become enfranchised into the public sphere, they have valuable lessons for the body politic: they teach the wealthier classes the virtues of simplicity, exercise, and perspiration. Buchan announces that “peculiar attention is paid to the diseases of mechanics. That useful set of people, upon whom the riches and prosperity of Britain depend, can never be too much regarded” (xi). Buchan’s first strategy against acquisition as a necessary public virtue is to underscore that money cannot buy health. His advertisement urges more attention to regimen—diet and exercise—“and less solicitousness in hunting after wonderful medicines.” To combat infant mortality, he denounces those mothers who “abandon the fruit of her womb, as soon as it is born, to the sole care of a hireling” (4). He rails against midwives because they overdress children [with] too much finery (14). Nor are cooks to be trusted: “All high seasoning, pickles, &c are only incentives to luxury, and never fail to hurt the stomach,” Buchan submits. He continues, “it were well for mankind if cookery as an art, were entirely prohibited” (68). All forms of luxury are deleterious to the health. Nerves are weakened by inactivity. Consumption is caused by a sedentary lifestyle and smallpox is concomitant with a luxurious mode of life.

For Buchan, indulgence, moreover, is the source of immorality; it “not only occasions diseases, and renders men useless to society, but promotes all manner of vice. To say a man is idle, is perhaps, in strongest terms, to call him vicious. The mind, if not engaged in some useful pursuit, is constantly in quest of ideal pleasures, or impressed with the apprehension of some imaginary evil” (102). Buchan insists:

the author of nature hath endued us with various passions, for the propagation of the species, the preservation of the individual and c. [sic] Intemperance is the abuse of these passions; and in the proper regulation of them, moderation consists. Men not content with satisfying the simple calls of nature, create artificial wants and are perpetually in search after something that may gratify them; but imaginary wants can never be gratified. Nature is content with a little; luxury knows no bounds. Intemperance tends so much to prevent propagation.


Buchan’s distinction between natural real wants and artificial, ideal, and imaginary wants—luxury—makes acquisitiveness for its own sake a vice, not a virtue. Buchan’s logic makes clear that the birth of a consumer society was bound up with its own demise since the imaginary wants upon which consumption must perpetuate but never fulfil lead to sterility and barrenness. Of course, although Buchan’s own Domestic Medicine appealed solely to real wants, his advertisement closed with a list of “simple druggs [sic] and medicines as ought to be kept, at least in every gentleman’s family” (emphasis mine; xv). “Gentleman” facilitates the very slide from real to imaginary that Buchan purportedly seeks to prevent.

In Buchan’s Treatise on the Prevention and Cure of the Venereal Disease (first published in 1796), he makes privacy, not intemperance, with regard to sexual matters the real vice. Privacy is a vice because it does not enable the truth of medical theories to come out; it prevents medical practitioners from curing patients because they do not know the real (sexual) causes of diseases. Once again the demonization of privacy in support of greater publicity becomes a means of smuggling domination through the back door; we only need here recall his dismissive remarks about nurses and midwives which deny women any kind of role in the healthcare professions. Since sexual desire is so powerful that it trumps reason, it undermines the notion that the public sphere is based on a democratic rationality: “the Venereal Disease arises from the gratification of the strongest passion which Nature has implanted in the human breast; a passion which has often acquired its full strength before reason has assumed her throne, and which not infrequently sets Reason, even in the full plenitude of her power at defiance. Nature never intended that the propagation of the species should be left to the cool dictates of reason” (58). Here Buchan perhaps echoes Hume’s idea that reason was powerless to motivate, reason was “inert” because of its cool detachment. So much for the Age of Reason! Buchan continues, “though the power of this passion is acknowledged by all, yet, in most countries, a degree of turpitude, unless under certain circumstances, is annexed to its gratification. This lays the foundation of concealment, which, too often, both in a moral and medical view, produces tragic consequences. Shame, fear, or false modesty, have induced many a young man to conceal his situation, till the disease has become incurable” (58-59). Buchan makes bourgeois propriety and modesty the real public vice insofar as it falsely denies that sexual desire can trump reason, and it links sex outside of marriage with turpitude so much so that men would rather die than reveal that they have masturbated or been with prostitutes. That Buchan makes it clear that proper hygiene and early medical intervention can cure venereal diseases, moreover, opens him up to the charges of promoting the vice of promiscuous intercourse because now promiscuity has no irremediable bodily consequences.

Having acknowledged that the pleasures of sex can overcome reason, Buchan then, in a move that recalls Hutcheson’s moral aesthetics, argues that high culture is the only prophylaxis to voluptuousness. As a substitute for libidinous pleasures, cultivation helps to sanitize the public sphere. Buchan quotes Huffleland, “a well-informed medical writer,” who argues that people must “employ the mind, particularly with serious, abstruse subjects, which may divert it from sensuality. Guard against every thing that may inflame the imagination, and give it a tendency to voluptuousness; such as, lewd conversation, the reading of loose and lascivious poetry or romances, and all intercourse with seducing females, many kinds of dances, &c” (qtd. in Buchan, Treatise 87). Buchan’s linking of women, pleasure, seduction, and disease here participates in what Mary Spongberg refers to as “feminizing venereal disease,” which labeled men as the victims of women’s diseased bodies. Indeed, Buchan warns men that “unhappy females [. . .] lie in wait to ensnare the unguarded youth as he passes along. The young man must have uncommon resolution indeed, who can always resist these temptations; yet by yielding in a single instant, he may be undone” (82). Such feminizing, assisted in part by the equation of males with cleanliness and victimhood and females with filth and active seduction, became more pernicious in the late eighteenth century when doctors discovered that women could be diseased without appearing to be diseased (Spongberg 5). Indeed, the slang for condoms, “armour” from female disease, perpetuates this feminization (St. Clair 464).

While Buchan targeted especially those who could not afford to hire a physician yet wanted to think of themselves as gentlemen, the Bath physician, James Adair, made a career out of catering to wealthy patients. Whereas in considering his audience, Buchan made the mechanic body a sign of health—perspiration, for him, is the sine qua non of health—Adair makes it clear that although refinement opens the body up to disease, that heightened sensibility, along with the class status it brings and reifies, is worth its price. Together, Buchan and Adair enable us to see a lack of consensus about whose body should stand in for the social body (public sphere): rich or poor?[9] In his Philosophical and Medical Sketch of the Natural History of the Human Body (1787), Adair admits that “what we acquire in our mental powers by culture and social intercourse with our own species, we lose in bodily strength, agility, and instinct” (217-18). Nonetheless, Adair is openly sympathetic to those who can afford to be hypochondriacs; he writes, “none are so much objects of compassion, but who seldom meet with it, as those who, from an irritable system of nerves, and a delicate state of health, labour under the various degrees of hypochondriacism [. . .]” (86). His figuring of hypochondria in terms of “labour” is designed to compel middle-class sympathy. Adair continues, “whimsical ideas and apprehensions of such persons, though generally subjects of ridicule to others, are, to the sufferers, real and grievous evils” (87). Adair has put his finger on precisely yet another problem with connecting pleasure with public virtue: how do you explain why the perception of pain and pleasure varies from person to person so much so that what “real pain” is is the subject for debate? To complicate matters further, Adair suggests that the line between pain and pleasure is itself tenuous: “tickling to a certain degree is pleasurable, but in excess, painful” (90). “There is but a very thin partition between a pleasant and a painful sensation” (48). Adair wishes away the problems this confusion might entail by suggesting that “even painful sensations are productive of salutary effects, and the Supreme Being has interwoven a relish for pleasurable sensations with our frame, to excite us to the performance of those duties which are necessary to our preservation” (90).[10]

These problems aside, Adair hopes to make one’s experience of sexual pleasure crucial in determining who has access to the public sphere. Beginning with Governour [sic] Holwell’s theory that human bodies are inhabited by the spirits of rebellious angels and that females, because of their meekness, have the least of the devil in them, Adair writes,

It is probable that ladies of rank and fashion will deem the Governour’s theory least exceptionable; convinced as they must be, that personages of the ton have an exclusive claim to the virtues of meekness and self-denial, as the genuine fruits of polite education; whilst the middling and lower ranks of females are too much under the influence of rude and untutored nature, to disguise or suppress their constitutional propensities, or conceal the workings of the demoniacal spirit. Though we may not be able totally to subdue the spirit that is within us, we may at least avoid whatever may tend to evince our alliance with the brutes.


One’s relationship to sexual desire becomes a mark of class distinction. Although Adair is initially somewhat skeptical that “our alliance with the brutes” can be subdued, he later insists that in the refined, appetites are connected with the will, “which is that action of the mind by which it prefers certain conditions to others; inclining us to enjoy what is good, and to avoid what is evil, [. . . the] wanton abuse of nature, by creating and indulging artificial inclinations, to the utter perversion of our natural appetites” (91-92). Connecting pleasure with the will enables pleasure to remain good and evil to become abuse of pleasure. Of course, the sneering tone of condescension in the above paragraph, as is evident in the use of they, implies that gender trumps class in determining who is not fit for the public sphere. Even refined women need not apply. Adair is then compelled to state that passions leave their mark on body: “[upon] inspecting the bodies of those who have died from violent passions, there were the same appearances of disease in the brain, as are enumerated under delirium, madness, and melancholy” (95). Because passion manifests itself as a disease, and because pathology demanded that disease manifest itself in the physical deformations of organs of the human body, how then can our “natural appetites” stave off perversion if in fact those very appetites and passions make our bodies pathological? This fudging of a correspondence between structure and disease, I suggest, indicates that sex is becoming sexuality.

The explosion of anti-masturbation literature in the eighteenth century peaked around 1750 (Hekma 80) and helped to make clear that there was no such thing as a purely private pleasure.[11] Insofar as private pleasure had enormous and profound effects on the social body—it made, these authors insistently argued, men effeminate, incapable of erection, and it made women nymphomaniacs, and, what was even worse, women “indifferent” to the “lawful pleasures of Hymen” (Tissot, Onanism 43)—private pleasure might cripple and sterilize the body politic. Tissot would explicitly argue that “effeminacy was one of the consequences” of “immoderate emission” (Three Essays 21). Andrew Elfenbein has shown that effeminacy was pushed closer to sodomy in the eighteenth century (20-22), and this linking of masturbation, effeminacy, and sodomy suggests a great deal of skepticism about pleasure as a public virtue. Randolph Trumbach has further argued that this literature helped to make sexual interaction among adolescent males taboo, and that “the male body,” thereby, “—whether one’s own or another’s—[became] closed off as [an] object of male desire” (24).[12] Somatic pleasure thus becomes understood as bodily and mental decay. While men too would thereby lose “all sensation in the privities” (Sibley 144), the physician G. Douglas thought that masturbation was the cause of women’s “false conception,” giving birth to dead flesh (23). Female masturbators might also become addicted to dildoes. This fantasy of how pleasure works upon the body—masturbation as a habit opens a Pandora’s box of perversions—helps to pathologize pleasure and to make one’s sexual habits central to one’s “humanity.” The taboo against masturbation also shows recognition of the possibility that pleasure is inherently self-directed and that the gap between pleasure as a private vice and as a public virtue was wide indeed. Only if it was understood that pleasure had bodily consequences could it become a public virtue. And since one common argument was that vice enslaved one to vice, vice became an important strategy for policing the public sphere. Because “debauchery sinks him to level of brute,” the masturbator, unless cured, presumably has no right to participate in the public sphere (Solomon 102).

Like much popular medical literature, anti-masturbation tracts linked luxury with disease, a conflation that furthered the middle class’s understanding of pleasure in terms of moderation, as that which allowed pleasure to move from a private vice to a public virtue. The famous Swiss doctor Tissot claimed that seeking fashionable and imaginative pleasures even warps the body’s nervous system so much so that “the edifice of his fashionable pleasures [. . .] becomes the foundation of his pains” (Three Essays 68). Masturbation thus perverts the organs of pleasure into organs of pain. My argument is simply that anti-masturbation literature facilitated the abjection of the wrong kinds of pleasure from the public sphere so that pleasure could remain a public virtue.[13] That sex between men and women was regularly referred to as “commerce between the sexes” helped to link masturbation with perverse hoarding and spending. Tissot’s example abjects imaginative and fashionable pleasures because they pervert the nerves from organs of pleasure into organs of pain. Of course, the lack of anaesthetics helps to explain why pain can be so easily demonized. A clear example of abjection is found in the The Young Man’s Monitor: Shewing the Great Happiness of Early Piety and the Dreadful Consequences of Indulging in Youthful Lusts (1788), which argued that “the paths of religions were the only paths of rational pleasure and peace” (8).

Abjecting the wrong kinds of pleasure from the public sphere also took the form of quasi-physiological accounts of what love could do for the male body. Medical literature on masturbation thus argued that love enhances bodily pleasure and that only the joy in love or beauty helps to replace the catastrophic losses to the spermatic economy. Here we witness the construction of a physiological explanation for what Gayle Rubin calls the “charmed circle” of sexuality whereby certain acts are accorded full humanity and complexity while others outside the circle are not (12-14). The author of Aristotle’s Masterpiece, the most popular source of sexual knowledge in the eighteenth century, insisted that there was “no content in the embraces of a harlot, so there is no greater joy than in the reciprocal affection and endearing embraces of a loving, obedient, and chaste wife” (42).[14] For Bienville, love is “the spark [. . .] that may be said to wind the constitution up, above its natural powers” (159). Bourgeois notions of the family ground themselves in medical accounts of pleasure. Tissot submitted that the joy of love “animates the circulation, accelerates all the functions, restores strength and supports it,” adding that beauty too “has charms which dilate our hearts, and multiply it’s [sic] spirits” (Three Essays 73). And Samuel Solomon argued, “love is engrafted by nature in the human breast, the mother plant of every virtue [. . .] it is by this celestial fire that the sexes beget an ardent desire to give and receive something essentially pleasing, which creates in them an idea of felicity not to be described, not to be compared to any thing except to heaven itself” (102). He added, “joy that the soul feels restores what was lost” (106). For women, however, the restorative powers of love were more ambiguous: William Rowley listed “love” in his Treatise on Female [. . .] Diseases and stated that the “fiery flame of love [. . .] consumes its votary, if not gratified with the object of mental attraction” (287). For him, in women, love often leads to insanity. This last example suggests it is no accident that works on masturbation so often tout marriage as both the prevention and cure for the solitary vice and thus seek to convert unproductive pleasure into productive pleasure.[15] If women risked insanity with love, marriage would have to be touted. I suggest that this massive outpouring of literature was persuasive. The demographic numbers actually support my hypothesis that anti-masturbation literature (which peaked around 1750) helped to make certain unproductive sexual acts foreplay leading up to the real thing (productive sexual intercourse). These works also perhaps helped to encourage women to marry earlier. M.D.T. Bienville, for example, insists that pregnancy cures the furor uterinus or nymphomania (107). To prevent too much damage from the solitary vice, writers like the author of An Essay Addressed to All Parents, recommended marriage as soon as economically possible after puberty. Henry St. John Neale even suggested that women who refused offers of marriage must be “capable of pleasuring themselves” (58); either they were masturbators or they would want to marry. Perhaps the stigma attached to the spinster or old maid was no longer sufficient to encourage marriage. By placing unproductive sex and disease within a narrative that culminates in heterosexual intercourse and cure, the literature against onanism made even unproductive sex productive so long as it could be building up to the real thing. Tim Hitchcock and Henry Abelove use the considerably lower birth rates of the first half of the eighteenth century, as well as manuscript evidence, to argue that mutual masturbation, oral sex, or sodomy were the rule, not the exception, before the late eighteenth century.[16] Henry Abelove cites the demographic studies of Wrigley and Schofield to show that the enormous rise in population during the eighteenth century was due to a rise in fertility because more women got married and married younger (126) and because more women had illegitimate births.[17] Simply put, heterosexual intercourse became more popular in the late eighteenth century as the industrial revolution placed more primacy upon production. Indeed, Wrigley and Schofield demonstrate conclusively that the rate of natural increase in England was at a low of .52 in the decade of 1760-69, growing to a high of 1.69 from 1820-29 (165). That so much of this literature against onanism linked indolence with masturbation highlights a nascent linking of sexual and economic productivity, one which helped to make productive sexual pleasure a public virtue. By giving heterosexual intercourse a teleology, moreover, anti-masturbation literature perhaps made it possible to engage in unproductive sex so long as those acts culminated in intercourse. This seems even more possible once we recall that anti-masturbation literature often promoted masturbation. I will develop this below.

The anatomist and physician, John Hunter, ignited a firestorm of controversy with the first edition of A Treatise on Venereal Disease (1786) when he disagreed with the restorative powers of love.[18] Hunter began by daring to argue that onanism was not as harmful as most believed:

how far the attribution to this practice [onanism] such a consequence, is of public utility, I am doubtful, ...many of those, who are affected with the complaints in question, are miserable from this idea, and it is some consolation for them to know that it is impossible it may arise from other causes. I am clear in my own mind, that the books on this subject have done more harm than good.


Hunter contrasts the idea of the effects of masturbation and the actual somatic effects of masturbation; what makes the idea so difficult to track is that it has somatic effects. But what really angered the medical establishment, was his claim that having sex with someone you loved was much more damaging to the body than sex via masturbation or with a common woman. These remarks were so controversial that Hunter had them struck from the second edition of 1788:

I think I may affirm that this act in itself does less harm to the constitution in general than the natural. That the natural with common women, or such as we are indifferent about, and does less harm to the constitution than when it is not so selfish, and where the affections for the woman are also concerned. Where it is only a constitutional act it is simple, and only one action takes place; but where the mind becomes interested, it is worked up to a degree of enthusiasm, increasing the sensibility of the body and disposition for action; and when the complete action takes place it is with proportional violence; and in proportion to the violence is the degree of debility produced, or injury done to the constitution.


Here we have a dichotomy between sex that involves the affections and enthusiasm and therefore the mind (the term sexuality may be applicable here) and sex that is merely a “selfish” or purely “constitutional” act. The interesting wrinkle that Hunter adds is that, for him, love makes sex more damaging to the body because it does violence both to body and mind. Despite the fact that Hunter links bourgeois sexuality with pathology, he nonetheless facilitates the creation of Rubin’s “charmed circle” by presenting certain sex acts as merely physical—the choice of a common woman—and others as involving the body and mind.[19] Hunter thereby helped to make affectionate heterosexual intercourse fully human. While Foucault labels the Romantic period one of “perverse implantation” (36-49), I want to use Habermas to highlight the concomitant heterosexual implantation that was also taking place—one that understood the proper sexual narrative to climax at intercourse—because one implantation could not take place without the other.

These works against masturbation are further important for their theorization of the ways in which pleasure is materialized onto the mind and the body. Such materialization helps to proffer a seemingly self-evident explanation of why certain private vices had to be eradicated. In Onanism, Tissot claimed that “as soon as Custom has obtained any degree of strength, the soul and body both concur in soliciting this crime; the soul beset with unclean thoughts, excites lascivious emotions” (76) and that “a bad habit may so far pervert the constitution of the organs, that the necessity of these evacuations may no longer depend upon the quantity of matter to be evacuated” (73). To the extent that custom and habits could physically alter the body, acts shade into identity even as juridical power works both by negation and by productive power. Others worried about how obscene materials might in fact forever pervert one’s mental train of associations. Moreover, although Tissot initially blames an enlarged clitoris as the reason behind lesbianism—women perceive their enlarged organ and “glory [. . .] in this kind of resemblance [to a man’s part] (46)—he later implies that women who masturbate elongate their clitorises. Are bodies the cause or the effect? This slippage between cause and effect can be explained in part by the fact that as sexuality is internalized and psychologized, perversion can no longer be understood merely in terms of the ontology of clinical anatomy, actual defective physical organs. While John Hunter insisted that both the mind and body are “formed by habit” (Essays 264), the surgeon William Lawrence claimed in an article on “Generation” for Rees’s Encyclopedia that habit “instead of blunting the enjoyment [. . .] renders it rather more acute, and often gives rise to factitious wants” (n.p.).[20] If repetition of acts modifies the body, and if custom and habit are written on the body so much so that pleasure is itself intensified, then it follows that acts in their repetition bespeak identity. The Latin root of “identity,” we might recall, means same and same.

To the extent that these physiological accounts of love and pleasure helped to put the finishing touches on what Lawrence Stone has called “affective individualism” (153-70) by making affection, marriage, and productivity good for the body, this anti-masturbation literature worked to ground pleasure in a bodily economy that was not free market. In fact, the body’s economy signaled the limitations of laissez-faire economics in two ways: in the body, supply and demand had to be regulated since supplies were limited, and because these writers often defined luxury in terms of unhealthy imported goods, the body benefited from economic protectionism. Anti-masturbation literature thus enabled an embodiment of capitalism that perpetuated the illusion of a legitimate public sphere based on equalizing free market principles, despite the necessary qualification of property ownership. Embodiment allowed for the possibility that the free market would not translate into equality and equal opportunity because the body required regulation and protectionism. Tissot even went so far as to claim that Britain’s Empire was making it unhealthy. He warns that “simple fare is best” and that foreign comestibles and spices like pepper, wines, coffee, brandy, and chocolate heighten sensibility so much so that disease will ensue (Tissot, Three Essays 18). Here Tissot rehearses George Cheyne’s claim in The English Malady that as English wealth has increased, the English have “ransacked parts of the Globe to bring together its whole stock of Materials for Riot, Luxury, and to provoke Excess” (49). Cheyne explicitly lays the fault for nervous diseases at the door of “Eastern pickles and sauces” and “French Cookery” (51). Yet in naturalizing certain forms of regulation, this embodiment helped to finesse the problems of a public sphere that had to limit its members. Tissot too warns that a foreign diet inflames the organs of secretion.

Masturbation thus revealed important “truths” about the bodily economy and the role of pleasure in that economy, often exploiting current biomedical theories of the sperm as the principle of vitality (Porter, Health 169). Proper seminal function helped to maintain the equilibrium between the fluid and solid parts of the body (Physician of Bristol 34). Copious evacuations had to be avoided because it weakened the nervous system, causing excessive relaxation of the fibers (Tissot, Onanism 61). In a later work, Tissot argued that masturbation prevented nutrition (Tissot, Three Essays 9). Hence masturbators were stunted in their growth and weak. Henry St. John Neale maintained in his Practical Essays and Remarks on that Species of Consumption Incident to Youth Commonly Called the Tabes Dorsalis that “health is a due degree of animal fire” (16) and that masturbation exhausts that vital fire. Since sperm was understood to be a highly refined product of the blood, it was an especially valuable and limited form of capital that had to be invested wisely. One ounce of seminal liquor, Tissot maintained, was equivalent to forty ounces of blood (Tissot, Three Essays 11). In an Essay to Parents, the author explicitly grounded his warning in economic terms: masturbation was a “perpetual, exorbitant, and preposterous expenditure” (12). A author writing under the name of “Physician of Bristol” commented that the “manifold convolutions” of the vesiculae seminales “retarded the circulating motion of that fine animal fluid, and by that tortuous mechanism to prepare, subtilize, and highly digest the same, till at length it arrives [. . .] at perfection” (29). And John Keats’s teacher, Astley Cooper, later published his Structure and Diseases of the Testicles, giving concrete proof of the dense network of veins associated with the testes for those who could afford this lavishly illustrated volume, and adding credence to notion that the sperm was one of the body’s most valuable investments. The convoluted nature of the arteries and veins surrounding the testicles, Cooper commented, made it “obvious that nature has designed it to make the circulation slow, the secretion elaborate” (32). J.J. Plenck, the author of Hygrology, agreed, claiming that chaste men reabsorbed semen in body to conciliate the strength of body (192). Finally, James Graham believed that semen was doubly valuable: not only was it the food of life, but it was also the food for the child (6-7).

Prevailing cultural homologies about the brain and penis made the costs of masturbation for men all the more exorbitant. An author writing under the pseudonym “Physician in the Country” claimed that masturbation robbed the blood of “its most pure particles” and that the “lymphatic seminal fluid is almost of the same nature and quality with that fluid which is secreted in the brain, and distributed through all the nerves of the body; for which reason, the more plentiful the evacuation of the former is, the more scanty and defective the secretion of the other in the brain must of course be” (28). Loss of semen thus meant a two-fold loss of virility and of mental function: in short, the loss of masculinity. Tissot explained that so close is the connection between the brain and the testicles that loss of semen meant a “loss of strength and motion to the parts” as well as the wherewithal to “assist the functions of the soul” ( Three Essays 48). Such a loss of strength would even have the power to make men “effeminate” (Tissot, Three Essays 21). Insofar as anti-masturbation literature depicts masculinity as always on the verge of being lost—males can easily shade into effeminacy of the body and mind—juridical power is once again much more than negative. Drawing on such beliefs, Malthus in 1817 dismissed birth control because he feared that too frequent sex would “remove a tendency to industry” (qtd. in St. Clair 460). If masturbation transformed men back to the “equivocal state” they were in before puberty, then this suggests that sex was a much more flexible essence than we now understand it to be.

Anti-masturbation tracts were also important in keeping women—despite their greater sensibility (humanity) than men—out of the public sphere. By converting women’s greater sensibility into a sexual pathology, these works made it clear that if women had the potential to be more sensitive and therefore more human than men, this potential could never be met since women’s sensibility made her more subject to diseases. Tissot believed that since women only lost a humour of less value in masturbation, their losses were not so damaging; nonetheless, since their nervous systems were weaker than men’s they couldn’t handle the loss (Three Essays 63). In Nymphomania, M.D.T. Bienville asserted that women had three organs of pleasure—the clitoris, the vagina, and the “internal face of the matrix” as opposed to just one in men (51). In addition, Bienville claimed that “the organs of women receive much more lively impressions” than men (53). So much for penis envy. Yet this greater capacity for bodily pleasure was, as we might expect, really a liability, reducing women into bodies: libidinal beings with “violent desires” (54). Insisting that the “laws of society are public wants, to which it was necessary to sacrifice several particular wants,” Bienville went so far as to justify the sacrifice of women for the greater good of the public sphere: “it happens that our young ladies are brought up in a restraint, and decency, which frequently are capable of irritating their passions, of causing a revolution, and disorder in the physical system of their nature, and of rendering them victims of the public good” (160-61). That this restraint makes women’s bodies diseased only makes their sacrifice all the more heroic. Even worse, Tissot insisted that female masturbators became indifferent to the lawful pleasures of hymen (Onanism 43). Through masturbation, a young lady might open herself to Sapphic pleasures. Naming this “clitorical pollution,” and aligning it with Sappho and Lesbides infamem quae me fecistis amatae, Tissot states that “it is frequently practiced at present” (46). “Women have been known to love girls with as much fondness as ever did the most passionate of men, and conceive the most poignant jealousy, when they were addressed by the male sex upon the score of love” (47). Here the language of Romantic female friendship will not transcend lesbian sex, despite Lillian Faderman’s claims to the contrary. It is this coupling of friendship and sex that enables lesbian sex to approach the humanity of heterosexual sex. I suggest that it is this very proximity of lesbian sex to humanity, this particular brand of homophobia that fixates on how homosexual sex might in fact be human, that helped many critics relying upon Faderman to make lesbianism an historical invention of the late nineteenth century.

That so much of this literature against onanism actually encouraged some to practice this secret vice by hawking cures that would allow the masturbator to have his or her pleasure and then cure the patient of its effects actively transformed a private vice into a public pleasure. Foucault tells us part of the story when he claims that anti-masturbation literature generates erotic desire to control it; Habermas enables us to see the complex structuring of control and the productiveness of that control. If this literature did not clarify differences between productive pleasure and unproductive pleasure, the vicious pleasures of masturbation could still be transmogrified into the public sphere through the admittedly problematic public virtue of acquisition. Tissot in fact felt compelled to defend himself from the charge that he was promoting vice as opposed to preventing it (Three Essays v) even as he jokingly put forth that “a certain quantity of humours ready prepared, and naturalized, (if I may be allowed the expression) should always be at hand” in order for a body to be healthy (10). If Tissot really wanted to link masturbation with vice, why does he make this joke about hands? Replete with testimonials to the efficacy of these medicinal cures, tracts against onanism made solitary pleasure economically productive even if they could not convince readers of the superior pleasures of marriage. Samuel Solomon’s Guide to Health; or, Advice to Both Sexes (1798), a work that Byron knew, blames masturbation for consumption, hysteria, bad complexion, and a bad memory. Yet it is really one long advertisement for Solomon’s Balm of Gilead, which he sold for half a guinea per bottle. The publisher of An Essay Addressed to All Parents upon a Vice, the bane of the moral and physical constitution, carefully appended both a list of their most recent medical publications and, for those who could not afford to buy them, an advertisement for the Burgess and Hill “Medical, Chemical, and Philosophical Circulating Library and Reading Room.” A yearly subscription cost only one pound and sixteen shillings. While Henry Neale hawks Hoffman’s tincture, an author calling himself a “Physician in the Country” sells his nervous restorative elixir for ten shillings, six pence, the cost of over ten times the pamphlet itself. For an additional five shillings and three pence, one could not only restore nerve function but also strengthen it with a “Strengthening Electuary” (Advertisement). Furthermore, since the dissemination of medical knowledge was the purported aim of so much of this literature, knowledge was used to justify printing what otherwise was obscene; medicine allows titillation—an encounter with the obscene—to mask itself as cultivation, self-help, Bildung. Thus anti-masturbation literature has an important role in its manifold transformations of private vice into public virtue.

The persistent linking of novels with onanism within anti-masturbation tracts raises the problem of literary and imaginative pleasure generally: what is the relation between the public virtues of cultivation and those of pleasure? Although literary pleasure could avoid the status of vice and become worthy of public virtue under the banner of cultivation, these authors questioned the extent to which cultivation was really an excuse for hedonism. Bienville claims that luxurious novels lead to the knowledge of all the grosser passions (30). Tissot even equated the “man of letters” with the masturbator: “the masturbator, entirely devoted to his filthy meditations, is subject to the same disorders as the man of letters, who fixes his attention upon a single question; and this excess is almost constantly prejudicial” (Onanism 75). The physician and father of the Romantic poet of the same name, Thomas Beddoes, warns in his three-volume Hygeia: Or Essays Moral and Medical on the Causes Affecting the Personal State of our Middling and Affluent Classes (1802) that novels and circulating library literature lead to onanism and that these “account for a great deal of sickliness we find in existing society” (1: 45). Beddoes continues: “the sensations to which all these melting tales immediately give rise, and the voluptuous reveries, which they leave behind, may without injustice, be regarded, as part of the concealed fountain, from which the NILE of female unhealthiness derives its origin” (1: 46). Having argued that “it is very seldom possible to raise a fence around a family, which shall prevent impurity for ever from coming into contact with its younger members” (1: 38), Beddoes clearly attempts to keep the private the locus of humanity, and to do so he must exile all sensuousness literature from his healthy republic. If Cathy Davidson is right to say that novels were perhaps the most effective means of birth control in the nineteenth century (117), perhaps the harshness of Beddoes’s language betrays recognition that novels substitute a relatively unproductive form of pleasure—reading—for a productive one: heterosexual sex. Finally, when Tissot’s translator calls his Three Essays “a Medicinal Novel” (viii), we see how cultivation and hedonism are conflated. Such a conflation is more disturbing if we recall that Tissot may have intended to promote the solitary vice so that he could help cure it.

The history of masturbation, it would seem then, has important lessons for literary history and for the history of sexuality. The manifold ways in which pleasure must be structured in order to remain a public virtue suggests that it perhaps should remain a private vice. Behind fears of masturbation are deep cultural anxieties about the productiveness of pleasure and its status as public virtue. That anti-masturbation literature so often denounces novels further indicates the inseparability of sexual and aesthetic sensation. Indeed, given the prevailing medical understanding of the mind and body as being interconnected through a complex network of nerves, the distinctions between physical sensuousness and mental sensuousness that aesthetics so often takes for granted seem invented rather than real. Since both forms of pleasure—the sensual and the aesthetic—are processed by the same nervous system, it is not clear how one kind can have one influence and not the other.

Medical works on sterility and barrenness also helped to police the translation of private vices to public virtues. By solidifying the links between the aristocracy, luxury, and impotence or barrenness, these works helped to consolidate the middle-class’s public influence and power. The explanations for the linkage of upper-class sexuality with barrenness and sterility were both social and biological. Tissot argued in his Advice to the People that fewer marriages were producing fewer christenings: his reasoning for this decline in fertility was that the expense of children was counter to parade and ostentation. Tissot’s recognition that economic consumption was at odds with reproduction invites the regulation of both so that economic production facilitates reproduction. G. Archibald Douglas agreed, submitting that the rich allow “interested views [to] defer their marriage until late in life [. . .] until they are past its best purposes and highest enjoyments [. . .]: while the poor, to whom all matches are equal, come together when nature prompts them, and beget children hearty to till the land (51). Together, these explanations suggest that Malthus inverted the real problem when he blamed the poor for the lack of moral restraint, leading to population outstripping the food supply. The real problem was the upper class’s immoral restraint, its need for luxuries that prevented them from propagation. Immune to the enervating effects of luxury because they could not afford them, the lower classes could produce too many of the wrong bodies for the public sphere.

William Renwick provided a biological explanation for upper-class sterility in hisAttempt to Restore the Primitive Natural Constitution of Mankind when he said of “people of opulence” that “few do not fall under denomination valetudinarians consumptive or other chronical [sic] diseases continuing to enfeeble their rational powers [. . .] hence the want of children so universally complained of by those most able to provide for them” (6). Physician to the Prince Regent, Anthony Carlisle, agreed, perhaps not without a twinge of irony considering the excesses of his patron: wealth was “a great source of both hereditary disease and of enfeebled progeny” (55). While Robert Couper claimed that the “habitually luxurious are incomparably less prone to conception than the more robust and less artificial” (103), Michael Ryan warned that while “fine females are generally fond of admiration and dress, and seldom possess that desire so common to the sex, [. . .] corpulent women have also this inertness of the uterus, and seldom bear children [. . .]. Excessive irritability, too ardent for enjoyment, will derange the uterine functions (48-9). And George Alexander suggested in The Complete English Physician that barrenness proceeds from “an obstruction or irregularity of the menses” that was occasioned by “high living” and “relaxation” (55).

Medical works on sterility and barrenness also insisted that vice made the body sterile and equated vice with too much or too little sex and the wrong kinds of sex. Insofar the lower classes were linked with vice, this strategy again asserted the middle class’s right to the public sphere. G. Douglas claimed that debauchery burns up the very parts from which the animalcules should be formed (18). And because “in order to perfect generation, the male part must not only be received into the female, but remain there for some considerable time before the liquor is discharged into the womb” (21), masturbation led to premature ejaculation which in turn caused impotence. Michael Ryan, member of the Royal College of Physicians and editor of the London Medical and Surgical Journal, concurred, arguing that “frequent seminal emissions, whether by coition, masturbation, or pollution,” lead to sterility on the basis that the body was enervated and that the “seminal emission must be retained for a time to be useful” (30). If masturbation were continued during puberty, it would, in addition, “excite an invincible estrangement from natural pleasure” (31). Ryan felt compelled to denounce Voltaire for claiming that hermaphrodites or androgyns could produce offspring: perverse pleasure could not be productive. “To be ever present with the object of desire, and every instant to have the means of gratifying desire [. . .] human life would be a tissue of amorous transports and of luxurious sacrifices, which would render man totally unfitted for the performance of the social duties allotted to this condition” (22). The implication here is that if human beings had no obstacles to pleasure, then they would endlessly pursue pleasure and thus make themselves unfit for the public sphere. Without crucial safeguards and regulation, pleasure could not be a productive virtue. To make it easier to identify men who were sterile, Ryan claimed that sterile men were effeminate and had sharp and feminine voices (46). C. H. Wilkinson also argued that perverse pleasure could not be productive. His example was prostitutes. For them, pleasure was no longer pleasure. Having interviewed women at the Lying-in Charity about whether they “had ever experienced any sensation more particularly at the time of copulation which was the cause of their conception,” and finding that many had not, Wilkinson concluded that “sterility in consequence of frequent intercourse, originates from a want of sensibility in the uterus, in consequence of the stimulus being repeated so often as ultimately to be no longer a stimulus” (86). Wilkinson’s problem, of course, is that the organs themselves, even if feminine modesty would allow him to look at them, will not appear pathological; he must ask these women about their experiences of pleasure rather than look to the physical organs for signs of disease. Here we have a nascent linking of sexuality and psychology that resists the reduction of sex to anatomy. Ebenezer Sibley, member of the Royal College of Physicians at Aberdeen, moreover, claimed that immodest women had laxer and more lubricated vaginas and that this made them more vulnerable to syphilis (31).

As we might expect, these works further helped to deny women the right to participate in the public sphere. The argument that women have more complex organs of generation makes them responsible for the bulk of failures:

the general circumstances which so many ways operate to render a man impotent; these are but comparatively few to those which prevent a female from being impregnated; in the man, a capability of erection, and a proper seminal emission, are the only requisites; the female organs being more complicated, a derangement in any part suffices for sterility: the vagina, the uterus, the fallopian tubes, the ovaria, &c. are parts immediately requisite to conception; if in any one there is the least change of structure, the probability of impregnation is obviated.

Wilkinson 66

Far from a mark of superiority, complexity here equates to pathology. Echoing Wilkinson, James Graham insisted that barrenness is almost always the fault of the female because the female is liable to most of the diseases of the male sex and she is prone to diseases that have no effect on males. In A Treatise on Female [. . .] Diseases, William Rowley, member of the Royal College of Physicians, put forth the commonly accepted notion that women of superior rank menstruate more than others and for this reason were more vulnerable to disorders and barrenness (2-3). Rowley persistently linked menstruation itself with disease.

Even when these works insisted that women were being wrongly blamed for the failure to produce a child, they were not helpful to women’s participation in the public sphere. Michael Ryan ridiculed the statistic that women were at fault for failed conception thirty times for every one time that men were to blame (45). G. Douglas insisted that the man is one hundred times more likely the cause of the defect than the wife (52). Another medical writer claimed that the causes of barrenness are fewer in women than those of impotency in men; even worse impotency in men was often not curable whereas barrenness was (Physician 37-8). This medical literature did increasingly blame men for failures to conceive; however, the rewards of this blame were a consolidating and more active male role in generation itself. This consolidation nonetheless came at the price of the stigma of impotence, and this, in turn, compromised man’s essential right to the public sphere. As in anti-masturbation literature, masculinity is less an essence than a process to be maintained only by eternal vigilance. Hence in Inquiry into Nature and Cause of Impotence and Sterility, the author claims on the one hand that “ladies are great enemies to short encounters [intercourse]” (Physician 20), and, on the other, that “women who take least delight in the commerce with the other sex, conceive more readily than others” (37). At stake in this reduction of the role that female pleasure plays in generation is masculine activeness. The author of Inquiry insists that the male part must remain in the womb for a considerable time because “a great deal is to be done in the female, [. . .] the mouth womb must open, the tubes must swell, and “loose ends [must be] raised and applied close to the part where the eggs are lodged” (19). The language here is telling; whereas earlier medical writers often suggested that women’s pleasure did these things, here “a great deal must be done in the female.” The fudging of the verb—it is not explicit who is doing what—acknowledges the potential of feminine activeness. Whereas Thomas Laqueur helps us to see in this passage evidence of a “newly discovered contingency of delight [that] opened up the possibility of female passivity and passionlessness” (Making Sex 3), I want to insist upon the masculine activeness that this perpetuates—sometimes skeptically so—and the costs of that activeness. If men have to open the womb, cause tubes to swell, and raise the loose ends of the fallopian tubes, then they are logically to blame for failures in conception. The literature on barrenness and sterility thus paradoxically makes men more essentially active and females more essentially passive even as it heaps the lion’s share of the blame for failed conception upon men. By so raising the stakes of masculinity, medical literature elevated masculinity into a sign of distinction, yet perpetuated the notion of masculinity as an essence through a language of description that insisted upon the ontology of what was being described. Once again, sex will not be exhausted by anatomy.

A key figure in the literature on sterility and barrenness was James Graham, proprietor of the famous Celestial Bed, which he claimed could restore fecundity to married couples for a mere fifty pounds per night.[21] His “Divine Balsam,” moreover, could even make wives and husbands look “sweeter, LOVELIER, and MORE DESIRABLE” to each other (Guardian 37-8). William Wordsworth refers to Graham in book 7 of The Prelude as well as in his Juvenal satire of 1795. Graham illustrates Habermas’s claim that publicity works in the name of public interest even as it really promotes commerce. The shrewdness of his self-promotion in the name of public interest—he listed “Printed for the People” in the place of the publisher—can be seen in his explicit claim in Lecture on Generation that his work will help ensure that there will “be enough to man our fleets and increase our armies” (9). Written in the wake of the American Revolution and the Gordon riots, such a promise would have been especially enticing. Graham was an ardent republican. Arguing that “children are as necessary to happiness as health” (7), and that the “principal of propagation was the strongest of human passions” (5), Graham defined genitals as “the true pulse and infallible barometer of health” (36). As if he recognized that robust health might not be a sufficient enticement to heterosexual, marital intercourse, Graham further demanded a tax on those who did not marry (8). Graham also enables us to see the making of Rubin’s “charmed circle,” what we now call “heteronormativity.” If avoiding taxation is necessary to promote marriage, then can heterosexual married intercourse be as natural as it purports to be? He further insisted that sex outside of matrimony was non-prolific: the vigour of the genital organs of prostitutes was destroyed by the frequent act of venery. “I cannot call it pleasure; for the fine and susceptible organs of generation are rendered callous” (7-8). Once again the somatic is at odds with the prescriptive, and so empirical pleasure must be altered to fit the prescribed: surplus pleasure is not pleasure because it alters the genitals so that they cannot physiologically register pleasure. The shift from anatomy and callous organs to physiology and pleasure could help explain the lack of anatomical evidence in a living body. How, by the way, are medical men to gauge callousness anyway?

Yet for all his advocacy of the healthfulness of marriage, Graham sought to make even marital reproductive intercourse subject to medical intervention. Mandating separate beds in same room for married couples to prevent the “matrimonial whoredom” of married couples who sleep together every night (Lecture 31), he reasoned that separation would intensify the love for one another and that this love would ensure that the couple would have “a more numerous, a stronger, a more healthful, and a more beautiful family of children” (Lecture 31). Graham defines heteronormativity more and more narrowly—it becomes an impossible idealization insofar as it is unclear how many connections equate to “marital whoredom” or how much separation improves love. Such narrowing ensures that heterosexuality will confer the right to the public sphere to only a very select group at the same time as the idea of the normal insists that everyone can participate.

I have already shown how medical literature actively tries to transform pleasure as a private vice into pleasure as a public virtue. Health manuals, anti-masturbation literature, and medical works on impotence demonstrate clearly that this transformation was not without its problems and paradoxes. I conclude with a brief emphasis on neurology because this branch of medicine was crucial to the history of sexuality insofar as it located sex in the brain-mind, and thereby helped to endow sexuality with legitimate influence in the public sphere simply because that sphere could now be guided by a rationality that offered the principle of democratic access. At the same time, since nerves begin the eighteenth century as signs of masculine virtue—strength—and end the century feminized and pathologized into hysteria, they also suggest the fluidity of sex. If sexuality takes sex as its instrument and object, and if sex itself resists being reduced to two mutually exclusive categories, then sexuality can no longer be the coherent fiction that Foucault thought it could be. As sexuality becomes linked with the organs of sensation, the nerves, juridical power and constituitive power become confused as acts now begin to shape identity. Thomas Trotter’s A View of Nervous Temperment provides a segue from sterility to nerves; Trotter laments the fact that urban dwellers defer their marriages so they can acquire their fortunes. Sterility is common in towns but not in rustic villages. “Where sensibility trembles at every breath, the state of pregnancy is attended with constant terror and dread” (25). Trotter contributes to a discourse of nerves that linked sex with sensibility and thereby endowed sex with the power to make one’s very humanity intelligible.

The notion that sexual desire took place in the mind-brain-soul-imagination became a medical axiom by the late eighteenth century. Before then, sex was understood as a bodily urge. Such a shift enabled sex to serve as a metonym for humanity even as it mandated the lessening influence of anatomy and the rise of psychiatry for understanding sex (A. Davidson 2-3). Albrecht von Haller, in his Dissertation on the Sensible and Irritable Parts of Animals, translated into English in 1755, argued that the penis and breast nipple were “sensible” tissues, meaning by this that they transmitted impressions to the soul-mind. Roughly contemporaneously, he stated that man’s “identity of personality” resides in this same “intellectual soul” (Dr. Haller 2:ii). Locating sex in the mind-soul enables certain kinds of sexual pleasure to become public virtues even as it opens the door to the mind’s understanding of sex that can be at odds with anatomy. The influential doctor William Cullen argued in his Institutions of Medicine that the attention of mind “depends on force of impression, amount of pleasure or pain, degree of emotion or passion, and relation of emotion to feeling” (82-3); he thus articulated the inextricable connection between sexuality and the mind. While C. B. Courtenay added that the “mind is more intimately connected with the genital system, chiefly in men, though in a more certain degree in the other sex, than has been imagined” (122), Michael Ryan stated that the disorder of the genital organs must affect all parts of the body, as all parts are intimately connection with each other by the cerebro-spinal system, or by nerves (53). William Lawrence claimed in his article on “Generation” for Rees’s Encyclopedia that “organs endowed with a singular degree of sensibility, should exact a very extensive influence on the machine in general.” He underscored the importance of sexual desire to the body by insisting that “the nerves of the generative organs in both sexes, without being apparently very important by their size or number, come from various sources, are connected with those of all the abdominal viscera, and by them, or rather by the great sympathetic, which serves as a general medium of connection, with the most essential divisions of the nervous system.” John Hunter wrote in his Essays and Observations on Natural History, published posthumously, that “although the testicles are the cause of inclinations, yet they do not direct these inclinations: the inclinations become an operation of the mind, after the mind is once stimulated by the testicle” (2). In his earlier treatment of venereal disease, Hunter maintained that consciousness of impropriety makes a man impotent: “a conscientious man has been known to lose his powers on finding the woman, he was going to be connected with, unexpectedly a virgin” (202). By making impotence contingent upon the mind’s understanding, Hunter suggests that the transformation from sex to sexuality has taken place insofar as sex has not “exhausted” anatomy (A. Davidson 36). These examples all testify to the growing constituitive role that sexuality had with identity and help us to understand why sexuality could become so important to the formation of the public sphere.

My goal here has been to show how the medicalization of sexual pleasure facilitated the movement of that pleasure from a private vice to a public virtue. Both popular and elite medical manuals sought to define the proper use of sexual pleasure in terms of moderation and heterosexuality so that pleasure could remain a public virtue. Yet it is in the voluminous anti-masturbation literature that we witness a tortured abjection of certain kinds of pleasure out of the public sphere. Indeed, even as this literature connected masturbation with pathology, it facilitated the transformation of unproductive pleasure into productive pleasure—sometimes in surprising ways. The enormous medical literature on pleasure suggests that Habermas might provide an important corrective to Foucaultian histories of sexuality, one that not only asks when sex became sexuality, but also questions whether juridical power and the power that comes from linking sex with identity-pleasure are really as far apart as Foucault claims.