Sex Roles, Vol. 52, Nos. 3/4, February 2005 (
The Big Book of Masturbation: From Angst to Zeal.
Martha Cornog, San Francisco, CA, Down
There Press, 2003. 360 pp. $22.00.
Martha Cornog’s panoramic view of masturba-
tion won’t satisfy an interest in prurience, empiri-
cism, or sexual enhancement. Cornog’s purpose is
to provide “a kaleidoscopic picture of masturbation
through different disciplines” (p. xvii).
The author crosses historical, cultural, and aca-
demic lines to illustrate how “masturbation has been
regarded so negatively and also so positively” (p.
xv). The author is a librarian, and the breadth
of her research impresses, but she does not at-
tempt to answer any particular question. Thus, the
book reads more like an encyclopedia. Cornog an-
thologizes writers on masturbation from predictable
ﬁelds (medicine, psychology, sexology, and religion)
as well as more surprising ones (zoology, anthro-
pology, evolution, law, and philosophy). She adds
chapters about slang, ﬁction, and humor, which are
playful contrasts to the serious scholarship on solo
For the reader who wants to sample civilization’s
views on this common yet secret pleasure, the book is
absorbing. Cornog summarizes what the Dalai Lama
says about masturbation, how porcupines manage it,
and whether physicians believe one can overdo it.
The roots of medical horror at masturbation are ex-
plained (e.g., physicians confused the symptoms of
STDS with the effects of autoeroticism). Cornog in-
cludes, too, Thomas Szasz’s argument that in the
“therapeutic power of masturbation” is not differ-
ent than “the same smug professional conviction
with which its pathogenic powers have been pro-
pounded in the past” (p. 234). Two original contribu-
tions examine contemporary Western conﬂicts over
the morality of adult masturbation. These papers, by
Alan Soble and Harold Ivan Smith, respectfully bal-
ance liberal and conservative arguments.
Although the broad focus means academic
readers will ﬁnd the chapter summarizing their own
ﬁeld familiar (though accurate), the multidisciplinary
structure provides plenty of fresh, useful perspec-
tives. The psychological perspective seemed ﬂat
compared to philosophy’s debate about whether
sexuality is ideally unitary (where desire is about the
physical sensations) or binary (where desire is about
a relationship). A survey of more than 70 societies’
views of masturbation convinced this reader that be-
liefs are thoroughly local. For example, one Oceanic
people endorse masturbation for children but not
for adults, whereas a neighboring people believe
the opposite. The differences between men’s and
women’s masturbatory practices are visible across
cultures, even those relatively accepting of tine
practice. Men masturbate at signiﬁcantly higher rates
than women do, though men’s practice has always
been more strongly criticized by society (originating
with the belief that masturbation would abort the
man’s unborn children).
Although Cornog answers no particular ques-
tion about this provocative subject, this book suits
any readers who wish to expand their knowledge
base or to possess a readable secondary source.
Nina Williams, PhD
Robert Wood Johnson Medical School
2005 Springer Science+Business Media, Inc.