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It has often been suggested that there is a connection between the cultural panic over 'pedophilia', and the hysteria surrounding childhood masturbation in the past. It is therefore helpful to recap the history of the masturbation crisis.

The historical problematization of childhood masturbation is often simplistically rendered as a question of 'morality'. A second, more insightful, explanation is that with the development of capitalist society, the body – which until then was an 'organ of pleasure' – had to become an 'instrument of performance', necessary for the requirements of production; the body was repressed as an organ of pleasure, and codified and trained as an instrument of production and performance.

While the first 'explanation' (morality) is historically inaccurate, the second analysis (the requirements of capitalism), is perhaps too general to be false, but does require further response. By placing 'repression' at the center of its analysis, it conceals the productive and constitutive effects produced in society. Further, if it was solely a question of 'the productive body', one would expect to see a repression of the adult worker's sexuality. However, what initially arises in the mid-eighteenth century was not a question of sexuality, but more particularly of masturbation by bourgeois children. A more complex analysis is therefore necessary.

The Campaign

The clamorous obsession with masturbation began in the eighteenth century.[1] One of the first texts was Onania, which appeared in England in 1718, followed by Tissot's book in Switzerland (1758) and Basedow in Germany (1770). A rash of texts – books, leaflets and tracts – suddenly began to appear.

There was very little moralizing in the campaign against masturbation; the threat was one of illness. Masturbation began by being an illness in itself, with symptoms, and subsequently became the root of every possible illness that could be encountered in life; a general etiology, a causal power, was attributed to 'masturbation'.

The child himself was not initially treated as culpable – the crusaders often insisted that masturbation was not of endogenous origin, a question of nature, but was a learned or taught behavior. Almost from the start, the campaign against masturbation was directed against the seduction of children by adults or by others in their immediate circle – servants, nannies, tutors, cousins, aunts and uncles – the devil was there beside the child, and particularly in the form of an adult who was the intermediary between child and parent. So it was ultimately the parents who were guilty, for allowing all these intermediaries. What was being called into question was the parents, their relationship with their children within the family space.

What was demanded by the campaigners was essentially a new organization, a new physics, of the family space. The ideal solution would be the infant alone in a sexually-aseptic family space. Being unrealizable in practice, the family space had therefore to become one of continual surveillance; the child's body had to become the object of the parents' permanent attention. Numerous well-documented practices – tying the child's hands up, deploying technical devices to prevent the child having access to his body – were suggested. If necessary, parents literally would have to sleep in the same room as the masturbator, perhaps even in the same bed, or lift their bed covers frequently to check. The pamphlets and leaflets that circulated required the direct, immediate and constant application of the parents' bodies to the bodies of their children.


Foucault suggests that these practices reveal the central objective of the crusade against masturbation: the constitution of a new family body. What was now being constituted from the mid-eighteenth century was a restricted, close-knit, substantial, compact, corporeal and affective family core; the cell family in place of the extended relational family, entirely saturated by direct parent-child relationships. By highlighting the child's masturbatory activity, and the body of the child in danger, parents were urgently enjoined to reduce the large, polymorphous and dangerous space of the household, and to forge with their children a sort of single body. From the end of the eighteenth century, the child's autoeroticized body was the instrument, element or vector for constituting the cultural involution of the family around the parent-child relationship.

This nuclear family was constituted on the basis of the caressing incest of looks and gestures around the child's body; an epistemophilic incest of touch, gaze and surveillance is the basis of the modern family.

The direct parent-child contact so urgently prescribed gave parents absolute power over the child; yet total power was not given to parents, since at the same time parents begin to be connected to a completely different type of relation and control: since masturbation registered at the level of illness, the control exercised by parents was necessarily plugged into an external medical control. The parent-child relationship had to be consistent with, and to extend, the doctor-patient relationship. Parental control was thus subordinate, and had to be open to medical and hygienic intervention. The new substantial, affective and sexual family was at the same time a medicalized family.

With and within the newly constituted cellular family, a constant advance of the medicalization of sexuality took place, introducing new medical techniques and forms of intervention into the family space. A medico-familial mesh organized a field that was both ethical and pathological, in which sexual conduct became an object of control, coercion, examination, judgment and intervention. The medicalized family could therefore function as a source of sexual normalization. From the first decades of the nineteenth century, it is this medicalized family which could reveal the normal and the abnormal in the sexual domain. The nuclear family was not only the basis for the determination and distinction of sexuality, but also for the rectification of the abnormal.

The Family, and State Education

Why was the reorganization of the family necessary? The child's body was becoming an important political stake by the end of the eighteenth century. There is a political and economic interest in the child's survival: the State demands from parents, and the new forms and relations of production require, that the parents take responsibility for the child's body and life.

The crusade against masturbation was only one chapter of a broader crusade for the eduction of children: an education that conformed to a number of rules for securing the survival of children on one hand, and their training and normalized development on the other. The widespread call for education by the State occurred precisely at the same time as the campaign against masturbation began. At the same moment that parents were enjoined to take direct responsibility for the bodies of their children, they were asked to cede back their children to the State for their instruction and technical training.

Parents must take care of their children's strength and obedience – so that the State could put them through the machine of the system of state education, instruction and training over which parents had no control. A process of exchange was therefore called for: the parents had to be given something in return. The child's body served as this unit of exchange. Parents were told that there was something in the child's body that belonged wholly to them, that they'd never have to give up: the child's sexuality. The child's sexual body belonged to, and would always belong to, the family space, and no one else would have any power over this sexual body.

However, since masturbation could never be eradicated, parents were ultimately committed to the infinite task of possessing and controlling an infantile sexuality that would in any case always elude them. The child's sexuality was the trick by which the close-knit, affective, cellular family was constituted, and from whose shelter the child was extracted.[2]

External links


  1. While there have been a number of texts on masturbation, here we broadly follow the schema of Foucault, as developed in Abnormal: Lectures at the Collège de France 1974-1975 (Picador, 2003).
  2. In the last few decades, when the question of sex education in school arose, this process of exchange was revealed: parents had been told that in exchange for their children, they could guarantee that sexuality would develop in a space controlled by them, but now the State, psychologists, began claiming this education for themselves.