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Invasion of The Body Watchers

Two Books Examine The Historical Prohibitions of So-Called Sex Without Procreation

Deanna Staffo

By Heather Harris | Posted 2/6/2008

Here's why people are so concerned with who has sex with whom when and what becomes of the contents of an involved uterus: Power is the ability to influence resources, and human beings, who begin as babies, are the most critical resource. So it's no mystery that condoms and masturbation--i.e., sex without the consequences of death or parenthood--have been persona non grata in polite conversation for most of human history. The stories of these embarrassing characters in the theater of human sexuality have been brought to life in Aine Collier's The Humble Little Condom: A History (Prometheus Books) and Jamye Waxman's Getting Off: A Woman's Guide to Masturbation (Seal Press).

Collier, a University of Maryland assistant professor of English, seeks to examine the "history of the human spirit, with all of its flaws and foibles," through the lubricant-smeared lens of the prophylactic. It's a good device, using a tangible and ubiquitous item to focus a cultural exploration, and it succeeds or fails based on the author's ability to tease universal truths out of the mundane. The Humble Little Condom spans 1200 years of condom history, but the chapters dealing with the 19th and 20th centuries are the strongest. "Long before the production of tires," Collier writes that Goodyear and BFGoodrich "were . . . making diaphragms, dildos (really!), and condoms."

Then Congress passed the Comstock Act of 1873, which outlawed "any article whatever for the prevention of conception." Shedding light on the history of K Street democracy, Collier writes: "None of the big boys, like Goodyear and Goodrich, were charged or fined--or prevented from making their medicinal condoms. Their political connections and the lobbying power worked not only to keep them in the business but also made sure no small-timers ever gained a foothold in the lucrative medicinal market."

Collier exposes a streak of American hubris when she divulges that during World War I, despite high worldwide rates of syphilis that threatened both our troops and our allies, "America's great army was the only force in Europe not supplied with condoms as a standard part of their kit." And in the chapter on World War II, Collier looks at the secular dictator's agenda vis-à-vis the rubber: "Similar to the Nazi efforts to control German sexuality, Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini and his followers had been trying since the 1920s to make birth control of any sort absolutely illegal." It's tempting to see Woodrow Wilson's, Hitler's, and Mussolini's policies as the precursors to our current government's refusal to fund international relief programs that offer "family planning," but it's important to keep in mind that the church took an anti-birth/disease control stance long before 20th-century dictators and 21st-century American conservatism.

Collier's book is an excellent reminder of how close "history" is. In 1961, Lee Buxton and Estelle Griswold opened four Planned Parenthood clinics in Connecticut and were promptly arrested. It took them four years and a visit to the Supreme Court to gain the right to reopen. Birth control was illegal in France until 1967. And Ireland did not lift its ban on condoms until the 1970s; "it was not until 1993 that all restrictions on condom sales were lifted, ten years after the first reported cases of AIDS in Ireland."

But Collier's book has some tragic flaws. Nothing is documented. There are no end notes, no footnotes, not even a bibliography, and you really should document a line like "the most active American military men, sexually speaking, were black GIs, who were even more likely to have had sex while serving in Europe."

The structure of the book is also sloppy. Randomly placed, poorly integrated sidebars cover the pages like pop-up ads; a sidebar on page 90 references "Casanova's little party trick," which is not explained in the text until pages 108-109. The result of this design failure is that the book becomes more a catalog of condom appearances than an exploration of human nature, and the humble little condom, which does sound rife with untold lessons about whom we are, remains humble and little.

Waxman, on the other hand, enlarges her subject with enthusiasm and conviction. Getting Off, published by the venerable feminist powerhouse Seal Press, functions quite ably as a thorough "how-to" guide for jilling, the girl version of jacking. But Waxman also takes it a step further, tackling the reasons that in a jaded world of lost innocence like ours a book like hers is still necessary.

"Men are considered wankers by birth, while women are considered wanking material," she asserts. But male or female, if you like a good orgasm, Waxman's credo is, "You need to know your own body, because until you do, you can't expect anybody else to know it for you."

She devotes an entire chapter to fantasies, including the ones that make even the most liberal among us squeamish. She draws an important and reassuring distinction when she writes, "Because it's fantasy, it's different from what you'd experience in real life. In fact, you may not actually wish for the things you fantasize about to come true in real life, which is both freeing and perplexing."

She gets to the heart of the cultural discomfort with self-love in the last chapter before the resource guide. "We lose some of our dependence on relationships if we admit that we know our bodies best, and so we often choose to hand that ownership over to some other individual just so we can show that we play well with others."

Waxman loses her footing a bit when she takes on the individuals and institutions that have taught masturbation is wrong. "The reasons people think you shouldn't do it are not valid or truthful," she writes. She's correct when it comes to masturbation and physical health; masturbation was blamed for syphilis, gonorrhea, infertility, dementia, cancer, genital shrinkage, acne, blindness, heart disease, and anorexia, and none of that is true.

But even as she acknowledges the Bible's edict against "spilling seed," she misses the main reason that those who grow up in the church are told not to take care of themselves. It goes back to that pesky issue of the randy things one's mind does during autoerotic activity. According to Matthew 5:28, Jesus said, "I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart"--so much for getting away with envisioning a threesome with your boyfriend and that guy at the gym while you use your Rabbit. According to the church, think it and you've done it. And when Waxman says it's not wrong in the same tone the church says it is wrong, she sinks to its level and loses credibility. Ultimately, girls, the specifics of your sexual behavior are, as always, a matter of personal conscience.

Waxman wraps up with some words from her masturbation mentor, Betty Dodson: "Until society accepts and honors masturbation as the foundation for all of human sexuality, people will continue to be manipulated through sexual shame and guilt by any authoritarian government or religion that comes along." That one's harder to argue with than "it's not wrong." In this way, Getting Off succeeds where The Humble Little Condom fails. It integrates its practical message with a universal truth: There will always be people who strive to control others, but every single person has enough fire in her belly to influence herself if she so chooses.

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