Re: Masturbation Spandrels? Part 2

Timothy Perper/Martha Cornog (
Fri, 20 Jun 1997 20:58:22 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Fri, 20 Jun 1997 20:58:22 -0500
From: (Timothy Perper/Martha Cornog)
Subject: Re: Masturbation Spandrels? Part 2

May we add a few musings about If Price's second question?

>Reading recent traffic prompts the following, not entirely light hearted
>Question 2
>Regardless of how it propogates is the masturbation taboo an example of a
>memetic spandrel?

In Part I, we implied that masturbation might have adaptive features. But
even so, a suspicion lurks that masturbation has not been the central focus
of reproductive selection in human beings. The adaptationist programme
tries to locate an adaptive or functional reason for the existence of most
traits, but this view can be carried much too far. Gould's really very apt
metaphor -- the spandrel -- captures this weakness of adaptationism very
well: a spandrel is any feature of a system that *necessariy* arises from
other features, without itself arising by selection.

(To remind people, an architectural spandrel is one of the two triangular
areas between the top of an arched doorway and the lintel above the arch,
arranged so that the top of the arch bisects the lintel: if you put an
arch into a wall, and top it with a lintel, you *will* get spandrels!)

Given two individuals touching each other and themselves during sexual
intercourse, and given how easy it is to touch one's own genitals ("The
arms are just long to reach!"), it seems just about inevitable that people
-- and our ancestors -- would have masturbated in one way or another.
Accordingly, masturbation seems to be an excellent example of a behavioral

As such, it can be pressed into the service of a wide variety of *other*
social and cultural purposes. One of these is to serve, by a kind of
negative logic, as an example (*the* example?) of what NOT to do.
Masturbation becomes an object lesson in time-wasting, unnatural, sinful
concupiscence. One can virtually *see* a medieval bas-relief carved into
the spandrel of some church with an angel condemning a poor fellow to hell
for just such a sin! Judging by the amount of material written about
masturbation by moralists, this "negative function" of masturbation has
been very useful for inculcating rigorous sexual morality and for
controlling sexual behavior.

In talking to people about sexuality -- which we have done over the years
as sex researchers -- one finds that many individuals explain masturbation
as something that is just sort of there. Such comments are distinctively
vague, as if people were a bit puzzled about what masturbation is really
*for*, if it's *for* anything. That too suggests that masturbation is a
spandrel, although of course people may not understand or be able to
explain a behavior that actually has real functions unknown to them.

One final point: previously, we suggested that masturbation may indeed
have real functions, but now we seem to be saying that it's "only" a
spandrel. Well, a distinction is useful.

Spandrels are architecturally inevitable, in the sense that the space
between arch and lintel must exist. But what a sculptor DOES with that
space is not thereby determined. Our sense is that masturbation -- and, by
extension, much about sex that is deemed pleasurable -- has attracted
exactly the sort of attention that architectural spandrels attract: an
empty space, devoid of any *clear* purpose in the design of things, that is
filled up with profoundly meaningful material. Then the spandrel *becomes*
profoundly functional -- it holds angels, candles, intricate carvings,
saints and demons. Even if masturbation does prove to be a genuine
spandrel, the debates in which it takes part about sexual morality have
been very deeply significant in human history, religion, and culture.

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