14 ‘Guilty Pleasures’
On Stained Sheets
Colin Ripley

The relationship between architecture and masturbation in the modern world is barely discernible, an uncanny relationship that only rarely emerges into the realm of the visible (peep holes, video booths, back rooms). Masturbation is a ghostly presence within architecture, impermanent and immaterial, but a presence nonetheless, a presence that speaks to the fundamental architectural issues of modernity: the rejection of the imaginary, the struggle between the private and the social, and the mechanistic concern for waste and excess. Masturbation and architecture form an unacknowledged, illicit couple. Taking the prison writing of Jean Genet as a starting point, this paper proposes that the relationship between architecture and solitary pleasure is actually more fundamental. The idea that the prison cell, the epitome of discipline of the (deviant) individual, the primary prototype of modern architecture, is also the locus for masturbation par excellence, is an incredible problem at the core of the modern.


"No wonder Our Lady [of the Flowers] horrifies people:
it is the epic of masturbation."

- Jean-Paul Sartre, Saint Genet

"Three things made solitary sex unnatural. First, it was motivated not by a real object of desire but by a phantasm; masturbation threatened to overwhelm the most protean and potentially creative of the mind’s faculties-the imagination-and drive it over a cliff. Second, while all other sex was social, masturbation was private, or, when it was not done alone, it was social in all the wrong ways: wicked servants taught it to children, wicked older boys taught it to innocent younger ones, girls and boys in schools taught it to each other away from adult supervision. Sex was naturally done with someone; solitary sex was not. And third, unlike other appetites, the urge to masturbate could be neither sated nor moderated. Done alone, driven only by the mind’s own creations, it was a primal, irremediable, and seductively, even addictively, easy transgression. Every man, woman, and child suddenly seemed to have access to the boundless excesses of gratification that had once been the privilege of Roman emperors."

- Thomas Laqueur, Solitary Sex

In a critical scene of Jean Genet’s unpublished screenplay Le langage de la muraille, the designers of the new reformatory at Mettray are faced with a dilemma: what sort of sleeping arrangements should they construct for the colonists? Jean Genet, Le Langage de la Muraille: Cent ans jour apres jour(IMEC: Fonds Genet, Boite 8). Unpublished and undated filmscript.Open dormitories, of course, would risk the development of clandestine sexual relationships, that is, sodomy, among the boys; on the other hand, closed cells would run the risk of encouraging masturbation. Which was the bigger danger? The King, Royal Patron of the Colony, doesn’t really care one way or the other—after all, either way they will be prepared for their future lives as sailors:

"LE ROI (sévère): Assez! Le royaume de France survivra à cela. Vices de princes, d’ailleurs. Mettez des cloisons ou des lampes, Messieurs, laissez que ces enfants se branlent ou s’enculent, mais faites-en des soldats et des marins. Habituez-les à la Marine Royale. Et notre théologie, que pense-t-elle de tant de perversions? Genet, Le Langage de la Muraille, 113. Translation by the author: THE KING (severely): Enough! The Kingdom of France will survive this. And these are the vices of Princes. Put in partitions or lamps, let the children masturbate or screw, but make of them soldiers or sailors! Get them used to being in the Royal Navy. And our theology – what do you think of these perversions? "

While the advice of the religious advisors is no more clear:

"LE JESUITE (s’inclinant et souriant) : C’est à la fois un péché et une faute, d’ailleurs ma phrase n’était pas finie. C’est un péché devant Dieu. C’est une faute grave quand on le commet… en public. Aux architectures de dire s’il y aura péché de chair plus faute, selon qu’on établira des cloisons ou non, entre les lits."

"DOMINICAIN : Mais c’est spécieux. C’est un péché devant les hommes quand on le commet en public, qu’on le publie. C’est un faute devant Dieu, mon Révérend. Que ce soit onanisme ou sodomie. Je penche pour l’abolition des cloisons. Mais c’est à l’architecture de décider."

"FRANCISCAIN : S’il est vrai qu’un sentiment d’amour peut naitre de l’amitié, in ne faut pas s’égarer. Saint François d’Assise aimait l’amour la pluie et les corbeaux. Il importe de ne rien briser de l’amour mais de l’obtenir, et d’obtenir un sentiment sans mettre souillure."

"LE ROI (amuse) : Vous êtes pour la cloison?"

"FRANCISCAIN (debout) : Sire, oui. Mais idéale et non matérielle." Genet, Le Langage de la Muraille, 115-116. Translation by the author: THE JESUIT (leaning back and smiling): It’s both a sin and a misdemeanor – and I have more to say. It’s a sin before God. It’s a bad misdemeanor when one does it in public. It’s for the architects to say whether there will be both a sin of the flesh plus a misdemeanor, depending on whether we put partitions between the beds or not. THE DOMINICAN: But that’s specious. It’s a sin before men when one commits it in public, when one publicizes it. It’s a misdemeanor before god, Reverend. Whether it’s onanism or sodomy. I lean towards the abolition of partitions – but it’s for the architecture to decide. THE FRANCISCAN: If it’s true that a feeling of love can be born out of friendship, we should not lose it. Saint Francis of Assisi liked love, the rain, and the crows. It’s a matter not of breaking love, but of obtaining it, and obtaining it without a stain. THE KING (amused): You are for the partitions? THE FRANCISCAN (standing): Yes, Sire. But ideal and not material.

It’s up to architecture to decide….
Thus, we have the appearance of the problem of masturbation right at the moment of founding of that institution that Foucault describes as the beginning of the carceral regime. Masturbation is revealed as the evil remainder at the core of the carceral, or perhaps as the grain of sand in the oyster of the carceral. And even more: The idea that the prison cell, the epitome of discipline of the (deviant) individual, is also the locus for masturbation par excellence, is an incredible problem at the core of the modern.


I want to dive deeper into this relationship between architecture and masturbation by considering a little more carefully the work of Jean Genet, 1910-1986, French orphan, homosexual, thief, novelist, playwright, essayist, activist. From a direct viewpoint, Genet had little to do with architecture; in his extensive work there are only, to my knowledge, two short essays that can really be said to touch on architectural thinking. If we look a little more closely, though, a concern for architecture permeates both his work and indeed his life, a concern that we can see in his descriptions of institutions such as prisons and brothels, or in his personal wandering. He also designed and built some houses, at least one of which he gave away as a wedding present to his younger lover, despite never, as an adult, living in a house himself. For me, in this work, Genet – and the world of literature and philosophy that centres around him ­­ – operates as a guide, or rather as a thief, helping us to break into the house of architecture, perhaps to steal some well-hidden secrets. Genet allows us to look at architecture from its outside (and remember inside and outside are already fundamental architectural concepts), from the corner of our eyes, to see things that we would never be able to see by looking head on.

One of those secrets occluded by the workings of architecture is the relationship between architecture and sex. Despite a reasonably large and well-developed literature on the ways in which sex, gender and sexuality figure in architecture (we can think for example of the work of Diana Agrest, Beatriz Colomina, Aaron Betsky, Joel Sanders, Elizabeth Grosz, Paul B. Preciado and many others), it seems to me that there is still something more, and deeper, to uncover. My own interest lies in the position of queer sexualities in particular (which presents another reason for using Genet as a guide thief): while, in my reading, most thinkers about the queer in architecture have been concerned with a theory of queer architecture, my goal is to construct a queer theory of architecture, that is, a theory of how it is that architecture is always-already queer. This present investigation starts where Genet’s literary career starts, where sex starts with masturbation.

Jean-Paul Sartre, of course, is on the mark in Saint Genet: Actor and martyr, his six-hundred-page psychoanalytic treatise on the writer,when he calls Our Lady of the Flowersthe epic of masturbation. Genet tells us this himself, in the introductory scene of Our Lady, Genet’s first novel, written, literally, in La Santé Prison in Paris (and in the first instance on flour sacs). The book is a story concocted with the help of his imaginary lovers, the characters in his novel, those with whom he spends the nights under his sheet, alone in his cell. The book, like his later novel Miracle of the Rose, is comprised of masturbatory fantasy, is itself an ejaculation, a product of his solitary activities.

The pages of this novel are stained sheets.

As an onanistic fantasy, however, the novel is a bit peculiar. To begin with, it would be rather difficult to call Our Lady of the Flowers pornographic: the writing, even the most florid descriptions of sexual activity (of which there are very few in the novel) do not seem intended to titillate or cause excitement; the reader is not invited to masturbate along with the narrator. Quite the opposite: the book is designed in fact to elicit horror, pity, sadness, perhaps empathy for the abject lives of the characters (those that Sartre calls creatures); the pleasure that the narrator takes in the actions of these characters only serves to both move us (to pity perhaps, but not to eros) and simultaneously repel us. If the book is obscene, it is so in the very specific sense of being off-stage, behind the scenes, the demonstration of a normally hidden (and monstrous) world: "I was, through my monstrous horror, exiled to the confines of the obscene (which is the off-scene of the world), facing the graceful pupils of the school of light-fingered theft."

As readers, we are never brought into the action; rather, we remain observers, watching the scene of misery play out in front of us, unable and undesiring to touch the scenes in question, observers who are shown an almost unbearably intimate picture; the veils are pulled away, and we are given access to the most private of acts. We are placed literally ob-scaenum, “in front of filth,” but always radically separated from it: the filth is other, the filth is Genet.

Sartre and Genet were on good terms and arguably had a friendly relationship; Sartre was one of Genet’s early supporters among the Paris intelligentsia and at one point was critical to getting him released from prison. However, in Saint Genet, Sartre presents Genet as the epitome of evil (In Sartrean terms, of nothingness) which he opposes to the worldview of the “right-thinking man.” To this latter, Genet, according to Sartre, is radically other, an abjected substance – that is, filth. What is more, again following Sartre, writing, for Genet, is an act of infecting that “right-thinking man” with his (Genet’s) filth, his masturbatory fantasies:

"Writing: what could be stranger, more ridiculous, and more intimidating too, for this vagabond? Can one conceive the insolence and madness of the project of imposing himself upon the Just who condemn him or are unaware of him? And besides, to write is to communicate: if he wishes to infect right-thinking people with his dreams, he will have to be concerned with what goes on in their heads. Jean-Paul Sartre, Saint Genet: Actor & martyr, trans. Bernard Frechtman (New York: Pantheon Books, 1963), 422-23."

Sartre devotes a few pages in Saint Genet to an analysis of masturbation. Masturbation is not itself the problem, for Sartre; masturbation is simply an ordinary, everyday activity. Sartre sees the problem, rather, in the use Genet makes of masturbation: Genet uses masturbation to invent a world of fantasy, a world which does not exist, and by extension to destroy the world of physical reality. As Sartre tells us:

"All prisoners engage in onanism. But usually, it is for the lack of something better. They would prefer the most lamentable whore to these solitary revels. In short, they put the imaginary to good use: they are honest onanists. … But Genet wants to make bad use of onanism. To decide to prefer appearances is to place onanism, in principle, above all intercourse." Sartre, Saint Genet, 367.

In other words, Sartre tells us that masturbation is fine, as long as one masturbates while thinking about real sex with a real partner, as a substitute for sex with a real partner when that real sex is not available. For Genet, though, there is no reality behind the fantasies: Divine and Darling do not stand in for actually existing or potential lovers but exist only as creatures of Genet’s imagination. By preferring and glorifying masturbation, Genet validates the creatures of his imagination over the inhabitants of the real world, hence denigrating and abnegating the real, physical world. Masturbation in this sense, masturbation that is not anchored to an imagined object that actually or at least potentially exists, has as its goal the disappearance and derealization of both the world and of Genet (Genet the author, Genet the character in his book, and Genet the masturbator) himself:

"… at the moment of orgasm, Genet’s two conflicting components coincide, he is the criminal who rapes and the Saint who lets herself be raped. On his body a hand is stroking Divine. Or else this hand which is stroking him is Darling’s hand. The one who is being masturbated is derealized. … Genet has disappeared: Darling is making love to Divine." Ibid.

Indeed, it seems that for Sartre this aspect of derealization of the world is an essential aspect of masturbation: "Onanism, which is a pure demoniacal act, maintains an appearance of appearance in the heart of consciousness: masturbation is the derealization of the world and of the person masturbated as well." But this derealization of the world, and especially of the subject, this raising of image above reality, or, as Sartre puts it, this subordination of being to value is for Sartre nothing less than pure Evil, a determined an intentional move away from being and towards nothingness. Masturbation, although it takes place largely in the world of fantasy, of images, of nothingness, nonetheless has real, physical effects. Here Sartre is not so much concerned with the effects on the masturbator (which we will discuss in the following paragraphs) but the effects on the world external to the subject.

"And yet, by a reversal which will bring the ecstasy to its climax, this limpid nothingness will cause real events in the real world: the erection, the ejaculation, the damp spots on the covers, are caused by the imaginary. Ibid."

In the case of Genet, this external effect of the internal process is more severe. We are not speaking here of damp spots on the covers, but of the dis-semination of his ejaculatory visions to the public: in short, the problem is that Genet writes about his onanism. Genet is making public that which should be private (or causing the appearance on the exterior of that which should remain in the interior). This is an uncanny haunting; the wall is torn down between the fantasy world of the interior and the real world of the exterior; the essential disciplinary architecture of the self is breached. Genet makes use of masturbation in order to tear down the walls of the world (we note in passing that this is literally the case, as it was his novels, in the end, that allowed him to leave the walls of prison). In the late 1930s, Genet embarked upon a period of vagabondage, prostitution and petty criminality. By the time WWII broke out, Genet was in Paris, where he was arrested on a number of occasions for such offences as stealing (most normally books), and at least once for taking a train without a valid ticket. In 1943, he was in danger of being given a life sentence as a habitual offender (which meant likely transferal to a concentration camp); this was avoided by the intervention of Jean Cocteau, who, with the support of other members of the Paris intelligentsia (including Sartre), presented Genet to the judge as “the greatest writer of the modern era,” convincing the judge to grant a lesser sentence. None of Genet’s important works had been published by this time.He makes use of his masturbatory fantasies in order to infest us with the world of appearances: "He is already a virus by virtue of his very existence; since he lives without working, others must feed him… Genet [the prisoner] jerks off at the taxpayer’s expense, that increases his pleasure." But one thing, I think, is unclear: is Our Lady of the Flowers an infestation, a contagion, or an inoculation?


For Sartre, masturbation as Genet describes it is a pure destructive act, one which has nothing less as its goal than the destruction of civilization. In the first half of the twentieth century, this was by no means an unusual position to take vis-à-vis masturbation. As Thomas Laqueur points out in his 2004 study of masturbation, Solitary sex: A cultural history of masturbation, by the 1930s the notion of masturbation as the cause of physical illnesses had been largely debunked (only to live on as an urban myth). Thomas W. Laqueur, Solitary sex: A cultural history of masturbation (New York: Zone Books, 2004). For Laqueur, masturbation as a result was transformed from an urgent danger to public health into an even more pressing danger to society as a whole. As Laqueur puts it, "No longer a threat to health, sex with oneself could represent a rejection not only of socially appropriate sexuality, not only of appropriate sociability, but of the social order itself."

Laqueur traces the genealogy of such attitudes towards masturbation in western Europe back to the anonymous publication in London, “in or around 1712,” of a pamphlet entitled Onania; or, the Heinous Sin of Self Pollution, and all its Frightful Consequences, in both SEXES Considered, with Spiritual and Physical Advice to those who have already injured themselves by this abominable practice. Onania identified, or as Laqueur claims invented, a new approach to masturbation: while in previous thinking masturbation was considered a sin, damaging perhaps to the soul, from 1712 on it increasingly came to be understood both as a disease and a vice, damaging to the body and eventually, as we see in Sartre’s comments, to the social order. By the mid-nineteenth century, onanism was understood as a plague that the modern world would need to eradicate, as the modern vice par excellence.

Laqueur’s analysis of the literature around masturbation, especially that from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, identifies three lines of thought around the evil of masturbation, three modalities by which onanism is understood by the mid-nineteenth century to be abhorrent. In each case, the problem is seen to reside not so much in the physical act or in the physical effects of masturbation, but rather in the mental activity, the thoughts, that accompany and give birth to the acts. First, masturbation is understood to be based not in the desire for a real person, or indeed for any real object; it is a product solely of the imagination, and results in purely imaginary effects. In Freud’s words, cited by Laqueur, “Masturbation contributes to the substitution of fantasy objects for reality. Laqueur, Solitary sex, 210. As such, solitary sex results in a false pleasure, artificial, counterfeit and fraudulent; worse, it contributes to the dissociation of the masturbator from the reality of the world. As we have seen, this is, at root, Sartre’s complaint about masturbation in Our Lady of the flowers. Second, masturbation is both solitary and secret; in Laqueur’s phrase, it comes to be understood “not as a but the solitary vice, not as a but the secret sin, Laqueur, Solitary sex, 224. the vice that epitomizes all secrets and, in fact, from which all secrets flow.

"This vice’s solitariness and secrecy went beyond the merely antisocial or morally reprehensible; the act was outside the pale not just of this or that but any possible social order." Laqueur, Solitary Sex, 222.

Indeed, masturbation seemed to provide a definition for the idea of the private, to create it as a category. As a secret, private vice, it was autarkic, a self-contained economy of production and effect. Third, precisely because it needs no external support or stimulus, because it can be carried out any time and any place, and because it is a thirst that is never capable of being sated, masturbation is understood as the very figure of excess and wastage. It is an unregulated and unregulatable vice, a harmful addiction that will sap the energies of the onanist and cause harm to society. As Laqueur points out, eighteenth and nineteenth century Europeans understood masturbation to be unnatural in all three of these modalities, and it was precisely this unnatural character of the act that made it so abhorrent and so in need of extermination or at least control. Looking back from today’s viewpoint, though, that is with 2020 vision, and especially from a viewpoint that has as its aim an understanding of how masturbation might relate to architecture, how architectural and onanistic discourses might become (perhaps promiscuously) entwined, I would argue that the real problem with masturbation in the nineteenth century was that masturbation, in all the modalities that Laqueur has identified, is undisciplined. And in the modern world, architecture was, if anything, the art of discipline.

The undisciplined character of masturbation provides a clue to the relationship, in the nineteenth century, between architecture and masturbation. This is certainly a strange relationship, one that is not immediately obvious, but there is no doubt in my mind that such a relationship both pertains and is of importance in understanding the modern world. Indeed, as I have already pointed out, the idea that the prison cell, the architectural mechanism for the discipline of the unruly subject, was simultaneously the setting par excellence for masturbation, forms an incredible problem at the core of modernity, the problem of the private vs the social, of the politics of surveillance, which has dogged architecture to the present day. We can see this relationship in the basic structure of arguably the best known of all disciplinary architectures: Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, designed to change the behaviour of prisoners in their cells by the removal of privacy. For Bentham, as Laqueur points out, masturbation was the sexual practice most damaging to the state, and certainly a greater problem than sodomy; it is hard to escape the conclusion that the behavior targeted by the Panopticon, the behavior that proposal was designed to prevent, was first and foremost masturbation. Laqueur, Solitary Sex, 267.

Laqueur’s positioning of masturbation as imaginary, solitary/secret, and excess provides a suitable framework to construct an understanding of this strange relationship. First, masturbation, as Laqueur stresses, is a practice founded in the imaginary. As such, we can think of masturbation as operating in distinct opposition to architecture, which presents itself — arguably in all times and places — as a discipline concerned entirely with the real, with solidity, permanence, structure. The worlds produced by these two practices, architecture and masturbation, are therefore at root incommensurable, apparently completely independent; the very difference between the practice of the construction of the imaginary par excellence and the practice of the construction of the real par excellence renders invisible the presence of any relationship at all.

At around the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, this situation became more pronounced, as architecture adjusted to new political, social and economic developments. During this process, architecture came to posit its primary task less as the representation of power (of the church, of the state, of money) and more as the construction of a new world; architecture would no longer be concerned simply with the design of buildings (if it ever was), but will take up, through the design and construction of those institutions that shape the modern subject, the modern economy, and indeed the modern state, the design of the world as a whole. In other words, architecture came to stress its productive role, denying, at least in discourse, its representative role. As a result, we can see the development during this period, say between 1830 and 1913, and at least in Western Europe and North America, of several issues that bear directly on the relationship between architecture and masturbation:

" -Architecture must deny the role that fantasy plays in its process. Architecture takes on this task by redefining itself as a discipline and a profession, through the twin institutions of the architecture school and the professional association, aligned in both cases with modern technological, economic and bureaucratic structures. Underlying methods of fantasy image-construction are subordinated to technological methods.

-Architecture stresses its productive role in society over its representational role. Here I mean primarily architecture’s role in the construction of the economy, through the production of direct apparatus (factories, warehouses, shops) as well as the ancillary apparatus (houses, schools, colleges, prisons, government administrations). Architecture aligns itself fully with capital.

-Architecture claims for itself the role of the only constructor of environments in the modern world, extending itself to the production of design objects at all scales (from tableware to furniture to buildings to cities).

-Architecture increasingly problematizes technologies of the image (painting, theatre, cinema; but also, interior design) as well as elements of the fantastic or the image within its own production. The struggle between structure and ornament becomes central to the development of modernity in architecture, as epitomized in the work of the Art Nouveau architects, Adolf Loos, Louis Sullivan and others."

Although my claim here is that these tendencies are central aspects of Architecture of the period in question, I would like to stress also that these remain central to the mythos of architecture today. Indeed, if I have overstated and oversimplified these four complex and nuanced developments, I do so with purpose, to suggest the degree to which these four characteristics, born of the nineteenth century, have become naturalized.

Masturbation, of course, falls into conflict of one kind or another with each of these positions: it is the practice based in fantasy par excellence, threatening to expose the fantastic at the core of the architectural discipline; it has no (apparent) effect on the real world, operating on a total internal economy of desire and, at least in the case of male masturbation, ejaculation divorced from its reproductive power, while producing a fantasy world that at best ignores or at worst has destructive effects on the real. From a certain standpoint, masturbation can be understood as an act of theft (the spilling of seed is the theft of future bodies from the state, of future souls from God; female masturbation is understood as the theft of a woman’s sexual life from its proper owner, her husband); it is an alternative technique of world-creation, potentially producing another fantasy world that operates in parallel to or indeed in opposition to the physical world of architecture; and of course it is the technique of the constant production of imagery.

So far, the relationship between masturbation and architecture has remained abstract. However, the relationship becomes a bit more real when we consider Laqueur’s second point: masturbation is both solitary and secret. After all, the secrecy within which masturbation takes place is normally furnished by architecture. Despite the masturbatory production of a fantastic world, the physical act of masturbation is always connected with the architecture in which it takes place: in one’s bedroom, in a prison cell, in a public washroom, in the office, in a peep-show booth. All these and of course many more locations have an inescapable effect on the act itself and on its fantasy-production. This is in fact a universal: even masturbating outside, in the wilderness, is inflected by the fact of not being inside a building. I would argue, too, that masturbating in a space changes our view of that space forever — indeed, changes that space forever. Architecture and masturbation are therefore intertwined as a couple: they penetrate each other, impregnate each other.

Architecture, too, defines the condition of privacy through the development of spaces that are shut away. The model for this condition in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries may have been the prayer closet, but by the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the prison cell had become the most exemplary form. The nineteenth century, concerned as it was with the disciplining of the body, saw the development and codification of a series of private spaces arguably based on the model of the cell, such as the private bedroom (we could also cite in this regard the development in the twentieth century of the nuclear family and its corollary the single-family house, each presenting a new and hitherto unknown level of privacy). Such spaces are of course spaces in which masturbation can flourish, spaces in which new techniques of surveillance must be developed in order to maintain discipline, especially masturbatory discipline; we could cite two such examples, operating at the extreme ends of the nineteenth century: Bentham’s Panopticon, already mentioned, and Freudian psychoanalysis.

However, architecture’s primary mandate through this period was not the construction of the individual (through masturbatory or other means), but the construction of society. It is pure irony that in the world of the Fordist ideal of the assembly line, or the eugenic ideal of the identical and reproducible superman, that the provision of the infinitely identical cellular living space became the perfect Petrie dish for the emergence of the modern, individual, sexual self. This tension between the social and the individual, which we saw earlier in Genet’s description of the founding of Mettray, remained a dominant and unresolved tension in architectural thinking through the twentieth century, playing out not only on the domestic scene with the distinction between the open plan and closed bedrooms, but also in areas as diverse as education (open vs. closed classrooms) and, more widely, the workplace. This is the story of the private office vs the secretarial pool and is of course a story bound up in questions of race, class and gender, a story that is outside the scope of this paper.

Part and parcel of architecture’s new role as the constructor of the physical apparatus of society was a concern for the disciplined construction of that modern world, for the elimination of excess. To be clear though the issue was not with excess as such, but particularly with non-productive, undisciplined excess. Excess, after all, was and remains at the root of the functioning of capital, in the form of surplus value. The disciplinary role of architecture was to eliminate uncontrolled excess that manifested as waste.

It is not surprise then that the question of ornament and the related question of rational structure emerged as another of the critical issues of modern architecture. Ornament became a problem for architecture not only because of the imaginary nature of ornament, but also (and arguably more importantly) because of its inefficiency: ornament was not understood to contribute to the productive capacity of the architectural apparatus. We can see this idea played out in the rapid rise and fall of Art Nouveau, in Loos’ influential Ornament and Crime, in the streamlined white houses of Le Corbusier, in Mies van der Rohe’s famous dictum of Less is More. Meanwhile, movements such as Taylorism, functionalism, the Existenzminimum, the Dom-Ino house, Le Corbusier’s urban planning schemes, CIAM’s Athens Charter and the time and motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge, Étienne-Jules Marey and most directly (for architecture) Frank and Lillian Gilbreth demonstrate the importance to modern architecture of developing a scientific rational approach to efficiency. As far as I am aware, there are no time-and-motion studies of masturbation. See, for example, Mary Mcleod, ““Architecture or Revolution”: Taylorism, Technocracy, and Social Change.” Art Journal 43 (1983): 132-147; Mauro F. Guillén, The Taylorized beauty of the mechanical: scientific management and the rise of modernist architecture. (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2009).

Implied in the conception of the modern, and particularly in the architectural modern, is the notion of mechanical efficiency (see, for example, Le Corbusier’s notion of the house as a machine for living in). There is to be, in a tea kettle, a room, a house, a city, no wasted motion or excess parts. Participation in the machine of society was to be universal and compulsory, with all activities, including sexual activities, contributing to the greater profit. Masturbation, though, as conceived by the moderns, was nothing but wasted motion, undisciplined and undisciplinable.

By the early twentieth century, it was no longer quite so clear that the motions of the masturbator were entirely wasted, that the excess of masturbation was without value. For Freud, for example, in The Three Essays on Sexuality, masturbation, or at least infantile masturbation, was a valuable, indeed necessary activity, as it formed the genesis for what would emerge as adult sexuality. Sigmund Freud and James Strachey, Three essays on the theory of sexuality (London: Hogarth Press, 1962).Furthermore, the mere existence of the supremely private act of masturbation (and equally importantly, its ubiquity) was seen to constitute or at least delimit a core of the individual self, a radically private self that is beyond social regulation, and indeed beyond the social. This individual self, in other words, is the waste product of masturbation: the individual self that is already an architectural production, the klepto-genetic sequestering of the singular plurality of being, the invention of the private.

The relationship between architecture and masturbation in the modern world (and indeed, I would suggest, in any era) is barely discernable. It is an uncanny relationship that only rarely emerges into the realm of the visible (peep holes, video booths, back rooms). Masturbation is a ghostly presence within architecture, impermanent and immaterial, but a presence nonetheless, a presence that speaks to the fundamental architectural issues of modernity: the rejection of the imaginary, the struggle between the private and the social, and the mechanistic concern for waste and excess. Masturbation and architecture form an unacknowledged, illicit couple.

It is precisely this lack of visibility of the relationship that is important, that in fact constitutes the nature of the relationship. I want to return, briefly, to the question of privacy. For Laqueur, masturbation is the epitome of the private act, the very definition and site of formation, in fact, of the private. However, here I think Laqueur misses the point. It is not simply the case, as I have described, that the conflict between the private and the social became a critical architectural issue in the modern world; such an argument fails to recognize that the idea of the private is in itself an architectural concept (as is, for that matter, the social). It is not that masturbation is inherently or naturally a private act, but rather that architecture literally makes it a private act and maintains it in a state of mandatory privacy. It is not that the prisoner masturbates in his cell, but rather, that the masturbator is held prisoner by architecture.

If the relationship between architecture and masturbation is itself invisible, if indeed invisibility is at the core of the relationship, if the maintenance of invisibility of masturbation by architecture is fundamental to it, then masturbation holds within it a potential for resistance, a potential revolutionary force, that operates, as Sartre tells us of Genet, beyond fantasy. And if privacy is indeed the primary technique used by architecture to discipline masturbation (and sex in general), indeed if a making-private is a fundamental role of architecture, then Sartre is right in his analysis: the problem in Our Lady of the Flowers is not that Genet masturbates, but that Genet tells us he masturbates. By breaking the taboo of privacy, Genet liberates masturbation, and hence the masturbator (which is of course all of us) from its prison.


I write these sentences, I stain these sheets, in the autumn of 2020. COVID-19 has brought into the open more than a few truths, or at least situations, that were not so obvious to us in the past. One of the great ironies, in this time of isolation, is that masturbation is no longer a solitary activity: masturbation has gone online, into that quasi-public space of the internet. This is not exactly new, of course: the image of the masturbator in front of the screen, or in front of the camera, has been more and more with us in recent years, but it has taken this moment of separation to reveal socially distanced sex as our new norm, as, really, the only socially responsible and socially acceptable contemporary sexual form. COVID-19 has demonstrated the revised place of solitary sex in our contemporary world. Solitary sex is no longer strictly solitary, and the most private of acts is no longer private. Nor is it any longer a product simply of phantasy: masturbation is formed around fantasies provided by the pornography industry, or – which amounts to the same thing – by images of anonymous others, other masturbators, for whom we become pornography in turn. In this text, fantasy is used to describe constructions that are provided by sources external to the subject (such as architecture or pornography) while phantasy is used to designate psychological processes that may or may not be connected to those constructions. This distinction is in line with contemporary usage in psychological literature, in which fantasy is used to refer to conscious processes while phantasy designates unconscious motivations. Critically, though, it remains, perhaps more than ever, a question of excess.

In the pharmacopornographic era that we live in, as described by Paul B. Preciado, masturbation has moved from the periphery to the centre, and is now the fundamental activity that figures the organization of society. Paul B. Preciado, Testo junkie: Sex, drugs, and biopolitics in the pharmacopornographic era (New York, New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2017). 24 John P. Ricco, “Preface to the republication of Coming together: Jack-off rooms as minor architecture.” Keep it dirty, Vol. a, “Filth” (2016): v. Fundamental to this is the question of excess: while earlier eras, the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the era of the disciplinary society, the era of the architectural machine, saw excess as waste and without value, the contemporary economy of control, the pharmacopornographic era, understands excess as potential profit. Excess is no longer to be curtailed; rather, excess is to be encouraged. Preciado points out the two primary mechanisms by which ejaculation becomes profit, by which coincidentally masturbation becomes work: pharmacological products, especially the birth control pill and Viagra (which, taken together, turn even heterosexual vaginal intercourse into masturbation), and the pornography industry, which ties our masturbatory fantasies into the engine of the economy. Drugs and porn: these are the essential substances that feed our addictions.

Indeed, in the pharmacopornographic era, masturbation, only slightly redirected from its nineteenth century substance, becomes the central figure for society which, in turn is restructured along onanistic lines. Today, society as a whole can be examined following Laqueur’s three fundamental characteristics of masturbation. First, society is now completely wrapped up in, generated by, and productive of fantasy and the imaginary. We are confronted every day with our current denial of and separation from the reality of our existence, in the form of the lies of Trump and others, the fantasy populisms that only benefit the wealthy, the denial of social and environmental crises — even as people riot in the streets, we are ravaged by a pandemic, and hurricanes and wildfires are out of control. Instead, we, at least those of us in the west, live in a world of our own fantasy, a world of advertising and television, a world of the desire-image. And what is architecture in this world? It is less and less able to maintain the fiction of the construction of the real, although of course this cannot be admitted, least of all to architects; architecture’s role in the symbolic economy, as the producer of images (images of power, of lifestyle, and above all of excess) becomes more and more evident, as does architecture’s impotence in relation to the crises of the real that we are now facing. Today, all architecture can do is play the role of producer (in the sense of the producer of a play or film) of the desire-image. Architecture today, even in its constructed three-dimensional form, cannot be more than image.

Second, our contemporary society is dominated by the solitary. COVID-19 has made that situation clearly evident, but the solitude in which we live is far from caused by the social distancing (the most ironic of terms) wrought by the pandemic. Our solitary existence today, unlike the solitary of past times, is neither private nor secret, but rather both public and evident. Our society is one of atomization, an “extremely populous solitude” in which our energies are focused on self-actualization, on pursuit of personal pleasure, on the development of an imagined self through accumulation of desire-images.Architecture in this world is no longer able to function as the arbiter or producer of the private, the secret or the solitary as such, when architecture can be and is penetrated at any moment by technological incursions through its walls, as websites such as Chaturbate bring us into the most private of spaces, into the bedrooms of masturbators around the world. The entire world has now become a back room, a jack-off room, as we spend our lives masturbating.

And, of course, this is a world of pure excess, of insatiable desire for the accumulation of stuff: cars, clothes, likes, sexual partners. We are addicted to this stuff, literally, our bodies can no longer live without it; it is this stuffthat we crave, that we yearn for during our weeks and months of social isolation, not the real connections of human to human that this stuffrepresents. It is the representation that we need. And like any other addiction, our need for stuffcontinues to grow, our consumption of stuff — our constant onanistic excess — drives our production of capital, enables the proliferation of more and more stuff, until, inevitably, we reach a point of overdose. Architecture, far from being the apparatus of discipline, the model of restraint, has become the very figure of excess, of stuff, as any view of a contemporary city or walk through a Biennale will make clear: the sheer proliferation of more and more formal and material diversity, much without reason or sense, and none of it speaking to its neighbours. Gehry, Libeskind, Hadid, Koolhaas: the atomized and atomizing architecture of pure excess, the architecture of ejaculation.

In short, architecture’s place in the world, architecture’s mandate, has been completely overturned. Any calls for a more socially or environmentally responsible architecture are the pure call of nostalgia, looking to regain an image of a lost world. In the world of masturbation, architecture can only be pornography.


Ahmed, Sara. Queer phenomenology: Orientations, objects, others. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006.

Freud, Sigmund, and James Strachey. Three essays on the theory of sexuality. London: Hogarth Press, 1962.

Genet, Jean. Le Langage de la Muraille: Cent ans jour apres jour. IMEC: Fonds Genet, Boite 8, n.d. Unpublished and undated filmscript.

Genet, Jean with Jean-Paul Sartre. Our Lady of the Flowers. Translated by Bernard Frechtman. New York: Grove, Evergreen, 1987.

Guillén, Mauro F. The Taylorized beauty of the mechanical: scientific management and the rise of modernist architecture. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2009.

Laqueur, Thomas W. Solitary sex: A cultural history of masturbation. New York: Zone Books, 2004.

Mcleod, M. ““Architecture or Revolution”: Taylorism, Technocracy, and Social Change.” Art Journal 43 (1983): 132-147.

Preciado, Paul B. Testo junkie: Sex, drugs, and biopolitics in the pharmacopornographic era. New York, New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2017.

Ricco, John P. “Coming together: Jack-off rooms as minor architecture.” A/R/C, architecture, research, criticism 1, no. 5 (1993): 26-31.

Ricco, John P. “Preface to the republication of Coming together: Jack-off rooms as minor architecture.” Keep it dirty, Vol. a, “Filth” (2016).

Sartre, Jean-Paul.Saint Genet: Actor & martyr. Translated by Bernard Frechtman. New York: Pantheon Books, 1963.



B.Eng., M.Sc., M.Arch., OAA, MRAIC

Professor Ryerson University (Toronto, CA)

Colin Ripley is a Professor in and Past Chair of the Department of Architectural Science at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada. He is also director emeritus of RVTR (www.rvtr.com), which operates simultaneously as a professional architectural practice and as an academic research platform with studios in Toronto and in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Ripley’s work has been extensively published and along with his colleagues in RVTR he has been the winner of a number of major awards, including the 2009 Professional Prix de Rome in Architecture. Colin Ripley holds a Bachelor of Engineering from McMaster University, a Master of Science in theoretical physics from the University of Toronto, and a Master of Architecture from Princeton University, and is currently finishing a PhD in Philosophy, Art and Critical Thought at the European Graduate School. He is author or editor of several books about architecture as well as journal papers on a wide range of topics, including megaregional urbanism, responsive envelope systems, sonic architecture, Canadian modern architecture, and the modern concept of the house as understood through the writings of Jean Genet.


Photography by Masha Kotliarenko