On Sexual Flagellation

Foucault analyses modern sexual identities as social constructs of fairly recent (mainly nineteenth-century) origin. He contends that, ‘At the beginning of the seventeenth century there was still a certain frankness. Sexual practices were hardly kept secret … people had a certain tolerant familiarity with the illicit’ (Histoire de la Sexualité 1: La Volonté de Savoir, Paris, 1976, p. 9; my translation). Discussion of sex was, he says, expressed in strands interwoven among discourse on other topics, rather than being woven into a coherent discourse of sexuality, and was focused on acts rather than identities. However,  there are some basic weaknesses to Foucault’s analysis.

‘The earliest distinct reference to a masochistic flagellant’ (Havelock Ellis, Studies in the Psychology of Sex, vol. 3, 2nd edn, Philadelphia, 1920, p. 132) is considered to be Pico della Mirandola’s anecdote about a sexual flagellant, published in 1496, after the author’s death. The passage occurs as a strand in a discourse on a quite different topic (the nature of astrology), and the flagellant is defined primarily by his acts, rather than by psychological predisposition; ‘he can never be sexually aroused unless he is beaten’  (Disputationes … Aduersus Astrologiã Diuinatricem, Bologna, 1496; edition used, Lyons, 1498, sig. h5r; my translation), Pico tells us, insisting that this supports his belief that one’s fate is not determined by the stars (that is to say, it is an accidental, or circumstantial feature of the flagellant that he is predisposed towards being beaten, not an essential part of his inner nature).

All of this is as Foucault predicts. However, the passage contains some significant details which run counter to Foucault’s theories. Firstly, he relates the flagellant’s behaviour to his overall character, saying, ‘Apart from his unusual sexuality, he is not such a bad person, and he recognizes his sickness and hates it’ (ibid.). This suggests that he would change it if he could, but is powerless to do so, and the description of the flagellant’s behaviour as a kind of sickness (‘morbum’), suggests an equivalence between the relationship of sexual act to sexual identity and that of illness to patient.

The implication that he has picked up something nasty is reinforced by Pico’s attempt to trace the cause of his proclivities to formative experiences during childhood: ‘he was educated with some wicked boys among whom there was a disgraceful agreement to whip each other, bought, as it were, at the cost of their shame’ (ibid.). In some ways, Pico is not so far removed from modern debate on sexual identities, which hinges on the extent to which they are determined by genetic, social and psychological factors, their integration or otherwise with other aspects of the individual’s character and identity, and a general recognition that, once established, such identities are difficult to change (see, for example, ‘Close Relationships’, Ch. 9 of Saul Kassin et al., Social Psychology, 8th edn, Belmont, CA, 2011, pp. 339–88).

Where Foucault’s predictions fall down most badly is in his assertion that early modern discussion of sexuality was uninhibited, characterized by ‘frankness’ and a ‘tolerant familiarity with the illicit’. Pico’s description clearly indicates the flagellant’s shame. Judging from the amount of knowledge he has about the background of his flagellant, it is at least possible that his anecdote is actually autobiographical. If so, he was quite likely motivated to disguise the fact by more than mere reticence. Meibom (whose 1639 treatise on flagellation as a form of sexual stimulation is an early example of specifically sexual discourse) rejoices that no sexual flagellants exist in his native Germany, asserting that should such an abomination be found that person would be burnt to death (Johann Heinrich Meibom, De Flagrorum Usu in Re Veneria, Leyden, 1639; edition used, Leyden, 1643, p. 16).

In general, early modern references to the male sexual flagellant (who by 1673 had acquired the name of ‘flogging cully’ in English) are generally couched in terms that are either shameful, condemnatory, or mocking. A similar admixture of endorsement, adjustment and outright rejection of Foucauldian principles is involved in a close reading of other texts of the period.

Interested in reading more? Click here to download the introduction to the book, from which this extract is adapted.