Masochism and Anachronism

What does it mean to talk of “masochism” prior to the publication, in 1870, of Sacher-Masoch’s Venus im Pelz [Venus in furs], or of Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s adoption of Masoch’s name to describe the condition of deriving pleasure from pain in Psychopathia Sexualis: eine Klinisch-Forensische Studie [Sexual psychopathy: a clinical / forensic study]? Rob Boddice’s Pain: A very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2016) talks of “the distinctly modern pursuit of pain for pleasure, from the charitable beneficence of the Victorian lady bountiful, luxuriating in pity (according to Herbert Spencer), to the erotic cultures of Sadism and Masochism” and Alison M. Moore appears slightly uncomfortable with what she calls my “use of terms like ‘perversion’ in … discussion of practices that were not conceived as such in their own time” (Sexual Myths of Modernity: Sadism, Masochism, and Historical Teleology, Lexington, 2016, p. 80, footnote).

Is it simply an anachronism, then, to talk of masochism (or, indeed, other sexual identities) prior to the nineteenth-century taxonomy of sexuality? Krafft-Ebing cites (among others) Maria Magdalena de Pazzi (1566-1607) as an example of “the significance of flagellation as a sexual excitant” and clearly saw masochism as a convenient label to hang on something that went back considerably earlier than the publication of Sacher-Masoch’s novel. Havelock Ellis, Studies in the Psychology of Sex, vol. 3: Analysis of the Sexual Impulse; Love and Pain; The Sexual Impulse in Women (2nd edn, Philadelphia, 1921), p. 132, notes that the first distinct reference to sexual flagellation occurs in the writings of Pico della Mirandola, who, in Disputationes … Aduersus Astrologiã Diuinatricem [Arguments against astrological divination] (Bologna, 1496), writes about “a man, known to me, with a prodigious and unheard-of sexual appetite, for he can never be sexually aroused unless he is beaten” (edition used, [Lyons, 1498?]), sig. h5r; my translation). As I write in a forthcoming publication:

If Krafft-Ebing had chosen to name the phenomenon of sexual arousal through pain after the first person to describe it, rather than after the first to write an extended narrative about it, we might be talking today of “mirandolism”, rather than masochism, and scholars might deem it quite normal to trace its development from the end of the fifteenth century, rather than the middle of the nineteenth or, at most, the early eighteenth.

As to whether or not early modernists regarded such practices as perversions, I argue quite forcefully that they did. Mirandola was quite possibly describing himself here, and the work in which the passage occurs was not published until after his death, a sensible precaution, given that he was fully aware that what he has written “is a harsh thing for liberal ears” (i.e., likely to give offence).

Other early modern accounts confirm that there was little tolerance for such proclivities. Johann Heinrich Meibom, author of the earliest known treatise on sexual flagellation, calls such practices “scelera ista perversæ Veneris, & puerorum contumeliæ” [crimes of perverse lust and assaults to our children] and rejoices that no such depravation is to be found in his native Germany or, if evidence of it should come to light, that the culprit would be burned (De Flagrorum Usu in Re Veneria [On the use of whips in sexual circumstances], Leyden, 1639; edition used, Leyden, 1643, p. 16; my translation; no online text available).

Early modern sexual identities tended to be couched in terms of actions and behaviour, rather than in terms of proclivities and tendencies, and during the seventeenth century in England there emerged the “flogging cully“, who could not be sexually aroused except through flogging. Several lampoons of such sexual flagellants were written, all expressing condemnation and disgust (the earliest of these, by John Davies,  was published c. 1599). So my take on all this is that one can legitimately speak of a kind of masochism avant la lettre during the early modern period, and one can assume that such practices were viewed as perverse or aberrant by people at that time.

The idea that the early moderns would not have regarded such practices as perversions seems to stem largely from an uncritical acceptance of Michel Foucault’s dictum 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 [History of sexuality 1: the wish to know], Paris, 1976, p. 9; my translation). One needs to bear in mind that Foucault is less concerned here with saying anything valid about the seventeenth century than with using Victorian values as a stick with which to beat the bourgeoisie of his own period. Certainly, there is little or nothing in the literature of the seventeenth century to substantiate his claim, at least as far as sexual flagellation is concerned.

The idea that suffering for pleasure – particularly sexual pleasure – is a comparatively recent phenomenon is harder to dismiss. Roy F. Baumeister is typical among historians of human psychology in his observation that “most sexual practices have been known and enjoyed throughout history, but masochism is a rare exception … which spread through Western society during the early modern period” (‘Masochism as Escape from Self ’). The Victorian and early twentieth-century taxonomists of sexuality (Charcot, Lombroso, Breuer, Freud, Krafft-Ebing, Lacan, etc.) tended to see masochism as being closely related to ascetic religious suffering, particularly self-flagellation, but Baumeister (rightly, I think), argues that “sex and religion provide radically different contexts, and it seems unwarranted to assume that activities have the same meaning in religious ritual as they have in sexual play” (ibid.), a position which echoes Georges Bataille, L’Érotisme (Paris, 1957), pp. 275–6, translated as Death and Sensuality: A Study of Eroticism and the Taboo by Mary Dalwood (New York, 1962), pp. 252–3.

However, Baumeister leaves an important problem unresolved.  “The prevailing theoretical position since Freud”, he writes, “has been that masochism is derived from sadism”. However, he cites “abundant evidence” indicating, not only that masochism is apparently “far more common than sadism”, but that “behavioral evidence suggests that masochism comes first, and sadistic or dominant role-taking comes only later if at all”, concluding that “it is implausible to argue that masochism is derived from sadism. Rather, sadism must be the secondary, derivative pattern”. At the same time, he supposes that “sadism is historically older than masochism” (ibid.).

Clearly, this just doesn’t add up, or at least to make it add up a bit of juggling is required. One approach (the one I mainly suggest in PPP), is that masochism was hiding in plain sight:

masochism is not discussed prior to the early modern period, not because it is nowhere, but because it is everywhere. One’s life is not one’s own, but held in trust; sexual congress is an act of naked, defenceless self-exposure; those who ‘take the sword’ are merely preparing to ‘perish with the sword’, and man’s only hope is to place himself abjectly under the heel of his God and cast himself at his mercy. (p. 12)

But there is another possible explanation. The sources Baumeister is citing are all analyses of sexual behaviour and the sex trade, and he equates “sadism” with the so-called “dominant” position in the sadomasochistic dynamic. However, true sadism – taking pleasure in strangling victims to death, crushing their bones and whatnot – doesn’t really form part of the sexual play that is the subject of the studies he cites. One is reminded of the old joke:

Masochist: Hit me.

Sadist: No.

Katherine Fowkes puts it a bit more eloquently:

The sadist would glean no pleasure from inflicting pain on someone who enjoys it… Likewise, the masochist does not take pleasure in being tortured by a sadist. On the contrary, although it is critical that the masochist’s suffering appear to stem from another, the pain is actually self-inflicted. To this end, the masochist needs to convince another to inflict the pain that he wishes heaped upon him. Thus in the sadistic scenario the tortured is by definition not a masochist and in the masochistic heterocosm, the torturer is likewise by definition not a sadist. (Katherine A. Fowkes, Giving up the Ghost: Spirits, Ghosts, and Angels in Mainstream Comedy Films, Detroit, MI, 1998, p. 35.)

In other words, the paradigm of sadism – sexual cruelty – being something with a long history, while masochism is a relative newcomer to the scene, can perhaps be maintained by arguing that those who inflict pain in sadomasochistic scenarios are not actually sadists.

Either way, the accepted wisdom is that overt accounts of sexual masochism do not date back any earlier than the early modern period. While there may be tales of cruelty, often with a sexual component, going back to classical antiquity, the victims generally do their best to avoid their fate and there is little suggestion of them colluding in their own suffering or inveigling others into inflicting suffering on them.

Phyllis and AristotlePhyllis and Aristotle
For an account of Phyllis's apocryphal role as a dominatrix over Aristotle, click here.

At the same time, there are signs – faint as yet – that a paradigm shift may be on the way, and the roots of sexual masochism may be pushed back very much further. See, for example, Rachel A. Branch, Propertian Sado-Masochism in Augustan Rome and Today: Salvaging Power, a presentation given at a meeting of The Classical Association of the Middle West and South in 2010. Clearly, the relationship between Krafft-Ebing (or Sacher-Masoch) and masochism is not equivalent to that between, say, Edison and the light bulb (they are not bringing something into existence but rather creating the language with which to conceptualize something that already exists), but it is still very unclear just how far back into human history the concept of masochism can be traced.