Category Archives: The Genealogy of Sadomasochism

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.

Masochism in Political Behaviour

A few months ago I commented on Jeremy Carrette’s essay, ‘Intense Exchange: Sadomasochism, Theology and the Politics of Late Capitalism’, expressing frustration at the way in which the author speaks of the need to ‘free our gendered bodies from the market of global exploitation’, but refuses to commit himself to identifying sadomasochism either as part of the problem or as part of the solution. It might be supposed, then, that I would feel much more comfortable with Filip Kovacevic, ‘Masochism in Political Behavior: A Lacanian Perspective’ (2011). And yet, despite the fact that Kovacevic makes it perfectly explicit that, in his view, ‘masochism is a part of the problem and not the solution’, I found his thesis so unsatisfactory that, by the end, I felt positively well-disposed towards Carrette, whose ambivalence at least gives tacit recognition to the imperfectness of the fit between masochistic tendencies and political achievement. By contrast, Kavacevic’s equation of any kind of voluntary-undertaken suffering – from the sufferings of Christ to hunger strikers and suicide bombers – with masochism seems to me to be a distorted oversimplification.

Not that Kavacevic doesn’t hit the nail on the head now and again. Some of what he says about the vicious cycle of political protest and reform rings true, as when he says of a miners’ strike in Montenegro that the miners’ intention ‘was not to effect permanent and lasting changes in their position toward the Other who confronted them, but only to create “enough” anxiety in the Other so that [Prime Minister Djukanovic´] would resolve this particular situation’. A few weeks later, when Djukanovic´ ‘did not fulfill all that he promised’, the cycle repeated itself, and ‘the miners took it out on themselves again’. In this way, through a process of, on the one hand, gratifying and on the other of producing anxiety in the ‘Other’, ‘the masochistic relation will be reasserted, condemning the masochist to constant repetition and the Other’s enjoyment is re-established as a trap from which the masochist can never (quite) escape’.

The way out of this endless cycle, Kavacevic argues, is for the oppressed to ‘move from being the objects of the Other’s enjoyment to being the objects of the Other’s desire’. He sees a neurotic / hysteric response as being superior to a masochistic one;  ‘hysterics, positioning themselves as objects of the Other’s desire, reveal the fact that the dominating Other is lacking and this is exactly what allows them to push for the construction of less oppressive, tolerant Others’.

Having made it clear that he regards Christ and Christianity as doing more harm than good, Kavacevic holds up Socrates as a positive role model, homing in on Socrates’s ironic call on the state of Athens ‘to provide him with life-long honors, while he was being condemned to death’. ‘Masochists’, he says, ‘cannot be ironic’, concluding:

conveying the irony of their situation to hunger-strikers (and suicide bombers) is the only way to help them begin their subjective transformation. Stated in Lacanian terms, masochists position themselves to serve as instruments of enjoyment to a non-existent Other. What could be more absurd and open to ironic interpretation than that?

This does, I admit, give me food for thought, but I am really not sure that there is any real way to distinguish between the ironic sufferer and the masochistic one. I can see that appealing to the Other through self-inflicted suffering is a weaker option than working through the Other’s desire/need for approval, but I’m not even quite sure that this is what Kavacevic is saying.

In short, yet another thought-provoking article that ultimately fails to completely satisfy!

Sadomasochism, Theology and Capitalism

There is a frustrating ambiguity to Jeremy R. Carrette, ‘Intense Exchange: Sadomasochism, Theology and the Politics of Late Capitalism’ (theotherjournal.com, An Intersection of Theology and Culture, April 2, 2006).  To some extent this is deliberate; Carrette wants to ‘refuse the either/or mentality of Christian binary epistemology and to recognise that in complex worlds we can at times both simultaneously abuse and liberate in the same action’. Ultimately, though, he is working within the framework of logical discussion, which is rooted in either/or distinctions; if sadomasochism and Christianity are connected, then ‘either Christianity was distorted and needs correcting, or … power lies at the heart of all intimacies, or … God is at [the] heart of all affliction’. Since he poses these alternatives the reader has some right to expect him to choose among them, or synthesize them in some way, but this he refuses to do.

The conclusion of Carrette’s paper is a rallying call to action; ‘our pleasures are all we have to free ourselves from the modes of alienation so prevalent in our world’, and Christian communities have for so long read sexual exchange as the surplus commodities of transcendence, to be claimed in another world, it is now time to realize the redemption of our pleasures in this world and free our gendered bodies from the market of global exploitation.

In order to understand what kind of action Carrette is talking about we need a clear statement of whether, in his view, sadomasochism is part of the problem or part of the solution, but this is where he refuses to commit; he is prepared to go no further than saying that S&M ‘can be both oppressive and liberating’, which doesn’t really make it clear whether it is a help or a hindrance in redeeming pleasures or freeing gendered bodies from global exploitation.

Part of the problem lies in the subject matter itself and in the tools Carrette chooses to work with. A set of practices that codifies personal relationships so absolutely in terms of power may reasonably be assumed to have a political dimension, but in his exploration of the issues Carrette goes a step further and asserts that, in order to understand the role of S&M in relation to Christianity, it is necessary to understand ‘the political ideology behind its varied manifestations’. To say that S&M has a political dimension and to say that it has a political ideology are very different things, and if Carrette fails to find a coherent underlying political ideology it is probably because there isn’t one.

On the one hand, S&M is right wing and conservative, rooted in contractual power arrangements that mirror all that Carrette feels is wrong with modern capitalist society; ‘S&M subcultures take images [from] WW2 Germany and flourish in the market economy of the USA’ and maintain ‘the power structures of hegemonic patriarchal sexuality’. On the other hand, S&M has a subversive side, seen in ‘the surrealist films of Artaud’, ‘the avant-garde novels of Klossowski and Bataille’, in ‘its forms of political resistance in the gay leather scene’, and (although he downplays the significance of this) ‘in the subversive and sensual tactics of theologians and writers delighting in the connection between S&M and the history of Christianity’.

A set of practices that is at once conservative and subversive is necessarily resistant to binary classification, and to that extent Carrette has little option but to conclude that S&M ‘functions … as both a site of resistance [to] and compliance with global capitalism’. But this leaves him in something of a quandary.

Similarly irreconcilable opposites pervade Carrette’s discussion of ‘The obvious links between the history of Christianity and S&M’. On the one hand, ‘at some level religious suffering and S&M may constitute a parallel event’, but on the other, ‘we must be wary of the association made between the erotic and spiritual, which more often than not turns to a kind of New Age fluff’, and ‘there are huge epistemological quandaries in understanding the erotic experience of S&M as religious or theological’. At the same time as asserting, following Mark Jordan, The Silence of Sodom: Homosexuality in Modern Catholicism (University of Chicago, 2000), that ‘Christian theology can learn from the contemporary site of S&M practice’, and S&M is ‘powerfully illuminating to theology’, he makes it plain that he has little time for so-called Christian sadomasochists ‘bizarrely sanctioning S&M through the biblical texts on submission’. If there is, as he insists, stable ground on which a spiritual understanding of the world may learn from and build on sadomasochistic practices, where is it to be found?

Part of the reason why Carrette appears unable to resolve the paradoxes he so cogently describes may lie in his refusal to see S&M as anything other than ‘a recent discourse’, a ‘modern invention’, dating back no further than Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis (1886). I would query this on two counts. The first is that sadomasochism is both a discourse and a set of practices. The second is that it is much older, both as discourse and as a practice, than its codification in the nineteenth century. We know that, in the seventeenth century, there were ‘flogging cullies’ who achieved sexual arousal by being beaten, and Krafft-Ebing is building on earlier discourses, from Sacher-Masoch (1870) to Pico della Mirandola (1496). References to biting, scratching and slapping as ways of heightening sexual pleasure in the 2000-year-old Karma Sutra, and Jerome’s fourth-century tale (complete with erotic strangulation) of a Christian bound and aroused by a prostitute is just one of a number of texts suggesting that, while the term sadomasochism may date from the late nineteenth century, it defines something that has roots going back much further than that.

By denying or ignoring the historical (and, though it lies outside my scope, psychological) roots of sadomasochism Carrette allows no other context for it than that of late modern capitalist society. His insistence that it is a product of modern society forces the conclusion that it is susceptible to analysis only within the framework of that society. Would he apply this reasoning more generally, and insist that all discussion of sexual identities should begin with their taxonomy in the nineteenth century and be seen only in the context of late modern capitalism? This seems to me an unwarranted limitation of the subject matter, imposing a concomitant limitation on the kinds of enquiry that he considers legitimate, and leading to what, to me, feels like an unnecessary and rather unhelpful narrowness of interpretation.

Carrette’s other works – notably Religion and Culture, 1999, in which he critiques Foucault, and Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion, 2004, coauthored with Richard King – make it clear that he is pursuing a radical agenda, seeing religion primarily as prostituted in the service of capitalism by the political right, and his paper needs to be seen in the context of his general approach. He disparages Christian apologists for sadomasochism (he does not mention the infamous ‘Christian Domestic Discipline’ and ‘spanking for Jesus’ directly, but this is clearly the kind of thing he has in mind), because, in Gordon’s words, S&M is a ‘commodification of bodies and selves’, isolating ‘sacrifice, self-sacrifice and expressions of humility’ from their true roles as ‘part of veneration and worship of God, the Spirit’ (Bridges: Metaphor for Psychic Processes, Karnac Books, 1993, p. 274) – in other words, at this level, S&M is a part of the hijacking of religion by capitalism. At the same time, ‘Even in its sub-cultural commercialisation S&M can still be a site/sight of politic resistance’.

The emergence of proto-pornographic discourse in the seventeenth century is inextricably bound up with anti-religious polemic, not necessarily from an atheistic perspective, but as an attack on the supposed hypocrisy of particular denominations; the puritan minister who flagellates his maid – ‘he told me he must chastise me for the good of my soul’ – in Francis Kirkman’s The Presbyterian Lash (London, 1661, sig. B2v), or the Catholic priest for whom a mother and daughter strip and prostrate themselves in front of the altar in order for him to whip them – ‘She herself removes her underclothes to [bare] her loins, and goes down on her knees before the altar. Do not spare my impure flesh, holy man, she says’ – in Nicolas Chorier’s Satyra Sotadica (s.l., c. 1660, p. 202; my translation from the Latin) are satirical creations, specifically designed to ridicule a hypocritical asceticism. In order for them to work, there has to be recognition of the phenomenon of inflicting and undergoing pain for sexual pleasure.

Equally, as Melissa Sanchez ably demonstrates, the seventeenth century abounds in texts which discursively feminize the male political subject, and, of course, hagiography and the Petrarchan sonnet ‘both see suffering, not joy, as evidence of true love’ (Erotic Subjects, Oxford, 2011, p. 5). We can go back several hundred years and find proto-sadomasochistic discourse being used,
on the one hand, to subvert religious models and, on the other, to reinforce political ones, while, at the same time, the early modern flagellant who engages the services of a prostitute or maid to beat him into a state of sexual arousal (depicted a number of times in seventeenth-century prose and verse) is no more making a statement about religion or politics than his counterpart today.

Once one accepts that sadomasochistic practices and discourse both have a considerably longer pedigree than Carrette acknowledges, the need to separate the discursive functions of sadomasochism from the actual practices of the sadomasochist becomes much clearer. That, at least, is my take. Carrette’s might be different, but I feel his analysis could only be helped by a greater awareness of the genealogy of sadomasochistic practices and discourse.