Brownmiller’s statement probably had a lot to do with the anti-SM strain of feminism in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In her view, masochism is merely a myth of patriarchy, an excuse for rape.
Linden, Robin Ruth. 1982. Against sadomasochism: a radical feminist analysis. East Palo Alto, Calif: Frog in the Well. Amazon
I’ve already gone into the history of the lesbian sex wars over BDSM. This post covers one of the major incidents in this struggle, the anthology Against Sadomasochism: a radical feminist analysis. It was published in 1982, the same year as the infamous Barnard Conference incident (in which anti-SM lesbian-feminists harassed and picketed a women’s sexuality conference, in which SM was just one of many topics discussed). Sado-masochism was described as, at worst, patriarchal false consciousness and, at best, an immature holdover from less enlightened times. Witness Vivienne Walker-Crawford’s “The Saga of Sadie O. Massey” [Pg.147], in which sadomasochism is discussed through the metaphor of a woman who is overly attached to a pair of thick wool socks. Instead of being a primitive form of psychological development, it was a primitive form of political consciousness.i See also “Smokers Protest Healthism” by “Paula Tiklicorrect”.[Pg. 164]
Hydra fighting head to head
“Amnesia” by Chumbawamba
Continuing my discussion of Anna Robinson’s “Passion, Politics, And Politically Incorrect Sex: Towards A History Of Lesbian Sadomasochism In The USA 1975-1993” (2015). (Alternate)
Even the most crankish of critics can ask pertinent questions. That’s why the lesbian-feminist criticism of BDSM is so interesting, even with all the distortions and straw-women attacks and other problems.
As I wrote in my previous discussion of the Unleashing Feminism anthology, the problem was an attempt to fuse together two separate concepts, feminism and lesbianism, and enforce the border around that rather narrow ideal, both sexually and politically. However, the lesbian sex wars occurred mainly in the 80s and early 90s, when the BDSM community was just beginning to work out ideas of physical and mental safety. This was before the publication of Different Loving or On the Safe Edge, when kinky people rarely had any venues to express themselves.
Reti, Irene, and Pat Parker. 1993. Unleashing feminism: critiquing lesbian sadomasochism in the gay nineties. Santa Cruz, CA:HerBooks Amazon link
We must not offer haven
for fascists and pigs
be it real or fantasy
the line is too unclear.
“Bar Conversation”, Pat Parker, Pg. 6
Published roughly a decade after Against Sadomasochism, Unleashing Feminism came into a different world. Lesbians were more visible than ever before, including opening their own sex clubs and making their own porn magazines and videos, but to the lesbian feminist authors in this anthology, that was not a sign of progress. Their interpretation was that lesbians and other queers had lost their revolutionary principles and were being assimilated into mainstream consumer culture. Some of the essays portray the “lesbian sex wars” as a microcosm of a larger, almost apocalyptic conflict, a last chance for justice after the Reagan-Thatcher era and the beginning of the neoliberal Clinton era.
From Žižek’s “Organs without Bodies – Gilles Deleuze”:
And one finds a similar obscene subtext even where one would not expect it – in some texts which are commonly perceived as feminist. In order to confront this obscene “plague of fantasies” which persists at the level of “subliminal reality” at its most radical, suffice it to (re)read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the distopia about the “Republic of Gilead,” a new state on the East Coast of the US which emerged when the Moral Majority took over. The ambiguity of the novel is radical: its “official” aim is, of course, to present as actually realized the darkest conservative tendencies in order to warn us about the threats of Christian fundamentalism – the evoked vision is expected to give rise to horror in us. However, what strikes the eye is the utter fascination with this imagined universe and its invented rules. Fertile woman are allocated to those privileged members of the new nomenklatura whose wives cannot bear children – forbidden to read, deprived of their names (they are called after the man to whom they belong: the heroine is Offred – “of Fred”), they serve as receptacles of insemination. The more we read the novel, the more it becomes clear that the fantasy we are reading is not that of the Moral Majority, but that of feminist liberalism itself: an exact mirror-image of the fantasies about the sexual degeneration in our megalopolises which haunts members of the Moral Majority. So, what the novel displays is desire – not of the Moral Majority, but the hidden desire of feminist liberalism itself.
So, it’s not just fantasies that reflect reality, but fantasies that reflect each other. Moral Majority types have their dystopian fantasies of women stolen away by dark Others, and fantasize utopias of patriarchal order. Liberal feminists have their dystopian fantasies of the world the Moral Majority would create, a masochistic fantasy of defeat and vindication.
Continuing the tradition of eccentric and far from “straight and narrow” sex researchers, Stanford magazine has a profile of Dr. Clelia Mosher, a 19th century surgeon and feminist who advocated that women were not debilitated by menstruation. She also made a survey of women’s sexual attitudes long before Kinsey, which mouldered in an archive until 1973.
Mosher’s surveys of women born in 1870 or earlier spoke of widespread sexual ignorance before marriage, but also a strong interest in mutual sexual pleasure as a key aspect of companionate marriage.
Unlike Mosher’s other work, the survey is more qualitative than quantitative, featuring open-ended questions probing feelings and experiences. “She’s actually asking these questions not about physiology or mechanics—she’s really asking about sexual subjectivity and the meaning of sex to women,” Freedman says. Their responses were often mixed. Some enjoyed sex but worried that they shouldn’t. One slept apart from her husband “to avoid temptation of too frequent intercourse.” Some didn’t enjoy sex but faulted their partner. Mosher writes: [She] “Thinks men have not been properly trained.”
I’d love to see if there are any interest in or fantasies of kinky sexuality in these interviews.
EA Hanks’ column in the Huffington post sees masochism as the basis of the “surrendered wives” movement.
A lot of this hogwash so fantastically hogwashy (“Every girl inherits the princess gene which dictates her desire for a strong male role model to cosset and comfort her,”)…
Ms. Epstein needs to come to terms with her S&M kink.
“Wha Whaaaaa?” you say. That’s right, I said it. Ms. Epstein is the “M” in the S&M. She doesn’t have a “princess gene” that dictates her “desire for a strong male role model to cosset and comfort her” – what she has is a “kink” that makes her “want” to have her “boo boo’s kissed.”
But rather than act out her own fantasies of waiting upon her bed of pink taffeta, her ball gag attached to her bonnet, her Bo Peep shepherd’s staff looming threateningly over cherubic skin, she feels the need to attribute her fetish for weakness, submission, and “innocent” coyness to all women.
One of the books I read recently (wish I could remember which one) said that we tend to take male masochism as rhetorical but female masochism as confessional. That is, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs is just his elaborate fantasy or symbolic of something else, with no relation to his real life, while Pauline Reage’s Histoire de O is her deepest, darkest secret, to be taken literally. Actually, it was just the opposite, that Sacher-Masoch acted out his fantasies throughout his life, while Reage apparently kept it all in the mind.
This is why I don’t get terribly worked up about the idea that romance novels are propaganda inculcating female submissiveness. If a man can finish his corporate executive job for the day, visit a pro-domme in the evening and get “forced” into a French maid’s outfit, and then go back to work the next day, why can’t a woman take a break from her job and family by imagining getting “kidnapped and raped” by a Gothic barbarian warrior and just go back to business when she’s finished? Pro-domme sessions cost a lot more than paperbacks, but both provide a temporary relief from social norms and an opportunity to expression forbidden ideas that need not have any expression outside the “magic circle”.
(BTW, the book mentioned in the link above goes to great lengths to make clear that the sexual encounters between the lead characters are 100% consensual, according to the reviews.)
I’m a bit troubled when I hear people in BDSM speaking about maledom or femdom as philosophy or politics instead of fantasy. Somebody like the above-mentioned Ms. Epstein makes the same mistake, projecting her desires onto all other women.
Once again, I’m reminded that masochism was originally defined as a male malady, though Krafft-Ebing did include four cases of female masochists. It was about men who didn’t follow the presumed drive for power and resources, in all aspects of life, even internal thoughts. There’s a similar concern being applied to women with masochistic imaginings, that discrepancies between their actual lives and their imaginings cannot be allowed.
Salon reports on the Jane Austen mania gripping publishing, and the less-than-progressive fantasies it reflects.
In Shannon Hale’s “Austenland,” the author goes for broke, bypassing the dream sequence conceit in favor of full-bore fantasy immersion. Her heroine, Jane Hayes, attempts to quash her [Colin] Firth obsession once and for all by vacationing at a Jane Austen theme park. No, it’s not one in which if you don’t marry a man of means by 25 you’re branded a spinster and forced to live off the kindness of family for the rest of your life! (Coming soon: Woolf-Wharton Water Park, where visitors wade into a stream with pockets full of rocks and can be swept down a river of laudanum! Wheee!)
No, Hale’s Austenland is simply a place where lonely, desperate women — unfulfilled by the romantic opportunities available in a post-feminist universe — can go to dress up in pretty clothes and play whist with handsome actors who simulate roguish grumpiness on command.
By phone, Hale said that she always loved Austen’s novels, but that “it wasn’t until I saw the BBC miniseries with Colin Firth that something changed and I fell completely in love with it — with him.” She added that she had friends who would watch the tapes twice in a Saturday “to the point where it was interfering with their normal relationships.”
I asked Hale, who is 33 and lives in Utah with her husband and children, but calls her book “an ode to my single self,” if she finds it odd that single women would fantasize about a period during which their freedoms were so limited. “It makes no sense at all,” she said. “It’s completely ironic and disturbing to me as a feminist that I still daydream about that era.”
Hale, who talked about her single 20s as a time in which she couldn’t even afford to purchase BBC videos, suggested that class fantasy plays a part in Austen fascination. “Especially for Americans, the idea of living in England, as part of the gentry, where you dress up in the morning and you have a maid do your hair and you put on a corset and there’s this leisure living … we fantasize about that!”
So … corsets and a rigid class system. All those regressive bindings we have managed to slough off, at least to some extent. Who wouldn’t want to live back then, anyway? (Also? No plumbing!) “It must speak to some more primal desire,” said Hale. “It must speak to something inside of us that we lack.”
Hmmm. “Corsets and a rigid class system” sounds familiar. Maybe this is all just a masochistic fantasy for heterosexual women, a temporary, liminoid vacation into a simpler gender role.
The reason that Austen is still read (and still readable) today is precisely her lack of sentimentality. Her early 19th century books are actually a critique of late 18th century sentimental fantasies and romance. This isn’t the first time I’ve run across readers of a given work who read into it something quite at odds with what the author intended. Fans of Samuel Richardson wanted Clarissa to reform Lovelace. Freud’s 1919 essay “A Child is Being Beaten” cites beating fantasies as inspired by works such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin (which probably would have horrified Harriet Beecher-Stowe) and the Bibliotheque rose series of French children’s books by the Comtesse de Segur.
One thing I’d always hoped to witness, since I started to study sexuality seriously, was the birth of a new fetish. To me, that would like seeing a new species evolve right before your eyes.
I have yet to be the first to discover a fetish, but I’m always on the lookout for new ones. The closest I’ve come is coming across the web site, Tales of the Veils. This site is devoted to stories and images of veiled women. This is not about the cute little diaphanous veils worn by women in harem fantasies. This is about heavy, full-body covering garments worn by Muslim women living in strict purdah. I believe, though this is the kind of thing which can’t be proven, that veil fetishism has grown in the past few years. The site quotes from a Wikipedia article which seems to have disappeared: