May 132016

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]

The anthology included several works that drew connections between kink and fascism. Robin Ruth Linden, the editor, in her introduction cites the infamous 1971 Stanford Prison experiment which suggested that ordinary people will act sadistically given the slightest excuse.ii

By generalizing from the prison simulation to sadomasochism, we can infer that enacting dominant and submissive roles would be habituating rather than cathartic.iii

In the essay “Swastikas: The Street and the University”, Susan Leigh Star describes walking in the streets of the Castro district of San Francisco, and seeing people wearing leather and chains, and magazines with Nazi Germany uniforms.

In particular, the swastikas trigger my troubled street sense, although by now I think I’ve generalized the response. Somebody in black leather is a bit like the man in the proverbial alley. Simple fellow (or sister) passer-by in the alley, I’m not going to stick around to find out [if they are dangerous]. A similar analysis could be made of whips and chains but the swastika example best illustrates my feelings about symbols of sadomasochism.


I am a Jew. Therefore swastikas and those symbols that are associated with them bother me. They trouble my street sense.iv

Star adopts a Marxist analysis, saying that a psychological experience cannot be separated from historical context. Wearing a swastika, or employing whips and chains, for whatever reason cannot be separated from their effect on other people: the Jews or homosexuals or women who see them as signs of danger, the fascists who see them as signs of acceptance of their views. Star says that she will reevaluate those symbols if and when she is certain the real-world oppression they reference is extinct.v

There’s a certain Judeo-Christian element to many essays. Marissa Jonel’s “Letter From a Former Masochist” follows a sin-and-repent narrative. She writes:

…I met the woman who became my lover for the next four years. After being together for a very short time she asked me if I was into sm. I said I’d had fantasies about it and was into experimenting. At first it was very exciting having elaborate scenes and talking about them before and after we acted them out. Our lives together revolved around sm for our whole relationship but those first six months or so it was different. It was something new for both of us and it was so taboo. In straight society sm is seen as something kinky but between lesbians it is the ultimate risqué act.

So I didn’t feel bad about it in the beginning. I loved it. There was new meaning in my life! […] And the politics of sm began to be a part of my entire being, my everyday consciousness. [Pg. 17]

As is obligatory in this kind of narrative, the initial attraction must give way to fear, guilt and shame.

When did I start losing faith in sm? When did I get scared? How did I get involved so deeply? I think I had doubts all along. There were always moments of uncertainty, even when I was turned-on to it but I know I was frightened when I felt myself feeling less and needing more real pain to get excited.

Perhaps surprisingly, Jonel equivocates in her judgement of BDSM.

Maybe sm on some levels (mild, limited involvement) is ok for some people. I really don’t know. I do know that sm almost ruined my life. I mean this quite literally. But I feel uncomfortable saying unconditionally that sm is fucked. Maybe other women do it differently than we did. Maybe other sadists aren’t abusive in other parts of their relationship. I don’t know. [Pg.18-19]

I believe that we all have the right to experience whatever feelings we wish in whatever mode of sexual expression. But I also think we should examine sm realistically, that the group should admit that sm doesn’t end behind the bedroom door. Sadomasochism and the attitudes put forth by the new league of sm “feminists” are dangerous to all lesbians because they make violence and abuse, in whatever form, acceptable. [Pg.21]

Jonel claims she heard a woman who counselled battered lesbians claim that the spread of sm is directly connected to the increase of violence between lesbians. She also describes the culture of lesbian BDSM as cult-like and fostering or covering abuse. [Pg.19-20] Jonel clearly had a bad experience. Whether that was made possible by BDSM or not, she was still trying to draw the boundary between BDSM and abuse.

In keeping with the sin-and-repent narrative, Jonel ends with offering other “sinners” the possibility of redemption.

It is my hope that by sharing my experiences other lesbians in similar situations can find hope and know that it’s possible to leave — that it is possible to go from the drama and high energy/emotion of sm back to “vanilla” sex. “Vanilla” sex is not unexciting. [Pg.22]

As Umni Khan pointed out, anti-SM feminists often do a poor job of selling non-SM sex. “Not unexcitingis faint praise.

Elizabeth Harris’ “Sadomasochism: A Personal Experience” [Pg.93] follows a similar sin-and-repent narrative, acknowledging sexual pleasure from her SM fantasies and experiences but viewing it as “a symptom of unacknowledged pain in myself”. SM is just a diversion from the real world and a potentially harmful one.

Sally Roesch Wagner’s “Pornography and the Sexual Revolution: The Backlash of Sadomasochism” [Pg.23] places SM as just the latest iteration of heteropatriarchal sexuality. Violent pornography is men’s response to economic vulnerability, supposedly spiking in the Great Depression and in the present.

Sadomasochism is not a “kinky” deviation from normal heterosexual behaviour. Rather, it is the defining quality of the power relationship between men and women. Sadism is the logical extension of behavior that arises out of male power. Self-will, dominance, unbridled anger and cold rationality: these qualities, bought at the expense of gentleness and concern for others, define the classic sadist, as well as the “real” man. Selflessness, submission, lack of will and unbridled emotionalism: these qualities demanded of women, to the detriment of concern for self and independence, portray the classic masochist. At the moment when the women’s movement (joined by the emerging anti-sexist men’s movement) is challenging these behavioral modes and the unequal distribution of power upon which they est, patriarchal ideology and institutions are in the throes of a backlash to strengthen them.

The endorsements of heterosexual bondage in Alex Comfort’s The Joy of Sex and in Playgirl magazine (January 1979) are parts of this backlash, and the homosexual culture is merely mirroring this. [Pg.32-33] Lesbian publications like What Color is Your Handkerchief? or the “SM and Feminism” chapter in the 1979 lesbian erotica anthology A Woman’s Touch try to argue that it’s okay between women, because of the lack of a power differential and/or women’s supposed biological/moral superiority, but Wagner disagrees. [Pg.34-37] Even Barbara Lipschutz’s 1975 essay “Cathexis” falls prey to this idea.

I believe that sado-masochism as a liberating practice is only possible for women within a lesbian-feminist context. I do not think S-M is the appropriate way to address the power imbalance (caste system) which obtains between men and women throughout society. S-M can equalize a power imbalance in a love relationship, but only between members of the same sexual caste. As a lesbian-feminist, I believe it would be extremely self-destructive for any woman to play either role in an S-M relationship with any man. S-M as described below is only possible in a situation of profound trust. For a woman to trust a man to such an extent would not be in her best interests. Such an action would be a perversion of masochism and counter-revolutionary.[Pg. 36]

Wagner quotes Lipschutz again when she criticizes the idea of sexuality (lesbian and BDSM) being a fixed quality of an individual, instead of contingent behavior.

Your body will tell you whether or not you are turned on by S-M. Listen to it. If, beneath your fear and discomfort, there is arousal as well, there is an S-M aspect to your psyche.[Pg.38]

Wagner counters that SM stems from the heteropatriarchal society, a counter-reaction to feminism. Don’t listen to your treacherous body. (Again getting back to Judeo-Christian ideas.)

(I’m still searching for a complete copy of Lipschutz’s essay, arguably the founding document of lesbian SM.)

Karen Rian’s “Sadomasochism and the Social Construction of Desire” continues the constructivist thinking. As we’ve seen in discussions of Krafft-Ebing and the definition of “the homosexual”, for about a century the homosexual had been a “type”, their sexual behaviour an expression of a deep, internal quality. A certain strain of lesbian-feminist went against this, arguing that “lesbian” was not a psychosexual type but a chosen social and political identity, a conscientious objector to heterosexuality.

Since our sexuality has been for the most part constructed through social structures over which we have had no control, we all “consent” to sexual desires and activities which are alienating to at least some degree. However, there’s a vast difference between consent and self-determination. [Pg.49]

Kathleen Barry’s “On the History of Cultural Sadism” continues the constructivist argument, going into the history of psychology and the definitions of sadism and masochism as inherent psychological traits, instead of social positions. In other words, the sadomasochist was not “born that way”, they just play out a part in a political system.

Bat-Ami Bar On’s “Feminism and Sadomasochism: Self-Critical Notes” further attacks the idea of consent. She sees masochist’s consent to the sadist as merely a “power of the oppressed”, and dependent on the sadist staying in the good graces of the sadomasochist community. [Pg.79] Likewise, Hilde Hein says, in “Sadomasochism and the Liberal Tradition” [Pg.83] that while sadomasochism is compatible with philosophical liberalism, we live in an unequal society.

Furthermore, it is apparently not uncommon that victim and oppressor in sadomasochistic activities voluntarily reverse and alternate roles. This very “playfulness” contributes to the intolerable character of the sadomasochistic defense. To treat with levity a self-chosen condition of humiliation which is a hated oppression to multitudes of other people is to reduce their suffering to a mockery. Every joyous torturer and willing torturee negates and denies the real agony of six million Jews, countless Blacks and untold numbers of others whose victimization remains substantial and involuntary. [Pg.87]

It should be clear at this point that Against Sadomasochism is long on theoretical discussions of the morality and politics of lesbian BDSM, and short on any kind of observation of lesbian BDSM. Most of the citations are from theoretical or fictional works. There is little or nothing about what lesbian sadomasochists actually do. Can it be shown that kinky people of any kind are more prone to abuse or authoritarianism than the general population? (Even if it did, correlation is not causation.)

One of the most remarkable pieces in this collection is the text of a talk Ti-Grace Atkinson gave at a meeting of the Eulenspiegel Society in 1975, “Why I’m Against S/M Liberation.”

Your enemy, then, from which you wish “liberation,” is one of attitude. (Herein lies the contradiction of “liberation” applied to, essentially, a nonmateralistic situation.) Your “enemy” is not the Establishment per se. In fact, you claim as your life force the distillation of the essence of that Establishment. Your enemy is the resistance of the Establishment to recognize you as its own. [Pg.91]

I wish I could have heard the discussion after Atkinson’s talk.

In “Is Sadomasochism Feminist? A Critique of the Samois Position”, by Jeanette Nichols et al., the goal is removal of power from all human relations, fantasy or reality.

As long as inequality prevails, the idea of “experiencing the other side of power” is a fraud. In the real world, we cannot trade places with our oppressors, whether an arbitrary supervisor, racist policeman or reactionary politician. We need to end their authority over our lives, not to glorify a stylization of it.[Pg. 140]

Feminists make mistakes. The glorification of sadomasochism is, from the standpoint of feminism, a mistake. [Pg.145]

Jesse Meredith’s “A response to Samois” [Pg. 96] is perhaps the most ambivalent take on SM. While she gets the idea of transcendance through physical experience with another person , she also makes a long list of things that she has difficulty with in BDSM as it is presented by Samois.

I will not call it [transcendent sexual experience] by the vile terms master and slave, those relics of the ownership of human flesh that are with us still. I will not call it dominance and submission– that model of human relations threatens to destroy us all. Nor will I call us “top” and “bottom,” which sound like terms for parts of a canister or a suit.

I would rather develop a new model for transcendence, a new language that expresses how we affirm one another, are loving, are passionate, are connected to all living things, are women in struggle.


I am deeply distressed that Samois embraces whips and chains as symbols, which are the tools of those who rule by force and terror. I am confused and disturbed by Samois’ doublethink terminology: pain-is-pleasure, enslavement-by-consent, freedom-through-bodage, reality-as-game, equality-through-role-play. I protest the claim that enactments of humiliation and pain bring catharsis, because I know that repetition of behavior, especially eroticized repetition, will more likely cause habituation or addiction. [Pg.97]

Other authors are ambivalent about SM. Maryel Norris, in her essay “An Opinionated Piece of Sadomasochism”, opposes SM, but admits to having sadistic fantasies about punishing her lover.

Isn’t the thought as sick as the act would be? Or, as I believe, do fantasies serve a useful purpose in venting frustrations? No one is harmed. Punching a pillow is better than punching one’s lover. And I allow myself my fantasies. [Pg.108]

This echoes another thorny area of Judeo-Christian thought: is the thought as sinful as the act? Note that many of the other writers also refute the idea of emotional catharsis, even at the level of fantasy. [See Pg.159]

Judy Butler (I’m not sure if this is the same person as gender theorist Judith Butler) also takes an ambivalent position about BDSM.

I’ve never done sm as it is institutionalized, that is, with all the “equipment,” accoutrement, and jargon that goes with it. But I’ve felt the passion and intensity that has gone along with certain dominant-submissive power dynamics in my own sexual relationships with women. I’ve always felt ambivalent about the power imbalance that drew me, and I’ve even tried to legislate such desires out of existence. [Pg. 170]

Butler digs a little deeper, seeing SM as an inversion of Judeo-Christian values by seeing desire and passion as a guide to truth. As Patrick Califia put it, “Desire is impeccably honest.” This clashes with the social-constructivist position of radical lesbian-feminists for whom desire is just another medium through which power works.

The problem [with feminist views on sexuality] seemed to many besides myself to consist in the disappearance of a private and solitary realm. “The personal is political” originally meant that personal life must be seen in political terms AND politics must be shaped from personal experience. Too often the latter part of the definition has been ignored, and personal life has been asked to conform to political correctness.

On the other hand, the sm movement glorifies the life of fantasy to the point where the public realm all but disappears. [Pg. 171]

Susan Griffin’s “Sadomasochism and the Erosion of Self: A Critical Reading of Story of O” reiterates that SM is a false salvation.

It is not the revelation of a hidden side of humanity which frightens me. (Nor am I seeking laws or judgements to forbid those practises.) Rather I am disturbed and angered because sadomasochism does not reveal the soul; instead the sadomasochistic act exists to hide the soul from knowledge of itself; it offers an old and dangerous delusion. [Pg 185-186]

Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, eloquently conveys her dismay at an interracial lesbian master-slave couple seen on a TV documentary.

All I had been teaching was subverted by that one image, and I was incensed to think of the hard struggle of my students to rid themselves of stereotype, to combat prejudice, to put themselves into enslaved women’s skins, and then to see their struggle mocked, and the actual enslaved condition of literally millions of our mothers trivialized–because two ignorant women insisted on their right to act out publicly a “fantasy” that still strikes terror in black women’s hearts. And embarrassment and disgust, at least in the hearts of most of the white women in my class. [Pg.207]

Can one image be that powerful? Does the mere existence of lesbian or POC sadomasochists invalidate radical lesbian-feminism and anti-racism? It does suggest the anxiety that drove the lesbian sex wars, which is what happens when a totalizing philosophy encounters people who live by different rules.

It would be arguing in bad faith to point out the many contradictions and divergent opinions in this collection. The introduction clearly states that this is not a coherent platform, but a collection of observations, criticisms and arguments. Some take aim at sadomasochism as a symptom of a corrupt culture, others more narrowly consider, in an almost legalistic way, whether sadomasochism is acceptable for lesbians and/or feminists.

This collection brought me back to Donna Minkowitz’s Ferocious Romance, about a Jewish leatherdyke exploring the evangelical Christian culture. One of the men she spoke to claimed to be an “ex-gay” who quit the sex and drugs gay club scene and was born again. He said something to the effect of, “I must be saved from what I want.” That’s the opposite of Califia’s “Desire is impeccably honest.” Many of the authors in this collection acknowledge the seductions and pleasures of sadomasochism; some even claim first-hand experience. Yet they also proclaim the dangers and deceptions of pleasure, and that repression or sublimation is necessary for redemption. This is a little ironic if you consider desire (for other women) to be the foundation of lesbian identity, and repression or sublimation of that to live within a heterosexist society to be an injustice. This may be something irreconcilable, at least within Judeo-Christian culture.

iRobinson 2015 Pg. 105

iLinden, Robin Ruth. 1982. Against sadomasochism: a radical feminist analysis. East Palo Alto, Calif: Frog in the Well.

iiLinden 1982, Pg.7-8

iiiLinden 1982, Pg.10

ivLinden 1982, Pg. 132

vLinden 1982, Pg.133-135

  3 Responses to “Against Sadomasochism: a radical feminist analysis”

  1. […] roughly a decade after Against Sadomasochism, Unleashing Feminism came into a different world. Lesbians were more visible than ever before, […]

  2. […] her essay in Against Sadomasochism, Alice Walker condemned the image of a consensual black female slave in the 1980 documentary S/M: […]

  3. […] Walker in her essay “A Letter of the Times, or Should This Sado-Masochism Be Saved?” in Against Sadomasochism, which expressed her horror at the idea of a voluntary black […]

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