Once you start to explore the history and deeper ideas of sexuality, you inevitably come across the topic of the fetish, and the particularly gendered origin of the concept. For a long time, it was assumed that women simply did not have fetishes, and that they were a particularly male malady, much like masochism, tied into Freudian ideas of compensation of female castration. When women exhibited behaviour that could be seen as fetishistic, like kleptomania, it was explained away as something else.
More recent, feminist thought about sexuality has suggested that female fetishism does exist, but it hides in plain sight. One of the ideas of female fetishism is attraction to injured or wounded men.
Ley, David J. The Myth of Sex Addiction. Rowan and Littlefield, 2012 Amazon
Sex scandals are so prevalent that the publishers of The Myth of Sex Addiction by David J. Ley could reasonably expect that one would be in the news when the book launched. David Petraeus, former commander of US forces in Afghanistan and former director of the CIA, stepped up and performed adequately, but there were plenty of others waiting in the wings. His affair with his biographer was revealed when his mistress sent harassing emails to a female friend of the family, leading to an FBI investigation and ultimately his resignation. Predictably, people have applied the sex addiction label to the Petraeus affair.
Sex addiction has become our all-purpose rubric for sexual deviance, whether qualitative or quantitative, harmless or horrifying. Infidelity, porn use, homosexuality, masturbation, rape, fetishes, pedophilia, are all seem as symptoms of sex addiction. For a condition that is not recognized by many major medical and psychiatric organizations, sex addiction has amazing cultural currency, whether one views it as a moral failing or an illness.
Delve into the histories of those slapped with the sex addiction label, says Ley, and we will find a host of other problems: low impulse control, mood disorders, poor socialization, relationships between people with incompatible desires, etc. You find a guy crippled with guilt and shame because he masturbates twice a month. Examined closely, sex addiction dissolves into other conditions that are better known and more treatable.
- Brian: What are you playing?
- Tim: Tomb Raider 3.
- Brian: She’s drowning.
- Tim: Yeah.
- Brian: Is that the point of the game?
- Tim: Depends what mood you’re in really.
- Brian: What sort of mood are you in then?
- Tim: Well, I got a letter from my ex-girlfriend this morning, 3 months too late, explaining why she dumped me. It was full of ‘you’ll always be special’ and ‘I’ll always love you’ platitudes designed to make me feel better whilst simultaneously appeasing her deep seated sense of guilt for dumping me, running off with a slimy little city boy called Duane and destroying my faith in everything which is good and pure.
- Brian: So it didn’t really work then.
- Tim: No, it made me wanna drown things!
- Spaced, episode “Battles”, series 1, episode 4
Videogames are a relatively new art form, but they are as deserving of discussion as any other. Likewise, videogames do say things about sexuality and gender, and in extreme cases this revolves around rape. Recently, the owners of the Tomb Raider franchise set off controversy when they said they would include a sexual assault in heroine Lara Croft’s background.Things get even dicier when you factor in the interactive nature of videogames, and giving players the opportunity to put their characters in sexual relationships, sometimes non-consensual ones.
Clarisse Thorn and Julian Dibbell have edited and published an anthology (ebook and print) about this thorny area, titled Violation: Rape in Gaming.
Brooten, Bernadette J., ed. Beyond Slavery: Overcoming Its Religious and Sexual Legacies. Palgrave MacMillan, 2010.
Although Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religious leaders have always recognized the difference between slavery and marriage between men and women, they have sometimes applied concepts from slavery to marriage.
Pg. 8, “Introduction” by Bernadette J. Brooten
…the function of the priests is to prevent the first, highest, level of cosmic eating, the eating of human mortals by gods. How? By way of performing sacrificial rituals. Gods must be appeased, their hunger for blood must be satisfied, and the trick of the priests is to offer the gods a substitute (symbolic) sacrifice: an animal or other prescribed food instead of human life. The sacrifice is needed not to secure any special favors from the gods, but to make sure that the wheel of life goes on turning. Priests perform a function which concerns the balance of the entire universe: if the gods remain hungry, the whole cycle of cosmic life is disturbed.
Slavoy Zizek, Living in the End Times
Laura Kipnis opines on the DSK scandal and the apparent lack of female sex scandals, drawing on Louise Kaplan’s Female Perversions:
In her influential 1991 book “Female Perversions” (later made into a movie starring Tilda Swinton), psychoanalyst Louise Kaplan writes that we tend to think of sexual perversions as a male province only because female perversions are more hidden. In fact, they’re hidden in plain sight. The point is applicable to sex scandals too, I believe. According to Kaplan, perversions aren’t primarily about illicit or deviant sexual behaviors, they’re actually pathologies of gender identity. “What makes a perversion a perversion is a mental strategy that uses one or another social stereotype of masculinity or femininity in a way that deceives the onlooker about the unconscious meanings of the behaviors she or he is observing.”
Women too, are capable of perverse behavior, and enlisting others in such stratagems, but this kind of thing generally doesn’t make the headlines. Very occasionally we see women getting themselves into scandals in ways we’d consider “masculine”—high school teachers sleeping with their students for instance—but it’s rare. More often, when we see a woman behaving in caricatured feminine ways, the response is, “Thanks for doing the laundry, baby.”
The stereotypical cliche of perverse sexuality, the CEO who pays a dominatrix thousands of dollars to dress in a French maid uniform and do her laundry, doesn’t seem to have a direct female analogue. When we look for female scandals with this perspective, things start to pop up, of female celebrities under tremendous pressure and acting out in bizarre ways. I think of Angelina Jolie’s (perhaps excessive) display of maternity in adopting African children, or Tammy Faye Bakker’s grotesque exaggeration of female makeup back in the days, or women who have multiple cosmetic surgeries. Still, these examples are something inward directed.
As women move into more positions of authority in the corporate and political realms, will they start to display more male-like sexual perversions, or will we have to create a new category of scandal for them? Tabloid journalism obsesses over the bodies of female celebrities (too fat? too thin? botched operation? pregnant? infertile?) but not their sexualities, not the objects of their desires.
Shortbus 2006, written and directed by John Cameron Mitchell. IMDB
grew up with have fond memories of Sook-Yin Lee as a VJ on Canada’s MuchMusic (she memorably mooned the camera on her last broadcast day) and I still listen to her now and again on CBC’s Definitely Not The Opera podcast, where she hosts an NPR-like show about personal anecdotes. That’s why it was a slightly odd experience to see her having un-faked, penetrative intercourse in the first few minutes of this movie. (According to the DVD commentary, she was wearing a female condom.) It felt a little like I was seeing somebody I knew in person having sex.
Gatrell, Vic. City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London Walker & Company, 2006 Pg. 331-44
The fill title of the above print, published by William Holland’s shop in 1786 by James Gillray (at the time an up-and-comer in his field), is Lady Termagant Flaybum Going to Give her Step Son a Taste of her Desert after Dinner, A Scene Performed Every Day near Grosvenor Square, to the Annoyance of the Neighbourhood. For a print commissioned as a particularly nasty bit of character assassination and slander, it’s a very well-done work. The faces are uncaricatured and finely detailed.
As Gatrell puts it, “The print carried its own pornographic shadow.” William Holland shared shop space with a publisher of flagellation literature, George Peacock. Peacock published works like Sublime of Flagellation: or Letters from Lady Termagant Flaybum to Lady Harriet Tickletail, of Bumfiddle Hall (c.1777-85) and Exhibition of Female Flagellants in the Modest and Incontinent World (1777). The latter claimed that women engaged in the pleasures of flagellation of their own and others’ children, as much as men. (I.e. projecting fantasies of sadism onto women.) Flagellation themes frequently appeared in Gillray’s work.
The “Lady Termagant Flaybum” name was already known, at least among the wealthier men who could afford such prints, before it was attached to Mary Eleanor Bowes (1749-1800). Born to great wealth and raised to be an educated and freethinking (and somewhat irreligious) woman, Bowes (later Lady Strathmore) was the partial basis for Thackeray’s novel Bary Lyndon. Her main character flaw was rotten taste in men (or maybe the pickings were just slim.) In 1777, she fell for and married all-around scoundrel Andrew Robinson Stoney, “the libertine adventurer incarnate,” as Gatrell puts it.
Stoney managed to get control of Bowes’ estates and used it fund his profligacy, while verbally and physically abusing her. (This came out in the divorce trial a decade later.) He coerced her into writing her own Confessions, a quasi-pornographic work detailing her own flirtations and adulteries, her attempt to get an abortion and her irreligion. When Bowes finally had enough, separated from him and started legal proceedings, his abuse shaded into revenge, stalking her and attacking her character.
Gatrell describes commissioning the Lady Flaybum print as “a resort to image magic against his wife in a culture highly respectful of the image’s power.” Gillray may have been incoherently instructed, as Bowes allegedly had an “unnatural dislike” of her eldest son (not her step-son), and there’s no evidnce she had anything to do with flagellation other than Stoney’s claims. Other Gillray prints picked up on Bowes’ supposed preference to cats over her own children by depicting her nursing cats at her breasts while her son cries, not to mention drinking with and sleeping with servants.
A few months after the publication of the Flaybum print, Stoney actually kidnpapped Bowes with the help of armed thugs and a bribed constable, and fled into the wilds with her, pursued by constables and angry locals. (Life was imitating a Gothic novel.) At last, she was freed and Bowes was stopped in a country field. She went back to London.
The legal battles continued while Stoney was in prison, with Stoney using his wife’s extorted Confessions against her. They were openly published in 1793.
You could see this sordid affair as a collision between the old idea of libertinism and the idea of equal desire between the sexes, and the nascent cult of motherhood that would come to full fruition in the Victorian era. Bowes was as much of a female libertine as it was realistically possible to be, and Stoney’s principal attack on her character was that she was an abusive mother. She had no character to salvage, no way to turn public opinion to her side.
The two semi-pornographic works Stoney commissioned (so to speak) were used to control and to damage his wife via her public reputation (and sad to say, few people cared much about her situation.) What interests me is that these works may have been read as pornography by people who didn’t know or care about the real person they refer to. Furthermore, these images and texts may have hung around and been read by people long after Stoney and Bowes faded from public knowledge or been relevant. I can imagine people in later generations seeing the Flaybum print as inspiration for masochistic erotic fantasy. The two women in the print are depicted as beautiful, not grotesque caricatures as common in such prints.
Gillray was an interesting artist of this period. Whereas Rowlandson was erotic but light and fluffy and never without a humorous or satiric point, Gillray tended towards the blunt and the direct. The rule in high art was to show the moment before violence, but Gillray showed the event itself or its immediately and bloody aftermath. This is not to say that Gillray couldn’t be subtle and witty when he wanted, even about sexual matters.
As another example of fetishistic or perverse (mis)reading, this image could be also read as fodder for foot fetish fantasies.
Mahdavi, Pardis. Passionate Uprisings: Iran’s Sexual Revolution Standford University Press, 2009 Google books
This fascinating book is based on a series of Mahdavi’s visits from America to Iran between 2000 and 2007, which gave her an interesting longitudinal perspective of social change in Iran.
Mahdavi’s book explores a particular “thin slice” of Iranian society: young, urban, secular-minded, middle-class (or wishing to appear so), over-educated, under-employed, mobile (via cars and mobile phones), and exposed to the developed world via Internet and satellite TV. The men go clean-shaven and hair-gelled. The women wear tight-fighting mantos (coats) and headscarves that show their streaked hair, plus multiple layers of makeup. It’s a particular style of dress that has developed by dancing on the edge of Iran’s sartorial laws, under which a bare ankle, a three-quarter sleeve or a few centimetres of exposed hair could result in harassment, arrest or being whipped. Its also a statement against identifying with the ascetic look of morality police. They drive to house parties (no night clubs or other public venues), drink imported liquor, dance (completely forbidden) to Iranian-American hip-hop, and screw around, all the while looking over their shoulders.