Nov 202010

Sociological Images has a post on Race and Gender themes of “Sheikh Romances”, a popular subgenre of mass market romance.

Sheikh romances are generally set in fictional countries in the Middle East, with a male character described as a “sheikh,” “sultan,” or something along the lines of “king of the desert.” He is, of course, invariably rich and powerful. The female protagonist, on the other hand, is a White woman, usually from the U.S.

For more examples, go to Amazon and search “sheikh romance.” Seriously, there are tons of them — Traded to the Sheikh, Stolen by the Sheikh, The Desert Prince’s Mistress, The Sheikh’s Virgin, Love-Slave to the Sheikh, The Sheikh’s Ransomed Bride (notice the recurring economic transaction theme?), and my new personal favorite book title ever, Hired: The Sheikh’s Secretary Mistress

This subgenre is, of course, a descendant of Edith Maude Hull’s 1919 novel The Sheik (filmed in 1921 with Rudolph Valentino in the lead), and also the harem pornographic novel typified by The Lustful Turk (1828).

I’d be interested to know if there’s been an upsurge in this particular subgenre over the past ten years, with the West’s increased involvement in the Middle East and the Islamic world since 9/11.

The comments are pretty interesting, suggesting that romance novels follow the same basic pattern of resolving gender conflicts while varying the setting.

Sep 192010

Goodlad, Lauren M.E. and Michael Bibby, ed. Goth: Undead Subculture Duke University Press, 2007 Gbooks

Emerging from the Romantics, emphasizing the truth of extreme experiences, and probably wearing too much black, the goth culture and the BDSM subculture are close cousins, if not actual siblings.

Goodlad and Bibby identify Goth as splitting off from punk, but with an emphasis on internal emotion and sensual expression instead of punk’s extroversion and asexuality. It borrowed from many other ancient and external influences, such as the occult, pagan religions, and the BDSM/fetish culture. Goth survives, while grunge, for example, has faded out. Like BDSM, goth prospered on the frontier of the World Wide Web, experiencing a flowering in the mid-90s. The authors also observe a later decoupling of goth style from goth culture (The Matrix being Goth style without Goth attitude, Donnie Darko and Buffy the Vampire Slayer being Goth attitude without goth style).

Goth style offers an ambivalent alternative to conventional standards of gender and beauty (the football jock and the perky cheerleader), but one that has it’s own strictures. Non-skinny goths of either sex are swimming upstream, and one essay observes that while goth give men greater license to perform femininity, it doesn’t give women license to perform masculinity, instead promoting a waif-like ideal. (As is often the case with those who defy gender, it’s about expanding options for men only. I’ve noticed that on the Second Life marketplace, you can get a “femboy” avatar, which is a male skin on a female body shape, but there doesn’t appear to be any avatars of female skins on male body shapes, or even a name for such a configuration.)

Trevor M Holmes, a former male exotic dancer, reported on an oral ultimatum from management, making tans and pumped up biceps and chests mandatory, and ordering “Act more masculine– no swishing, no frilly clothes– and act straight.” Why? “That’s what our customers want.” There’s a policing of desire here, that even (or especially) gay men must promote and prefer the ideal masculine sex object and subject of the straight-acting jock.

Skipping a lot of very interesting essays, what first caught my attention was Jason K Friedman’s “‘Ah am witness to its authenticity’: Goth style in Postmodern Southern Writing.” Thomas Jefferson, in the eighteenth query of Notes on the State of Virginia, wrote about masters in psychic bondage to their slaves. (Karl Marx also used the language of ghosts and vampires to describe the political and economic.) This ties into the South-as-Orient/sexual heterotopia idea I mentioned in previous posts.

Other essays touch on gothic fiction and the intersection of the BDSM subculture and goth subculture. These essays frequently touch on two fundamental questions about subcultures: if you join a subculture where everybody dresses the same, is it truly liberation? And can subcultures truly escape commodification by the mainstream?

So, is there anything truly revolutionary or transgressive in goth (and the same could be asked of BDSM, and many other subcultures)? Or is it just another marketing category? Somebody once said, there’s value and merit in being a punk in Orange County; but the moment the OC punk can articulate why being an OC punk is important, he or she can’t be that anymore. The same could be said of the kids in Saturday Night Live’s “Goth Talk” sketches, trying desperately to inject some magic and history and mystery and style into their suburban lives as they plug the Gloom Room, “right next to the Pizza Hut on Hibiscus Road.” Bless their monochromatic hearts.

Jul 122009

One of my two favorite comics writers, Grant Morrison on the idea of making DC Comics’ Wonder Woman as big a deal as she ought to be. From

So, Wonder Woman is a character where you imagine this very strange mélange of girl power, bondage, and a slightly disturbed sexuality. There is this bondage element; these extremely weird dark elements of Wonder Woman haven’t been adequately dealt with. Wonder Woman remains a really bizarre, untouchable character. She should represent women in the same way Superman represents men.

To make it work, to give [Wonder Woman] a sexuality that isn’t exploitive, because that’s too easy; but also to give her a [narrative] power.

William Moulton Marston, the character’s creator, was an odd combination of utopian feminist idealism and fetishistic sexuality. It’s important to remember that the character was never purely anything. From the beginning Wonder Woman was (always, already) schizoid, multi-valent: one part patriotic symbol, one part feminist ideal, one part lesbian icon, one part dominatrix, one part sex toy, and probably a few other parts beyond that. It’s hard to make a character with so many diverse elements work, though when it does it can be very satisfying. (Xena: Warrior Princess had a similar mosaic of progressive messages, comedy, kung fu, sword and sorcery, cheesecake/beefcake and lesbian subtext.)

From a writer’s perspective, there’s an additional problem in introducing the character to a larger audience. The other well-known superheroes start out as people in a world that resembles our own. Superman was a mid-western farm kid, Batman was a East Coast old money scion, Spider-man was a working-class nerd. When writing the character, you can start with a person who has grown up in an environment the viewer can relate to, and then add the fantastic elements. Wonder Woman, however, comes from a fantastic island of Amazon women, and in some versions of her origin she was made out of clay and given life. She doesn’t come to our world until she is an adult.

I think it could be done. “Hellboy” for example, features a hero who can’t pass for human, and his challenge is to retain his loyalty to humanity. The story introduces him to the view through the eyes of a more relatable human character.

Sep 132008

While this is hardly a scientific survey, Slate magazine’s compilation of alleged dreams about Alaska governor and Republic vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin reveals some interesting themes.

The most common representations of Palin have her associated with death, destruction and deprivation, as when she orders the dreamer to stop nursing her baby and go to jail. Not surprisingly, she appears as a “bad mother,” punishing and killing and violating family bonds and bodily integrity, to both men and women. She appears in a classic castration fantasy, with the male dreamer reduced to a helpless, submissive animal by a huntress/dominatrix:

“Sarah Palin’s standing over me (I’m naked, she’s not) and shouting, podium style, through a pair of great, floating glasses, ‘And you know what? I’m going to cut it off. I’m gonna CUT IT OFF.’ I hear cheers. Are we onstage? I don’t see it, but I feel the presence of TV camera everywhere. She continues, ‘And you know why? Because, well why shouldn’t I? If you’re good, I know God will put it back.’ I look down and realize I have the biggest pot plant ever growing up between my legs. I mean, the thing is beautiful. I think something happens next, but I can’t remember what. All I know is we are in a field, and Sarah Palin is kneeling over me decked out in hunter gear. She cradles her rifle pragmatically and smiles pathetically as if to say, ‘You silly bear,’ and ruffles my stomach. The plant is gone, but I am now covered in fur. And blood. And bits of grass. And as much as I want to bite her face off, I can’t be angry at her. Or rather, I can’t argue it. I’ve got nothing. And she knows it too. Her triumphalism is effortless.”—Joshua Mensch

Yet, there are also dreams of reconciliation and compromise. One dreamer uses the animals killed by Palin to feed the homeless. Another dreams of marrying Palin:

“I dreamt her hubby was killed in an strange accident, and we somehow met in Germany. My wife was also gone, not sure how. McCain became ill, and Sarah and I were married. My son and I moved into the White House, and I gave a speech about Americans not using common sense, etc. Of course there are some romantic portions of the dream I will not go into detail about. She is very attractive—as you know. My speech was powerful, as Sarah and I both scolded the media for not holding the right folks accountable for certain accounting scandals, etc. I also tried very hard to give America a wakeup call on issues like common sense parenting, buying more house and car than we need, being very wasteful, etc. The dream was a bit foggy, but in the end, I wrote several books, and Mrs. Palin-Kaiser ran the country for a year, doing a very good job. I also see her shaking her finger at the media over and over in the dream. But she always gave me a kiss afterward, so I only got on her case a little about the finger-wagging. Much of the dream is foggy, as I did not even know she existed until six weeks ago. Now I think about her a lot.”—Michael A. Kaiser

Marriage (after her husband conveniently dies) makes Palin into at a centrist instead of a religious conservative.

This immediately reminded me of a passage in Laura Frost’s Sex Drives about the relationship of fascism and sexual fantasy. A woman fantasizes about being Adolf Hitler’s lover and gently talking him out of the Holocaust, as if they were having a lover’s quarrel. It’s a strange relationship between sex and politics, the idea that love really could affect the state.

Feb 092008

Dijkstra, Bram. Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-De-Siecle Culture Oxford University Press, 1986.

Dijkstra’s book is an overview of art from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth, exploring the recurring themes of artists largely forgotten today. Back then, paintings were an art form viewed by the general public in salons and exhibitions, and having great controversy for their content. In the author’s analysis, there were recurring themes of gender, class and race tangled together in art.

The mid-nineteenth century, circa 1850, saw woman as the “household nun”, the passive vessel where the warrior-merchant man kept his soul for safekeeping. Artists painted sappy sentimental images of mothers and children, nymphs with broken backs languishing in the woods, etc. Around 1870, when the first generation raised under these ideals had matured (and when decadents like Rachile and Sacher-Masoch and Bram Stoker and Flaubert wrote), they took their disappointment in their mothers and wives failing to live up to that ideal as inspiration to portray women as monsters: bestial, materialistic, lustful, full of low cunning, primitive, a snare to trap man on his path to spiritual apotheosis and transcendance of the material. Dualistic thinking combined with garbled Darwin and Schopenhauer.

The cultural leaders of the years around 1900 much preferred the depiction of a simple world of dualistic absolutes, of easily identifiable abject household nuns and monstrous devil-women juxtaposed with godlike imperial males and pitiful effeminate victims. (Pg.393)

It’s not surprising to me that the author explores themes that eventually became staples of BDSM imagery: Orientalist slave women, domineering men, an early examples of forniphilia, the amazon, the temptress, the woman-as-animal, the vampire. Dijkstra goes a little overboard, apparently suggesting that even innocuous images are informed by sexism and racism, or that any juxtaposition of woman and animal in the same painting was understood to be an allusion to full on bestiality. Masochist paintings and novels prompt him to go into a convoluted theory in purple prose about masochists as “executioner’s assistants”.

It’s not that Dijkstra is wrong, it’s that he’s a modernist: his texts have one meaning. If one allows for irony or humor or subversion or fantasy when creating or viewing images, many different stories emerge. The story of Judith and Holofernes can be an instance of female heroism, instead of just a woman consuming the spiritual essence of man to fill her own moral and intellectual vacuum. Dijkstra’s final example is the biblical tale of Salome, which in Oscar Wilde’s version is the conflict of the spiritual/speaking and hearing/man versus the material/seeing and being seen/woman, but remember that in Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations of the play, Wilde himself is caricatured as Salome’s manipulative mother, Herodias.

Dijkstra has one theme only: man’s sublimated hatred towards woman, which ultimately limits his analysis. He leaves out how people find solutions in fantasy to problems, how symbols that can be monstrous to one viewer or one time can be heroic to another viewer or another time. His book covers the period which I consider the very early roots of the BDSM subculture, circa 1870, the publication date of Venus in Furs and also soon after the first spate of fetishist letters in Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine.

Jun 272007

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.

Jun 202007

Salon’s Broadsheet blog has an interesting theory on the reactionary images of helpless, out of control women that seem to be filling the media these days. Instead of a regressive sign, this may actually be a sign of how much their status has changed.

Naomi Wolf … has an interesting take on why women take on the role of shrinking violet. In yesterday’s Washington Post, Wolf addresses Hollywood’s helplessness narrative, …

…this is where Wolf’s argument is most daring: “Yes, it gives many of us the thrill of feeling morally superior,” she says. “But it’s also a way to tap into a yearning for regression and irresponsibility — even a fantasy of not being so competent, of letting it all go to pieces and having someone else clean up the mess — that millions of us generally have to suppress as we make our way successfully through the daily checklist and get it all done.”

The overworked BDSM cliche is the male executive who pays a pro dominatrix huge amounts of money to be beaten and infantilized. Critics say that the executive’s submission to the prodom has nothing to do with changing power structures in the real world. If the real world and the kink world have no relationship, and male submission is a vacation, then doesn’t it follow that women of responsibility and authority would want the same kind of vacation?

I’ve started on Louse J Kaplan’s Female Perversions from 1991, which takes direct aim at the old “do women have fetishes?” question. Kaplan isn’t really interested in consensual BDSM, and focuses instead on the clinical definition of fetishism and perversion, something that is compulsive and fixed.

Kaplan says that “the perverse strategy” is a way of escaping the strictures of gender. Men get aroused by, say, infantilism or transvestism, because they want to act in a non-masculine way; the arousal is actually to decoy or divert attention of the fetishist and/or observers away the desired behavior by expressing sexual performance.

This is the inverse of Michael J Bader’s theory of sexual fantasies in his book Arousal. Bader says the fetish allays anxiety to make arousal possible. Kaplan says the arousal allays anxiety to make the fetish possible. I’m divided on which I think is true; maybe it’s a chicken-or-egg thing.

Kaplan says women have perversions that allow them to escape the strictures of their gender (e.g. being nice, clean, caring, etc.) while being camouflaged by other things. Maybe by observing female celebrity basket-cases, women vicariously experience being greedy, callous, self-indulgent, irresponsible, etc.

Addendum: This seems every apt to the discussion of Fifty Shades of Grey.

Jan 172007

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:

Continue reading »

Aug 112006

I’ve been rethinking some of my ideas about Arthur Munby since I got a copy of Barry Reay’s Watching Hannah. For one thing, I found out that Munby did in fact write about switching in his scenes with Hannah Cullwick in his journals.

I have an urge to defend Munby against the criticisms of writers like Reay and Anne McClintock. He wasn’t that bad a guy, I think, and compared to Leopold von Sacher-Masoch or “Walter” from My Secret Life, he was a mensch.

On the other hand, reading this disturbing profile on Girls Gone Wild creator Joe Francis made me think about Munby. As Susie Bright put it:

Many parent-types have asked, “Why are we at a place where the only way a young woman thinks she can be important or meaningful is to take her top off for a creep’s camcorder?”

Good point.

But many feminist daughter-types have countered, “It’s not the topless part that’s the problem, it’s the exploitation by this prick. If the women took their tops off for their own movie, their own orgasm, and their own point of view, it would be a completely other story.”

I identify with both sentiments. I made a lot of DIY “feminist porn” with my friends when we were young, and never had a single regret, nor would I ever say that “it was all a blur.” On the contrary, we had wildly ambitious goals about what we wanted to say about our bodies and desires. I still do.

Francis’ dirtiest secret is that he traffics in porno-puritanism, in sexual shame. His profit lies in young women snookered into doing something “shameful” that they will want to hide the rest of their lives— once they sober up. They have been ruined— the ultimate GGW turn-on. It’s the frisson of humiliation that makes him, and his audience, hard.

And why, pray tell, is ruination the hottest American Fantasy du Jour?

Francis manhandles the female reporter, then turns on a dime into a sweet talker. Francis’ involvement goes well beyond getting twentysomething girls to flash their boobs on camera. His fantasy narrative seems to be something like: Good girl goes to party, has a little too much to drink, starts acting like a bad girl, gets captured on camera flashing her tits or making out with the girlfriend, and (this is the important part) regrets it later. Without the regret, without the idea that the girl has fallen/jumped/been pushed out of her comfort zome, there’s no appeal for him. Professional models and career party girls who approach Francis leave him cold; there’s no potential for shame or guilt. He’s reminiscent of Sade, writing that there could be no volunteers at the castle in 120 Days of Sodom.

Francis still believes in good girls and bad girls, but he wants to see good girls acting like bad girls, and tearfully lamenting it the next day. That’s his fantasy script, and I don’t think it could be reconciled with consensuality. If she knows what she’s doing, it’s no good.

Munby was fascinated by the idea that no matter how rough and dirty and masculinized a working woman was on the outside, she retained ideal feminine characteristics on the inside. He convinced himself that Cullwick, because of her facial features, had noble ancestry, but was forced by circumstances to do the lowest forms of physical labor. That’s Munby’s fantasy script. Women who were too sexually knowing or aggressive turned him off, as did women who were ladies in appearance and attitude.

I don’t think either of these guys could conceivably settle into the negotiation and consent culture of BDSM. They need the real world power differential, which Munby has by dint of social class and Francis by dint of wealth and fame, and both have because of gender.

I like Munby enough to say that he might be able to step back a little, but I realize that’s wishful thinking. His desires were so specific in their object, and their social/historical context, that it’s unlikely he could be brought into the fold of modern BDSM.

May 102006

I’m working through David Kunzle’s “World Upside Down: The Iconography of a European Broadsheet Type” in Barbara A Babcock’s “The Reversible World.” I’m not sure if I’m actually onto something, or just following a red herring.

WUD is a genre of broadsheet published all over Europe from the sixteenth to the early nineteenth century (if not later). It was a grid of images with captions, and not a comic strip in that there is no narrative connection between the images. Kunzle identifies several inversion motifs:
1. human to human (e.g. husband to wife, master to servant)
2. human to animal (e.g. hunter to hare, peasant to ox, woman to draft horse)
3. animal to animal (e.g. cock to hen, cat to mouse)
4. animal to element (e.g. fish in air, beasts in water)
5. animal to object (e.g. horse to cart)
6. object to object (e.g. tower to bell)
7. human to object (e.g. smith to anvil)

Types 1, 2 and 7 turn up a lot in fetish porn: femdom, ageplay/adult baby, pony/dog play, dehumanization. If you look at the work of, say, the House of Gord, you can see all of these themes, particularly types 2 and 7. The “femcar” is a modern version of ponyplay, the woman transformed into a component of a machine.

I think WUD imagery is a kind of prototype of pornography, horror and other “low” cultural forms. Kunzle puts them in opposition to books of proverbs, which demonstrate conservatism and the status quo, rather than the liberation and imagination of the WUD broadsheets. They were a popular form, and were connected to the peasant revolts of the early 1500s.

So, what’s the connection to kink? Maybe, some of the people seeing these images must have interpreted them as arousing. When the 19th century rolled around, bringing mass literacy, photography and the possibility of self-created media, people who connected with certain WUD images created more of those kind of images: femdom, pony girls, etc.

So where does maledom factor into this theory. A man dominating a woman is not an inversion of normality for human history. True, but there’s an additional element of inversion. If you look at the webcomics of, there’s a strong element of class inversion:

“A gang of lifers escape from a high security prison taking a bunch of beautiful young women as hostages…”

They are at the top. They are the most beautiful and sought after young women on Earth… They have everything: fame, money, beauty, social recognition and a brilliant future… Kidnapped at gun point, roughly shackled and obscenely manhandled they are taken into a truck full of brutal, dirty, sweaty insurgents.”

“He has spotted new prey – a rich girl who had humiliated his alter ego on the subway that very same day…. In seconds the girl is caught and smuggled into the city sewers, where the villain has his hideaway.”

“The year is 1850. The place, a cotton plantation in the deep south. Mrs Scarlet O’Hanna is a rich estate owner whose husband died recently. She has two daughters, both beautiful and both sought after by young men of marriageable age. But the O’Hannas are a proud family, too good for the other families in the district…

Mrs O’Hanna runs her estate with stern hand, punishing the black slaves with great cruelty and a certain degree of sadism…

Her husband left a lot of debts and the estate will be confiscated. The estate, according to the sheriff, includes Scarlet and her young daughters Jennifer and Melissa…”

The majority of DoFantasy’s stories map class and race onto gender. The women are generally rich, beautiful and leisured, aristocrats, professionals or celebrities. The men are convicts, rebels, or even apes with human intelligence, to add an extra dimension of inversion. This is, of course, an homage to one of the kinkiest movies ever, which is also the WUD motif turned into a feature film: Planet of the Apes and its sequels and spin-offs.

What seems to be about gender at first actually seems to be about class, and specficially class revenge fantasies, which is a key theme in WUD imagery. This is what was happening in the early 16th century peasant revolts:

“The peasant bands, supported by urban proletariats, roved freely over large areas of Germany, burning and looting monasteries and castles… Peasant leader Jacklein Rohrbach, after degrading and executing the cruel Count Helfenstein, had the Countess, a daughter of the Emperor, dressed like a beggar (that is, one of their own) and sent on her way in a dung cart…. Knights in rags were compelled to serve their fassals at table. The peasants dressed themselves in knightly raiment and mimicked rituals.” Pg. 63-64