Feb 192011

Murray, Thomas E. & Thomas R. Murrell The Language of Sadomasochism Greenwood Press, 1989

This book is a glimpse of the North American scene circa 1989, only a few years before the Internet provided a widespread, anonymous channel for communication. The authors say they had great difficulty getting anybody in the Scene to talk to them at all, and those who did were highly suspicious. It’s interesting to see that only 22 years ago, the scene was this underground and secretive. Nowadays, post-Internet, the scene is vastly more overt.

The historical overview includes some interesting tidbits, including a masochistic passage from ancient Egypt: “Oh! were I made her porter, I should cause her to be wrathful with me. Then when I did but hear her voice, the voice of her anger, a child shall I be for fear” (pg. 8) There’s also the note that Petronius’ Satyricon talks about courtesans dedicating whips, bridles and spurs as votive offerings to Venus.

However, as I’ve noticed is common in such historical overviews, these are a collection of anecdotes without a unifying historical theory. This is the kind of research I want to surpass, by presenting a historical theory of sadomasochism.

The glossary was less interesting than I thought it would be. Most of the information came from personal ads in newspapers and magazines, where language was condensed for economy and euphemized to escape prosecution. Some of these were not printed in commercial publications, but posted on literal bulletin boards at adult stores. I can remember Mack’s Leathers in Vancouver in the early 90s had such a board, full of hand-written personal ads. This mode of communication seems to have become as obsolete as the candlestick telephone.

There are also a few gaps in the glossary. The authors were baffled by the reference to “John Norman” in one personal ad, even though the Gor novels have been published since 1960s.

Dec 202010

Fetish Diva Midori enlightens us with a brief lexicon of Japanese sexual slang, with the caveat that “Japanese slang changes at a pace that would leave the hippest American gasping for words not yet invented.” Samples:

Esu Emu SM — SM. Yes that’s the actual word used for sadomasochism in Japan. Before dead white guys in 19th Century Europe decided to make a separate category, folks didn’t have a name for the odd stuff that some folks did behind closed doors.

Goshujinsama or Uesama — Male dominant. This one is pretty tricky. Direct translation from the common English use of “Master” to mean “male dominant” really isn’t applicable in Japan. Men who top in Japan don’t use a self-appointed title. They don’t insist on others calling them any special names. The term “goshujinsama” is sometimes met with a snicker as it literally means “Husband” in the high honorific form. “Uesama” is a gender-neutral term used in feudal Japan for the highest ranking of that clan. When Americans ask for the translation for “Master”, they’re likely to get some hemming and hawing or a quick brush-off with the word “Goshujinsama.”

Jo oh sama — Dominant woman (Literal meaning: Queen). Often used for professional dominants but not limited to the pros.

Midori’s post highlights that language influences social categories, and how it can be misleading to directly map one language’s word-concept onto another. For instance, among North American English-speakers, “femme” connotes a particular sexual and gender identity (i.e. a feminine-gendered lesbian woman). In French, however, it just denotes “woman.” Do Francophones and other non-English speakers have their own word that connotes that gender-sexual identity, or is there a separate set of identity categories?

When I try to get a grip on the divergent/parallel evolution of BDSM in Japan, I feel like I hit a brick wall. The primary sources are located far away and furthermore are in a language I don’t understand. I also get the strong impression that the Japanese in general don’t like to discuss this sort of thing with outsiders. What does get out is highly suspect, often more the product of Westerners’ Orientalist fantasies than sober observation. This is why I am so hesitant to theorize about Japanese BDSM now or in the past.