Mar 252011

Desmond, Marilyn. Ovid’s Art and the Wife of Bath: The Ethics of Erotic Violence Cornell University Press, 2006 Google Books

Desmond’s book starts off with telling how people objected to the inclusion of an informational panel on consensual sadomasochism at a feminist conference in New Paltz in 1997. This set off a media firestorm across the US. A similar controversy flared up in 1982 over the Barnard College conference that eventually led to Pleasure and Danger anthology, and was one of the inciting incidents in the 1980s iteration of the “sex wars.”

The New Paltz conference fifteen years later demonstrates that S/M remains an “alarming symbol,” even when its practitioners stress its contractual and consensual nature–as they did in the conference program–and even though popular culture, especially advertising and fashion (Versace, Gaultier) is saturated with S/M imagery.

Pg. 3

As such, violence against women constitutes a form of “structural violence” in the contemporary West. By contrast, the theatricality of S/M demonstrates that such hierarchies are inventions, and unstable inventions at that. Commercial and consensual S?M are aggressively policed in Britain and the United States while domestic violence has generally been tolerated in both countries as part of the status quo; perpetrators of domestic abuse, unlike S/M practitioners, are not classified as sexual outlaws.

Pg. 4

While S/M scripts parody the formations of power and fetishize the instruments of violence, such parodies and fetishistic operations frequently rely on historical configurations. Michel Foucault described S/M as a form of courtship, in which “sexual relations are elaborated and developed by and through mythical relations.”…. Premodern history offers intense opportunities for staing power in theatrical erotics since the semiotics of power relations in premodern cultures are popularly though to be crudely figured in terms of dominance and submission or starkly organized into social institutions such as feudalism or the Church…. Perhaps this is why Slavoj Zizek sees masochism and courtly love as direct reflections of one another….


Desmond cites an essay by Anna Freud, “Beating Fantasies and Daydreams” (1922), which follows up from her father’s “A Child is Being Beaten.” This shows an individual process of how one person takes a story and revises it repeatedly, turning it from a tale of violence to a tale of suffering and redemption.

Anna Freud’s case study suggests that narratives adapted–however loosely– from an identifiable past such as the medieval West provide a superstructure of fantasy that facilitates an erotic paradigm. If medieval scripts can be read through masochism–as Zizek sees it–or if they facilitate masochistic fantasy–in Anna Freud’s terms–perhaps the constructs of the medieval past might elucidate specific performances of contemporary heterosexualities, particularly in terms of erotic violence.

Pg. 5-6

What Desmond does in this book is trace out the genealogy of Western civilization’s views on the relationship between eros and violence.

Classical roman society was intensely hierarchical, and a Roman man was expected to keep order in his household (which included wives, family members and slaves) through words or blows. St. Augustine saw violence as an integral part of domestic order and affection, as an expression of marital love. Medieval marriage manuals, if not condoning violence against women, told women to suck it up and bear it. The consensus of laws in the period was that husbands had the right and duty to “correct” their wives physically, within some “reasonable” limit.

The root of this particular tree is Ovid’s Ars Amatoria, written around 2 CE. It’s a three-part elegy poem, with the first two parts telling the male reader how to seduce woman, and the third telling women who to act in such circumstances. Ovid wrote it in early days of imperial rule, when Augustus imposed new laws to strengthen marriage and penalize adultery, brought on by fear of declining birthrates and not enough citizens to maintain an army. (Cf. Foucault’s bio-power)

Marital reproduction thus became a legal obligation in order to further the goals of Roman conquests and colonial occupation. By contrast to such official policy, the Ars defines amor as an experience that can only take place outside of marriage, and it is completely silent on the reproductive consequences of heterosexual performance. The Ars thereby mocks the assumptions of Augustus’ marriage legislation that sexuality can be regulated by law.

The heterosexual script as it develops in the course of the Ars emerges from the structures of imperialism so that the praeceptor’s [instructor’s] discourse of sexual domination and conquest mimics the discourses of Roman coloniality.

Pg. 36

This is perhaps the most interesting aspect of Ovid’s work, that it was meant at least in part as a satire of the newly expansionist and martial state, which intruded into private matters. A Roman would have got the joke; a Frenchman a thousand years later wouldn’t. (This ties into two other themes I’ve noticed in the history of BDSM: imperialism/colonialism, and the misreading of texts.)

There is a masochistic side to this, when Ovid advises his pupil to occasionally and strategically debase himself before his domina (mistress, or woman in charge of household slaves). “Don’t think it a disgrace to suffer curses or blows from the girl, or plant kisses on her tender feet.” (2.533-34)

This voluntary subjugation–which the praeceptor offers as a theatrical role the lover might effectively adopt–is derived from the topos of the servitum amoris. In Latin amatory poetry, the metaphor of the lover as servus to an all-powerful domina provided a rhetorical formula for expressing the emotional agency of the puella [girl]– an agency which amounted to her ability to withhold affection and sexual favors from the lover; her ability to exercise any control over her own sexuality, that is, made her all-powerful… The praeceptor only suggests the pose of the servitum amoris as a means for the lover to consolidate his power over his puella.

Pg. 46

These ideas of how a passionate relationship should be conducted were carried into the centuries that followed. The great medieval lovers, Abelard and Heloise, referred to Ovid’s works, including the Ars amatoria.

The female reader of Ars amatoria 3 who disregards the irony of Ovid’s didactic discourse would find herself situated as the object of eroticized violence in an elaborate power play in which she could only acquire recognition through submission.

Pg. 57

Ovid’s semi-serious advice mixed up with Heloise’s uncle’s instruction to Abelard that “if I [Abelard] found her to be careless, I should constrain her severely.”

I’m not quite sure what to make of the Abelard/Heloise relationship. I know there was a reference to what sounded like spanking in Abelard’s account, but according to this book, this was not unusual. In the medieval pedagogical tradition, it was considered perfectly normal for teachers to beat their pupils, and otherwise be physically intimate with them. The scandal might actually be because of the fact that Heloise was remarkably well educated for a woman of her place and time, so this student/pupil relationship, usually confined to the homosocial/homoerotic all-male world, butted up against the heterosocial/heteroerotic world.

It didn’t end well. Heloise got pregnant, Abelard squirreled her off to a convent and her uncle castrated him. They continued to write each other. (This is the when the letters by Heloise start.) Curiously, she never mentions her pregnancy or child, perhaps echoing Ovid’s silence on the subject, so to speak.

The Abelard/Heloise relationship actually reminds me greatly the Munby/Cullwick relationship. Both relationships appear exploitative and intensely hierarchical at first glance, but on further examination reveal a much more complex interplay of fantasies, roles and power.

Heloise wrote to Abelard that she would rather be his meretrix (a high-level courtesan) than imperatix (the empress). (Pg.64) This is echoed in Cullwick’s statements that she would rather be Munby’s maid of all work than his bourgeois wife. In one of Heloise’s letters, she said that their relationship was not just teacher/pupil, but also father/daughter, husband/wife, brother/sister, all of which were based on the classical dominus/ancilla (master/slave) relationship. (pg. 62) (This is different from the more complex roleplaying of Munby and Cullwick, in which she was often the dominant role, both as a maternal figure and as a more masculine figure than Munby.) Heloise’s letters seem like she’s trying to top him from the bottom, demanding her recognition as his submissive lover. In effect, she’s saying he owes her attention and recognition, and that he isn’t playing his role properly.

So, were Abelard and Heloise a BDSM couple as we would recognize it today? Sort of. I think the difference is, and this is something that Desmond never quite puts her finger on, is that the word punishment in BDSM should always have quotes around it. In the ancient and medieval traditions Desmond writes about, violence is used as a punishment, not a “punishment,” as a means of controlling the subordinate party. If the subordinate party wants to be beaten, then the entire strategy falls apart.

Desmond’s book does raise the idea that violence and eros in Western civilization has been coupled together at a very deep level. She cites Foucault to say that Ovid’s poetry provided a kind of script that informed other depictions of heterosexual relationships in later times, a set of theatrical gestures that could be manipulated, re-read and mis-read.

Desmond also discusses the “Mounted Aristotle”, a visual and literary reference that began in the 13th century and recurs in many different works. The most common form is a older man, whose age and dress indicates his learnedness, on all fours, with a woman riding him as a horse, often wielding a whip. The story behind it, which has no basis in classical records, is that Aristotle was tutor to Alexander the Great in India. Aristotle chides Alexander for being too smitten by his wife or mistress, usually named Phyllis. As revenge, Phyllis seduces Aristotle, and he agrees to let her ride him as a horse. She also arranges for Alexander to watch this. (Note the elements of voyeurism and humiliation, common in fantasies.)

I bring this up because I want to make it clear that people should not look at this particular image and anecdote and immediately say, “Aha, people in the 13th century were kinky just like us.” The mounted Aristotle was viewed in a variety of different ways and contexts, including references to contemporary politics. It was not only an erotic image. It was also a warning against the seductiveness of women, yet also a rueful admission that even the wisest of men are susceptible. Yet the perverse erotic meaning is within the image, there to be read, and provide a seed for fantasy. In a horse-based culture, equestrian metaphors would have had a lot of currency.

The fantasy of the “mounted Aristotle” shaped the language of erotic violence in medieval French and English narratives so that a cultural notion of the scandal of female dominance could be cited visually or textually in equestrian images or metaphors. The erotic potential of such equestrian fantasies remains a recognizable feature of modern power erotics.

Pg. 27

Feb 052011

An Oxford academic says that an otherwise obscure 18th century collection of miscellaneous poems was in print for more than a century because it included a section of erotic verse.

The finding suggests that what we think of as high art and low art was being packaged, sold and read together in the 18th Century – and raises questions about whether the popularity of other bestselling books might have different explanations.

Dr van Hensbergen said: ‘I had just finished entering details of poems typical of miscellanies of the period- satires, imitations and amatory verse, when at the end of the second volume a new title page announced the start of ‘The Cabinet of Love’.

‘To my surprise, ‘The Cabinet’ turned out to be a collection of pornographic verse about dildos. The poems include ‘Dildoides’, a poem attributed to Samuel Butler about the public burning of French-imported dildos, ‘The Delights of Venus’, a poem in which a married woman gives her younger friend an explicit account of the joys of sex, and ‘The Discovery’, a poem about a man watching a woman in bed while hiding under a table.

Samuel Butler, you may recall, is no stranger to the kinky side of things. His mock epic poem Hudibras introduced the maxim “spare the rod and spoil the child” (not the Bible as is commonly believed), which is actually a reference to erotic flagellation.

This shows that in the 18th century pornography, as we would understand it today, was not a completely separate genre or category of media. A miscellaneous collections of poems might include sexual material. Something like this might have spread through word of mouth to the sexually curious.

This also brings up why I am so excited by the digitization of huge amounts of historical documents into searchable databases, which can open up new frontiers for historical research, particularly in the case of researching things other people haven’t already searched for. Overthinking It once did a semi-serious exploration of the history of Mr. T’s catchphrase “I pity the fool”, tracing it back to an obscure early 19th century book via Google Books. While this was in part a joke, it also showed the potential of new kinds of historical research.

Via io9

Nov 122006

From The Tricky Business of Being Submissive:

I’m not going to go into the history of slaves as a being subjected to cruelties and hardships. We all know these things existed and exist today. It happened to every race and every generation has suffered in some way, either directly or by way of the trickle down effect. This sort of slavery has nothing to do with a woman or man who calls himself slave in the BDSM style.

I have to disagree somewhat. After reading Marcus Wood’s Blind Memory and Slavery, Empathy and Pornography, as well as the references to slavery in Robinson Crusoe and Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Krafft-Ebing’s case histories, I believe that the BDSM idea of slavery evolved out of reactions to the idea of real life slavery.

Pro-slavery groups tried to idealize slavery as a means of uplift or a more equitable social arrangement than living in market capitalism. E.g. Crusoe’s domination of Friday is seen as right and just, an example of natural order asserting itself.

On the other hand, abolitionist texts, which endeavored to communicate the horror of slavery, had a strange interaction with the cult of sensibility, what we today would call sympathy. This is the idea that a heightened capacity for vicariously experiencing the feelings of others was a sign of mental refinement.

For example, Walt Whitman in Leaves of Grass wrote:

All this I swallow, it tastes good, I like it well, it becomes mine,
I am the man, I suffer’d, I was there.

The disdain and calmness of martyrs,
The mother of old, condemn’d for a witch, burnt with dry wood, her
children gazing on,
The hounded slave that flags in the race, leans by the fence,
blowing, cover’d with sweat,
The twinges that sting like needles his legs and neck, the murderous
buckshot and the bullets,
All these I feel or am.

I am the hounded slave, I wince at the bite of the dogs,
Hell and despair are upon me, crack and again crack the marksmen,
I clutch the rails of the fence, my gore dribs, thinn’d with the
ooze of my skin,
I fall on the weeds and stones,
The riders spur their unwilling horses, haul close,
Taunt my dizzy ears and beat me violently over the head with whip-stocks.

Agonies are one of my changes of garments…

Whitman’s passage and other abolitionist fiction become a kind of exercise in which the poet (and by extension the reader) exercises his/her capacity for sympathy by imagining a slave, the most abject of people, and projecting into that role. You could compare it to a person who practices transvestism, constructing an alternate social role which allows people a different range of personal expression.

Arthur Munby was a prime example of this, a minor poet and author man who spent a lot of time and mental effort studying and imagining the interior experience of women who were at or near the bottom of the social ladder, and who developed a master-slave relationship with Hannah Cullwick. Munby would sometimes imagine himself, the gentleman, as the decorative, effeminate, dependent counterpart to the unadorned, masculine, protective servant woman.

Munby and Cullwick were both imaginative, and understood that their roles of master and slave were interdependent. However, the particular details of their fantasy scripts grew out of the pro-slavery and abolitionist media that were prevalent during their lives: novels, poetry, abolitionist propaganda, “Tom shows” in the streets and theatres, and the lingering residue of slavery in Britain. I’d even go so far as to say that without Atlantic slavery, BDSM as we know it today would not exist. BDSM is one of those “trickle effects” mentioned above.

From Mr. Meow’s LJ, more thoughts on interracial fantasy and BDSM:

Is race play becoming common in our PC world? Or is it relugated to some fringe groups, with people who have obvious problems. Why would any self respecting black person want to be owned by a white master? And additionally be called derogatory names. They must be SELF HATING is the first thought that comes to mind. I Feel sorry for these misguided souls.

What white domme would admit in a public forum his desire to own a black slave in the 21st century.

Or is it perhaps something that is deeper. Maybe this so called “Race Play” as I’ve heard it called is actually just the tip of the ice berg for racializing sexual fetishism that only those few in the so called “fringe” groups are bold enough to admit to themselves and in public. Whereas a plethora of race and sex politics exist and coincide in relative isolation in the deepest recess’ of a modern first world persons’ brain. Too unpleasant to admit even to oneself.

There are those who say that race is color blind and that its the individual not the race that one sees. Most often such statements are spoken by those who not subjected to the treatment ‘otherness’ brings.

If the historical roots of BDSM are the reactions to Atlantic slavery, then it is unsurprising that there are people today who fantasize about racial stereotypes. BDSM fantasy is built in a legacy of colonial literature and art, among other things, and we still, to this day, see the same archetypes and scenarios played out, over and over again.

Will there ever be a day when, say, an Asian woman can be seen by white people without the lingering influence of Madame Butterfly or the Dragon Lady? I don’t know. Maybe those archetypes exist in the human psyche, independent of and prior to any specific historical context. Centuries from now, those archetypes could attach themselves to some other social division.