A Hiding to Nothing: In Defence of Female Masochism


A good sad­ist is hard to find.

But, I can reveal, a good mas­ochist is even harder to find. Whenever I hear the words, ‘Use me, abuse me, do any­thing you want with me!’ my heart and my man­hood always sinks. Not because I have any prob­lem with the idea of using someone. Rather it’s that I know that not far behind this invit­a­tion to selfish­ness are always the words, ‘Not that! This! Not there! Here!’

And Anita Phillips, author of In Defence of Masochism, won­ders why mas­ochists have such a bad name. It’s a word that prom­ises so much but then woe­fully fails to deliver. Far from being a slave to your desires, it turns out to be their pleas­ure that they’re inter­ested in - just like every­one else.

Worse, not only is their pleas­ure even more tedi­ously exact­ing than most people’s, you also have to pre­tend that it is your pleas­ure. While the idea of hav­ing someone around the home to clean the toi­let and bath­room floor with their tongue might appeal in an abstract kind of way, it always, always turns out to be much more work and take much longer than doing it your­self and con­duct­ing a common-all-garden, non-masochistic, missionary-position, under-the-floral-duvet-every-other-Sunday-morning rela­tion­ship. As Phillips admits, the best part­ner for a mas­ochist is not a sad­ist, but another masochist.

Sado-masochism, when all’s said and done, is a bit of a con and should be pro­sec­uted under the Trade Descriptions Act.

Nonetheless, there’s plenty of it about these days — and it’s selling like hot candle-wax. Madonna’s early Nineties flir­ta­tion with s/m chic seems to have sent it squeak­ing and creak­ing up and down the cat­walks and into advert­ising ever since — to the point where a stilet­toed heel threat­en­ing a man’s bum-hole on a bill­board hardly pro­vokes any com­ment, let alone the rear-end pile-up it might have done just ten years ago.

And while David Cronenberg’s Crash, a film about people who take pleas­ure being on the receiv­ing end of mutil­at­ing car acci­dents, did pro­voke out­rage and cen­sor­ship from some quar­ters, many found it rather banal. Meanwhile the recent film Sick: the Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist seems to have elev­ated mas­ochism to a kind of super-heroism; how long before we hear little boys whin­ing: ‘Mum, can I have a leather har­ness and cling-film cape for Xmas, please?’.

Which almost begs the point of a book with the name In Defence of Masochism. However, a recent European Court rul­ing asser­ted that assault can­not be con­sen­ted to (which means, of course, an end to box­ing, sur­gery and sup­port­ing Arsenal) sug­gests that there is still an argu­ment to be made. And, even if most people who don’t wear wigs and sus­pend­ers for a liv­ing are more laid back about the issue, there are still a num­ber of com­mon mis­con­cep­tions and pre­ju­dices about mas­ochism — most of which Anita Phillips dis­patches here with aplomb.

Most not­ably, the idea that mas­ochism is always someone else’s per­ver­sion. Phillips invest­ig­ates, via Freud and American aca­demic Leo Bersani the uni­ver­sal­ity of mas­ochistic impulses, the thin line between pleas­ure and pain, and shows how the curd­ling of these impulses into a con­di­tion and a type changed what it means to be human.

Masochism’ is one of the inven­tions of late nine­teenth cen­tury sex­ology in the Gothic shape of Baron Dr Richard Von Kraft-Ebing. It was only ever inten­ded to apply to men; women were ‘nat­ur­ally’ mas­ochistic, so pleas­ure in pain on their part was not ‘per­verse’ and there­fore not a prob­lem to be explained or patho­lo­gised. This was part of a shift in gender roles in the West in the Nineteenth Century which was con­cerned with, we are told, insti­tu­tion­al­ising women’s sub­jug­a­tion. As Phillips points out, ‘Dante’s ordeal in the Inferno to be reunited with Beatrice, to John Donne’s love poetry, sac­ri­fi­cial mas­cu­line love has been a cru­cial theme, only in this cen­tury has what for many cen­tur­ies seemed the nat­ural, desir­able form of male love been redefined as effem­in­ate per­versity, masochism.’

Phillips believes that this refor­mu­la­tion of male iden­tity that excluded mas­ochism made mas­culin­ity ‘blatantly miso­gyn­istic, emo­tion­ally inept and homo­phobic’. She also believes that it was this new mas­culin­ity which led in part to the ‘cor­rect­ive’ of fem­in­ism. Ironically, the exclu­sion of mas­ochism from the male psyche has pro­duced a pub­lic scen­ario of their pun­ish­ment and chas­tise­ment by women which con­tin­ues today. The fem­in­ist is Ms Whiplash.

To be sure, we can see that male mas­ochism is now mak­ing some­thing of a comeback — what else could explain The Verve and the tor­tured, feel-my-stigmata ‘soft lad’/‘Emo’ tend­ency? And while this rise of male self-dramatisation/self-obsession may or may not be good news for women in gen­eral, it is def­in­itely good news for women like Phillips who enjoy mas­ochistic sex. Paradoxically, now that men are relin­quish­ing their grip on the whip handle, women need no longer feel like they are betray­ing their sex by express­ing fantas­ies of domination.

But as with most cases of spe­cial plead­ing, Phillips’ argu­ment often slips into evan­gel­ism. We are told that mas­ochists are ‘ima­gin­at­ive risk-takers’ and that ‘real erot­i­cism’ requires a cer­tain ‘shat­ter­ing of the self’. In other words, mas­ochists are on a higher sexual plane to those poor souls who don’t want to get whipped, trussed up and locked in a cup­board for three days. Apparently, ‘the shat­ter­ing qual­ity of sex needs to be diluted for those who can­not fully handle it.… {and they} make a kind of civic vir­tue from their own neces­sity to retreat from the chal­lenge of a full-blooded encounter.’

Perhaps. But those who prefer their sex weak and thin, with the gore and entrails strained out are not neces­sar­ily lily-livered. Maybe most people refuse to indulge their mas­ochist lean­ings any fur­ther than a spot of slightly embar­rassed spank­ing or coy nipple tweak­ing because they have bet­ter things to do with their time than try­ing to ‘dis­cover their lim­its’ remak­ing Hellraiser.


Originally appeared in the Independent on Sunday, 1997