A hiding to nothing: 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. This is 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 abstract kind of way, it always, always turns out to be much more work and much, much more tedi­ous than doing it your­self and con­duct­ing a common-all-garden, non-masochistic, missionary-position, under-the-floral-duvet-every-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 miso­gyn­is­itc, 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.’

But those of us who prefer our sex weak and thin, with the gore and entrails strained out are not neces­sar­ily lily-livered. Perhaps 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 Independent on Sunday, 1997