Skip to content

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 candlewax. 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:

‘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