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Sadomasochism and Feminism

Author(s): Marie France


Source: Feminist Review, No. 16 (Summer, 1984), pp. 35-42
Published by: Palgrave Macmillan Journals
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Sadomasochism and Femisiism

Marie France

Recently feminism and the Women's Movement have been criticized for neglecting to
talk specifically about sex; that is, about what it is that 'turnsyou on'. One of the groups
lamenting this lack and trying to make it up is SAMOIS,a support group for lesbian
feminist sadomasochists in San Francisco. SAMOISmembers have been accused of
anti-feminism because they dramatize power relations in their sexual practice. Their
replies to the criticisms tend to be couched in terms of justifying minority sexual
practices, invoking oppression of gays, rather than being an attempt to situate sado-
masochism as a sexual practice for women living under patriarchalcal?italistrelations.
This proclaiming of sadomasochism has been controversial-as shown by the ninth
'Scholar and the Feminist' Conference of 1982' and the availabilityof SAMOISpubli-
cations in feminist bookshops. Nevertheless it may be seen as something of a test case
for feminism, because it forces us to look at sex as practice and not ollly in relation to
gender. As Gayle Rubin says, sexuality is 'the arena of feminism . . . we are contesting
the stnlctures into which society has organized desire, gender and reproduction'
(Rubin, 1979:28).
Sadomasochism as a consensual sexual practice can rouse feelings very high on
both sides, resulting in accusations that lesbian feminist sadomasochists are not
contesting the structures of desire but merely aping the pattern of sexual relations
under the patriarchy and counter-accusations of repression and cellsorship. That is
what I wish to look at in this paper, as well as the implications the debate around
sadomasochism has for feminism and our attempts to sort out OUI' sexualities in a
non-male defined way.

Defence and Atek


SAMOISmembers defend sadomasochism by means of the liberal credo, a strategy
based on a distinction between public and private morality where law only regulates
public activity. Thus consensual sadomasochism is defended on the grounds that it
occurs in private. This ignores the fact that the liberal strategy endorses a more refined
means of social control, where previously frowned llpon sexual behaviours are not
actively disapproved of, provided they occur in private. This defence brings with it
certain implicit beliefs about the inevitability and naturalness of various sexual prac-
tices. In this paper I shall argue that there is nothing liberating albout this stance;
sadomasochism would be better defended as one of a multitude of bc dily possibilities,

FeministRewiewNol6,April 1984
36 BeministReview

rather than fFom this viewpoint of 'we're perverted but we like it', which defines it in
terms of the dominant societal norms. De latter argument gives the 'new right' the
perfect opportunity to attack, and as ffie debate on pornography has shown, can
promote a worrying alliance between it and feniinists. The political implications of
such a merger with the 'new right' have not been fislly explored and will not I fear be
allayed by a call for feminist unity.
The attack on lesbian feminist sadomasochists has been likened by its defenders to
that inflicted on homosexuals in the 1950s inAmerica. (Rubin, 1981). Thatconsensual
sadomasochism may be prosecuted as assault is seen by some ae;an attack on main-
stream gay politics, and we may be forgiven if the irony of the fact that a man who
repeatedly beats a woman is rarelyput behind bars escapes us. Rubin ( 1981 ) cites the
case in which Kenneth Appleby was sentenced to ten years in prison for hitting his
male lover with a riding crop whilst engaged in a consensual sadomasochistic scene.
This points up the way in which minority sexual practices are seen as;a threat to the
majority definition of accepltable forms of sexual expression-thalt is, missionary
position heterosexuality. It has been suggested that any abuse of power involved is
that of the people who interfere with consensual sadomawchism rather than the
participants (Rubin, 1981; Califia71981).

Coming out
The struggle around sadomasochism has something else in common orith the fight for
gay liberation; it too is based on affirmationand coming out with regardlto one's sexual
practice(s) and encounters the same difficulties.
Sadomasochists argue using the terms of those who define sadomasochism as
deviant but also, and more dangerously, perpetuate stereotypes of ilmate sexuality.
Ths strategyeltimately leads nowhere because it is based on the false assumption that
affirmationwill lead to radicalchange by giving strength in numbers and also that there
is something unchanging (an innate 'deviant sexuality') to affirm(Mott, 198Y)).It also
ignores the way the faninist movement aims to transformall sexual definitions so that
no one sexual practice is seen as better or more correct than any other. Certainly,
'coming out' as affinnation is important in linking the personal with the political, but
by defining ourselves by only one of many characteristics,we are ag;unarguingwithin
the terms of those who define sadomaschism as deviant, and are attributing some
intnnsic importance to sexuality. This then means 'sexuality'can be uXsedas a method
of control.
Coming out is predicated on three assumptions: that sexual practice has to do
with personal identity, that the two are one and the same, and Xt voicing one's
identity is the best way of 'knowing' it (Minson, 1981). Drawing on Foucault ( 1981 )
we can argue instead dlat coming out may be seen as merely an extension of
confession practices that have existed through the ages as a means of control. Its role of
reclaiming a deviant label and giving it more positive connotations is not to be derided.
But it is a means rather than an end, in the same way as the concepts olFsisterhoodand
the personal being political; these insights still need to be her developed into
strategies.2

A lesbian feminist moral monopoly?


Proponents of sadomasochism believe that aetackson it deny the consensual aspect
and imply that it is only about inflicting pain, when it is in actuality an eroticiz?tion of
power relations and is very much concerned with pleasure. It must be noted dlat many
feminists who argue for sadomasochism do so only as allowable between lesbian
Sadomasochism and Feminism 37

feminists (Lipschutz, 1979; Rubin, 1981). In so doing, though, they either ignore
powerdifferentials which exist between women in relation to race and class, or else
defend their existence on the grounds that power relations are no less prevalent in
feminism than in other ideologies. That is, the defenders cannot actually give any
reason why lesbian feminists have a moral monopoly on sadomasochism. Again,
lesbian feminists are seen as having reduced power differentials more than anyone
else, but it is dangerous to deny that these do exist and have very realLconsequences;
the dynamics of power will not be wished away.What is more ifwe do instead examine
how power manifests itself in sexual practices we may be able to breakffie stranglehold
of medicine, the law, education, and so on over definitions not only of sexual identity
and acceptable sexual practices but also of the very place of sexuality in out lives.

Sexual 'rebellion and dissent9?


But is feminism the best theoretical framework for considering so called sexual
deviation? Pat Califia( 1981 ) argues, in what I think is a contradictory way, that whilst
sadomasochism must be removed firomthe feminist arena,feminists must fight against
the institution of conventional sexuality. Surely,such a fight does not involve ignoring
lesbian feminist sadomasochism, which can hardly be described as conventional.
CaliIiadoes not elaborate the theoretical frameworkshe thinks we should use, but she
appears to base hers on erotic preference.3 She sees sadomasochism as a threat to the
status quo because women practising it are sexually active; it is a 'deliberate, pre-
meditated erotic blasphemy. It is a form of sexual extremism and sexual dissent'
(Califia, 1979:19). Again, this defines sadomasochism with reference to dominant
norms. At times Califiaseems to glory in being in the sexual fringe,and at others to wish
to proselytize the normaSityof sadomasochism as one sexual choice. The following
quote is indicative of her uncertainty over the ethics of sadomasochism (even if she is
sure it's what she wants) and of the general lack of a coherent a¢gument for sado-
masochism as a choice for lesbians and feminists: 'If there were women's bars that
didn't make me feel even more unwelcome, I'd go there. Since I am a sadomasochist,
If eel entitled to the spaceI take up in a men's bar: (Califia, 1979:20 - my emphasis).
This is also a sad comment on the lack of engagement with the issue by mainstream
feminism.
Sadomasochism is also touted as a variant of consciousness raising, as some
wondrous means of self exploration, the latest off-shoot of popular psychology by
which alienated people get in touch with themselves,-without considering it in the
context of the effects of living in modern western society. Sadomasochists speak of
enjoying the role of'top' (sadist), dominating and receiving sexual service because it
goes against all we were taught as women about lying back and thinking of Englandin
exchange for securitywith the chance ofthe added extra of romance. Califia( 1979:21 )
says that she was 'trained to take responsiblity for other people's gratification and
pretend pleasure when others pretend to have my pleasure in mind. It is shocking and
profound ly satisfying to commit this piece of rebellion' ( my emphasis). This precisely
demonsitrates that gender roles and the way we are raised by satereotypeshave
everyt*ing to do with lesbian sadomasochism, and most probably with all sado-
masochism. The roles acted out in sadomasochistic sex need not cotrespond to
gender, as their defenders contend, but they most certainly relate to it.
A by-product of arguments of sadomasochism is a romanticizaltionof the body;
sadomasochism is seen as the epitome of eroticism for many of those who write in
Coming toPower ( 1981 ); bigger, better and brighter than any other sexual practices.
Califia ( 1981 ) points to a similar fault on the part of feminism, arguing that feminism
reiects the infliction of physical pain during sadomasochistic sex because it makes a
38 FerningstReview -

mockery of romantic love. She believes that feminism is preoccupied with a 'gentle
and loving kind of sex' (Califia, 1981:33) and accuses the Women's Movement of
glorifying romantic love. There is some validity in this criticism, although I do not
know many feminists who are terminal romantics. We should be wary of generalizing
about what feminists think lest we fall into the ways of our oppressors. Rubin
(Wechsler, 1981 ) also contributes to this romanticization of sex when she says that
sex is one good thing in our lives, even if society as a whole is awful.Sex.is a product of
that society and cannot be abstracted from it, and must not be used as a palliative,if we
are to bring about any change.

FantSy and real reladons of control


Fantasy is the other major point of contention in the feminist consideration of
sadomasochism, and it is relevant here to consider the relationship between fintasy
and reality. The protagonists believe (for different reasons than their cletractors) that
fantasy is the key word in sadomasochism; it is viewed as a drama and a ritual;roles
performed in sadomasochistic activity are realized as not necessarily to be carried over
into 'real' life. The detractors see sadomahism as a continuation of the role playing
that feminism has fought against, there being no diffierencebetween lesbian sado-
masochism and the heterosexual variety. Neither side seems to me to get to grips with
the complexities involved here, invoking in the former case the spurious assumption
that fintasy does not impinge on real life, or vice versa, and in the latter, ignonng the
fact that lesbian sadomasochists play both roles, and that class and race oppression are
also involved.

Fantasy and psychoanalysis


I think that elucidation of the relation between fantasy and reality in psychoanalytic
theory can be useful here. Jessica Benjamin (1980) puts forward the idea that the
fantasy of erotic domination is hidden in so called 'normal' love and begins in our
childhood experiences of wishing to be somehow one with the mother and also
separate from her. Benjamin (1980:146) argues that the 'fantasyof submission and
control' is based on the 'splitting of two basic postures female and xnale'when the
child is differentiating her/himself from the environment and gauiing a sense of her/hvs
identity. Predictably Benjamin characterizes the female posture as not wanting to give
up relatedness to the mother and the male posture as overly concerned with the
autonomous self. The latter's differentiation rsbased on repudation of the mother and
the assertion of difference and imputes to others the status of object not subject. This
isolated subject who cannot get away from the need for recogriition is dependent on
others to supply it and desires to camoflage this dependency by domLnatingthe other
and gaining autonomy in the process.
This position involves, I iink, an uncritical assumption of a naturalgroup called
male and by extension, one labelled female both supposedly unificatory categories.
Lesbian sadomasochism is a direct criticism of this scheme of developnnent,because in
Benjamin's terms, such women are developing in an exclusively male way. But why
must the struggle for recognition of self end in an unblanced relation of power instead
of reciprocity? The erotic novelist Bataille, gives the answer-the 'master' is so
wondrously masterfil that the 'slave' is smitten and compelled to submit. (Benjamin,
1980) Were this not to happen and both were to submit, the selfwould disintegrate;
the partners would be ego-less. So Benjamin's explanation goes implying a gender-
specific will to dominate and submit ignoring the other means of maintaining a sense
of self that are proven to exist by the Sct that we are not all sadists and masochists.
SczdomasochismandEeminzm
39
Appeals to universality such as these ignore that the nature of sexual. inequality has
changed a great deal over time; sex roles like others, are not impervious to change and
have not remained static.
Freud (1954) hirnself is more enSightening on the subject of fantasy, g it
inevitably with experience and stressing that fintasies have a Aotin common with
d}eams-some are consciousy whilst others must stay unconscious because of their
content and origin in repressed material. He believed dreams to be wish fulfillments
and largely based on childhood experiences (Freud, 1900). As he puts it, 'dreamingis
on the whole an example of regression to the dreamer'searliest condition a revival of
his [sic] childhood, of the instinctual pulses iich dominated it and of the methods
of expression which were available' (Freud, 1900:548). It is important to note,
however, that Freud maintained that psychical and materialreality are not one and the
same but are related. If dreams and intasies are similar in the aspects detailed above,
then the fantasy of humiliating someone or of subtting to a loved one could well be a
result of chil&ood experiences of the all powerfbl mother and the re7z11iastion that the
child is not able to exercise omnipotence. Thus, fantasies such as those used in
sadomawchistiX scenes are indeed connected with reality and do nctt exist in some
other sphere of the 'unreal'.So, too, does our experience of life other than the infintile
phase affect our dream/intasy content. Ais suggests that living in a patriarchal
society bears on such intasies-to humiliate when usually it is you who is hurniliated
to submit and act out the femiriine role in extreme form whiLstgently Lsubverting it by
getting sexual pleasure, such could be the reactions of feminists irl OUI-society.
A discussion of lintasy must also consider the legacy of Freudthat the construction
of sexuality is based on an inescapable power imbalance between lhe omnipotent
mother and the subjugated child. The results of this relation of power have been
endlessly debated and never much aveed; a consequence of this has been to dismiss it
as putting the responsibility yet one more time on to women. Again, the existence of
those who do not find power differentialserotically gratifyingbrings the grey into the
picture. That the psychoanalytic explanation allows for both infantile fantsies and the
effiects of living under a patriarchy (although the latter are not elucidated) is its
strength.
Sadomasochists conceptions of 'real' and fantasized relations of power reveal
interesting contradictions, with a general belief that the two can be distinguished. This
has resulted in the relationship of sadomasochistic fantasies to eve:rydaylife being
hotly argued by feminists. The oft heard assertion that sadomasochistic scenes are just
that and exist only as fintasies, clearly distinguishable Eom 'real life' cannot be uken
on trust. It is disturbing to note thatJonel ( 1982:19) 'became that submissive person
in my fintasies . . . for me, the idntasiesbecame dangerous when I brought them to life.'
She was dominated in all aspects of her life by her lover, whom she felt able to escape
only by moving to another city. It must though be recogriized that such an outcome is
not inevitable, and that fantasies?while related to our actual beharriour,are not of
necessity causal agents. A different side of this experience is given by Young, who
argues that 'Involvement irl S&Mtends to take away a person's "need'tto oppress and
be oppressedt ( 1979:104). This is ecfhoed by Farr,who says that the Working out of
play and power between our bodies has served to keep clean and Eesh and compre-
hensible the working out of play and power between ourselves' (1981:183). Again
there is an assumption of the naturalnessof a desire for aggression and domination and
the healing powers of sadomasochism in the face of this overwhelming urge. Aat
these writers experience sadomasochism in this way cannot be denied; what is
questionable is their concept of a naturalsexuality, especially ii om a Clesbianand a gay
man who have, by coming out, challenged this very notion. The socLalconstruction of
desire is not touched upon, yet this seems to me to be the paramountissue, one that is
40 FeminztReuiew

unerringly avoided by sadomasochists, regardless of ffieir concept of fantasy and its


relationship or othese to 'real' relations of control and subordination. That there
are no easy answers is shown by our comtant attempts to provide thenn.

Power axldthe discourse on sex


What is manifestly lacking in all of the aS}ve arguments about sadolmasghism is a
consideration of the coexions between the discourses on sex <d the power
entailed in them, arl area highlighted by the work of Michel Foucault. As Foucault
( 1981 ) asks how does the power owledge-pleasure connexion maintain the dis-
course on sexllalityv His aner is that the notion of sex was constmcted in the
deployment of sesuality as a false unity in order that it could act as a universal and a
basis for control. Sex was no longer something to be judged but something to be
managed} it had been declared public arlduseful. The motivation for this makingof sex
into discourse was to banish forms of sexuality which did not fit t:he economy of
reproduction-an argurnent espoused by feminists many years agot But Foucaults
suggestion that we look to our bodies and pleasures in order to attackthis deployment
of wxuality, pen that the body is an object of krlowledge and a pawn in the power
game invests the body with a reality whiPh he denies to social consttucts. Again the
body is romanticiwd so the need radicallyto change gender relations and the primacy
of sex remaim uretated.
lthe moot point iswhether or not sadomasochism would exist if mredid not live in
a patriarchal society and following on ii om thisswhether or not it can te descnbed as a
'contra-femiliist anti-political and bourgeois sta}ce} as Diana Russell (cited in Rubin
1981:208) believes. Ry (also cited in Rubin, 1981:208) believes sladomusochisdc
activity between/among lobians to be an 'outcome and pewtuaticgn of patriarchal
sadistic and masochistic culture'. Certairlly,the role playing mvolved appears to be a
parody of stereotypic gender relationships and fantasies interrelate with 'reality'.
However} as Jeikey Weel; points out idiscourses and practices do not arbitrarily
emerge Eom the flux of possibdities' (Weekss 1981:10). It is why sad>masochism as a
sexual practice emerges that no one has satisfactorily answered yet. Is it a reaction to
oppression; that is is it therapeutic for bme women to the these rolevsconsidering
the role usually ascribed to them by society? Or is it a result of thch experiences in
infancy? Or is it a reflection of developmentvsin gay male culture? Cltrperhaps it is a
preference merely plucked Eom the many posbilities for fflxual pleasure, as most of
those wnting irl Coming to Power ( 1981 ) would have us believe? I believe that th-e
choice of sadomasochusm as one's source of erotic gratificationis nottbased on some
arbitrary factor, but on the conditions under which we live; that isss:>cietystmctures
our hntasies} just as it bears on our iOntile sexual experiences.

Reactgngtopatiarchy
Sadomasochism is a reaction to living under patriarchy and not a reflection of it To
arwe the latter is to deal in essentialism that is, that there is somethilwwhich maybe
labelled 'male7behaviout which is equivalent with a will to violence and domination
and something which may be labelled 'female' behaviourt which is dlefirlitelynot the
same as 'male' behaviour. Ihis argument auributes characteristicson lthebasis of sex, a
position feminists have long fought against and one that is belied by the existence of
sadistic women and masochistic men.
Paradoxically the fict that sadom3chism does focus on relations of power that
are exaggerated to a high degree of imbalanceXand that this coincides with actual
patriarchal power relations?allows it to be considered purely on a schematic level as
Sadomasochism and Feminism 41

reflecting some aspects of the dynamics of patriarchalpower. That is, feminist sado-
masKhists share the same obsession with power and gratificationas capitalist patri-
arcShs.That their reasons/motivations and their relation to power are diffierentii om
those of the men governing the patriarchy is the crucial point. Men c ould be said to
mimic in their sexual practices the relations of power that they maintainin their daily
lives, but few feminist sadists would be mimicking their position. Il:could then be
argued that womenwho are exclusively masochist in their sexual praclice (as opposed
to those who change roles) do indeed reflect patriarchalpower relations. Again this
ignores the diffierential relation of women and men to power in our society and
disallows the way in which intasy and reality impinge one on the other. That violence
(often accompanied by various fetishes) done by or to another is expenenced as
sexually exciting and gratifying can only be explained in the context of the society in
which we live-a capitalist patriarchy.Rian( 1982:46) explains it thus: 'like any other
sexual desire or practice, it [sadomasochism] is a mode of sexual satisfiction which has
been learned in an alienating social context and which remains satisfyingas long as its
social context remains undhallenged'. Sadomasochism is a reaction to the conditions
of women's lives, and not a reflection of patriarchalpower relations.
To reproduce the relations of power we see as patriarchalis not to condone them,
but to view it as resistance, as does Califia,is stretching the argument a little. Were she
to attempt an analysis of why sadomasochism is so gratifyingthat she is preparedto risk
(and receive) the censure of much of the feminist movement, I would be more
persuaded as to its status as resistance. Califia'sargument that seizing gratificationis a
rebellion against traditional definitions of women's sexuality does not explainwhy this
may only be achieved by means of sadomawchism, nor does it appearto aim to change
such definitions (beyond a campaign for the acceptance of a plurality of sexual
practices) This is a tautology;we rebel against conventional sexuality (whatever that
is) by means of sadomasochism, and sadomasochism is an act of rebellion; the linkwith
gender and power relations is not made. The primacy given to sadornasochismby its
practitioners and the social meanings they have constructed in this process of affir-
madon are not arbitrary;they have emerged at a specific histoncal juncture and are a
product of it. The why and how have not been explored, nor has the reason for self
identification on the grounds of sexual practice alone.

Conclusion
The conception of sexuality and sexual practice as embodying some kind of truth must
be exposed for the assumption it is and replaced by an explanation of why we adopt
certain sexual practices and not others, and whose interests it senres to have us bound
by our sexuality and the belief that sexual practice and sexual identity are important
components of or even equal to self identity. Feministsfor and aFinst sadomasochism
pnvilege the pracdce and assume it is equivalent to the identity, without considering
how anCIwhyW they develop and are maintained, nor how they affect each other. If we
can answer these questions with regard to sadomawchism we may go some way
towards offenng ourselves a real choice of sexuality, or at least predicating the
conditions under which such a choice might exist. To argue in essentialist terms as has
happened in the case of sadomasochism may be construed as either backing away fFom
the cha,llenge or ignonng it, neither of which strategies has been traditionallyemployed
by feminism. Perhaps if we explain we will be able to effect change and supercede the
divisive tactic of judging Lesbian feminist sadomasochists cannot be accused of
anti-feminism; sadomawchism as a sexual practice is not fet or anti-feminist,nor
are the reladons of power on/by which the world is constmcted essentially bad. Still
less can sadomascahism be defined as a male/masculine practice alone; such-gender
essentialism obstructs ffie argument. Lesbianfeminist sadomascahists who argue ffiat
42 Fem in ist Review

the identity achieves a 'liberation'are caught in the same trapas theirsisterswho argue
against them-that of elevating sexuality above all else. We must instead look at the
mechanics of sexuality in order that it does not control us.

Notes
Marie France took the M.A.course in Women's Studies at the University of Kent in its firstyear.
She intends to continue doing research in the area of female sexuality.

1 This was reported in Off OurBacks in theJune 1982 issue and engendered heated
correspondence in subsequent issues. See also Wilson ( 1983).
2 See the letter from Michele Barrett and Rosalind Coward and the editors' response in m/f
no. 7, pp 87-91, 1982.
3 Pat Califia,in an interview with Nancy Wechsler in Gay CommunityNews, volume 9,
number 5, 1981, admits that she was not drawn to sadomasochism by the crusading spirit;
as she says.'Iam into s/m because it is the most erotically gratifyingthing I have ever done'.

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