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Is There Sex After Sadomasochism?

By ©Leah Fritz

By definition, the ultimate goal of feminism is to end sadomasochism. Since Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics and even before, a host of feminists have analyzed the fundamental mores of our present society and exposed them as sadistic. Any hierarchy is obviously based on domination and subjection, and where a hierarchy exists, equality does not. The powerful “tops” terrorized the powerless “bottoms” into acquiescence, which, when it is internalized by those who are subjected, becomes submission, and with a few more unbearable turns of the screw, masochism. Since our system is one of sadomasochism, it is hard to imagine how celebrating sadomasochism is any kind of a true rebellion.
Last year’s contretemps of women who consider themselves feminists promoting sadomasochism to the women’s movement occurred at a time when feminists of all stripes were moving toward a new, if not totally secure, unity. A crisis was set in motion within the movement, which threatens its deepest vision, and thus its viability. Lesbians and non-lesbians had a last begun to learn to respect each other’s contributions. Left-feminists were involving themselves wholeheartedly in the struggles against rape and battering. Radical feminists, in turn, came to see the issues of disarmament and the economy as deeply relevant to women’s rights. And the Women’s Pentagon Action, a pacifist-feminist organization, located the source of war and imperialism in the patriarchy’s cult of domination. The WPA Unity Statement was not a simple piece of coalition rhetoric; it reflected a true unity of feeling throughout the movement.
Then, just as we were beginning to understand each other, along came this group of publicity-conscious women proselytizing for active sadomasochism, and posing as abused dissidents within the movement. They called women who did proclaim joy at not being chained to the bedposts or chaining somebody else “vanilla”––whatever that may mean. And women who had never voluntarily experimented with giving or receiving pain for pleasure they wrote off as “ not knowing what they were missing.”
The attention they received in some of the feminist press (although not nearly so much there as in the gay and left male press) came precisely because of the movement’s anxiousness to unify around our diversity. But this initial urge was essentially liberal. It overlooked the deeper basis for unity, which lies in a radical vision.
In an essay in the Fall 1982 issue of Trivia, Kathleen Barry writes in opposition to sadomasochism:
“. . . For a movement to endure its broad base and widespread influence must be assured. But radicalism is essential for the life of a movement, as it will bring to it the most uncompromising critique of the abusive, exploitative power that the movement seeks to undermine and overcome. It is the presence of radical critique which assures us that the movement will not devolve to simple reform–– that is, patchwork on an exploitative, corrupt, and ruthless power structure . . .”
The posturing of the S/M advocates as mavericks confused women who were not well grounded in feminist theory. The compelling nature of sadomasochistic fantasies has continually been analyzed in feminist circles, both in consciousness-raising groups and in books. Robin Morgan, in Going Too Far, described in detail her own S/M daydreams. She did not offer them as a Former Addict, either. Recognizing sadomasochistic fantasies as further evidence of the internalization of patriarchal values, she nevertheless acknowledged that they play a part in her own erotic life. Acknowledgement of where we find ourselves in the present has been as important to the forging of feminist unity as agreement on where we hope to go.
If I believed in such simplifications, I might call the new promotion of torture games “counterrevolutionary,” for the values of sadism are blatantly anti-humanitarian, totalitarian, right-wing. But there is a difference between the sadistic orgies of the Nazis, for instance, and the doubtlessly inevitable sadomasochistic fantasies such real-life horrors have evoked in the minds of well-meaning people. (I mention the holocaust because its symbolism figures pervasively in modern S/M fantasies and play-acting.) There is a difference too, between those atrocities and the antics of two “consenting adults” who include elements of restriction and pain in their lovemaking– except when it gets out of hand. Apparently it did when, according to a story in the Washington Blade, one woman, who has been in the forefront of the S/M “avant-garde,” allegedly carved a swastika on another woman’s unconsenting body with a razor, in the name of erotic defiance. Other incidents of severe physical and psychological damage have also been reported.

The noticeable feature of sexually repressive societies is that what they repress is the sweetness of sex–– the sniffing, licking, sublimely juicy mammalian interconnections between people. What they “liberate” is sexual brutality, although they do not admit its sexual content.

Make Equality Sexy

Feminists have long recognized these differences, and also the sad and important connections between brutal play and brutal reality. For in rehearsing the scenarios of tyranny and fantasy, pornography, and sexual games, we unwittingly legitimize its authority in our own minds and thus help the usurpers of freedom to maintain their power. If we could exorcise our erotic fixation on that power, we might release the necessary energy within ourselves to finally make a wholehearted, un-ambivalent, and successful fight against all forms of tyranny in the world. It is not the acknowledgment of the hold sadomasochism still has over our psyches that conflicts with the feminist vision, but the unwillingness to reflect on its political meaning.
Sadomasochism as radical chic has appeared many times before in history, most notably in France before the Reign of Terror, when the Marquis de Sade, after whom the “sport” is partially named, derived respect for a time as a revolutionary not only for his writings but for acting them out against women in his life. (Pornography, by Andrea Dworkin, contains a hair-raising account of this.) Again, during the rise of fascism, domination and submission in sexual fantasies were celebrated. Why this vogue tends to surface at such times is an arresting question, but if it is meant to be subversive, it can only subvert humanitarian values. The noticeable feature of sexually repressive societies is that what they repress is the sweetness of sex–– the sniffing, licking, sublimely juicy mammalian interconnections between people. What they “liberate” is sexual brutality, although they do not admit its sexual content.
Emblazoned on my mind is an old photograph (I think it appeared in Elizabeth Sutherlands’ book, The Movement) of Bull Connor, the scourge of civil rights activists in the 1960’s visibly “turned on” as he watched his henchmen beat some black protesters. In the most gross acts of violence, the bulge in his pants (generically speaking) of the inflictor is ever present. Sadism is what Amnesty International struggles against. Deliberate cruelty, whether on a personal or societal scale, always has a sexual component.
The debate over reinstating the death penalty is not just about whether or not the state should or should not put some murderer out of his misery. Underlying it is the unspoken awareness that people experience a sexual thrill at an execution, and of course this begets more violence. Does anyone, this many years after Freud, still believe that Roman circuses and public hangings were without sexual content?
In the most kindly and innocent of people, what (for want of a better term) we call a “morbid fascination” sets in at the contemplation, let alone the experience, of cruelty and degradation. In her wonderfully candid and intelligent autobiography From Housewife to Heretic, Sonia Johnson, the champion of the ERA who was excommunicated by the Mormons, tells about her reactions in childhood to the newsreels and radio reports of World War II:
“. . . My young mind was continually wounded by visions of mutilation, starvation, and deprivation of all kinds – bombs shattering cities, bodies, whole countries. It was too big, too hideous for me.
“So to deal with it, I turned to a fantasy in which I was transformed into a young man called Jack. Jack went about in the catastrophes and did something about them. He rescued people from the boxcars . . . carried children to safety. . . and found loving arms for them and food and clean, soft beds . . . “
So far, so good. She is what Ellen Willis might call a “nice girl.” Then she continues:
“After a while, though, I began occasionally to notice something frightening about Jack’s behavior in the face of cruelty. The first time it happened, I was imagining myself as Jack about to rescue a woman from an experimental operation, when I noticed that I wanted not to rescue her, but to watch. I had become so excited by the strong sexual overtones that I could not resist watching the mutilation instead of stopping it as I had planned. To watch was repellant and pleasurable at the same time. I would sometimes realize that I was enjoying being not only the helper but the perpetrator all at once.”
Johnson concludes:
“. . . I’d never heard so much as a reference to such things at home or at church or in school. I was so frightened and haunted by them that it took several years of deliberate and fierce exertion of will for me to force them out of my life. In the process, however, I believe I may have damaged my fantasy-producing equipment, because since that time my fantasies have been few and sketchy. Feeling guilty and isolated in my sin, I successfully strangled my fantasy life by the time I was twelve, and in doing so harmed my spirit.”
The sadism of war seduced the child, as it was intended to do. One of the propaganda imperatives of any war machine is to indoctrinate children in sadomasochism. But the imaginative struggle Sonia Johnson later waged for women’s rights within fundamentalist territory where sadism is the total – if hidden – content of permissible sexuality, belies a damaged spirit. She had to be dreaming very hard of something better.
What Sonia Johnson missed, the lack that left her feeling shaken and bereft, was the open exchange of her forbidden fantasies with others who were experiencing the same unwanted seduction. In the old consciousness-raising session, feminists found a way of analyzing such seductions–– such rapes of the mind–– from a political perspective. Radical feminists do not judgmentally respond to the admission of sadomasochistic fantasies with “You have sinned.” Nor do they leave one with the mindless and static, “ If it feels good, go with it. “
By sharing such experiences we become outraged at the double bind the world, as it is, has inflicted on our psyches by impinging on our dream-world wit its own brutal sexual imagery, and at the same time, denying any connection at all between sexuality and institutionalized brutality. In repossessing the moment of confusion, we begin to direct our outrage at the true oppressors, not just the right or the left, but the patriarchy, which exists in both, as long as both continue to promote war, conquest, and domination in any form as heroic. And we recognize that everything the patriarchy spews out in the form of popular culture is intended to seduce us into sadomasochism, into betraying our own dreams. Indeed, into stifling them altogether.
Of course feminists do share the beautiful dream of a true revolution, of beginning again with equality. But the bad dreams for a while rob that good dreams of eroticism. How then, we hedonistically ask, can we have good orgasms without bad dreams?
While I agree good orgasms are a delight, after looking at the brutal ways people are encouraged to “get-off” in a violent society, any “subversive” humanitarian must conclude that they are hard to come by with integrity. We oppose wife beating, rape, Nazi atrocities with all our might, and yet images of what, in real life inspire the most profound fear and revulsion in us insinuate themselves into our aspirations for love. In bed, we feel like hypocrites. What does it mean if we still require the peepee-doodoo values of pornography in order to be aroused? Must we change the world before we can change ourselves?

film with Charlotte Rampling and Dirk Bogarde

film with Charlotte Rampling and Dirk Bogarde

Perhaps, after being immersed in the culture of sadomasochism for so long, we simply have trouble believing that a better culture is possible. We want evolutionary change, but the might of the Bomb, the fragility of the future and above all, the undislodgeable memory of the Nazi holocaust have convinced us that hope is no longer reasonable. In our despair, we unconsciously resign ourselves to the evils we know and try to make friends with them. Then maybe what lies in store will be more bearable.
And, too, “good sex” (by which we mean orgasms) in our society is equated with health, both mental and physical. To be impotent or “frigid” is to be looked upon with contempt. People will admit to anything rather than that. And how can we forget that here the favored definition of mental health is adjustment to society, as it is? Breathes there an American with soul so dead that he or she will admit to being mentally unhealthy?
But what we, the human race, obviously need to do in order to avert Armageddon is make a whole new adaptation! Do we expect that our sex lives, our “good adjustment,” will not be shaken in that process? Do we expect that nothing of value will be sacrificed? A different perspective for would-be world changers might come if we asked ourselves the burning question, “Did Gandhi concern himself with great orgasms when he fasted in prison to free India?”
Our present adjustment to despair may indicate the extent to which our fears have paralyzed us. But fear can also be a fine motivation for intelligent political action. Rather than withdrawing into an anachronistic fantasy-world in order to achieve a momentary release, we might stare down the Armageddon we face and steel ourselves for the many sacrifices that may be necessary to turn it around.
Finally, a very real stumbling block to changing our sexual habits is that we have no model for sex in the absence of sadomasochism. How can we imagine such a thing?
In fact, the suggestion of such a model does exist. I am not a scholar of philosophy or religion, but I do remember in the 1960s the hope that certain elements of Zen Buddhism offered us. The ability to “groove, “ as we used to say, on the “suchness” of things, Can we begin to imagine the possibility of simply enjoying what we are to each other’s senses––what we really are –– the touch, the sight, the smell, the rich intimations of character still to be gleaned, the delicate essays at deep Communication? Instead of a “healthy” adjustment to all we hate, could this, after all, be the goal of our good dreaming?

I want to make it clear that I do not propose a sudden rejection of old sexual fantasies for a new political correctness. The process of exploring our daydreams in detail to gain further insights into how the patriarchy has its way with us should not be skipped, or we may feel cheated, as Sonia Johnson did. This process is interesting, anyway. If and when we have completed it, the slings and arrows, which cost us such an outrageous fortune will cease to titillate us, and we will dump them without regret into the sea of troubles whence they came. At that time, the failure of courage at the prospect of death, which Freud named the “death-wish” may lose its power over us, and “to be” may no longer exist in our minds as part of a melodramatic question, but wholly as an affirmation.
©Leah Fritz Recent Poetry book click here
Original piece from the Village Voice 11/3/1983