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On Sadomasochism|Prerna Anilkumar

Prerna Anilkumar

Sadomasochism is an eroticised exchange of dualities. Two words. Two worlds:

Power and Pain.

Bondage and Freedom.

Submission and Dominance.

In different periods of history, sadomasochism has been actively carved out and composed as an art form. A way of communicating. A way of creating. Oneself and the other. As something that situates and locates the meaning at the surface and not the deep.  In mapping sadomasochism’s aesthetics, one stumbles upon a dialogue between the history of aesthetic philosophy and the literary history of sadomasochism with evolving definitions of sexual subjectivity.

Michel Foucault in The History of Sexuality reflected on a different type of dual-ness regarding the perception of sexuality. Scientia sexual: scientific positivism. Sexuality as something to be analyzed in terms of our psychiatry and pathologies. And  ars erotica: the aesthetics of pleasure and sexuality. The erotic art of existence or techne tou biou (art of life) spanning lust, experience, and intensity. Sadomasochism’s cultural history, in carving its ars erotica, traces its rebellion against this essentialized form of sexuality or scientia sexualis.

The words sadism and masochism rose in the 1880s with the emergence of psychoanalysis. Not that these practices never existed. They have. It is just that naming something made it more real. That’s the power of language. It lends everything it touches tangibility.

18th Century: Libertine Sexuality

The real story of sadomasochism starts in the 1780s with Comte Donatien Alphonse Francois de Sade or Marquis de Sade. His oeuvre spanned various books like Les 120 Journees de Sodome or 120 days of Sodom, Histoire de Juliette ou Les Prosperites du vice and Justine ou Les Malheurs de la vertu.  Like cauldrons of rabid eroticism, these texts burned with explicit and graphic sexual violence.

He was the century distinctly marked by an ideological function of aesthetics: Discouraging sexual indulgence. Looking down upon the body. De-claiming the body. Looking up to the mind. Re-claiming the mind. Lust and pleasure acquired an aura of depravity and came to be associated with words like ‘violent’ and ‘rapturous’ as in the works of Edmund Burke, specifically in  A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.

And this is precisely why Sade was a revolutionary. Not in the French political Sans-Culotte way of overthrowing regimes. But revolutionary in a philosophical way. He immersed himself completely in questioning God, existence, and society. He was like the subversive atheist who disrupted the conventions and traditions of a society drenched in its own idea of morality. Apollinaire famously called him “the freest spirit that has yet existed.”  Explicitly rude but sophisticated, his writings were banned in France will 1957.  However, language just didn’t shower him with the labels of a philosopher and a revolutionary. It also added another word: Fetish.

The sexual architecture of his work gleefully played with the idea of sadomasochistic acts being performed by potentially anyone. It also sculpted an instinctive and involuntary aesthetics of the libertines (his characters were called libertines as individuals completely unchained from any sexual restraint) in its strive to critique the rationalist aesthetics of the Enlightenment.

There is a pleasure extracted from the crime and this is the essence of Sadean sexuality. Crime gets elevated to an aesthetic status. Shrouded in its theatricality, the crime has a scene and the subjects are its actors. The flagellations and whippings become dialogues between the lovers traversing the body and the mind.  There is also a nefarious negation of all distinctions between the inside and outside. The psyche and the body. The characters display an absolute exclusion of subjectivity or any sort of psychic interiority. Thus, their sexuality takes on a mechanical, automatic structure while also being situated in a submission to the absolute laws of nature. Sade, often misunderstood in this regard, actually rebels against the society and its laws because he looks at the laws of nature as being corrupted by cultural norms.  Herein, also lies his criticism: by basing the libertine’s instincts in nature they are completely devolved of responsibility and guilt.

19th Century: Perverse Decadent Sexuality

This was the time period defined by a sexuality which was carved out as something artificial and refined. Something worked upon. There was a shift away from the instinctual nature of Sadean Sexuality.

In 1869, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch published Venus im Pelz or Venus in Furs which bordered on the autobiographical reflection of a man who engulfs a woman into his slavery. The desire to sexually please him soon turns into a violence and cruelty of its own.

In 1885, Richard von Krafft-Ebing published Psychopathia Sexualis which is considered the text that birthed the words ‘sadism’ and ‘masochism’ in the context of the sexual practices swirling in the space of pleasurable bodily violence. These existed as two separate textures of violence and pleasure.

‘Sadism’: Marquis de Sade

Inflicting pain on the other.

‘Masochism’: Leopold von Sacher-Masoch

Surrendering oneself to pain from the other.

The two were combined into a singular pathology by Freud in 1905 with the publication of Drei Abhandlungen Zur Sexualtheorie or Three papers on Sexual Theory, though Krafft-Ebbing had also referred to some elements of the two together. Both of them developed a psychopathology of sadomasochism and pinned this medical condition on various causes. For Freud, it was obviously one’s childhood.  Psychopathia Sexualis tied the notions of sadism and masochism to heredity and mental degeneration. This instigated various investigations in the field of psychopathology with physicians like Havelock Ellis, Albert Eulenberg and Albert von Schrenck-Notzing (who also interestingly coined a word called algolagnia: love of pain).

In 1929, emerged a seven-volume Studies in the Psychology of Sex written by Havelock Ellis, the founder of sexology. He negated the previous idea of the distinction between the two and put forth the thesis of their complementarity, almost like being part of the same Mobius strip with no distinct sides. There was no line between where one ended and the other began. Thus, he laid the foundation for the modern context of SM or sadomasochism where pain paints pleasure and violence sculpts an expression of love. He also negated the ideas that gender-ed these traits. Ideas of how sadism was associated with a masculine impulse while masochism was considered an essential feminine trait.

Other significant works of this age spanned Octave Mirbeau’s Le Jardin des supplices and Charles Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads consisting of  “Dolores”, “Anactoria” and “Laus Veneris” . These in turn reflected a hyperbolised version of Walter Pater’s aesthetics.

The focus was the perverse subject who desired to embody the torture and pain infused with a beauty and grotesquerie. Pater’s most well-known text, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry articulated 19th-century aestheticism in two lines: art for art’s sake. Life as an art. Thus it was all about infusing each moment of life with a passionate intensity and capturing them as snapshots of a beautiful existence. And in the scheme of all of this figured perversity, which according to Pater, was of value in the culture where the beautiful and the morbid could amalgamate into each other to form one unity of aesthetic taste:









Mirbeau’s Le Jardin des supplies, published in the background of the Dreyfus affair, charts the journey of the narrator and an Englishwoman named Clara who proudly declares the status of torture as an art to her lover. Her enjoyment in the artistry of torture is revealing when she says, “l’homme avait le dos et les reins nus . . . un dos et des reins comme du vieil”… “quand la badine était rouge, le soldat fouettait l’homme à tour de bras, sur les reins . . . La badine faisait: chuitt! Dans l’air . . . et elle pénétrait, très avant, dans les muscles qui grésillaient et d’où s’élevait une petite vapeur roussâtre . . . comprends-tu?” (The man had a bare back and loins…a back and loins like old gold”… “when the cane was red, the soldier whipped the man with extreme force upon his kidneys…The cane went chuitt! In the air…and it penetrated, very deeply, into the man’s muscles that sizzled and from which rose a thin reddish stream…do you understand? )

The pleasure that Clara derives from a beautiful execution of torture, where a woman masturbates herself to death, indicated by her eyes rolling upwards towards the sky bringing her close to orgasm, is a Paterean form of passion cloaked in the grotesque. Though she is branded as a monster, by herself and others, her monstrosity is not placed as something inferior. Rather it exudes a superiority to the norm it deviates from.

In Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads we find all manifestations of the pain lending an experience of beauty to both the inflicted and the inflictor. Sappho as the inflictor and Anactoria as the inflicted both look out and desire the visuality of pain in their yearning to bite and kiss Anactoria’s tortured body. The cries of pain become music with interludes and fugues:

“I would find grievous ways to have thee slain,

Intense device, and superflux of pain;

Vex thee with amorous agonies and shake

Life at thy lips, and leave it there to ache”

Upon its release, the London Review called it “utterly revolting” and a madman’s work. It is said that Swinburne wanted his work to shock and scandalise everyone. The immorality of his work was a manifestation of a desire to disassociate and distance the work from the ordinary existence of the people and through this almost become like a pervert’s critique of the moral, aesthetic and cultural standards of the society.

20th century: Violent sexuality

The early 20th century saw a strengthening of the conception of a psychic neurosis and a twisted childhood psychosexual development underlying sadomasichism. A shift came in the 21st century with the likes of Charles Moser, Karl Ulrichs and Magnus Hirschfeld who initiated and called for de-pathologization of sadomasochism and its consideration as an innate sexual orientation. This plane of thought would soon go on to become the foundational idea behind the struggle for gay and lesbian rights starting in the 1960s and 70s. Thus the addition of the element of free will and choice changed the whole discourse. Though this mode of diagnosis has changed in the 21st century sadism and masochism still retain their spots as pathologies in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association. Sadomasochism also remains in WHO’s International Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems.

Meanwhile, in the mid-twentieth century, indebted mainly to a rediscovery of Sade with Iwan Bloch’s 1904 publication of Les 120 Journees de Sodome, one saw a resurgence of themes of sadomasochism in the French avant-garde circles. In 1954 came Pauline Reage with L’Histoire d’O (The Story of the O) revolving around a female fantasy of complete submission to sexual dominator-strangers. It won Le Prix des Deux Magots, the French literary prize, and carved a revivalist surge in SM fiction which was the rage in the 1800s.  Other significant works of the time came in the form L’Erotisme by Georges Bataille and L’image by Jean De Berge. In L’image, Claire gifts Anne, her submissive lover to Jean with a delicately placed rose on her pubic hair and later anticipates her scarred body through an intense whipping as sera tres joli (very pretty). One finds this floral imagery permeating most of the works of this century reflecting a perverse decadent sexuality in the juxtaposition of a flower’s fragility with the violence of this eroticism.

A reading of these texts is rendered incomplete without understanding Nietzsche’s philosophy of the aesthethic which comes through in The Birth of Tragedy and The Will to Power.  Nietsche said, “the desire for art and beauty is an indirect longing for the ecstasy of sexual desire.”  He located the aesthetic experience in the body and  vehemently refuted the idea of a metaphysical truth. According to him, the notions of a fixed reality were just concepts created through the sensory material experience of the subject.  The French avant garde literature of the 1950s painted the motif of a violent sexuality drawing upon Nietzsche’s Dionysian aesthetic : individual subjectivity dissolving in on itself and giving way to a collective subjectivity. Nietzsche created the tropes of Apollo and Dionysus as a duality entrenched in all facets of one’s life. Apollo represented everything that forms the unique individuality of a person. It drew highly from Schopenhauer’s concept of the principium individuationis (principle of individuation). The Dionysian realm was carved in direct opposition to Apollo and spanned all forms of ecstasy and madness which break down the individual-ness of a person. The states in which the person is submerged in the ‘greater whole’ or ‘mystical oneness’. Thus, there was a tearing apart and shattering of the Self.  This was the true essence of the Dionysian ethic.

The conflation of violent sexuality and sexuality tout court in the works of the 1950s led to a reconstruction of subjectivity and that is how these works keep coming back to Nietzsche’s aesthetics of Apollo and Dionysus. Nietzsche situated the sadomasochistic sexuality right at the core of this aesthetic when he said, “Dionysus: Sexuality and cruelty.” The Dionysian sublime underpinned a sexuality where pleasure was excavated from excruciating pain. Whether dominant or submissive all the characters in this saga stripped their individuality and transformed into the anonymous. There was a dissolution of the Self. And an elevation to the ecstatic and orgasmic primordial unity with the universe.

The ‘I’ fell silent.

The active insistence on free will and voluntarism for the inflictor as well as the inflicted in these works is the reason why some have found the comparison of this sadomasochism to non-consensual forms of sexual acts and abuse problematic. However the dynamics of the sexual cruelty that Nietzsche invokes in his aesthetics is essentially one of the heterosexual and heteronormative sexual penetration. It overflows with the crude asymmetric power relations:

Artist is masculine.

Spectator, feminine.

The male inflicts.

The female receives.

This criticism of Nietzsche’s oeuvre has been laboured to almost a point of exhaustion and the rest of the works of this age are similarly symptomatic of patriarchy in their dissolutions of all lines between violence and sexuality.

Simultaneously, in another part of the world, in 1947 came the setting up of Institute for sex research at Indiana University by Alfred Kinsey. While drafting the famous Kinsey Reports, two books on human sexual behaviour (Sexual behaviour in the Human Male; Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female) 22% of males and 12% of females interviewed plugged in an experience of erotic pleasure in response to a story of sadomasochism. The figures plummeted higher with 55% females and 50% males registering being sexually aroused after being bitten. On being released in 1948 and 1953 respectively, these reports were met with seething outrage.

While in the background the story of the corporeality of sexual sin and amorous agony continued, about to witness huge shifts in its discourse.

The Postmodern: Lust and Power

While the Nietzscean aesthetics embodied in Bataille, Berg and Reage critiqued metaphysical truth through a reformulation of subjectivity, the postmodern aesthetics negated the same essentialism of truth by bringing in notions of real and artificial power and rooting this in an assemblage of signs. Thus, sadomasochism emerged sharply enshrouded with notions of power dynamics.

What is real power?

What is irreversible power?

What is performed power?

The quest that these questions launched is incomplete without Jean Baudrillard and his ideas of hyperreality, simulation, and signs. In sadomasochism, the distinctions between real and performed power blur. There is a reification as well as a dissolution of power.

With the Postmodern aesthetic also emerged fiercer feminist critiques of sadomasochist practices. Andrea Dworkin and Carol Cosman came out with their essays on Histoire d’O in 1974 sharply pointing out the patriarchal oppression of women in these practices. This intensified in the 80s with the formation of various organisations like Samois, a group of lesbian sadomasochists based in San Franciso. They published a booklet called What Colour is your handkerchief: a Lesbian S/M Sexuality Reader. These groups faced strong opposition from significant feminist organisations like National Organisation of Women, Women against Violence and Pornography in the Media (WAVPM) etc. Gayle Rubin, the founder of Samois along with Pat Califia argued that there “is nothing inherently feminist or nonfeminist about S/M.” WAVPM later came out with its own anthology called Against Sadomasochism which embodied the idea that S/M reflected the power asymmetries rooted in most of our relationships. Women internalised the social power dynamics outside the bedroom and legitimised the same by its performance inside. Later, Susan Griffin and Paul Gebhard and Karen Horney extended similar ideas and said that the very fabric of our society is sadomasochistic. All our gender relationships are structured in such a way that they become easily conducive to S/M.

This diagnosis was almost paradigm changing in the 80s and the 90s, reflected even more so in Unleashing Feminism: Critiquing Lesbian Sadomasochism in the Gay Nineties, published in 1993.  The radical Feminists’ critique on the lines of the internalisation and reproduction of sexual power dynamics was voiced out even more vociferously in 2011 with the publication of E.L James’ Fifty Shades of Grey.

Judith Butler in her essay, “Lesbian S &M: The Politics of Dis-Illusion” produced sharp skepticism against the distinctions made between real power in the social systems like patriarchy and S/M power. This led one back to Baudrillard’s concept of ‘seduction’ when he talked about how signs and images which constantly attempt to appear real and exude depth are in reality superfluous and made of artifice. He developed this in his book Seduction, published in 1979 and took it further in Simulacra and Simulation, published in 1983. Thus he distinguished between things like virtual reality and pornography which attempt to appear as real as possible and the trompe l’oeil which in representing reality becomes very unreal in its weightlessness and absence of depth. Sadomasochism fell under the latter.

This is the culture of the image or the simulacrum. In sexual seduction and the practice of S/M there is no feigning of even the appearance of depth. No hidden meanings. Just pure surface. This is also what is said to define postmodern culture and aesthetic sexuality: questions of artifice and authenticity. Appearance and essence. Sexuality then for Baudrillard is only a montage. A simulacrum. Mapping the contours of the relationship between resemblance of an object to a thing and how that affirms the authenticity of that object’s representation of that thing. Does ‘to resemble’ imply ‘to represent’? The production of sex, according to him had faded away and been pushed aside by a new competing framework or simulacra of sexual stimulation. There was an erasure of context. And what was left was just a spectacle of the surface.

Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble in 1990, similar veined to Baudrillard’s framework of signs,  focussed upon the construction of gender.  On the multi-levelled layering of appearance and “stylised repetition of acts” which together create performativity. Gender is carved as a performance or a rehearsal of a script. This performance is naturalised to such an extent that it becomes a reflection of an inner essence while in reality it is just a fabrication manufactured by signs. It almost conceals the fact of its performance when it aligns with what is considered the ‘natural heterosexual’ norms. But in its deviance from the very same norms it bluntly exposes this performativity.

Butler and Baudrillard, drawing upon their ideas of performance and artifice differ on one crucial point which has a direct significance on the perception of sadomasochism: for Baudrillard the players in the game of seduction make a conscious choice of choosing this artifice over the production of the Real. For Butler the fact of that choice is overwritten with the internalised and forced regime of power structures in the society. Thus Baudrillard perceives a clear delineation between the artificial (where choice is present) and the real (where there is an absence of choice). While Butler sees the two blurred almost to a vanishing point.

In Baudrillard’s framework of Seduction, perversion rebels against the natural order of things by completely evading the norms of the society. It rejects the reproductive goals and bows down to the ritual and ceremonies of Sadean eroticism which soon turn into a theatre of cruelty. The pervert’s pleasure is not the same as pleasure from natural sex.  It is an exchange of signs rather than desires. All its sexual intensity is displaced onto the surface and the artifice via these signs.

Post-1980s this signification of sadomasochism was defended against the critiques of the radical feminists by emphasising the overtly simplistic or too literal a reading of S/M’s practice as reflecting the true gravity of real structures. Just the fact that it visually signifies something cannot be taken as the proof of how depraved it is. This was especially the defence put up for lesbian S/M by the likes of Pat Califia ad Margaret Hunt and Linda Wayne.

Foucault also was an integral part of this voice gaining ground when in Politics of Identity, he clearly distinguished between this movement of S/M and the uncovering of deeper S/M tendencies in our unconscious. In his characteristic sharpness he described the whole idea of S/M being related to a deeper violence and aggression in one word: stupid.

Almost all the defence of sadomasochism echoed Baudrillard’s distinction between real power (production of sex, structures in society) and artificial power (seduction and S/M). They emphasised the fact that BDSM can be a consciously chosen form of game where the participants chose their own limits and where the whole play can be called off with a single code word. This postmodern construction of S/M revolved around the centrality of voluntarism, choice and freedom.

Foucault also emphasised how the power structures in sadomasochism are marked by a fluidity and reversibility.  This is precisely what distinguishes it from the rigid irreversible and imposed power structures in the society. The roles of dominant – submissive, top-bottom, master-slave can be easily switched in the game. Echoing Baudrillard, the fact of the roles’ reversibility makes the distinctions meaningless. This reversibility affirms its artificiality.  Its theatricality.

Pop Culture : Fetishism

Here we see sadomasochism becoming present within fetishism and clothing subcultures. This spectacular extravagance becomes the most recent reflection of aesthetic sexuality. The BDSM subculture gets situated in the context of commodification. Fetish objects like leather, latex, rubber, tattoos, mascara, eyeshadow, rouge, collars etc. turn the body into a perfect object. The distance that a subculture articulates from the mainstream becomes a way of articulating a subcultural capital or social status. The project of the self-becomes how one consumes.

With the coming of fetish magazines Skin Two, founded in 1983 and Marquis, created in 1994,  there was crafted a mainstreaming of the kink. While they gloriously represented a transgression of the mainstream and idealised vanilla sexuality, this subversiveness remained limited. According to some, by disparaging the vanilla sexuality, this subculture affirmed its very existence by making it so central to its deviant self-definition.


In the journey from the eighteenth century, all the way to the twenty-first century one sees how multifaceted aesthetic sexuality is. Elements of choice and deliberation define one period. Its capacity for self-creation and identity define another. And the notion of it being performed by potentially anyone forms the common undercurrent throughout with its apogee in the 18th century and its circling back to prominence in the 21st century.

Thus Sadomasochism and aesthetic sexuality, in traversing time and culture, acquire different shades of spaces. Embedded in the specific philosophy and literature of those times, they evolve with the ideas of human will, subjectivity, and art.

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