Media mainstreaming of heterosexual sadomasochism as “what women want” reached an astounding apex with Fifty Shades of Grey. Its literary precursor Story of O, also written by a woman, had book and subsidiary-rights sales that were puny by comparison.
Andrea Dworkin, who in her twenties critiqued Story of O in her 1974 book, Woman Hating, acknowledged that she “once believed it to be what its defenders claim — the mystical revelation of the true, eternal, and sacral destiny of women.” Though she never says outright that reading Story of O aroused her, she comes pretty close:
“I experienced Story of O with the same infantile abandon as the Newsweek reviewer who wrote: ‘What lifts this fascinating book above mere perversity is its movement toward the transcendence of the self through a gift of the self… to give the body, to allow it to be ravaged, exploited, and totally possessed can be an act of consequence, as if it is done with love for the sake of love.'”
Andrea’s view of Story of O changed. By the end of her chapter about it she calls it “a story of psychic cannibalism, demonic possession, a story which posits men and women as being at opposite poles of the universe — the survival of one dependent on the absolute destruction of the other.”
But not only did Andrea’s reading of Story of O change; she changed, and to do so she had to confront and overcome her own masochism. Years later, in a speech published as “The Root Cause,” Andrea wrote a passage about women’s masochism that is framed as polemic but was also autobiographical:
“I believe that freedom for women must begin in the repudiation of our own masochism. I believe that we must destroy in ourselves the drive to masochism at its sexual roots. I believe that we must establish our own authenticity, individually and among ourselves — to experience it, to create from it, and also to deprive men of occasions for reifying the lie of manhood over and against us. I believe that ridding ourselves of our own deeply entrenched masochism, which takes so many tortured forms, is the first priority; it is the first deadly blow that we can strike against systematized male dominance. In effect, when we succeed in excising masochism from our own personalities and constitutions, we will be cutting the male life line to power over and against us, to male worth in contradistinction to female degradation, to male identity posited on brutally enforced female negativity — we will be cutting the male life line to manhood itself.”
The next sentence shows up often online as one of her many quotable quotes:
Only when manhood is dead — and it will perish when ravaged femininity no longer sustains it — only then will we know what it is to be free.
There has been much hand-wringing about the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon as if the appeal of heterosexual sadomasochism is some inexplicable mystery, and it’s not. Sadism and masochism are rooted in the social structure of male-over-female sexual domination. Between a man and a woman, the conjunction of male sexual sadism and female masochism fully expresses the cultural definitions of what “real” men and women are, how they are “opposite sexes,” and why they “complement” each other. For the male, eroticized violence against women results in the reification of his male sexual identity; his sexual sadism is the erotic correlative of his power in the culture over half the human race.
People like to think that male sexual identity arises willy-nilly from testes or nocturnal emissions or some other biological flimflam. It doesn’t. Male sexual identity is a meaningless construct apart from institutionalized and personalized sexual violence against women. People raised to be a man reify male sexual identity day in and day out whenever they violate someone else’s bodily integrity, whenever they aggress against nonphallic flesh and treat it with contempt. For the person defined as inferior, her sexual masochism fully complements each wannabe man’s erotic drive to actualize manhood. Constrained by culture to nonentity, she accepts obliteration of her self for his sake. He then gets to experience himself as a real man.
True masochism is relatively rare in people raised to be a man who are heterosexual. Men who pay money to women (such as prostitutes and mistresses) in exchange for coital access and who want women to insult or spank them first are commonly but inaccurately cited as examples of heterosexual male masochism. In fact, the sexual behavior of such men is a variant of normal phallocentric domination and economic control.
But what of gay male sadomasochism? Will there be a Fifty Shades of Gay? Isn’t sadomasochism the same for gay men as it is for straight men?
No, it’s different.
In some homosexual males, there does exist an erotic drive toward pain and abuse at the hands of other men, but that drive differs significantly from female masochism. Women, who are powerless in this male-supremacist culture, are often driven to literal destruction (out of romantic “love,” out of economic necessity), but male homosexuals have the option of eroticizing their powerlessness relative to other men with quite different consequences.
A male homosexual may regard another man as one who possesses more masculinity (which is more power in the culture), and in the course of meeting that man’s sexual demands, he may imagine that man’s power becoming incorporated into himself. The male homosexual is assumed to be masochistic when he chooses to ingest the masculinity of men who are objectively dangerous, hostile, or violent. But in this woman-hating culture, his longing is not analogous to the female’s drive toward destruction because the male homosexual’s drive to incorporate manliness functions as a means of dissociating himself from the inferior status of the female — whereas the masochism of a woman functions to fix her in that state.
It is in this context that sadomasochism, or eroticized violence and eroticized powerlessness, becomes a meaningful transaction between two homosexual males. For the partner who is sadistic, his gratification consists in the fact that he fully embodies and expresses the cultural norm of male sexuality and identifies himself with male-supremacist values and behaviors. The other partner is committed to the same sexual identity, but he is emotionally obsessed with his belief that he lacks some measure of the sadist’s virility. For this partner, gratification consists in the fact that he ingests the sadist’s semen and/or absorbs the sadist’s abuse. These mythic residues of the sadist’s virile presence stay in his body, and he assimilates potency like a battery getting charged. (In such transactions, urine or excrement sometimes substitutes for semen.)
In any erotic encounter between two homosexual males, there really are two male sexual identities at stake. But the sexuality appropriate to male-sexual-identity reification is derived from a heterosexual model based on blotting out “the other.” To resolve this dilemma, homosexual males contrive a masquerade of ritualized sadomasochism, in which one partner or the other temporarily mimics powerlessness. True to their privileged status as people raised to be men in society, the partners are at liberty to trade roles in private without jeopardizing their status in the culture in any way. Between two homosexual males, then, there exists the possibility that “consent” in sadomasochism may be meaningful: its meaning is in their prior agreement as phallic peers to reify each other’s manhood. A crucial emotional adjunct of that agreement is their mutual derision of people raised to be women, whose actual powerlessness they are at liberty to mock.
The very notion of meaningful and knowledgeable consent is based on the cultural model of agreement in sentiment among and between men. “Consent” presumes that both parties to an agreement are equally free to make the agreement, have the same actual freedom to agree or disagree, and have the same actual latitudes of actions, opinions, or sentiments from which to choose. “Consent,” therefore, is a concept that only has meaning between two persons who are equally enfranchised by culture to act willfully and without constraint—people, that is, who aspire to be real men.
There is nothing intrinsic to genital male anatomy that causes or produces sadistic behavior; rather, sexual sadism is an acquired compulsion that is necessary to make manifest the meaning of the phallus and male sexual identity in culture. Nor is there anything intrinsic to genital female anatomy that causes or produces masochistic behavior; rather, sexual masochism is a survival response that is necessary to propitiate the sexual sadism of men.
Homoeroticism is not intrinsically sadomasochistic either, but in a culture that grotesquely promulgates the fiction of gender polarity, most interpersonal relationships that are based on the partners’ urgency to maintain that fiction — whether homosexual or heterosexual — tend as a result toward sadomasochistic expression. What “feels natural” about sadism to males or what “feels natural” about masochism to females is that these behaviors are sensorily consonant with the cultural specifications of phallic identity and nonphallic nonidentity, respectively.
It would be difficult to imagine an erotic impulse more inimical to justice, personal dignity, or reciprocal caring than sadism. In order to believe that relationships between sadists and masochists are “liberated” one would have to believe that contempt is caring, that humiliation is respect, that brutality is affection, and that bondage is freedom. The fact that many women do so believe is a measure of the extent to which men have destroyed women’s consciousness.
Homosexual men make a significant contribution to that destruction by their privileged engagement in sadomasochistic sex. Their aggressive message to women is that sadomasochistic sex is “liberating” and that it “transcends gender.” The imagery of gay male sadomasochism may even be tolerated or encouraged by heterosexual men because it functions to obscure for women the real meaning of sadomasochistic sex. The real meaning of sadomasochistic sex is that it works for men because it works against women. Sadomasochism is self-actualizing only for men, whether heterosexual or homosexual.
All males who are fully men got that way, gay or straight, by committing acts that were decisively inimical to women’s interests — acts of betrayal, crimes, assaults, simple indignities — as a means of dissociating themselves from the stigmatization of all that is female. Males would not otherwise have a male sexual identity, because a male sexual identity does not cohere apart from the history of one’s hostility to women. Men committed erotically and politically to maintaining their male sexual identity are, therefore, actual obstacles to the freedom of women — both as a class and as individuals.
There is an alternative. Any male who decides not to live as such an impediment would not equivocate about that fact. He would instead take a stand against male sexual identity itself—in every aspect of life where the survival of manhood is predicated on nonidentification with that which is female. And in doing so, he would work conscientiously toward a world in which eroticized violence and powerlessness would both be destroyed, and someday, perhaps, eroticized justice could supplant them.
Adapted from “Sadomasochism: Eroticized Violence, Eroticized Powerlessness” in Against Sadomasochism: A Radical Feminist Analysis, Robin Ruth Linden, Darlene R. Pagano, Diana E. H. Russell, and Susan Leigh Star, eds. (East Palo Alto, California: Frog in the Well, 1982). Copyright © 1979-2015 by John Stoltenberg.
John Stoltenberg, who was Andrea Dworkin’s life partner, is the author of Refusing to Be a Man: Essays on Sex and Justice, The End of Manhood: Parables on Sex and Selfhood, and a novel, GONERZ, which projects a radical feminist vision into a post-apocalyptic future. John conceived and creative-directed the “My strength is not for hurting” sexual-assault-prevention media campaign, and he continues his communications- and cause-consulting work through media2change. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg and @media2change.