Fifty Shades of Gay: Coming soon?

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


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  • In Female Sexual Slavery (1979) I studied The Story of O to show how it became the 20th century’s answer to the Marquis de Sade’s question and his frustration over having to pay for prostituted women “But where is one to find free slaves?” Treating pornography as a form of prostitution but also the “Ideology of Cultural Sadism” as I named that chapter, I show how The Story of O is that of a “free slave.” Liberal consent is all that is required. “as O is given by her lover to another man, she becomes a participant in her own demise, giving her permission all along the way. Through hideous tortures she progresses toward ‘total openness,’ totally enslaved through the last barrier to liberation. … [until] she asks and he gives his consent for her to die.” (p. 212 original edition) In 50 Shades she does not need to die, she can be taken over and over, through chapters and books, indeed, the prostitution of sexuality that normalization of pornography has achieved.

    • Andrew

      I completely agree. There is alot more under the surface to those “classic” books than people consider. They ignore or miss the underlying social commentary, which you just can’t do.

  • Hecuba

    Does this mean that the late Andrea Dworkin believed for a short time women are indeed innately ‘masochistic?’ I think not – but Stoltenburg neglects to state that mens’ pornography is written specifically to sexually arouse the reader but female and male readers do not react in identical ways. The male reader experiences feelings of male sexual power and dominance over women because these feelings reinforce what mens’ Male Supremacist tells him is ‘real male sexuality.’ Namely male sexual dominance and power over women. Female readers whilst experiencing sexual arousal see this as confirmation ‘it is sexually exciting being sexually dominated by a man because this is exactly what I’ve been taught (by mens’ male supremacist system). Challenging these male lies which women are bombarded with from minute they are born is what Dworkin was referring to – because women are not innately masochistic, but we are constantly subjected to mens’ lie that only males are autonomous humans which justifies male pseudo sex right to oppress women.

    Challenging mens’ lies that women are just ‘sex’ not autonomous human beings is what I believe Andrea Dworkin was analysing. Men for centuries have claimed males are the only definitive humans and human traits/characteristics which are positive and of value to men’s male supremacist system are declared to be male only traits. This is why men declare only males are rational; intellectually superior; independent whereas females are supposedly innately nurturing; submissive; passive and masochistic because females only exist to serve mens’needs and mens’ demands.

    I do not believe women are inherently masochistic – rather women are conditioned by mens’ male supremacist system to believe men’s lie they are innately masochistic and hence women cannot possibly liberate themselves from male domination/male oppression. It is the same old male lie being constantly repeated and swiftly accepted as ‘definitive truth!’ White men justified their white male sex right to enslave non-white women and men by claiming ‘they are savages not human beings and enslaving those savages affords them a more beneficial life than their current lives!’ So many enslaved women and men believed being a slave was far better than being free and this was because the enslaved women and men had been born into slavery and believed slavery could never be eradicated.

    Men constantly claim that women are innately masochistic and innumerable women see no alternative because men ensure women who challenge mens’ misogynistic lies are demonised and marginalised. Do not forget that for centuries men controlled what could be written and printed which meant only mens’ words and views were accepted as the supposedly ‘definitive (male) human experience. Men continue to maintain political/socio-economic power over women and mens’ most effective propaganda tool is their malestream media which constantly tells us women we aren’t human but merely mens’ disposable sexual service stations!

    The Nazis knew that propaganda when constantly repeated swiftly becomes ‘the truth’ and this is because the Nazis controlled the media and maintained their political power by silencing any dissenters. So too with mens’ Male Supremacist System – it is a political one wherein men ensure their claims and their lies (oops I mean mens’ truths) continue to be accepted as the definitive truth and this is why men continue to claim women are innately masochistic.

    I would have preferred to read a reprint of one of the radical feminist writers’ essays contained in ‘Against Sadomasochism rather than a male’s analysis. Radical Feminists were the first feminists to analyse and challenge men’s lies concerning their social construction of what supposedly passes for ‘male sexuality’ and how this male social construction naturalises and normalises male sexual domination/male sexual oppression over women.

    Anticlimax by Sheila Jeffreys analyses and deconstructs mens’ claims that male sexuality is biological not a male social construction used to justify male dominance over women.

    Read Loving to Survive: Sexual Terror, Men’s Violence and Women’s Lives by Dee L.R Graham et al because these two books provide detailed analysis concerning how mens’ Male Supremacist System indoctrinates females into believing they are innately masochistic and inferior to males.

    • Andrew

      The influence of socialization is very powerful, as is group think. It took me a long time to get past my masculine acculturation even though I never really believed it in my heart. When what you feel goes against the grain of social norms it makes you question yourself and you end up putting on a face to please people and get through life.

      How many women have simply given up and lived a feminine life of submission and weakness because they had no other option, and then passed those values onto their daughters? How many women feared the wrath of god (and still do) for not obeying their husband? How many women have been shamed into sex and objectifying themselves for men?

      Even IF biology made men dominant, which it didn’t, that still doesn’t excuse most of the oppression that’s been exercised against women throughout history.

      When evey person and institution in your life either directly or indirectly tells women they only have value if they are young, attractive to men, and submissive, then some of them are going to believe it.

  • Andrew

    I agree with all of this, but I do think you are missing a few things. I especially agree with the idea that masculinity and femininity are social constructs and that part of being a man or woman in our culture means embracing masculinity or femininity, respectively.

    If being a woman is to be feminine, and you are unhappy or feel that something is missing, then maybe you should become more feminine, right? I think that is the hook that gets women to subscribe to eroticized submission, and I hate it.

    Likewise, there is a feeling that men need to be masculine in order to be “real” men. You know, the John Wayne type who takes control of everything and tries to implement their own patriarchy at home. I was raised around those ideas. Men were men and women were women. My mother used to say that it would be hard to find a “good” wife because “women aren’t women anymore”.

    Well, screw that. I have never been masculine and I never subscribed to those ideas. However, I am a heterosexual. The idea of acting dominant towards women, especially sexually, has always been repellant to me. I am comfortable taking control and making decisions, but only when it is nessesary in life to do such things because I am the most suited to that particular task, and not out of a desire to be in control for its own sake. As a primary parent, I must be an authority figure, for example, because my son is very young and needs that structure from me. That applies to my wife as well, but I am with him most of the time and it is my primary responsibility.

    I think we need to dismantle the idea that a person should aspire to a set of personality traits because of the sex organs they were born with.

    There are, however, a group of people who are born with a deviant sadomasochistic sexuality. I know because I am one of them. I have never had fantasies about intercourse. My sexual attraction is expressed through fantasies about being humiliated, degraded, and caused pain. I suffered no trauma as a child and my acculturation to be masculine was certainly counter to that. Is is, quite simply, who I am.

    Why should you care (and why am I taking up so much space)? Because there are two layers at work and not just one. People like me are very rare, but the BDSM scene is full of people who came to it through social pressure to further embrace their femininity or masculinity. That includes all types, even the men who claim to be submissive but are just objectifying women as “fetish delivery services”. They are not like me because they usually have a normal sexuality and still embrace masculinity outside the bedroom.

    If you look at a book like Venus in Furs you can see the same idea that is in The Story of O about the sexes being at war and opposed to each other, and how one must dominate the other. Those are dangerous social constructs that need to be done away with. We need to strive, in my opinion, for equality as persons regardless of sex, and free ourselves from harmful gender stereotypes.

    I can’t change who I am, but I do wish that the culture that was probably originally built by people like me had stayed that way. There are few things I hate more than 50 shades of grey. Deviant sexual behavior needs to stay with people of deviant sexuality.

    • the social construction of masculinity recognizes that masculinity can be changed. you show this by intent in not allowing deviant and harmful sexual fantasies to control who you are and the choices you make in relationships. I’ve written about this approach to masculinity in Unmaking War, Remaking Men. Thanks for your comment.

      • Andrew

        I went to war and I can confirm the masculinity of the military (in the U.S. anyway). I probably won’t read your book because I’ve washed my hands of those things. I don’t like thinking about war or the military generally.

        However, I’d like to address your comment about not letting deviant fantasies contol our relationships. I don’t think it’s always a problem. It seems that submissive gay men pose a problem for people who believe that sexuality is an entirely social construction under the patriarchy. The explanation given by Dworkin above is ridiculous. Sorry.

        I have also never been given an explanation for how my fantasies, which are natural to me and I couldn’t stop if I wanted to, hurt anyone when acted out with my partner. I understand how they can hurt other people when they get loose and grab ahold of the popular imagination, and then in turn are adopted by the patriarchal meat grinder, but despite all the objections to the conttary, my fantasies didn’t come from there.

        It seems to me that I pose an equal paradox to the gay male submissive. How is it that I can be raised in a patriarchy to be masculine, where everyone in my life encouraged that, without any trauma or abuse, without internet or porn (my parents were very strict about what we watched and consumed), and yet every sexual impulse and fantasy I’ve had since puberty involved a female humiliating, degrading, or abusing me?

        There isn’t one. It’s biological. Unfortunately that kind of thing throws a monkey wrench into they theory that all sadomasochistic desires are socially constructed by the patriarchy, so they just ignore people like me or assume I am wrong or lying.

        The theory isn’t completely wrong, and socially persuaded sadomasochism is a problem, but ending patriarchy won’t make it go away because people like me will continue to be born.

        • Terry

          Andrew, stop the BS! You were not born with a “deviant” sexuality. No one is! You have been brainwashed to think like most people who have bought into patriarchy!

  • Perhaps a more general version of this idea is what Steve Biko said long ago: “The first weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”

    It also relates to something I was reading just yesterday. ‘Maleeha Aslam in her book Gender-Based Explosions, on the link between “Muslim masculinities,” jihadist Islam and terrorism.’

    The insane definition of masculinity as the ability to hurt others is full of toxic downstream effects. (The upstream effects, meaning on the perps themselves, aren’t exactly beneficial either.)

    • Andrew

      Your comment reminds me of something someone said about capitalism. Why have slaves that you have to feed and house and who will try to escape when you can have wage slaves who will compete to work for their food and housing.

      I guess the version of that here would be: Why oppress women if you can get them to oppress themselves.

    • thank you for your comment. Steve Biko was speaking from the standpoint of liberation theory and action and we need to be brought back to this kind of think now. That is why I speak of pornography as an ideology that drives male domination. I write about masculinity, (see previous comment) and how empathy can reshape our politics and masculinity.