Once reserved for “fetish” sites, the popularity and mainstreaming of hardcore, body-punishing, sadomasochistic pornography is growing. One of the most well-known porn performers in the world is Sasha Grey, whose films have amassed over 360 million video views on PornHub alone. Grey, who has since retired from porn, is featured in countless videos wherein she is subjected to sadistic, painful sex and degrading activities like toilet-licking, and is penetrated by multiple men at once — humiliated through verbal abuse, and in bondage gear. Another porn performer, Charlotte Sartre, known for pornography involving double and triple vaginal and anal sex, gagging, bondage, and scenes involving urination, has over 260,000 followers on her social media accounts, and her videos have over 40 million video views on PornHub.
These are not isolated examples — it is more and more common for women to be expected to participate in body-punishing acts in their own sex lives, in keeping with the normalization of sadomasochistic pornography. If what is popular in porn is any indicator, sadomasochism will shape both the sex lives of the masses as well as societal expectations in terms of female sexuality. We are beginning to see this already, with the prevalence of “breath play” on the rise — a sex act in which a sexual partner — commonly, a woman — is choked. In an investigative report for Flare, Briony Smith concluded that, “Choking, it seems, has become the new third base.”
Female pain and female beauty have begun to merge, and the view of the ideal woman as one who tolerates infinite pain and humiliation is taking hold.
In her 1974 book, Woman Hating, Andrea Dworkin argues that pain is an integral element of the grooming process for women, and that the many practices normalized in women’s efforts to maintain desirability and femininity serve a function — to condition girls to accept pain as an inescapable aspect of their lived experience:
“Plucking the eyebrows, shaving under the arms, wearing a girdle, learning to walk in high-heeled shoes, having one’s nose fixed, straightening or curling one’s hair — these things hurt. The pain, of course, teaches an important lesson: no price is too great, no process too repulsive, no operation too painful for the woman who would be beautiful.”
Dworkin argues that conditioning women to accept the pain of their sex is necessary in order to prepare them for their futures, which were presumed to involve child-bearing and husband-pleasing. In order to maintain the status quo in our patriarchal society, girls learn their existences will be painful. By convincing women and girls that their legs, pubic regions, and underarms must always be hairless, that they should tolerate uncomfortable or even painful clothing choices for the sake of desirability, and that they ought to constantly be aware of how their body is perceived, we are teaching them to forsake their own well-being to please men.
This training in pain tolerance and compliance socializes girls — then women — to view masochism as an integral part of their existence.
Young women have engaged in painful beauty practices for decades, which set them up to accept pain as a side-effect of their pursuit for desirability. When pain is seen as a necessary hurdle towards sexual desirability, and desirability is positioned as the ultimate goal for young women, women learn they must tolerate pain to increase their value as sexual commodities.
The mainstreaming of porn made the sexual objectification of women even more prevalent, aided to some degree by a growing awareness of female sexual desire. Sex was no longer something that women merely tolerated, but something they could enjoy. This shift in the way female sexuality was viewed also meant that any shame or guilt associated with the sexual objectification of women could be cast aside, as these sexually adventurous women were now potentially compliant in their own objectification.
As pornography moved from primarily softcore to primarily hardcore, a shift took place in expectations regarding female sexual behaviour. The optimum sexual dynamic no longer revolved around a willing female body, but an eager one — even to the point of being sexually aggressive. Suddenly, the ideal woman behaved like a nymphomaniac — constantly in a state of sexual arousal and begging to be fulfilled by the men around her. Women were no longer just sexual objects, but sexual subjects as well. The supposedly insatiable desires of the modern women, though, were only acceptable to the extent that was pleasing to the men involved — her eagerness to engage in sexual acts was praised, but setting sexual boundaries or revoking consent whenever she felt like it was discouraged.
The last decade has seen a further shift, from sexually adventurous to limitlessly masochistic — today, the ideal woman, influenced as she is by the popular porn of the day, begs to be broken, beaten, and spat on.
If today’s female ideal is masochistic, how might this impact women on a larger scale? Socializing women and girls into taking on the role of submissive masochists can be considered an example of psychological oppression, mirroring the structural oppression of the female sex in society at large.
In her 1990 book, Femininity and Domination, Sandra Lee Bartky describes psychological oppression as “a harsh dominion exercised over your self-esteem” — it operates by breaking the spirit of those being oppressed, disempowering them and making them more compliant to the dominant group. This kind of oppression is something that women have struggled with consistently under patriarchal rule — women have long been reminded of their apparent inferiority, because so long as women believe in their inferiority, revolt is unlikely. If those in power can convince the oppressed population of their naturally inferior position, this population becomes vulnerable to self-doubt, and they are inclined to be more passive as a result. If we understand the physical or emotional abuse we see in sadomasochism as oppressive, it is clear that women are being primed to not only accept their own oppression, but to welcome it.
When women’s spirits are broken to the extent that they are asking to be hurt by the men that love them, women are vulnerable to coercion in a way they might otherwise not be.
The psychological oppression of women in our pornified society is strongly linked to sexual roles, benefiting those in power. On the one hand, it churns out masochistic, submissive female people, who are susceptible to engaging in potentially harmful behaviours, including engaging with pornography and complying with sexually sadistic demands of male partners, as it is primarily men who consume pornography, and who fantasize about being sexually dominant. At the same time, it also operates to disenfranchise — and therefore silence — women, minimizing the risk that women will stand up and fight back: submissive women pose less of a risk to the status quo.
Women are being conditioned to view masochism as representative of female sexual liberation and desirability. When we consider the idea that we live in a patriarchal rape culture — one that consistently silences and marginalizes women, one that shuts down women’s inconvenient truths, one where women around the world are beaten and raped every hour of every day, we must ask ourselves: who stands to benefit from women’s compliance in their own abuse?
In the UK alone, We Can’t Consent To This have documented the deaths of 58 women where a “sex game gone wrong” was cited as a cause of death. Our cultural obsession with women in pain — with women who smile through gritted teeth as the hands clasped around their throat restrict their breathing — is killing women.
Convincing women that their sexual liberation can be found at the other side of a beating may well be one of the patriarchy’s most devastating sleights of hand.
Jessica Masterson is a writer, single mother, and PhD student at the University of Birmingham. Her research focuses on sexual ethics and sadomasochism. Follow her on Twitter @moongirlmusing.