A surprising genealogy of sadomasochism

Dr Romana Byrne  Photo by RP Byrne

Dr Romana Byrne Photo by RP Byrne

Dr Romana Byrne examines the cultural history of sadomasochism and how the Marquis de Sade, Krafft-Ebing and Freud earned us such infamy

The term “sadism”, as you probably know, is drawn from the name of the Marquis de Sade (1740 – 1814), a French aristocrat who spent thirty-two of his seventy-four adventurous years imprisoned for indecent behaviour and for his blasphemous, pornographic and often brutal writing. While de Sade may appear to be the logical “father of sadism”, this linkage should be deeply problematic to anyone who identifies with any aspect of BDSM. Kinky he may have been, but in fact de Sade has nothing to do with what we understand today to be sadism, dominance or topping.

Firstly, the person who used Sade’s name to coin the word “sadism”, Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840 – 1902), an Austrian-German sexologist and psychiatrist, defined sadism as a dangerous and horrible disease in his 1866 bestseller Psychopathia Sexualis. This ample tome was so popular that its publishers attempted to avoid what they thought would be a widespread corruption of the population by ensuring that, in most editions, the racier sections were written in Latin; the idea was that only supposedly educated medical practitioners would be able to read the descriptions of salacious, perverted sex. The influence of Psychopathia Sexualis on the Western concept of sexual perversion can’t be underestimated; this bible of sexual pathology informed the work of countless sexologists, doctors and psychiatrists, especially Sigmund Freud, and also spoke to many ordinary folk who saw themselves, with either horror or relief, in the book’s pages. Sadism and masochism had been touched upon before by doctors, but it was Psychopathia Sexualis that planted the idea of sadomasochism-as-illness stubbornly in the collective consciousness of the Western world.

So what does this book actually say? It states that sadism entails ”the association of lust and cruelty”, a result of what he called psychic degeneration that crippled the ”tainted individual”. The sadist will commit ”maltreatment, even murder…the latter occurring chiefly because sensual lust has not been satisfied with the consummated coitus”. Krafft-Ebing illustrates the sadistic malady by describing cases of cannibalism, necrophilia, and murder. Obviously not your typical Saturday night at the local fetish club.

Cringe as we may at such definitions, Krafft-Ebing was not too far off the mark in using de Sade’s name to describe clearly non-consensual acts of violence. It’s difficult to explain the behaviour of de Sade’s characters as manifestations of psychological illness, as the very notion of mental illness was in its early stages during his day. However, de Sade’s characters were certainly criminal, violent and non-consensual, often committing torture and homicide. Clearly, this has nothing to do with the BDSM we know and love today, which is always consensual, always involves negotiation, and hopefully always pleasure for all parties. Is it therefore even possible to speak of “sadomasochism” in de Sade’s work, considering the qualities that we now ascribe to this term?

That’s highly doubtful, not least because the term didn’t exist in de Sade’s day. The violent sex of his work always takes place in the context of libertinism. We often use the word ”libertine“ to describe someone who rejects moral conventions, who embraces sexual freedom and the scandal that often accompanies it. Fair enough, but in the context of contemporary BDSM, “libertinism” is often evoked as the Sadean brand, linked with our eighteenth-century poster boy of perversion. I’d suggest that unless you’re vehemently anti-clerical and have a penchant for mutilation and murder, you may want to consider avoiding this term as a self-congratulatory adjective.

I don’t mean to sound anti-de Sade. Au contraire, I am a huge fan of his work and will shortly show you why. But the crucial point that the Sade/sadism problem illustrates so clearly is that the historical precursors to present-day sadomasochism are often surprisingly different from how we now conceive of this form of sexuality. And considering exactly how they are different enriches our understanding of both our perverse past and our present. So I’m going to map out important moments in the cultural history of what we now call sadomasochism to demonstrate its dramatically different incarnations.

This history will be offered in two separate instalments: here, I’ll focus on a chronology of must-know texts. In issue 64, I’ll explore how these literary works shaped the continual redefinition of sadomasochism.

Marquis de Sade: “sadomasochism” as philosophical and political critique.

Once we establish that de Sade’s work cannot be synonymous with “sadism”, it’s clear that it was, in fact, a craftily devised way of critiquing dominant strands of eighteenth-century philosophical and political thought. One of his primary targets was the concept of taste, that is, what we find appealing and in ‘good taste’ and what we dislike. In a nutshell: de Sade structures the sexual lives of his libertine characters upon the principles that defined the concept of taste according to philosophers such as Edmund Burke, David Hume, Anthony Ashley Cooper, third Earl of Shaftesbury, Francis Hutcheson and Immanuel Kant. In perverting this philosophical concept, he acerbically critiques the political agenda in which it was deeply invested. Most people didn’t get what de Sade was doing here, especially not Krafft-Ebing, who, as we know, used his name to coin the word for an illness. But Sade’s manipluation of popular philosophical thought had no connection whatsoever with either Krafft-Ebing’s psychic malady or with the consensual sexual acts we’d today group under BDSM. But it has been nonetheless fundamental in influencing the modern history of sexual ‘perversion’: without de Sade, the history of all things related to sadomasochism would have taken a very different, perhaps unimaginable, path.

Nineteenth-century decadent literature: the fusion of beauty and grotesquerie

In the late nineteenth-century, approximately one hundred years after de Sade wrote many of his major works, this renegade French aristocrat remained infamous. For sexologists such as Krafft-Ebing, he represented the case par excellence of a sexual pathology, but for avant-garde poets and writers, he was an anti-bourgeois emblem of perverse decadence in the face of conformity. The English poet Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837 – 1909) was known to be a great fan of Sade’s work, and the French novelist Octave Mirbeau (1848 – 1917) echoed Sadean intersections of gratuitous violence and sexual pleasure in his 1899 novel Torture Garden (that name rings a bell, doesn’t it). Yet although Swinburne and Mirbeau were undoubtedly indebted to Sade in their desire to place sexual depravity in literary form, what they came to articulate as sadomasochism was something quite different—and decidedly more “literary”—from what we see in de Sade’s often numbing political and philosophical harangues; it is the fusion of beauty and grotesquerie. That is, they unite grotesque and often depraved bodily injury—the torture and murder of Chinese convicts in Torture Garden, grievous, lust-inspired assaults in Swinburne’s poetry—with the most exquisite and refined manner of doing things, that is, form. It is this fusion of grotesque matter with beautiful form that provides the basis of the abundant sexual pleasure articulated in these texts. Between the publication of Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads and Mirbeau’s Torture Garden, Austrian academic Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (1836 – 1895) published his most well known work of fiction, Venus in Furs (1870). It was, of course, Krafft-Ebing who used Sacher-Masoch’s name to coin the term “masochism”, even though the “masochism” contained in Sacher-Masoch’s fiction couldn’t be more different from the degenerative disease introduced to both medical practitioners and an enraptured general public by Psychopathia Sexualis. Venus in Furs offered a portrait of a masochist who delighted in a whipping that was perfectly executed within his idiosyncratic aesthetic ideals.

Ecstatic self-shattering in mid-twentieth-century French avant-garde literature

This focus on beauty and grotesquerie—of surface elements—gives way to something much deeper in the mid twentieth century as sadomasochism becomes en vogue with French avant-garde writers. Two of the most prominent members of the Parisian literary elite to write on this topic were George Bataille (1897 – 1962) and Pauline Réage (a pseudonym for Anne Desclos, 1907 – 1998), who had both attested to their great respect for the work of de Sade. (During the twentieth century, de Sade, now known as the “divine Marquis”, became a symbol of radical liberation from what was thought of as oppressive and artificial social conditioning). Many Skin Two readers will be familiar with Réage’s 1954 novel Story of O, which recounts the story of O, a young woman who enters into consensual sexual slavery with a group of elite Parisian men in a château called Roissy. Réage originally began the novel as a letter of seduction to her lover and employer Jean Paulhan, but the novel would become a celebrated work of literature amongst the French avant-garde; indeed, even Bataille, the patriarch of debauched literature at the time, heartily praised the novel. Story of O even won the prestigious Prix des Deux Magots literary prize. Despite the novel’s celebrated reception during the 1950s, it was attacked by radical feminists during the 1970s as exemplary of sexism and oppression. This damaged the book’s reputation beyond repair: ever since Andrea Dworkin blasted the novel in 1974, it would forever be known primarily as a work of violent misogyny, rape and abuse, except within select subcultural circles. This mis-reading echoes, to some extent, the condemnation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew that overlooks the consensual BDSM essence of the play. (See the article by Dr Nina Taunton in issue 15 of Skin Two.)

This article was originally published in, and can be found in its entirety, in Issue 63 of Skin Two Magazine with part 2 coming soon in Issue 64 – both available on KFSMedia.com

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