A Defence of Masochism


A Defence of Masochism by Anita Phillips (Faber £9.99)

Sex in the nineties is performance. The conventional ‘how was it for you, darling?’ has become increasingly like an after- show inquiry in an actor’s dressing-room as the advent of consumerism, feminism and disease has led more and more people to explore role-play. The missionary position is beginning to seem as archaic as its name.

Boundaries are being extended in bookshops as well as in bedrooms (and playrooms and cellars). Anita Phillips is the latest writer concerned not just to legitimise practices long regarded as taboo but to stress their value in nurturing the psyche. This she does by examining their expression in history, religion and art.

The word ‘masochism’ was coined by the late nineteenth century psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing from the name of the Polish novelist, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Not only did Krafft-Ebing abbreviate Sacher-Masoch’s name (and unwittingly truncate his career), but he reduced the complex fantasy life of the author and his characters to the dry case-study of a man who connived in his own humiliation. It is the complex fictive elements of masochism – underestimated also by Freud – which Phillips is determined to emphasize.

She sees it as no accident that masochism was named after a novelist. Citing the Bergsonian theory that human faculties are designed to limit our experience of the world, she suggests that artists (whose faculties let in too much) are professional masochists in view of their willingness to allow extraneous sensations and fantasies into their psyches. Thus she props up her arguments not with psychoanalytical texts but with passages from Fanny Hill, Marguerite Duras’ La Douleur and, crucially, The Story of 0.

In Krafft-Ebing’s scheme, ‘masochism’ referred exclusively to male behaviour, but Phillips is mainly concerned with its application to women. In defiance of many feminists, she sees it as an aspect of the feminist ‘shadow’, containing the images and longings which feminism has discarded but which remain present in women’s lives. She insists that ‘in their everyday lives, people who enjoy sexual masochism are likely to be the assertive, risk- taking kind, living up to the ideal that is deflated and turned inside out in the bedroom’ – the complete converse of the rapist who uses force to compensate for his own inadequacies.

The sections of the book in which she examines the minutiae of masochism are, for the general reader, the least compelling. She insists on the need to work out a preliminary contract and has an amusingly convoluted passage on the importance of shoes. She takes issue with the neat association implied in the term ‘sado-masochism’ and suggests that, since the true sadist and the true masochist are incompatible (the one wanting control through the expression of force and the other through a more playful manipulation), such encounters are likely to be as unsatisfactory as any metaphoric slap and tickle.

This is an honest and engaging book. To many readers, Phillips’ espousal of sexual experiment will be less controversial than her inability to connect sexual excitement and love. But, although she makes a strong case for masochism as catharsis (an arena in which the whips and chains of the sexual scenario can deflect the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune), it ultimately fails to convince. After seeing Bob Flanagan torturing his body in Sick or reading of the narrator’s coprophiliac encounters with tramps in Samuel Delaney’s The Mad Man, I suspect that such masochists are not so much ‘rewriting oppression as pleasure’ as conniving in oppression and ritualising self-loathing.