Full disclosure: I am a full-blown, perverse, emotional and sometimes physical masochist.
To be honest, I – and Freud - think masochism is actually an aspect of all of our psyches and sexualities. Maybe to a greater or lesser degree depending on the person, but on some level or another we can all relate to the lyric ‘it hurts so good’.
Despite (or because of?) its ubiquity, ’masochism’ is often presented in our culture in the negative; it is pathologised. The recent reactions to some tweets from young women Chris Brown fans that had been collected together and circulated round the net are a good example of this pathologisation of masochism.
Responses ranged from the succinct:
to the ideological:
But the one I found the most insulting was from a journalist writing in Slate Magazine . He wrote:
“Dude, Chris Brown can punch me in the face as much as he wants to, just as long as he kisses it. (:”
‘The line above is just one of many similarly disturbing tweets that female fans of Chris Brown posted in response to his controversial inclusion in Sunday night’s Grammy Awards performance lineup. Apparently, the fact that Brown violently attacked his then-girlfriend Rihanna on the eve of the Grammy’s just three years ago does not give these women pause—the singer’s attractiveness overrides all that.
‘… others have alreadyastutely pointed out how it exposes our society’s willingness to downplay domestic violence in favor of our fetish for a good redemption narrative…as we puzzle over the psychological misfiring necessary to produce these statements…consider…this kind of dangerous masochism….’
‘Dangerous masochism’ is a telling phrase. It suggests that masochistic urges and fantasies, as expressed by those young women, is a Bad Thing. The article, along with countless other commentators, not only condemn Chris Brown, but also people who show a desire to be dominated and hurt – masochists.
I do not defend the actions of Mr Brown. I do not think he should be committed to a life of isolation as a result of his crime though. And I have no interest in his ‘redemption’ or otherwise. But I do defend the right of people to express their sexual desires without judgement. And, I thought gay men (the journalist is I think gay and he likens women’s masochism to that of gay men) of all people would too.
A gay man who I have a lot of respect for, who runs a cracking tumblr blog, How Upsetting, had this to say about Chris Brown back in Spring 2011:
‘The willingness of people to ignore Chris Brown’s violence is a sad indictment of our society’s attitude towards domestic violence. I wrote on Twitter previously – society will have reached a good place when domestic violence is viewed in the same light as paedophilia. Completely beyond the pale.’
Whilst I agree that domestic violence should not be hidden and treated as a trivial issue, I do not think it should be viewed in the same light as paedophilia. In fact, I do not even think paedophilia should even be seen in quite such a dim light as it is.
This demonising of people’s sexual urges as well as their acts, and making monsters out of men, is precisely the process whereby homosexuality has been presented as a disease and a ‘sin’. Of course, I differentiate between consensual sexual activity and non-consent, but I do not think turning people who are involved in sexual and domestic ‘abuse’ should be turned into a ‘type’. A type that is worthy of judgement and damnation.
And, again, Freud (and Foucault) agrees with me. His work on infantile sexuality has shown that whilst the power dynamics between adults and children are obvious, children do have their own autonomous sexual urges and desires. And, the fact the age of consent is different in different countries and different time periods shows that the very concept of ‘childhood’ is not fixed but changeable.
But I am not here to defend paedophiles or people who beat up their partners non-consensually. I am here to defend masochism.
Somebody else who defended masochism was Anita Phillips. In a review of her book, In Defence Of Masochism, Mark Simpson wrote that masochism has been elevated
‘to a kind of super-heroism; how long before we hear little boys whining: ‘Mum, can I have a leather harness and cling-film cape for Xmas, please?’.
Which almost begs the point of a book with the name In Defence of Masochism. However, a recent European Court ruling asserted that assault cannot be consented to (which means, of course, an end to boxing, surgery and supporting Arsenal) suggests that there is still an argument to be made. And, even if most people who don’t wear wigs and suspenders for a living are more laid back about the issue, there are still a number of common misconceptions and prejudices about masochism — most of which Anita Phillips dispatches here with aplomb. Most notably, the idea that masochism is always someone else’s perversion. Phillips investigates, via Freud and American academic Leo Bersani the universality of masochistic impulses, the thin line between pleasure and pain, and shows how the curdling of these impulses into a condition and a type changed what it means to be human.’
I think those young women saying they wanted to be beaten by Chris Brown were simply being ‘human’ and the reactions to their comments were presenting them as ‘inhuman’. I have had a similar experience of being ‘dehumanised’ as a result of being the ‘victim’ of domestic violence. Once I was stood in the magistrates court, trying to secure an injunction against my ex who had previously stalked me and broken into my house to beat me up, I could not explain that actually, at one point in our relationship, it ‘hurt so good’. That would have lost me my case. So I had to deny an aspect of myself in order to ensure my own safety.
Now I am no longer in the courtroom I still feel judged about my sexuality. When I tried to explain this to people on twitter who were condemning Chris Brown, and the women who tweeted in support of him, I was told my personal experience is ‘irrelevant’. Well, it is relevant to me. And it is relevant in forming my views on those young women, on Rihanna’s relationship with Chris Brown, and on feminism in general.
As Simpson wrote in response to Philips’ book:
‘Masochism’ is one of the inventions of late nineteenth century sexology in the Gothic shape of Baron Dr Richard Von Kraft-Ebing. It was only ever intended to apply to men; women were ‘naturally’ masochistic, so pleasure in pain on their part was not ‘perverse’ and therefore not a problem to be explained or pathologised. This was part of a shift in gender roles in the West in the Nineteenth Century which was concerned with, we are told, institutionalising women’s subjugation. As Phillips points out, ‘Dante’s ordeal in the Inferno to be reunited with Beatrice, to John Donne’s love poetry, sacrificial masculine love has been a crucial theme, only in this [20th] century has what for many centuries seemed the natural, desirable form of male love been redefined as effeminate perversity, masochism.’
Phillips believes that this reformulation of male identity that excluded masochism made masculinity ‘blatantly misogynisitc, emotionally inept and homophobic’. She also believes that it was this new masculinity which led in part to the ‘corrective’ of feminism. Ironically, the exclusion of masochism from the male psyche has produced a public scenario of their punishment and chastisement by women which continues today. The feminist is Ms Whiplash.’
So I think presenting ‘dangerous masochism’ as a problem confined to ‘oppressed’ women reinforces the gender binary, and the culture in which men are presented as sadists to victimised women.
Whilst I am sure people reading this might say, ‘yes, but this was a crime, not the consensual actions of a couple engaging in S and M’ I don’t remember seeing those people celebrating consensual S and M relationships. The only time this topic gets raised in most circles seems to be when someone gets badly hurt against their will (usually a woman), or when it results in a court case.
Often sado-masochism can be fun. I love the work of people such as Mark Simpson and Rihanna because, regardless of whatever painful experiences they may have had, they present sexuality as complex, raw, and real.
The people who have rushed to pass judgement on those young women, I do not think are helping those or other young people be open about their sexual feelings, which, if Freud, Simpson and I are to be believed, inevitably will include masochism.
And in their crusade against Brown, which, incidentally does not seem to take into account the feelings or voice of Rihanna, they are, in my view, on a hiding to nothing.