Rita Felski’s “Redescriptions of Female Masochism” first appeared in issue 63-64 (Spring/Summer 2005) of the minnesota review.
Of the terms bequeathed to us by the fathers of sexology, masochism is one of the most perplexing. Masochism has been depicted as craven submission or as wilful revolt, as a form of radical self-shattering or the epitome of ironic self-consciousness. In one account, the masochistic script is an extreme instance of psychic rigidity and compulsive sexual need; from another perspective, it is the epitome of playfulness and theatricality. Some writers view masochism as an aberration; others see it as a quasi-universal condition that lies at the core of human sexuality.
One major dispute hinges on the role of gender. Masochism has been deemed both a uniquely male perversion and an innate female tendency (a disagreement that often turns on whether it is deemed a psychological or a specifically sexual condition). Hence a survey of the writing on female masochism turns up wildly diverging propositions: masochism is a natural urge in women; epitomizes women’s oppression under patriarchy; is an empowering form of sexual experimentation; does not exist. Current approaches to masochism draw on disparate vocabularies-political, medical, therapeutic, philosophical, and aesthetic-whose underlying tenets are often strikingly at odds. Continue reading