[From the Archives] Redescriptions of Female Masochism

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.

Moreover, female masochism is not just an academic topic but a subject attracting ever more attention in the media. Rock stars such as Madonna have popularized sadomasochistic imagery, accoutrements and lifestyles. Recent films such as Secretary and The Piano Teacher (the latter based on Elfriede Jelinek’s novel Die Klavierspielerin) tackle the topic of women’s masochistic desires. Catherine Millet’s recent best-seller The Sexual Life of Catherine M contains graphic depictions of the author’s submissive yielding to the sexual urges of countless strangers. In1998 British journalist Anita Phillips published a widely reviewed book entitled A Defense of Masochism. And there is now a thriving sub-genre of masochistic pornography written from a female viewpoint and targeted at female consumers. In a typical scenario, the heroine eagerly consents to becoming a slave who sleeps on the floor, licks her owner’s boots, is permanently available for any sexual use or abuse and is soundly whipped for the most minor transgression.

Making sense of such cultural data means thinking about the changing connotations of female masochism. Feminist scholarship has relied heavily on psychoanalytical theory to explore the aetiology and meaning of masochism. However, while psychoanalysis may shed light on the psychic origins of masochism, it can tell us little about how it is symbolized, represented, and understood in a wider context. It does not explain how erotic impulses may acquire very different social meanings. In this essay I want to shift attention from the psychic causes of masochism to its convoluted history as a cultural object. How is the idea of masochism realized via varying vocabularies, belief systems and constellations of meaning? How have attitudes to female masochism changed in recent years, and why is it currently such a charged topic? In this regard, feminist theories of masochism are not just explanations but also historical symptoms: indices of the changing fortunes of masochism in modern culture.

Here Richard Rorty’s notion of redescription may prove helpful. Changing beliefs, argues Rorty, should be understood not as discoveries of truth but as the adoption of new vocabularies; we have made a change rather than learned a fact. What others might call discovery is for Rorty an instance of redescription, a transformation of our vocabulary that allows us to see the world in a dramatically new light. This idea seems well suited to thinking about female masochism, whose meanings fluctuate as it is viewed through different linguistic and cultural lenses. Moreover, Rorty’s claim that a discourse gains its meaning only in relation to another discourse seems unusually apt. Both critics and defenders of female masochism see themselves as embroiled in a long history of debates about gender and sexuality. There is a clear logic of reaction and counter-reaction being played out in arguments about female masochism that can only be grasped in historical perspective.

Rita Felski is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of English at the University of Virginia. She is also currently the editor of New Literary History. You can learn more about Felski and her work at her website. To read the rest of the article, visit our online archives. You do not need a subscription to read the full article.

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