Pain and the erotic
The pains of love and the agonies of unrequited desire have formed a constant theme in art from antiquity to the latest pop song. However, in most cases these pains and agonies are emotional or metaphorical, not literal bodily pain. But for some people, pain and love, or at least sexual pleasure, are intricately intertwined - and have been for many centuries.
More explicit reference was made in the famous Sanskrit text Kamasutra, composed somewhere in the north of India, probably late in the third century AD. Its recommendations for the use of scratching, biting and slapping presented these as ritualized concomitants of eroticism rather than the overflow of aggressive passion. However, again questions of consent arise from male-centred assumptions that the woman's cries, whimpers and protests were merely an equally ritualized response of pleasure. By contrast, Van Gulik claimed in The Sexual Life of Ancient China (1961, republished 2003) that episodes of sexual sadism and masochism in China were very rare in either handbooks of sex, or erotic and pornographic literature, in spite of (or because of) the general pervasiveness of cruelty, by modern Western standards.
The potential for erotic arousal among participants or viewers of Western European medieval religious ceremonies involving flagellation remains a matter for speculation, although Gibson, in The English Vice (1978), draws attention to an early fifteenth-century Catalan painting, 'Flagellation of Christ', in which the floggers certainly appear to be deriving sexual pleasure from their work. Renaissance humanist Pico della Mirandola described the passive flagellatory desires of a friend, which he found both puzzling and amusing. Elizabethan and Jacobean drama and poetry include motifs of sexualized violence, for example Cleopatra's allusions to the lover's pinch, which hurts and is desired.
In the Restoration period, Snarl in Shadwell's The Virtuoso (1676) made, perhaps for the first time, the connection between pedogogical punishment in English schools and addiction to 'le vice anglais' in later life. Otway, in Venice Preserved (1682), depicted a masochistic Venetian senator engaging in what might today be termed 'puppy-play' or 'kennel-training' with his mistress.
The birch over the bed in Hogarth's series of 'The Harlot's Progress' alludes to flagellation as an erotic speciality for hire, further attested to by inventories of paraphernalia confiscated in raids on London brothels. 'Fladge' as a subgenre in pornography emerged before the end of the eighteenth century and proliferated during the Victorian era.
Erotic response to being flagellated was thus reasonably well documented from the Renaissance period, but there was less evidence for the erotic reaction of the actual flagellator. Havelock Ellis, in Love and Pain (1913), one of the first major studies of the subject, gave the earliest reported example he could find of sadistic pleasure in the sight of active whipping as 1672 (though Gibson, as mentioned, found an earlier visual allusion). Ellis pointed out that whipping as a punishment was common in European societies for many centuries, and beating of wives, children and servants an accepted practice: therefore devotees did not need to go far to seek it out and observe it for their own pleasure. By contrast, the desire of powerful members of society for apparently humiliating punishment was highly puzzling.
Theorizing painful pleasures
A more psychological explanation was given in the personal testimony of the Swiss Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his frank, though posthumously published, Confessions (1782). Rousseau recounted the lasting effects of youthful experiences of corporal punishment at the hands of his schoolmaster's sister. Themes of sadism and masochism famously pervaded the works of the eventually eponymous Marquis de Sade (17401814), alongside other forms of sexual transgression, and their philosophical underpinnings were expounded upon at great length. These themes also figured in the fiction of the late nineteenth-century Austrian writer, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (18361895), author of Venus in Furs (1870), who gave his name to the passive endurance of pain.
A number of early attempts by sexologists to analyse the subject tended to conflate wider instances of cruel punishments within society with the (conscious) erotic enjoyment produced by similar experiences within a minority. The early sexologists also tended to make gender-biased assumptions, seeing sadism as an excessive manifestation of inherent male aggression, and masochism as merely an exaggeration of the submissive role assigned to women, even though male masochists were not uncommon. Following the rise of Freud's theories, psychoanalysts elaborated complex explanations of sadistic and masochistic behaviour (conscious and unconscious). Well into the later decades of the twentieth century, discussions of sadomasochism tended to be framed in terms of psychopathology and dysfunctionality.
However, as the century drew on and attitudes towards sexuality in the Western world became more liberalized, various surveys of sexual attitudes and behaviour revealed that significant percentages of individuals admitted to finding pleasure in certain sadomasochistic scenarios, either in reality or as fantasy. In this changing social context, and with the increasing belief that sexual pleasure was in itself a good thing, subcultures of individuals interested in consensual sadomasochistic practices developed, gradually and with great discretion.
They developed codes of conduct to ensure the safety of participants, embodied in the rubric 'Safe, Sane and Consensual', prior negotiation of the parameters of a 'scene', and a system of 'safe words' to stop or slow down the action. Far from the masochist, or 'bottom', being at the mercy of the sadist, or 'top', it was widely claimed that the bottom controlled the scene by defining its limits; while the top was not indulging in a frenzy of violence, but consciously and attentively deploying certain practices, some of them demanding considerable skill and dexterity. Definitions were further complicated by the discovery that very few defined themselves as exclusively either sadistic or masochistic.
Sociologists researching these communities found the individuals involved very similar to the 'normal' population, and in many cases they were pillars of society, although uncomfortably aware of the social stigma their activities incurred. They strongly differentiated their activities in 'play', desired and experienced as pleasure by both parties, from violence and cruelty and extremes such as 'lust murder' with which sadomasochism had traditionally been associated.
In the later twentieth century physiologists pointed out the effect of pain in producing natural endorphins and a resultant 'high', an experience which is also found in certain sports and other non-sexual activities, such as alternating hot saunas with cold plunges. It has also been recognized that, during sexual arousal, sensations which might be considered painful in the non-aroused state may be experienced as intense but pleasurable. Certain kinds of pain can also become eroticized through their association with sexual pleasure, or in anticipation of it.
A recent popular fantasy trilogy by Jacqueline Carey, Kushiel's Dart, Kushiel's Chosen and Kushiel's Avatar, takes as protagonist Phèdre, a courtesan who is blessed, or cursed, by the god Kushiel to be an anguisette, experiencing all pain as sexually arousing. However, in real life, even the most dedicated masochist seldom eroticises or enjoys all and any pain, looking forward to a visit to the dentist, for example, with no more ardent anticipation than anyone else. Researchers have suggested that psychological and symbolic elements are significant in sadomasochistic pleasure and for many, though not all, an explicit context of dominance and submission is of considerable importance.
Although sadomasochistic motifs are rife within popular culture, there is still much discomfort and even taboo about these practices. Media reports of fetish events, or of allegations of celebrities indulging in 'kinky sex', typically strive for a jokey, distancing note. At a further extreme the severe sentences handed down in the 'Spanner' case of 1990, for what can well be argued were victimless crimes of engaging in consensual (albeit extreme) masochism, demonstrate the continuing unease that many feel at the blurring of the boundaries of pleasure and pain.
Lesley Hall is a senior archivist at the Wellcome Library for the History of Medicine, London.
Ellis H (1913) 'Love and Pain', in Studies in the Psychology of Sex Volume III: Analysis of the Sexual Impulse; Love and Pain; The Sexual Impulse in Women (2nd edition). Philadelphia: F A Davis Co.
Gibson I (1978) The English Vice: Beating, Sex and Shame in Victorian England and After. London: Duckworth.
Meibomius J H (English translation, London, 1761, reprinted 1801) A Treatise of the Use of Flogging in Venereal Affairs
Thompson B (1994) Sadomasochism: Painful Perversion or Pleasurable Play?
The binding and flaggelation of Christ. Drawing by F. Rosasp.
The Wellcome Library, London
Click to enlarge
The Harlot's Progress
The Wellcome Library, London
Click to enlarge
Postcard from the Krafft Ebing Collection. The Wellcome Library, London.
Click to enlarge