Here’s the first post in the Amazing Intellectual Journey, although you shouldn’t even bother to pack your lunch, because it’s more like “two steps forward one step back.” If you doubted I was out to break my blog, doubt no more.
At the Popular Culture Association conference in April, I heard Sarah Frantz, who had given Uneven an “A” review over at Dear Author, deliver an excellent paper on Anah Crow’s Uneven. I blogged a summary of her talk here. As many of you know, Crow’s novel is m/m erotic romance, featuring a relationship characterized by “heavy BDSM”. I became intrigued by the book, and, in an effort to broaden my romance reading horizons, purchased and read it.
In Uneven, the main protagonist is a classic alpha male hero of the “Arrogant Tycoon Billionaire” order, with the important exception that he is a gay man with masochistic and submissive tendencies. After a traumatic attempt to engage in BDSM practice as a young man, he has sublimated his desires, bowed to heteronormativism, married and begat an heir. A chance encounter with an insolent stockboy, Gabriel, whose handcuffs trip him up at the corporation’s security checkpoint, bringing his sexual proclivities to the attention of his very interested employer, signals the end of Rase’s closeted lifestyle and his entree into a love relationship in which he can be, for once, the person he truly is.
This is a short book (it’s an ebook actually, published by Torquere Press) at about 125 pages, and there is not a lot of time to develop these characters beyond their BDSM performances. Rase’s character’s journey is from closeted and self-loathing to open and self-accepting, which allows him to jilt his “trophy wife” (sigh) and forge new bonds with his college age son (uncomfortably close in age to Gabriel, with frequent references to Gabriel’s angelic youthful looks). Since the story is told from Rase’s point of view, Gabriel is harder to read, but Crow does give us some insight into his character. He had been burned in the past by an employer who, I think, coerced him into acting as a dominant, leading him to ditch his chosen profession for menial labor, has a huge chip on his shoulder as a result, and is leery of captains of industry like Rase.
This book read like a bizarro category romance. So many of the Harlequin tropes were there: the alpha hero who can only show his lover (but no one else) his “weaknesses”, the burned lover who tars all future men with the same brush, the utlimate capitalist fantasy to which almost no romance novel is immune: immense, carefree, yet hard-earned and well-deserved wealth, the theme of buying a new home to represent a new life, the stable of scheming ex-lovers and faithful servants, etc. But in the context of BDSM m/m, everything gets inverted. Just typing “alpha hero with submissive tendencies” feels odd.
Reading Uneven made me realize why Joey Hill’s The Vampire Queen’s Servant, a book with a BDSM relationship between a vampire Queen and her male human servant, didn’t work for me. Hill really didn’t create a submissive masochist in Jacob, who was every inch the dominating alpha. It was inexplicable that Jacob agreed to serve Elyssa, and that large question mark kept getting between me and the characters. With Rase, on the other hand, I felt his sexual needs were truly his, a part of his identity.
I thought Uneven was really interesting, but I can’t say I enjoyed it. Certain things will get me to love a book: the writing, my emotional investment in the characters and their journey, my sense that the author is a keen observer of human nature, especially human motivation and emotion. I know others have found those things in this book, but I did not. I also found myself irritated by the repetition of certain words in the text (and I am sorry to get graphic here), especially in the sex scenes, such as “pre-come” (17 times), “whine/whining” (15), variations of “lick” (25+) etc. On the other hand, since I wasn’t turned on at all by the violent nature of Rase and Gabriel’s relationship, I noticed the repetitiveness more than I might have in an erotic romance with couplings more to my personal tatse. YMMV.
One thing I found sort of odd was that the homosexuality of Rase and Gabriel was subordinated in the text to their BDSM orientations. Character and plot turned on BDSM, not homosexuality. Rase’s self-loathing was directed entirely to his s/m tendencies, for example, and once he accepted those, he went from closeted to going public with his young lover, asking Gabriel to hold his hand in Home Depot, for example. We do not yet, sadly, live in a world in which being gay is completely accepted. Was this part of the fantasy? An author tactic to focus on BDSM? A comment on the inseparability for Rase of his homosexuality and s/m tendencies? I wasn’t sure how to read it, but it required me to suspend my disbelief.
I’ve come across s/m elements in other romances I have read, but the need to inflict or experience pain is often portrayed as a symptom of past trauma for the h/h, so by the time of the HEA, s/m is left behind. In other romances, it’s clear that BDSM (usually very “light”) is a kind of kink that the h/h may engage in from time to time, but not perceived by the characters as an essential part of their identities. Finally, in some romances, sadism appears in the form of the eeeeeevil villain, a sign of an irredeemably bad person (As Frantz discusses here). Uneven was different in that the problem presented by Rase’s masochistic and submissive tendencies is his internal struggle to accept them, not his struggle to shuck them for a more “normal” lifestyle. A second source of conflict was Gabriel’s distrust of Rase’s “type.”
In their initial encounter, Gabriel smacks Rase in the face. Later, Rase goes to Gabriel’s apartment, and their long encounter includes hitting, whipping, handcuffing, humiliation, etc. Although they both acknowledge at the end of the book that this first encounter “went too far” (perhaps the result of years of repression on Rase’s part, although it’s not clear what Gabriel’s reasoning is), for Rase and Gabriel, pain-free sex is not likely to occur. In the very last sex scene, for example, Gabriel’s “free hand cracked against Rase’s cheek.”
I thought and thought about it, and while I can understand the role of fantasy in readership of this type of heavy BDSM romance (a person can write or read heavy BDSM without actually endorsing it or practicing it), and while I was glad Gabriel and Rase found each other, I found it very difficult to call what they had an HEA, when it included things like this: “the pain in Rase’s shoulders was so intense he thought he was going to vomit from it, but his hard-on never faded.” While others found Gabriel solicitous care of Rase’s injuries a sign of true love, it seemed reminiscent to me of a domestic abusers mea culpa.
I got to thinking about it. What, if anything, does my own academic tradition say about sadomasochism?
What follows is a brief tour through some typical philosophical takes on sadism and masochism from a family of related specialties (normative ethics, action theory, feminist theory, and aesthetics).
There’s not much in analytic ethical theory about masochism or sadism. The only references to sadism I can think of pertain to utilitarianism, an ethical theory that says what’s good is pleasure (this is the hedonistic aspect of utilitarianism), and what’s right is maximizing pleasure, not just for oneself but in general. Do the thing that will promote the most happiness and you’re good, morally. The “roving band of sadists” is a common tool to teach problems with thsi moral theory, especially it’s hedonistic aspect. Here’s the example: There are ten of sadists in a dark alley, and only one victim. Surely, their gain in pleasure by torturing him outweighs his pain. But then, so the objection to utilitarianism continues, why must we count a sadists’s pleasure in giving pain as of equal moral worth to an innocent person’s interest in remaining pain free?It is an asburd moral theory that is neutral to the source of pleasure. (This discusison re-emerges every few years, with some utilitarians biting the bullet and others dodging it. Geoffrey Scarre and Hugh Upton battle it out in the early 00’s in Utilitas, for example). Obviously, there’s no discusison of consent here.
In action theory, sadism and masochism tend to be discussed within a more general discussion of pain. Pain presents a lot of interesting philosophical problems in the theory of mind and action theory. It’s very hard, philosophically, to say what pain is, as pain from amputated limbs shows. Arthur Danto, in his book Analytical Philosophy of Action, does focus on consenting SM relations, and describes sadism and masochism as “cognitively complex appetites”, noting that a sadist doesn’t just want to inflict pain, but wants to inflict degradation (it’s no fun if the victim bears it stoically, unmovingly, showing no outward signs of discomfort — he has to be made to go beyond even socially acceptable shows of pain, he has to, as Rase does in Uneven, whine, pant, cry, beg, etc.) and the masochist wants to experience not just pain, but pain administered in a degrading fashion. Danto contends both the sadist and masochist are driven by feelings of worthlessness, except that the sadist inflicts it to try to rise above his own sense of worthlessness, while the masochist seeks reaffirmation of his worthlessness. They are “two sides of the same pathological coin”.
Here’s an example from the text: “At one point, ‘something in the back of his head whined and dithered about condoms, but he couldn’t stop.'” Rase doesn’t know Gabriel’s health status, opr indeed anythgin about him. They are about the exchange blood, mucous and semen, and Rase considers it “dithering” to ask Gabriel to put on a condom? As erotica, I guess it;s part fo the fantasy, but as erotic romance, it seems to reveal the kind of careless disgreard fo rhis own worth and life to which Danto refers.
In philosophy of literature, we have Colin McGinn’s Ethics, Evil and Fiction, which comports in large part with Danto’s analysis while going well beyond it. McGinn’s analysis of what is ethically wrong with sadism is really interesting. (He starts, as everyone must, with Sartre, but I don’t need to drag you into Being and Nothingness to explain McGinn’s take on it). He says it’s that the sadist makes the victim renounce his own values. At the extreme, the victim of the sadist comes to prefer death over life. The sadist effects a transformation of the victim’s core values system (interestingly, McGinn says sexual seduction and rhetorical persuasion work the same way, so that, for example, a skillful seduction can cause someone toss out their virtue, their career, their marriage, etc.). The literary example McGinn uses is the “absolutely disgusting” Sade, whose writings evidence a mastery of sadism, skillful rhetorical persuasion, and seduction, making him a sadistic triple threat.
Here’s an example from the text which seems to bear out McGinn’s point:
“It was like Rase wasn’t even here. He was so much nothing that Gabriel could use him to come, then get rid of him. Maybe if he was a good toy, he could come back. … there was nothing in the world but Gabriel; nothing mattered but this. Rase was nothing, down so low.”
A third example is from psychoanalytic feminist theory. Jessica Benjamin’s The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination (1989) focuses on D/s but she draws heavily on The Story of O, which obviously features a lot of s/m. For Benjamin, a psychoanalyst, domination and submission are not natural, but are perversions that fall far short of the relational ideal of mutual recognition, attunement and separateness, reciprocity and love. D/s map onto gender. As a psychoanalyist, Benjamin finds the roots of submissive femininity and masculine domination in early childhood development, but not, as many of her colleagues (and romance authors!) do, in individual trauma, but in the the structure of gender in our culture, specifically the ”psychic structure” (This is how psychoanalysists talk. Don’t expect to find this on an MRI.) whereby the male is the active subject, the “I”, the “doer”, and the female, a passive object, the “other”, the “done to”.
To put that point in terms of romance, most submissives and masochists I have come across in romance are heroines. To put this point in terms of popular film and television, think about how common it is for actresses to find themselves resigned to the status “the girlfriend” who merely reacts to events in the hero’s life in action movies (Spiderman, Iron Man, Batman, Transformers). To put this point in terms of the reality of s/m as a sexual practice, the American Psychological Association, in the DSM-IV-TR, find that the ratio of female masochists to male is 20:1, although this number is contested by others, who, while allowing that clinical presentations of sadism are “overwhelmingly male”, other studies put the ration at 4:1. Moser, Charles and Kleinplatz, Peggy J.(2006) ‘DSM-IV-TR and the Paraphilias’, Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality,17:3,91 — 109). Still, In Benjamin’s work, sexual domination is not distinguished from a general (masculine) orientation to dominate, and it’s not easy to connect to the issue at hand, consenting BDSM, although her view would likely be that regardless of the biological sex of the participants, they are participating in, and thereby valorizing, a harmful patriarchal conception of power which is not conducive to mutual recognition and affirmation (similar to what we’ll see in the lesbian BDSM wars below).
I am going to break from philosophy for a moment to say something about the distorting influence of psychoanalytic takes like Benjamin’s on BDSM in the APA. Psychological status and ethical status are different, or should be, but as we know, a lot of practices get pathologized merely for being considered immoral. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) publishes the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM); it specifies diagnostic criteria and defining features of all formally recognized mental disorders. Over time, the DSM has moved from a theoretical (very psychoanalytically influenced), normative model to a more evidence-based, descriptive approach. We can see this in its take on things like addiction (still problematic, but better) and homosexuality (removed altogether). So for example, the term “sexual deviance” was changed to the more neutral “paraphilia”, and paraphilias themselves are only supposed to be problematic when they interfere with normal sexual relations and daily life (and what are these? Laden with implicit but determinate and often subjective moral judgments).
The DSM-IV TR (2000) lists BDSM as a “paraphilia”, along with voyeurism, fetishism, exhibitonism, etc. The DSM-IV defines sexual sadism as a paraphilia that involves “recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors involving (real) acts…in which the psychological or physical suffering of the victim…is sexually exciting to the person” (American Psychiatric Association, 2000, p. 574). As a diagnostic category, paraphilias have, and always have had, a lot of problems. Many advocate getting rid of them, arguing they represent not mental illness, but rather unusual sexual tastes that are pathologized by a dominant society that is uncomfortable with them. For example, the DSM-IV TR tells us that the paraphilia must cause distress (among other things) to be considered problematic from a mental health perspective, but does not distinguish between distress caused by social disapproval of a paraphilia (you know, like getting arrested or thrown out of your house by people who think you are “sick”.) from distress caused by the paraphilia per se. That seems to make a huge difference. Moser and Kleinplatz raise a lot of similar problems with BDSM as a paraphilia in the DSM-IV TR, and is well worth reading.
I don’t agree with everything Moser and Kleiplatz say, though. For example, this: “Another misleading [DSM-IV TR] statement is, ‘Sadistic or masochistic behaviors may lead to injuries ranging in extent from minor to life threatening’ (APA, 2000, p. 567). Although any sexual activity can lead to injury, there is no data to suggest that the practitioners of ‘sadistic or masochistic behaviors’ frequent emergency departments more often than practitioners of other sexual behaviors.” But, to my mind, ER visits are not a good measure of injury. In Uneven, for example, Rase is bruised, sore, cut and achy for a lot of the book, but none of these injuries require professional medical attention. (Of course, the question of injury may not be relevant at all: athletes like boxers willingly engage in injury causing activities and we don’t say they are mentally unhealthy).
I admit it was hard for me to think of Rase’s need for pain and humiliation during sex as normal, psychologically. I did some research and if I wasn’t persistent and thorough, I would have had my view confirmed by the literature, which suggests that BDSM, regardless of how it is practiced, is connected to a wide array of psychopathologies, including things like rape and murder. Consider, for example, this concluding point from a recent article:
“The emotional lives of psychopaths and sexual sadists are quite different from those of the rest of the population. As such, it is difficult for society to understand the motivations for the particularly violent and often depraved crimes that such individuals have been found to perpetrate.” (Laura G. Kirsch, Judith V. Becker, Emotional deficits in psychopathy and sexual sadism: Implications for violent and sadistic behavior”, Clinical Psychology Review 27 (2007) 904–922).
If you read only that, you would think sadism is connected pretty strongly to violent sexual crime, but even the authors admit they can’t say if the incidence of, for example, rape, is higher among sadists than among the nonsadist population, due to a myriad of factors I won’t rehearse here. I found it amazing that consensual BDSM was often not differentiated from nonconsensual (criminal) sadism in this literature. Further, much like gay women and men who sought therapy in the past for mental illness unrelated to homosexuality found their being gay the subject of medical intervention, BDSM practitioners who seek therapy for things like anxiety and depression often find they are “diagnosed” with BSDM instead, even when their BDSM practice has nothing to do with the symptoms they are hoping to get addressed (Anne A. Lawrence, Jennifer Crowell, “Psychotherapists’ Experience with Clients Who Engage in Consensual Sadomasochism: A Qualitative Study”, Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 34:67–85, 2008.) Yet, ss Pamela Connelly’s research suggests, BDSMs practitioners do not have higher levels depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsion, or PTSD (Connolly, Pamela H.(2006) ‘Psychological Functioning of Bondage/Domination/Sado-Masochism (BDSM) Practitioners’, Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality,18:1,79 — 120). [Interestingly, she did find a higher prevalence of narcissism.]
I’m getting into this because, as an educated lay reader, it looks to me like the APA and the mental health community in general have a lot of work to do in straightening out their approach to BDSM practice. Their convoluted approach does the same kind of dangerous disservice to the BDSM community today as it did to the gay community years ago. Nothing I say here about ethical issues is meant to imply that there is a mental health issue at stake. Ethics and mental health are distinct.
Returning to philosophy:
A fourth example is from lesbian philosophy. In 1992, lesbian feminist philosopher Claudia Card edited a special issue of Hypatia, which was later published as Adventures in Lesbian Philosophy (Indiana University Press, 1994). In it, Lorena Leigh Saxe explores the debates within the lesbian community of the emerging lesbian BDSM subculture. Saxe makes reference to the two most common lesbian feminist objections to sadomasochism: (1) that our desires are not sui generis, but formed by social ideologies, making the issue of “consent” irrelevant, and (2) that sadomasochism, as an outlaw culture, is addictive, and requires more and more intense humiliation and pain, much like increasing physical dependence on a narcotic, and thus what was originally consented to becomes a gateway to more and more severe forms of abuse. This is not how Rase and Gabriel’s relationship progresses.
Saxe thinks the question of consent is a red herring. She prefers a different argument, one much like McGinn’s above: that, regardless of consent, sadism is the wrong way to treat a Lesbian (Saxe uses upper case L). Saxe says we must separate the question of what it is acceptable for a masochist to consent to from the question of what a sadist may do, just like we can be morally neutral towards smokers, but we can still blame cigarette companies for the manufacture and sale of cigarettes. For Saxe, sadism is inherently disrespectful of the Lesbian, because it is based on the humiliation and degradation of the masochist. The masochist’s consent to the degradation does not make what the sadist does ok. Interestingly, Saxe rejects the idea that s/m is a private sexual practice. She notes that is it is very visible practice, both in the gear worn and in the bruises sported, and that it is often a group practice as well. She says s/m would be bad enough if it were confined to the bedroom, but it is not. Interestingly, Saxe accepts the view that s/m is an identity, a worldview, rather than a superficial kink, but that is exactly why she rejects it: “sadomasochism is part of, and also creates, a world view in which the world is imbued with domination and violence.”
I think the concerns Lesbians like Saxe have with BDSM have special resonance for women with a history of living in patriarchal society, and therefore cannot be transposed onto a relationship with two men. However, the responses to critique’s like Saxe’s from the lesbian community in the 1980s, responses which have to do with sexual agency and freedom, are very similar to defenses of BDSM practice I have come across online.
I do agree with Saxe on the consent point. I think there are things no one may do to another, even if asked (recall the man who consented to be killed and eaten a few years ago in Germany. I think everyone agrees his murderer did something ethically wrong.). And things one must not ask others to do to them. S/m may be one of those things. I don’t know. At any rate, consent is an important part of the picture, but it cannot be the whole story.
I also think the claim BDSM practice is ethically ok because “this is just the way some people naturally are”, or because “some people cannot orgasm any other way”, is unpersuasive. I never liked those arguments when they were used to defend homosexuality, because to me it was ethically irrelevant where the sexual desire came from, and patronizing to boot, as if to say “He can’t help it. He was born that way.” I also dislike that argument because it would license a lot of other behavior on the same grounds, behavior that I think most people would find very ethically questionable, such as pedophilia. As a philosopher, I don’t like this kind of argument because it commits the naturalistic fallacy, the idea that we can read values off of facts. We just can’t get from “it is natural” to “it is morally good” without a lot of extra premises, or, more commonly, subterfuge.
As I wrote above, I have come across other examples of s/m in romance (and certainly much of romance is all about b/d), but they often didn’t bother me at all. When I think about what is different about Uneven, there are three things, (1) both partners are male, (2) the violence, pain, and humiliation is much more extreme in Uneven, and (3) pain and humiliation are required for Rase to orgasm, even alone (I don’t know if they are required for Gabriel).
As to (1) I’ve enjoyed other m/m quite a bit, so this isn’t it (although perhaps Rase’s whining and begging made him too distant from his alpha male hero cousins to whom I am so used? Perhaps my vision of masculinity is not so elastic as I would like it to be?) As to (3), I’m not sure I stand on any firmer ground. After all, people who engage in “vanilla sex” require “vanilia sex” to orgasm. Is it problematic that the sight of handcuffs shrivels their sexual desire? (Actually this third point is likely part of the fantasy aspect of Uneven. According to what I read, individuals with paraphilias have a wide range of interests, including normative sexual interests (see Langevin, Lang, & Curnoe, 1998, for example)). On the other hand, there is a fantasy aspect to all BDSM, it’s “play” in the sense that one isn’t “really” chained, or “really” enslaved, “really” a bad girl, etc., no matter how extreme or how often it is practiced by a couple, and there is a part of me that thinks sexual activity between two people in love should at least sometimes be direct and present (I guess you could argue we’re always fantasizing and playing when we have sex. I’m not sure how, though. On the other hand, you could argue that people engaged in BDSM are in fact direct and present, not playing, but revealing their real selves.)
For me, it’s (2) that is the issue. I “get” lighter BDSM, the thrill of role play, the thrill of seeming to walk on the sexual edge, the temporary existential release of being in total control or total uncontrol. But I just don’t see how wanting to punch someone in the face, or to be punched in the face, can be ok, regardless of consent. I go back to McGinn’s point that sadists make their victims renounce their values. In Rase, we have a masochist in active consensual complicity, of course. But the renunciation of some basic human values is still there. Namely, the basic value of avoiding pain. Of avoiding humiliation, self-negation. The sexual values of s/m seem to be at odds with several of the most basic components of human flourishing. On the other hand, how much pain and humiliation is “too much”? For McGinn and Danto, the desire to cause pain itself is the problem, not the amount of pain caused, and it seems absurd to say that, for example, light spanking, violates core human values. I guess from the point of view of a BDSM practitioner, even “heavy BDSM” can be turned around, to say that pain is pleasure to Rase, for example, that self-abnegation makes Rase a self. I have a hard time with it, though. I hit the limits of my ethical horizon.
I am still very unsettled about it, clearly, and I know I still don’t understand a lot. Looking at my own academic tradition has revealed a very one sided take. While I didn’t love Uneven, it has stayed with me longer than any other book in recent memory, and I’m grateful to have read such an interesting and compelling book.