Masochists’ Lib

night_porter-1Masochists’ Lib was first published in the Village Voice on May 13, 1971. It was written as a result of the Voice’s initial refusal to accept ads for membership in the new organization, The Eulenspiegel Society, started by Pat Bond. Pat’s original ad read, “Masochist? Happy? Is it curable? Does psychiatry help? Is a satisfactory life-style possible? There’s Women’s Lib., Gay Lib., etc. Isn’t it time we put something together?” This wasn’t considered “acceptable” to the Voice and that resulted in our picketing their office, my being interviewed by their publisher and finally writing this piece.

Why a masochist’s lib organization A good question, since “liberation” is somehow antithetical to the masochist’s ideal of bondage, suffering, and humiliation. And yet, the Eulenspiegel Society has been formed and I seem to find myself as “spokeswoman,” so I must have an answer both for myself and for others.

Of course, I could be very clever and point out that we are, after all, Americans and it is traditional in America to have “rights organizations” for every economic, ethnic, or (more recently) sexual group. Even slaves need a union in America in order to insure themselves that the conditions of slavery will meet decent standards. A clever jest, but “much truth is said in jest.”

terry_slaveLet us clear up certain misconceptions about masochism. Not all forms of suffering are pleasurable to any masochist. We each have our pet ways of enjoying our misery. These ways will vary considerably from one individual to another. Not two masochists are alike. We are not really “passive” either, although that is a favorite word we use. We all want to dictate the terms under which we will be treated as passive objects. This is a vital fact, very seldom recognized. I would refer the interested reader to Theodore Reik’s “Masochism in Modern Man.”

The conclusion is that there is no inconsistency whatsoever in a masochist wishing to alter the conditions of society so that he is not the really helpless victim of social repression. We desire the same freedoms other people desire and are enraged when forced to assume an inferior status against our will.

We are largely restricted in means of meeting compatible love and sex partners because of the secretiveness imposed on us by a disapproving society. We usually have to resort to “sex ads,” advertisements in certain publications which contain coded information concerning what we enjoy in bed and what sort of partner we are seeking. This is a highly dehumanizing way to conduct one’s love life. It forces one to feel furtive and dirty. One uses box numbers and a pseudonym. One knows the sexual preferences of a prospective partner before one knows his name — or before one has even met him. Nevertheless, sex ads have been one of the few outlets available to us, so we have made do with them.

Let us go beyond hedonism, both the genuine and the Puritanical counterfeit. Let us really open our minds to what we are capable of — both in pleasure and in growth.

I recently was discussing sex ads in the underground press with a lesbian friend of mine whom I have known for 14 years. She has known about my masochism for about nine years and I had thought we accepted each other as equals (both having been considered inferior by the “others”). I was shocked and hurt to hear her say, in attacking the sex ads, “But they’re not really helping these poor people.” She knew I had placed ads and had answered ads as well. When I told her I didn’t exactly consider myself a pathetic case, she said I was taking things too personally!

I identify, however, with the authors of these ads. I have advertised, myself, and I see common cause in what we are all doing in seeking partners in this way.

Who are we, we “poor people” of the sex ads and all the rest of it? The people I have met through the ads and in the Eulenspiegel Society were usually well educated and almost always highly intelligent — in original rather than in sterile stereotyped ways. This applies to sadists as well as masochists. Many of us work in conservative business firms and you would never guess our secret if you were to meet us on the job. More frequently, we are into socially oriented fields — we are teachers, social workers, therapists, etc. The highest number of us are creative, however — successful and struggling writers, composers, musicians, and painters. Since joining The Eulenspiegel Society, I have developed a marvelous self-image by discovering who my “fellow degenerates” are.

happinessSurprising as it may seem, the high intellectual character of many masochists is only to be expected when you consider how intellectual the s/m mystique really is. Reik states categorically that a person with a weakly developed imagination cannot become a masochist. In the eyes of the public, a sado-masochistic scene is a very sordid affair with a “sex fiend” brutalizing an equally weird victim. It is seen as a scene without sensitivity or any aesthetic feeling. The exact opposite is the case. The s/m relationship is the most democratic that exists! The two consenting partners must work very hard to achieve a compatible relationship because so much depends on relating the fantasies of each partner to the other. The successful s/m act can be compared to a successful production of a drama composed by two or more authors. A great deal of intuition, ability to improvise, and cooperation is needed. In some cases, the relationship is highly ritualized, almost resembling a religious ceremony.

The relationship between the dramatic arts and religion has long been recognized. Some works of art have also shown the sex act in a quasi-religious light. An example is Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” in which sexual culmination equals death equals eternity. Goethe’s poem, “Selige Sehnsucht,” also deals with sex as a bridge to religious awareness though a love-death thing. The relationship of these motifs to masochism is obvious and need not be belabored. I simply wish to make it clear that the form of ecstasy we are into reaches sublime heights in spite of the efforts of society to label it as degenerate and in spite of our tendency to internalize the negative image society has given us.

The view that masochism is a highly developed and sophisticated form of sexual expression (it is the only “deviation” which animals never practice) is completely at odds with the Freudian notion of “infantilism,” to which he attributes every expression of love except the orthodox one. Freud would regard us as cases of arrested development, acting out infantile conflicts in our adult sexuality. Psychologists have challenged the immaturity theory in relation to homosexuality. I do not know of any who have done so in respect to masochism. It is true that most of us have had fantasies dating back to early childhood, which would tend to support the immaturity theory. However, it is equally true that, whatever the origin of the need for masochism (i.e. whether or not it arises from an infantile situation), the solution of masochism is not primitive or childish or regressive. It represents a sort of transcendence over the human dilemma, and one that involves the most human part of our natures.

In a time when man has despoiled much of his natural environment, there is also a tendency to equate “natural” with “good”. Homosexuals proudly point out that animals practice homosexuality in certain situation and that homosexuality is therefore natural. Masochism would be regarded as unnatural in this view. It is practiced only by man, who is also the sole despoiler of the universe, but (never let it be forgotten) the sole creator of art, religion, and love.

There is an older tendency to describe anything that violates the norms of the times as “sick.” This concept of sickness,” when applied to behavior is simply the medieval concept of “evil” in modern garb. It is not a scientific concept but a moral one hiding behind the mask of pseudo-science. A body may be sick or well, as defined by biology, because a properly functioning body is an objectively determinable phenomenon. Proper behavior, however, cannot be prescribed by science. It is a philosophical matter, one involving value judgments, which cannot be arrived at through use of the scientific method.

A case in point, one that graphically illustrates the subjectivity of the use of the word “sickness” when applied to behavior, is the behavioral scientist’s approach to asceticism. In the Middle Ages, and in much of the contemporary East, asceticism was regarded as the highest form of behavior. In the modern, hedonistic West, it is frowned upon. Modern doctors tend to label it “sick” behavior, even though it has been endorsed by ancient and long-enduring cultures. This view is ethnocentric at best. To call it scientific is laughable. It is especially amusing that these doctors chose to call asceticism a form of masochism, although it is not. Masochism is motivated by the desire for pleasure. Asceticism seeks to free the ascetic from all desires. Of course, there are well-documented cases of masochism hiding behind the cloak of asceticism in cultures where asceticism has been valued, but that is another story.

It is to be seriously asked: can the capacity to experience pleasure ever be called a sickness? I think an affirmative answer would pervert the whole meaning of the word “sick” as it is legitimately used to describe bodily malfunctioning. The capacity to experience pleasure is a precious gift. It should be treasured and cultivated, not treated. Yes, we are a hedonistic society, but one which a Puritan past has tinged with the sterile stench of the clinic. It is our “duty” to engage in “healthy” and “wholesome” pleasures. Those who can’t or won’t are out. To use the language of our Calvinist forebears, they bear the mark of their damnation on their foreheads. Success is still a sign of salvation, but success in “adapting” to approved forms of recreation is now the measuring rod.

Let us go beyond hedonism, both the genuine and the Puritanical counterfeit. Let us really open our minds to what we are capable of — both in pleasure and in growth. Repressing deviant behavior will solve nothing. Let us understand it and try to accept the positive values that are to be found in it if we only look for them.