This was written as a short story (hence the use of the past tense), based on real life events. -M.H.
Among my brethren are many who dream with wet pleasure of the eight hundred pains and humiliations, but I am the other kind: I am a slave who dreams of escape after escape, I dream only of escaping, ascent, of a thousand possible ways to make a hole in the wall, of melting the bars, escape escape, of burning the whole prison down if necessary.
– Julian Beck, in The Life of the theatre; 1972.
To survive in a misogynist environment, a woman must learn how to protect innate female power from a society designed to destroy it. After she learns to recognize and avoid male violence in its many forms, a woman’s capacity for self-love blossoms, and her female power begins to thrive: creativity, vitality, and confidence emerge, along with a refusal to subordinate herself to male power.
– Kay Leigh Hagan, in Orchids in the Arctic. [emphasis mine]
She was born female and, like so many others, she was struggling to live within a misogynistic world that didn’t really care about her well-being, a world where the patriarchists would love to get off on her pain, a world where many rape victims were not believed.
She didn’t want to spend her nights waking up in cold sweat, with a terrible headache anymore. Dreams and sexual nightmares often reflected thoughts which were part of the conditioning she’d had as a woman, i.e. how she had been sexually trained to conform to patriarchy. Such a conformity, she didn’t want anymore because she resented it. She realized that the claws of patriarchy would love to seize her female power and rip it to shreds. This is why she was having those strange dreams and shivers.
Having patriarchal dreams (but not fantasies, no longer) about something didn’t necessarily mean that she wanted it to happen to her. She’d figured that sexual nightmares which at the same time appeared to be ‘just dreams’ actually meant the complete opposite of what she wanted. Women had been living the everyday reality of patriarchal sexual terrorism. Thus, she thought, “some of our dreams often mirror our deepest fear of, our deepest hatred for, our deepest disgust of the kind of sexuality that has been packaged to us as ‘freedom’.”
She’d become aware that patriarchy typically manipulated women’s sexual feelings. There were no real words to express a clearly negative response to sexual feelings about patriarchal sexuality. “How do we try to explain that there are sexual feelings that we simply do not like?,” she pondered. A male-dominated society loved to exercise control over language by, amongst other things, failing to provide words for her to express a negative reaction to some of the masochistic sexual feelings she had had as a woman and which had been patriarchally-constructed.
Female power, as she saw it, involved taking a stand against male violence against and exploitation of women in all forms they may take. When her self-esteem went up, she noticed that she had great abilities: being courageous, creative, alive, confident, etc. She loved being self-aware. She refused to surrender. She refused to choose subordination to male-supremacist power. That did not mean that she didn’t still sometimes struggle with conflicting sexual feelings, engendered by patriarchal conditioning to masochism – but she would no longer surrender to male-dominated sexuality.
Sadomasochism was often defined by radical feminists as being the eroticization of power and powerlessness. Pornographic scenarios were rife with the sexualization of domination and subordination: women being dominated, demeaned, degraded, raped, slapped, gang-banged, throat-raped, gagged, etc and they were being portrayed as either enjoying it or wanting this kind of subordinating treatment. She decided to resist masochism. She knew precisely why.
The female life-force is characterized as a negative one: we are defined as inherently masochistic. [. . .] Sexual masochism actualizes female negativity, just as sexual sadism actualizes male positivity. A woman’s erotic femininity is measured by the degree to which she needs to be hurt, needs to be possessed, needs to be abused, needs to submit, needs to be beaten, needs to be humiliated, needs to be degraded.
– Andrea Dworkin, in The Root Cause (note: Dworkin did such an interesting uncovering of what goes on in the male pornographic mind).
The masculine role in sadomasochism was portrayed as what was positive, what was ‘top’. In order to ‘prove’ his masculinity, the man who took on the masculine role needed to reify his so-called male positive energy, his domination, through his (ab)use of women. He could take an arrogant pride in his ‘masculinity’ even more so if he used a woman who apparently accepted the socially-constructed masochistic femininity which had been prescribed to her. Female masochism enabled men to reify the masculine gender role and norm called ‘manhood’. She would no longer allow any male (or any person who took on a masculine role) to abuse her, torture her or bruise her so that he could take pleasure in the lie of male superiority.
Masochism, for her, was now clearly very important to analyse instead of just thinking about getting off and ‘that’s it’. After she’d been raped by her first boyfriend and then had been involved in a destructive male-female relationship, she’d gone through masochism. With many other men she had been with after this relationship, quite a few times, she’d gone through masochism. There were some times when the sex had felt like rape, and it was true. Quite a few times, she had been coerced into sex by men and she’d also had to force herself to have sex with them: through pressure, through domestic violence (at one point), because she’d wanted to be loved or for the simple sake of “trying to save a relationship.”
And there were other times when the sex, she recalled, had been about masochism, about “just being fucked” and engaging in roleplay in which she had been the ‘submissive’ part. As a former submissive woman, she could tell that bondage and handcuffs, for instance, were very popular in BDSM culture – especially the act of tying a woman up to a bed.
Even back in the days when she’d just been thinking about getting off and ‘that’s it’, she’d kept hearing a little voice at the back of her mind trying to tell her that, somehow, something was not feeling quite right.
First, there had been the fact that she’d wanted to be loved by men, so much. She’d had such a longing for male approval that she’d only faintly noticed that she’d been paying the price of their pornographic imagination: they’d been wanting to turn her into a sex object. There had also been this kind of survival mechanism she’d had in her, this way of coping. She used to think that if sexuality was about being subordinated to men and she couldn’t be loved or appreciated by them if she was not willing to accept at least part of their view of what sex was supposed to be, then she might as well “just lie there and enjoy it.” Because, after all, she used to believe that things weren’t as bad as they seemed to be. Like so many other women, she’d used to completely mentally shut down from the reality of the pain she’d been going through. Masochism had been chosen partly due to the restricted options she’d had in a world filled with a sexuality based on gender roles and norms – and she’d had no words to express that before feminism.
Second, she’d been brought up in a patriarchal society that had eroticized and romanticized masochism. This had given her some sort of mixed feelings about sexual masochism. This had been, of course, difficult and hard to cope with.
She felt there had been some sort of a ‘split’ between good feelings and bad feelings she’d had about sadomasochism. However, she used to shut out what had made her feel uncomfortable about it from her conscious mind. She had refused to look at what was unpleasant about sadomasochism. The patriarchal indoctrination of a pornified culture had been trying to show her that, as a female, she was somehow “inherently masochistic.” Stories of women being dominated by men had always been presented to her in a good, glamorous way by mass-media & culture. The mainstream films, novels, women’s magazines and songs she used to collect had been rife with the portrayals of domination and subordination which patriarchy thrived on.
She’d gotten involved in sadomasochism predominantly because she’d simply had not been able to imagine anything beyond the male-dominated sexuality that had been packaged to her as appealing. This was therefore why, she understood, female sexual arousal to S&M was in fact culturally constructed. But she had suffered in masochism, no matter how many times she had been trying to deny it. Her past denial reminded her so much of how some battered women experienced Stockholm Syndrome and how they would defend their abusers over and over again. After all, she had apparently been getting off and she’d had *chosen* it. So, what could possibly have been wrong with that?
She’d heard that it was sometimes argued that it was the subordinated female who often approached the male who would dominate her in a sadomasochistic relationship. She knew it was not always the case. Many times boyfriends, husbands or acquaintances would try to initiate an S&M practise by bringing some pornography, a sex-toy catalog or some paraphernalia and would try to convince their partner to “try this” or “try that” with either insincere ‘sweet talk’ or subtle intimidation. And when it was women coming to men with the intention of being dominated, they had generally been fully trained to conform to a culture that constantly gave a false praise to all women who viewed themselves as passive and submissive “sex objects”. Both cases had happened to her: she’d had sadists approaching her, grooming her, and she’d come to men who would dominate her.
Because of patriarchal conditioning, her sexual submission to men used to seriously turn her on, at some point. Then she’d fallen into the sado-patriarchal trap of masochism. She now had absolutely no shame to admit this to herself. Because she was now fully aware that radical feminists understood her experience. She’d perceived herself as passive and submissive because of all the self-hate she’d internalized through rape, through domestic abuse, through the past emotional manipulation she’d had experienced at the hands of men. The wider patriarchal conditioning she’d had in a misogynistic world had also influenced the way she used to internalize her own self-hatred, self negation & subordination as a female.
Radical feminists knew well that the ‘Madonna/Whore’ dichotomy was a false dichotomy: while right-wing men wanted to keep the “good women” in marriage and in the privacy of the home to privately own them and (ab)use them, the left-wing men wanted the “bad women” to be collectively & publicly owned by them outside of marriage — but most forms of male ownership, abuse and exploitation happened behind closed doors though, where women were most at risk of male violence.
As she’d gone through female life under patriarchy, she’d often found herself stuck in the trap of the ‘Madonna/Whore’ dichotomy without being able to see what was beyond this patriarchal lie. “If only we all women could see,” she now realized, “what’s beyond dominant ideologies, we would be able to be ourselves: we are not ‘Madonnas’, we are not ‘whores’; we are female human beings. And we need a strong movement that will work toward the liberation of women from male oppression.”
Radical feminism had helped her see the patriarchal oppression and self-negation in the way she used to be aroused by sexual masochism. But, to her, there was a lie that masochism intrinsically entailed: that she would be somehow ‘fulfilled’ by this sort of sexuality.
She was sure that the sexual arousal itself (i.e. not combined with orgasm) had naturally led to body release of endorphins (natural painkiller). Based on her own experience, she reckoned, it was true that being in a state of sexual excitement could somehow make pain more tolerable, i.e. pain had somehow felt like a strong sensation though it’d never gone away. The presence of pain in the S&M sexuality she’d experienced had been very real. She now perfectly understood that any sort of harm inflicted on a person during sadomasochistic love-making was still harm, regardless of whether s/he’d consented to it or not.
Consent can be manipulated. She realized that fully informed consent (including a comprehensive prior knowledge of how power dynamics in heterosexual relationships operated within a patriarchal society) generally did not exist. “Therefore we, women, generally all consent to what this culture tells us about sexuality. And seldom do we question it ’cause we’ve been taught not to, for fear of sounding ‘prudish’; so we often comply to what our partners expect of us,” she thought to herself. She remembered. There had been pain. But she would deny it.
She’d been so manipulated by the male-supremacist seduction of this culture, the grooming she’d had to the way romantic love was portrayed, and her own deep internalization of patriarchally shaped desires, that she would psychologically deny the pain when being bitten, the pain of the scarves and cuffs digging into the flesh of her wrists and the pain of the strong penetrations. She had been told so many times that she would enjoy this type of treatment that she would desperately try to believe that she’d genuinely enjoyed it. This combined with the strong sensation she’d felt due to the endorphin rush, which could give her the impression that she’d really been getting off on being degraded.
But, in hindsight, she could see that women were routinely taught to please their man, to literally become the ‘ego-booster’ for vicious male pride of domination. Therefore, she figured, her sole enjoyment in sadomasochism had in fact been in wanting to please the men she used to love by accepting their views of what sex was supposed to be. But didn’t she have desires of her own? Didn’t she have the capacity of imagining a sexuality that would be completely hers? A sexuality in which she would be able to preserve all her bodily integrity and that would genuinely fulfill her?
Looking at the truth: any sexual feeling from experience, dream and fantasy about the sexual degradation of her body were making her feel uncomfortable and distressed in spite of arousal. Because, deep inside, she’d known that she was not ‘naturally’ masochistic; no woman ever was (even though she had not known masochism was a socially-constructed phenomenon at the time).
Romantic love, in pornography as in life, is the mythic celebration of female negation. For a woman, love is defined as her willingness to submit to her own annihilation. As the saying goes, women are made for love–that is, submission. Love, or submission, must be both the substance and purpose of a woman’s life. For the female, the capacity to love is exactly synonymous with the capacity to sustain abuse and the appetite for it. For the woman, the proof of love is that she is willing to be destroyed by the one whom she loves, for his sake. For the woman, love is always self-sacrifice, the sacrifice of identity, will, and bodily integrity, in order to fulfill and redeem the masculinity of her lover.
– Andrea Dworkin, in The Root Cause.
Her being aroused did not equate being sexually fulfilled. She was aware that sexual arousal and sexual fulfilment were two separate things. But patriarchy used to have her believe that just because she’d had sexual feelings when being in a submissive role (like when being tied up, for instance), then it must have necessarily meant that she’d gotten off on it. In a patriarchy, it had been very easy for her to confuse strong sexual excitement with actual absolute pleasure. Part of this was caused by male supremacy’s cultural control of women’s thought processes. Thought was expressed primarily as language, a language that had been invented by patriarchy. She’d sometimes been living through the lie that just because she’d felt ‘hot’ about something, then it had necessarily meant that it made her hot to the point of being fulfilled. But, as a woman, she had NOT become fulfilled going through sado-masochistic relationships; claiming otherwise had been one of the biggest rackets that she’d fallen for in a porno-sado-patriarchy.
The bottom line was: “pain and pleasure are NOT the same thing,” she reminded herself of how much she knew the fact “that women somehow genuinely enjoy pain is one of pornographic culture’s biggest lies.” She’d noticed that her body had felt the pain and that there had been no real orgasm, just a strong sensation of pleasure that was inherently anti-liberation. She remembered the inherently negative consequences of masochism: a sense of self-loathing had occurred just after the quick strong sensations from hierarchical sex were gone, and depression had usually ensued when the degradation had been experienced over and over again. Sometimes, she had even refused to see that she was depressed, She had refused to see how much she’d hated hetero-patriarchal control, because she’d so much wanted to be happy with her boyfriends from the past.
She opened her eyes. In a patriarchy, female self-negation and female diminution of be-ing (diminution of one’s full capacity for real female identity & bodily integrity) had become institutionalized. This had been going on for thousands and thousands of years: patriarchy was a system which had constantly subordinated women, forced them into submission through manipulation, outright coercion or male violence in its many forms, whether subtle or overt.
Radical feminism had helped her see the truth: no woman was ‘naturally’ masochistic, and she was no exception. Because masochism was not ‘natural’ (as the patriarchists would have her believe), any pleasure derived from it was therefore unnatural and in the end, she’d been able to see how S&M had made her feel seriously ill and demeaned afterward because she had known masochism was inherently unhealthy, somehow, in the back of her mind. But she’d kept silent about her inner feelings against sadomasochism for fear of being called “prudish” or “unenlightened” about sexuality. Radical feminism had given her both a voice for expressing her discomfort regarding S&M and a way of seeing the clear pornographic woman-hating it promoted.
Male-dominated culture had pretty much defined the parameters of how sexuality was meant to be expressed. She sighed, feeling sadness about all the women out there who had not yet found a way of expressing the gut feelings they had against male-dominated sexuality. Any dissent to patriarchal definitions of sex was perceived as heresy in this pornified culture. She had decided to break the chains of patriarchy which were trying to shackle her into masochism and steal her female power, her willingness for social change. She wished all her sisters would start breaking those chains too, within a societal prison in which the male grip was so tight upon the female thralls. She was pained to see how women were constantly under male power because of various things: patriarchal conditioning, pornified brainwashing, cultural institutions of (presumed) male superiority, wrongful portrayals of romantic love that eroticized sub/dom relationships, gender roles & norms, physical or emotional coercions, etc ad nauseam. The list went on. . .
So many women, including feminists, lowered their eyes from the vision of how to make women free and decided to get stuck into having more-powerful orgasms in any way that worked. The pursuit of the orgasm of oppression serves as a new “opium of the masses.” It diverts our energies from the struggles that are needed now against sexual violence and the global sex industry. Questioning how those orgasms feel, what they mean politically, whether they are achieved through the prostitution of women in pornography, is not easy, but it is also not impossible. A sexuality of equality suited to our pursuit of freedom has still to be forged and fought for if we are to release women from sexual subjection.
The ability of women to eroticize their own subordination and take “pleasure” from the degradation of themselves and other women to object status poses a serious obstacle. So long as women have a stake in the sexual system as it is — so long as they get their kicks that way — why will they want change?
– Sheila Jeffreys, in How Orgasm Politics Has Hijacked the Women’s Movement.
A major reason that she’d known to make masochism plausible is that women were typically taught to please men and to hate themselves, having been born and raised female into a male-dominated culture which had misogyny as its core ideology. Like so many other women, she had been taught to notice men and see their “great strength” while ignoring herself, ignoring the inherent female power that lied dormant within her as a capacity to redefine herself as a woman, now property of no man. In a patriarchal culture, female subservience (to men) and self-destruction were celebrated. Male sadists, with their pretense of aiming to please, actually got off on a woman who was (supposedly) enjoying the hatred of herself, of her own kind.
She did not have ‘fun’ finding radical feminism. Fun was not the word, eye-opening experience was. It had not been fun to realize that her romantic relationships had been mere re-enactment of the oppression of women. But by opening her mind to that little radical feminist sub-culture of heretics, that little community living at the margins of society, she’d been able to see the truth for what it really is: that she had not really been enjoying going through masochism, and she would rather know the truth than live in denial, protect the patriarchy or defend the men who’d gotten off on dominating her through these so-called ‘romantic’ sadomasochistic relationships. She now clearly understood that feminism was about the liberation of women as a class. The terms “sexual equality with men” had long ago been co-opted. She had no interest in the mere ‘freedom to fuck’; what sexually interested her was rather: the state of being completely free and preserving her whole bodily integrity as a human being with sexual feelings.
What she hadn’t realized in the past was how much masochism reified sadism. Subordination reified domination in the same way that femininity reified masculinity. All these constricting gender-defined roles kept humanity confined to the boundaries of male-supremacy. The few heretics who wanted to move beyond all these restrictive dichotomies knew well that they had to constantly, everyday, struggle within a culture which kept reinforcing those patriarchal role-plays.
But, as a woman, she’d noticed that she was able to resist masochism, to resist subordination and to resist femininity in the best ways she could. There used to be a time, not so long ago, when masochism had still been present in her fantasies. It seemed to be a big deal at first (as she’d had those thoughts when she was fully awake). But she’d then learned how to change her sexual fantasies. It hadn’t been easy at first. It’d taken a while to re-work them so that they would become pleasant things which were her own, things that weren’t products of male supremacy, or even of the “vanilla” male-supremacist definitions of sex. She’d had to re-work her sexual feelings until she sexually responded to those new sensuous imaginations she’d created in her mind. She’d learned how to think about something which was both totally non-exploitative and pleasant. It wasn’t exciting at the beginning (as she’d not been conditioned to those new sensations), but then it gradually became arousing and eventually turned into an utterly blissful feeling of female intimacy. She could feel her female lifeforce as her fantasies were now completely woman-centered and sexually fulfilling.
Getting herself off on something that was absolutely non-patriarchal had been a major step reached for her personal well-being. Everything was different. Her orgasms were now ten thousands times more emotionally rewarding and all the feelings of shame and worthlessness she’d experienced after the quick S&M pleasures of patriarchal sex in the past were now gone: No feeling of self-hate, shame or guilt was ever present after non-patriarchal orgasms, rather delightful feelings of sexual fulfilment and happiness. . .
She still struggled with some occasional sexual nightmares which were patriarchal in content and nature. But the fact that she still sometimes had such dreams did not ‘prove’ any misogynistic Freudian bullshit theory of so-called “penis envy”. She was aware it merely reflected the simple fact that she was still living in the society she had been forced to live in: a society that hated the female sex and wanted to see women degraded and self-destroyed. When she woke up, she was aware of how much she was glad these sorts of nightmares were over and how much they innately distressed her. No feminist was to blame for having sexual dreams and thoughts that were patriarchal because, to destroy all trace of dominance and submission, all social conditions that created dominance and submission would have to be eradicated.
But feminism, ultimately, had to be the movement for women’s liberation, not equality. The ‘equality’ word had long ago been co-opted by the patriarchists, unfortunately. She had no interest in having the equality to make choices to consent to the world that patriarchy had created. She saw absolutely no liberation goal in consenting to pornified rape culture. She refused to consent to masochism, to her self-negation, to her self-diminution because she had no desire to reify the patriarchal belief that said that being dominated was inevitable and enjoyable.
More importantly, She refused to consent to the eroticization of sexual slavery because she was now strongly aware that such consent destroyed female power: the energy it takes to dissent to the whole male-supremacist culture of sexual violence. Masochistic submission to the patriarchal power that controlled women and tried to “keep them in their place” was a form of internalized oppression by the oppressed and it would hamper her capacity to resist male violence in all its forms.
Consent to oppression, or the enactment of the very symbols of slavery, torture, rape, battery that constituted that oppression, would not liberate the oppressed. She did know that the feminist struggle against the complicity of women in patriarchy seemed like a mammoth task, especially considering the fact that most women had been primarily socialized into loving men and their culture before they loved themselves. But she wanted to be able to put her strength into the Women’s Liberationist struggle against the culture that tacitly condoned male violence against women. She would love to help break the chains of patriarchy which were trying to shackle women into masochism and steal all female power, their willingness for social change that would overthrow the very sado-patriarchal system that claimed that “rape victims were responsible for their rape” or that “battered women loved to be mistreated, otherwise they would leave”. To be liberated, we would have to get out of the immense social prison called patriarchy, she knew it. . .
Against Sadomasochism: A Radical Feminist Analysis, edited by Robin Ruth Linden et al; Frog in the Well Press; 1982.
Unleashing Feminism: Critiquing Lesbian Sadomasochism in the Gay Nineties, edited by Irene Reti; HerBooks; 1993. [also refers to heterosexual S&M]
Sexual Politics, by Kate Millett, Doubleday; 1970.
Our Blood:Prophecies and Discourses on Sexual Politics, by Andrea Dworkin, Harper and Row;1976.
How Orgasm Politics Has Hijacked the Women’s Movement, by Sheila Jeffreys.
Consensual Sadomasochism: Charting the Issues, by Claudia Card.
Sadomasochism: Not About Condemnation ~ An Interview with Audre Lorde by Susan Leigh Star.
Sadomasochism and the Social Construction of Desire, by Karen Rian.