Who's To Say That Love Needs to Be Soft and Gentle?
It’s been a depressing few weeks for sex related news. CBS reporter Lara Logan was beaten and violently sexually assaulted while reporting on the crisis in Egypt and various bloggers and reporters made asses of themselves by focusing on her looks or the (supposed) religion of her attackers. Representative Scott Brown released a memoir in which he describes childhood sexual abuse that he had not previously told anyone, not even those closest to him, about. The House of Representatives voted last Friday to strip federal funding for Planned Parenthood, a nonprofit that provides contraceptives, cancer screening, STI treatment and basic reproductive health care to disadvantaged people - mostly women. I don’t generally shy away from reporting on the heavy stuff, but this column is supposed to be entertaining, not depressing. And anyway, I’m more comfortable in the role of masochist than sadist. So instead of rubbing your noses in one of the many frustrating and upsetting news stories out there I’m going to instead deliver a history lesson on my favorite kink. Because I can and because you probably need the distraction as much as I do.
BDSM (a multifunctional acronym for bondage/discipline, dominance/submission and sadism/masochism) is a category of consensual sexual practice that involves various sorts of power play between participants. It is one of the more common kinks and one of the few with some social acceptance, at least for the milder forms. (If you like to get tied up, it’s considered kinda hot. If you like to get pissed on, well…you’re considered kinda gross.) Every new generation thinks it invented sex, and every new generation thinks it’s pushed the boundaries further than the last, but of course the use of control and pain to heighten sexual experiences are probably as old as sex itself. In the context of arousal, when one’s physical sensitivity is increased, pain can be a natural complement to pleasure, and there’s an obvious thrill in gaining complete control over someone else or conversely giving up power.
These things may have been going on since the dawn of time, but we can only be sure of the history that’s written down (or depicted artistically). Not surprisingly, one of the earliest written accounts of BDSM is in the Kama Sutra, a text that’s more than 2000 years old, which describes biting, scratching, and hitting as forms of erotic stimulation. There are artistic depictions in ancient Roman and Greek artwork that might represent BDSM (for example, the Tomb of Flogging frescoes), although it is impossible to be sure to what extent the artwork depicts consensual behavior (a requirement in the modern world, but unfortunately less so in the past). In East Asia, China is the main source of ancient texts on sex, and mentions of sado-masochistic behavior are rare. Descriptions of bondage in a sexual context are almost nonexistent across all cultures. Dominance and submission is harder to trace historically, as in many cultures sexual dominance of men over women was absolute, making consensual forms of dominance/submission, at least in heterosexual couples, impossible to detect. What is clear is that many of the current common BDSM practices derive from cultural practices of non-sexual punishment. In Europe, the ritual flogging of religious penitents (sometimes performed by the penitents themselves) may have inspired flogging as a sexual practice. In Japan, although S&M practices are mostly imported from Western culture, the most common form of bondage, is based on hojojitsu, an elaborate form of restraint used by samurai.
BDSM as a distinct type of sexual behavior seems to have originated in Europe sometime in the 17th or 18th century. With the emergence of popular literature, descriptions of sexual behavior that falls under the heading of BDSM became more common. An English play, Venus Preserv’d written in 1682 describes a senator who engages in a submissive relationship with a courtesan. The 1748 English erotic novel, Fanny Hill includes a character who derives sexual pleasure from being whipped, and there are accounts to have been brothels specializing in whipping/flogging in the 1760s. But it was the publication of two novels in the 1800s - the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs - that brought BDSM practices most forcefully into the public conciousness. Both men would end up lending their names to the sexual practices they described in their novels, when such behavior was pathologized in the 19th century.
de Sade’s writings describe the infliction of pain and torture as a way to enhance sexual pleasure, although consent is notably lacking in his texts (and his life - de Sade spent much of his life in prison, first in part for imprisoning and physically and sexually abusing a woman, and later for his writings). 120 Days of Sodom describes a group of libertines who spend 120 days in a remote castle torturing, defiling, and eventually murdering 46 victims in pursuit of the ultimate sexual gratification. While some have praised the absolute sexual freedom expressed in de Sade’s work, his writings do not describe pain as pleasurable for the recipient (as is the case in most modern day S&M), and his work is rejected by the modern day BDSM community. Sacher-Masoch also drew from his personal proclivities and experiences for his novel, in this case the story of a man who becomes so infatuated with his mistress that he asks her to treat him as a slave and to degrade and abuse him. Sacher-Masoch had a similar arrangement with his mistress, Fanny Pistor for a short period. 120 Days of Sodom and Venus is Furs are unique because they depict BDSM-like sexual behavior from the perspective of the practitioners, rather than that of observers.
In the 20th century, film and photographic depictions of BDSM by the likes of Irving Klaw, as well as bondage comics by artists such as John Willie and Eric Stanton brought BDSM further into the mainstream. One of the most iconic pinups of the 50s, Bettie Page, was a BDSM fetish model. Another seminal novel about BDSM, The Story of O, was published in 1954. More recently, the internet has helped to make BDSM even more mainstream, giving people access to specialized toys and services and enabling practitioners to interact more easily (and privately). You can now find sites catering to the most obscure and bizarre forms of sexual submission and pain. Just don’t assume that what you’re doing is anything new.
Dr. Pisaster has a doctorate in biophysics, not actually anything sexy. She does however enjoy having sex, reading about sex, and talking about sex. Especially when she’s had a little whiskey.
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