The 'Heterosexualisation' of Sadism and Masochism

By Lynch, Karen | Hecate, January 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

The 'Heterosexualisation' of Sadism and Masochism


Lynch, Karen, Hecate


When initially researching this article, I intended to examine the myth of female masochism and how this is employed, problematised and reinvented in female Gothic and feminist detective fiction. But as I began the research I realised that this myth was inseparably paired with another -- the myth of male sadism; and together they form what I have termed the `heterosexuality' of masochism and sadism. My contention is that our notions of heterosexuality have a sedimented association with the binary of the beater and the beaten: traditional concepts of heterosexuality, in so far as they involve the roles of domination and submission, are dramatically re-enacted in texts which show a woman victimised at the hands of a man. This is part of a larger project that argues that feminist detective fiction and the female Gothic share a narrative structure that pursues a woman's detection of patriarchal crime.

This article will not detail in detail with aspects of female Gothic fiction. Suffice to say that female Gothic employs a fantasy that could traditionally be called `masochistic', in pairing a victimised woman (the heroine) with a sadistic man (the villain). The dramatic scenario of victim/villain is repeatedly redeployed in the hundreds of texts that make up the female Gothic genre of the eighteenth century. The authors and readers of these works were typically women. Two centuries on, feminist detective fiction largely deconstructs the myth of female masochism, but continues to employ the construct of woman-as-victim, usually at the hands of a patriarchal sadist. In both genres the problem of `masochism' is arguably located at the readerly level, where the reader takes pleasure in a genre that repetitively murders or victimises women in order to both right and write their wrongs.

The Beating Drama

I frame my essay with a discussion of Michelle A. Massé's study of women, masochism and the Gothic.(1) Massé argues that the female Gothic can be interpreted using the psychoanalytic paradigm of the beating fantasy in which a spectator watches someone being hurt by a dominant other. This triadic drama occurs in two possible combinations. Textually, the scenario is held amongst three characters -- for example, a Gothic heroine may hold the spectator position, watching the villain subjugate, even kill another woman, until she decides to take up an active role as either as beater or beaten. Extra-textually, the reader is automatically located in the spectator position, but may vicariously assume any role in the beating scenario (usually following the protagonist). Massé defines this beating drama as a purely pathological, albeit normalised system of gendered socialisation, arguing that `we must consider "normal" feminine development as a form of culturally induced trauma (i.e. masochism) and the Gothic novel its repetition'.(2)

What I intend to do in my analysis is to lever Massé's concept of the beating scenario to demonstrate the ways in which it is used as a heterosexual binary that informs notions of gender and patriarchy. I will also be arguing the inverse of this: that the key tenets of heterosexuality have become problematically linked to a sexualised binary of sadism and masochism. To do this, it is necessary to trace the ways in which the terms `sadism' and `masochism' have been deployed, pathologised and normalised from the late eighteenth century onwards.

Heterosexual Pathologies

To a large extent my thinking on the terms of masochism and sadism is framed by Foucault's History of Sexuality -- Volume 1. Here Foucault argues that our modern concepts of sexuality were deployed in a discursive explosion of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (of which the texts of the female Gothic formed a significant part) and, in particular, in the discursive appearance of medicalised and pathologised sexualities. In Foucault's work, this deployment involves the invention and incorporation of a new specification or classification of individuals.

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