Who could have supposed that this childish punishment, received at the age of eight at the hands of a woman of thirty, would determine my tastes and desires, my passions, my very self for the rest of my life, and that in a sense diametrically opposed to the one in which they should normally have developed?… I have spent my days in silent longing in the presence of those I most loved. I never dared to reveal my strange tastes, but at least I got some pleasure from situations that pandered to the thought of it. To fall on my knees before a masterful mistress, to obey her commands, to have to beg for her forgiveness, have been for me the most delicate of pleasures; and the more my vivid imagination heated my blood the more like a spellbound lover I looked…
Now I have made the first and most painful step in the dark and miry maze of my confessions. It is the ridiculous and the shameful, not one’s criminal actions, that it is hardest to confess. But henceforth I am certain of myself; after what I have just had the courage to say, nothing else will defeat me.
(Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Confessions, 1782)
Four years after Rousseau’s death, the world was to learn his ‘sexual story’ through a celebrated posthumous autobiography. For many, it is the first ‘modern’ story of its kind. It tells of the ‘loving’ childhood punishments he had received from one Mile Lambercier; of the beatings becoming a secret preoccupation of his adulthood; of a silence about his passion and desire which he almost took to his grave. But not quite. For his Confessions took the first painful step of telling, not just the story of his life but the story of his ‘sadomasochistic’ desire. It was a bold personal narrative of sex that broke a silence. 1
One hundred years later, at the end of the ‘Victorian’ era, all manner of sexual desires were being made to speak. From the latinate prose of the ‘anxiety makers’ who made people tell of their damned desires and the emerging clinical case studies of Krafft-Ebing ‘freaks’ and Freudian ‘neurotics’, through the sensational narratives of ‘sex crimes’ printed in the penny press and early tabloids, and on to the confessional tales of a Walter’s Secret Life, personal sexual stories were given a voice. 2
Today, yet a hundred years further on, the modern western world has become