Bartky’s Answer

Philosopher Sandra Lee Bartky tells of a woman she calls “P”, a feminist whose sexual fantasies are masochistic. P says

For as long as I can remember (from around age six . . .) , my sexual fantasies have involved painful exposure, embarrassment, humiliation, mutilation, domination by Gestapo-like characters.[1]

My own fantasies don’t have such a variety of self-destructive themes; just the single obsession with being overwhelmed. P.’s reaction as a feminist to the content of her fantasies, Bartky goes on, is shame — not only because she would be “mortified if her fantasies were somehow made public” but also because she “suffers a continuing loss of esteem in her own eyes as well.” This part doesn’t ring a bell for me, but when Bartky calls this “psychic distress,” that does strike home. The distress I feel is anger: I hate my fanatasies. I hate feeling how they reinforce my training to submit, to be a victim. I can’t help fearing that every thrill of orgasm’s dopamine spike strengthens this addiction.

Bartky concludes that “P” (and I, and how many women?) have two choices: get rid of the distress, or get rid of the desire.

Years ago when I was active in the RC co-counseling movement, I heard about people — both men and women — who were choosing not to indulge in any kind of sexual fantasy. They considered it a destructive conditioned habit resulting from an underlying emotional distress. ⁠A self-perpetuating wound.[2] They were working to erase the conditioning, using their techniques of emotional discharge in cooperative peer counseling. I didn’t know anyone working on this, and since it didn’t appeal to me, I didn’t try to learn more. Now reading Bartky, I have to wonder: did any of those co-counselors succeed in getting rid of conditioned desire?

By contrast, women practicing BDSM have chosen to indulge the desire. Do they succeed in getting rid of distress?

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[1] Bartky 1990, 46. She cites as source the July-August issue of Ms. Magazine, p. 35 — but gives no title or author for the story.
[2] In a pamphlet titled “Counseling on Early Sexual Memories,” one of the movement’s leaders explained “If sexual arousal is present during an experience of hurt (whether or not the arousal is directly related to the hurt), then sexual arousal will become part of the distress recording. Sexual fantasies (masturbation fantasies) are restimulations of these earlier distresses.” Karp, 1992.

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