Marcus’ Split Self

In A Taste for Pain, Maria Marcus describes how she achieves orgasm:  she indulges in masochisic fantasy at the same time as sex play with a partner. She needs both to come.

The physical and psychological thus become two curves that rise together at the same pace, like two parallel lines meeting somewhere out in eternity, somewhere in my head or my body. The place or the moment where they meet is the uncontrollable moment of orgasm.

I can take one or the other curve, according to the situation – i.e. whether I am with a not terribly good (or just very selfabsorbed) lover, or with a very good, sensual and physically orientated lover, who finds part of his enjoyment in that I come too. But I am unable to be content with just the one curve. They mutually need each other – and they mutually call on each other. It is an inbuilt automatic process that I do not control. It starts by itself and I cannot keep it at bay. All strong physical sexual arousal creates images in my head – just as all sado-masochistic pictures and masochistic fantasies create physical excitement. It is an automatic process that works both ways.⁠1

She is not happy about this:

I find it desperate and hopeless that I have to resort to such mad and tormenting fantasies to achieve what should be the most natural thing in the world, sexual release.⁠2

At one time, she says, she longed for the right lover, one “sufficiently sadistic to carry me into the forbidden room and realise my fantasies.” Then she met someone who seemed to fill that role, and the experience changed her — but it didn’t work out. Now, she reports, “I know it is enough for [my fantasies] to remain there in the imagination, to think about, or talk about.”⁠3

After much agonized introspection, Marcus reflects that at least her masochism does give her orgasm. She considers a new attitude toward it:

Perhaps I should try to … cultivate it with slightly lighter mind, and instead of feeling it an enormous burden, manage to regard it as a chance as good as many others, and try to give it the conditions to flourish.⁠4

Still, she’s clear that masochism is harmful:

Masochism is no less dangerous than sadism… The sadist can beat his victim both physically and psychically, but … the female masochist can cripple other women and prevent them from wanting strength and freedom. In that way, female masochism is not simply our cross, but also our worst enemy – female masochism in other women, and the masochism within ourselves.⁠5

And eventually she declares “I will try to be cured of my sexual masochism, or else to live with it without feeling compromised when faced with the women’s movement or the rest of the world⁠6.”

Like Bartky’s “P” — and me, and how many other women?— Maria Marcus wants to both respect herself and feel sexually whole at the same time. But with the sexuality our culture teaches us, these incompatible desires make war in the deepest perceptions of one’s very self. In A Taste for Pain, Marcus asks: what shall we do about this?

Her answer has three parts. First, we must examine ourselves, reflect on this condition. “Navel-gazing,” she calls it, defending the practice against those who belittle it with that label. Then we need to talk about it as a feminist issue.

We must stop putting our heads in the sand. We must put our cards on the table at this point about what we think so terribly painful and compromising, that we hardly dare say the word – except vaguely scornfully and somewhat aloofly, or like something we have read in Freud – out of fear of the consequences to our movement.⁠7

And ultimately, “it is important to separate sexual masochism from authoritarian masochism, so that at last we can get used to the thought that our sexual life is a part of us, but not the whole.”⁠8

My first reaction to this is, it makes sense. Does it work?

Here’s an assessment from a review commenting on Marcus’ 1980 novel Jeg elsker det (I Love It): Marcus differentiates, says the review,

between two truths: the truth about the sexual desires which are limited to fantasy, and the truth about the social and political desires which belong to the world of reality and revolt. But [Marcus] also points out that language gets caught between the two projects. On the one hand, its aim is to represent truth (and in this regard, language belongs to the order of reality). On the other hand, the woman creates her own language and reality with her fantasy. There is a difference between fantasy and reality, reality and interpretation, but the difference is not static, it is in constant flux, and it becomes impossible to hold onto definitive conclusions.

…Maria Marcus’ strategy becomes a division of labour between the political and the sexual. However, in the process, she also becomes a contradiction to the dream of the left wing and women’s movement of identity between the political and the private, life in the workplace, in politics, and in bed. Desire, politics, and femininity turn out to be three separate, yet collaborative, quantities, although it is not possible to see where one ends and the next begins. ⁠9

The reviewer calls this dilemma “The question of the split self.”

I believe in Marcus’ split strategy. But it doesn’t lessen the danger that orgasm’s dopamine spike will reinforce my victim habit. The danger that sexual masochism would feed my social masochism.

Besides, can the split strategy work when BDSM folks actually use humiliation and slavery to get off? Rather than separating sexual from authoritarian/social masochism, they purposefully make use of the entanglement. They use social masochism to feed sexual masochism.


1 Marcus 1981, 153-154.

2 Marcus, 155

3 Marcus, 152.

4 Marcus, 220.

5 Marcus, 260.

6 Marcus, 260.

7 Marcus, 258.

8 Marcus, 230. By “authoritarian masochism” she means what I am calling “social masochism.” See ”Putting Myself Down” here in Chapter 4: The Consequences / Am I a Masochist?.

9 Richard, 1/29/2012.