Non-practitioner Feminist Masochists Coping

What about feminists who admit to masochistic sensibilities but refrain from acting on them? What do they say about Marcus’ “awful truth?”

Butler’s Two Voices

Judith Butler’s analysis echoes Bartky’s:

I’ve felt the passion and intensity that has gone along with certain dominant-submissive power dynamics in my own sexual relationships with women. I’ve always felt ambivalent about the power imbalance that drew me, and I’ve even tried to legislate such desires out of existence.

There are two voices to be heard here, the one saying, “I should not want this” and the other, “But I do!” The sm side says to get rid of your guilt, the last vestige of puritanical authority. [The other voice, whom Butler dubs the “moral feminist” ] assures you that you have merely learned to want this, that as your socialization changes, so will your desire.[1]”

Her “tentative resolution of this issue,” she relates, “has come with the realization that even if power and sex are inextricably intertwined, the meaning of ‘power’ — as well as of sex — can undergo important variations.” For example, the “power of the erotic” as Audre Lorde describes it — the power of loving, in all its aspects.[2] Or as Butler concludes:

The power gained through re-claiming my sexuality as an expression of my life, shaping my choice to honor my desires, and desiring my own sense of choice more than any other desire.[3]

Morgan’s Parable

Like me, activist feminist Robin Morgan engages in masochistic fantasies, but never in any masochistic activities with another person. To come to terms with the inconsistency between her sexuality and her politics, she wants to understand. She describes how she started:

I was less than ten years old, but intelligent, curious and self-respectful enough to be irritated by feeling a vague sexual stimulation at the thought of someone dominating me. I do know that by the time I was thirteen or so, I was consciously trying to combat such thoughts — not because I thought them “perverted’ (yet) but because it perplexed me that what worked in fantasy was so different from reality. I knew already that when, in real life, anyone had power over me (as all adults do over all children) I liked it not at all; I also knew that if anyone laid a punishing hand on me (exceedingly rare in my family) I hated their guts and found it utterly unexciting. So what in hell was this fantasy stuff I was getting off on? I had an active masturbation life as a child and a fittingly wide repertoire of fantasies to go along with it but the set and constume changes all revolved around the same plot. By early adolescence, then, I set myself the task of trying to understand this.[4]

She considered numerous explanations, including “the Self-Indulgent Theory, also known as the Will-Power Approach:”

This whole thing is ridiculous and overanalyzed; if I wish these fantasies to cease then I simply must stop having them and dissecting them.[5]

At one point, discouraged, she

retreated into the Will-Power Approach and refused to let myself fantasize any more. This precipitously reduced my capacity for orgasm, which was, I decided, even more depressing, and as I feared myself approaching a near-frigid state, I “capitulated,” feeling like an alcoholic gone back on the bottle.[6]

In the end, Morgan turns to story in order to understand. She creates a little myth she calls “The Parable.” In it, archetypal characters “Woman” and “Man” go through a progression of feelings and attitudes that starts

Once the freedom and power of Woman knew no shame. All acts of sexuality were inseparable from those of sensuality, and all these were within her definition and command.
This I remember. My cells remember this.[7]

When I read this, a shudder of recognition wracked me. My deep memory agreed.

Morgan’s “parable” goes on to describe Woman’s yearning for a consort, a mate “who is capable of acute sensitivity to her desire and vast tenderness for her need, but also capable of strength equal to her own.” But Man does not truly understand her sexuality, and thus match it. Instead, he fakes it. The fabrication springs from an entirely different kind of power from hers. She is centered in power from within herself. He acts from fear which needs power over her.

Eventually Woman resigns herself to the fake, first as a temporary solution, and then without hope. In her own eyes she is degraded, as well as in her understanding of his view of her. And finally, mad with longing, she learns how to use her degradation as power.

Morgan describes each step in this progression with details that sound all too familiar, both in myself and in history. But it took me several readings, over many years, to begin to see how the pattern inhabits me. And I still don’t understand why her conclusion sounds like she means it to be positive.

Card Testifies

In Lesbian Choices Claudia Card testifies in one paragraph to experiencing the dilemma:

My own approach to sadomasochism initially, to the extent that I thought about it, was the liberal, “sexual preference” approach. I have not participated in sadomasochist culture. My knowledge of it comes from participants’ writings. Yet, I am no stranger to sadomasochistic sexual desires and fantasies, nor to their sexual enactment, although my direct experience has been neither extensive nor intensive. For the better part of two decades I have distanced myself from such experiments as a result of forming a different view, more social, less individualistic, in the context of two political struggles: the struggle of feminists against women’s complicity in patriarchy and that of gay men and lesbians against homophobic presentations of homosexuality as violent and dangerous.[8]

“Distanced myself from such experiments” — even the language Card uses to describe how she copes … sounds distant.

[1] Butler, in Linden et al, 1982, 171 (Written under the name “Judy Butler.”)
[2] Butler, 173-174. She is referring to Lorde, “Uses of the Erotic,” in Sister Outsider,1978).
[3] Lorde, 1978, 173-174.
[4] Morgan, 1977, Reprinted in Linden et al. 1982, 111.
[5] Morgan, 112.
[6] Morgan, 113-114.
[7] Morgan, 117-118.
[8] Card, 1995, 221.