Peggy Kleinplatz & Charles Moser (eds) (2006) Sadomasochism. Powerful Pleasures

The theme of sadomasochism has been little researched. There are some literary and historical studies, some collections of essays and personal stories and how-to-do books. A fierce debate raged in feminist circles whether this sexual preference was not old-fashioned sexism. The life of the marquis de Sade has been the topic of many biographies and philosophical enquiries while the other name-giver, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, has received less attention. Sociological studies have been few, while the large sex surveys rarely asked specific questions on SM-preferences. Kinsey had none, and more recent ones give the impression that about 10% of the population has desires in this direction. So a collection on this theme is very welcome and timely to stimulate this field of research.

Sadomasochism has a strange place among the perversions, or in the modern psy-babble, paraphilia’s. Homosexuality has been depathologized, while the other sexual variations are still deeply embedded in the various classifications of (mental) diseases such as the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association) and the ICD (International Classification of Diseases of the World Health Organization). At the supportive side, the gay and lesbian movement has always enlarged its list of acronyms, now coming to LGBTQQI (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Questioning Queer Intersexual). Sadomasochism shares the honor of never having been included in this politically correct set with pedophilia or exhibitionism. The reviewed collection includes an article that gives an overview of the unsuccessful struggle to get sadism, masochism and fetishism removed from the ICD. There is no discussion of the inclusion in or exclusion from the LBGT-movement, notwithstanding that most authors have a link to this world and the collection is published by the Journal of Homosexuality. To the contrary, on several occasions the relations between the SM- and LBGT-movements are celebrated while no one questions the absence of SM in the list of abbreviations.

To my regrets, most articles in this volume are rather weak and uninteresting. The book starts off well with an overview of SM-studies by Thomas Weinberg who earlier edited with G.W. Levi Kamel a similar, and better, collection S and M. Studies in sadomasochism (1983). There is a promising article on 24/7 slavery (24 hours, 7 days a week), but most articles suffer from being based in surveys that are selective and include few interesting questions. The best we get is that SM-aficionados are well-educated, liberal and non-sexist persons who suffer most from the social prejudices against their sexual preferences of both lay people and professionals. Other questions about meeting places and play spaces, internet, prostitution, practices, adaptations to each other’s specific interests are by and large left out. We get the tired philosophy that sadomasochism is about consent, about pain that is pleasure and violence that is not so important, about intimacies that open up with vistas of spirituality unimaginable for vanilla people engaged in “normal” sex. The texts are too defensive and never refer to the out and proud philosophy of Sade who could have been a good anchor point for SM-philosophies, but whose work is not discussed, not even introduced. There are few references to the earlier, often German and French literature on sadomasochism in the first period of sexology or to the historical studies that discuss those works. Major books like John K. Noyes’ The Mastery of Submission. Inventions of Masochism (Ithaca 1998) or Harry Oosterhuis’ Stepchildren of Nature. Krafft-Ebing, Psy­chiatry, and the Making of Sexual Identity (Chicago 2000) remain unmentioned. The rise of interest in fashion and the arts in SM since the nineties is only mentioned in passing to prove that many more people are curious about “powerful pleasures” than those tiny populations that visit the SM-scene. The one article on SM in popular US media does little to counter this gap in the collection because of its limited scope.

The best articles are on legal issues. One article discusses the depressing story that SM-parents in the USA easily loose child custody rights when their sexual preferences are made public in courts as if they would harm their children. Another explains the English Spanner-case in which sixteen gay men were accused of inflicting bodily harm on each other, including the “victims” (boxing and other sports are excluded from this kind of law because they are beneficial to society). This outrageous case makes clear that in the European Union consenting SM-relations don’t deserve protection, or sexual relations between more than two people (that become public indecencies with a third person present in some countries like England). As said, the struggle against this kind of laws is still in its infancy, and with few results. The book also includes interesting but very uneven reviews of SM-organizations in Brazil, Germany, Canada, Austria, Switzerland, Norway and New York. Although the collection is of meagre quality, it is one of the few available. The topic is sufficiently promising that we may expect more books on this fascinating topic. And let’s hope they offer more valuable and rich perspectives.

Gert Hekma, University of Amsterdam