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by Gert Hekma in Columns & Opinions , 27 februari 2001

For a long time sadism amongst men wasn`t really considered a perversion, since men were expected to belittle their partners and mistreat them. Sadism was, as it were, the natural expression of masculinity. Masochism in men and sadism in women was what needed explanation, according to the shrinks. Only when such behaviour was the main aim of sex and not copulation, would there be a question of perversion.

The word sadism is derived from the name of the marquis Donatien Alphonse François de Sade (1740-1814), whose life and work have been discussed in these pages before. To call Sade a sadist appeared to be a misunderstanding, since his desires could sooner be called masochistic. Already during his lifetime his name appears to have become synonymous with villain and rapist, because the women who didn`t want to beat him up, he didn`t spare to work over with the whip himself. Which is the reason why they incarcerated him three times. In the nineteenth century a sadist was a scoundrel. Sade became the equal of the mythical Bluebeard, who was supposed to have killed his seven wives, of Gilles de Rais, who was suspected of witchcraft, heresy and rape and murder of some 150 boys, and of Elizabeth Bathory, who appears to have done something similar with her maid-servants. Sade joined the ranks of a notorious and mainly homosexual gathering. Because besides the whip he also loved getting it up the ass. To Sade, sadism and sodomy were sisters.
In 1890 the psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing changed the meaning of the word sadist. From a villain he became a sexual pervert, who experienced lust by torturing his or her partner(s). The sadists turning up in the works of Krafft-Ebing are of two kinds. On the one hand sex murderers, like Gilles de Rais, on the other hand the more common sadists, who do not want to kill their partners at all, who not even not want to hurt them. Psychiatrists discovered sadism is not at all about the physical infliction of pain, more often it is about mind games and verbal humiliation. In many cases the sadism remains imaginary.


The defenders of S/M prefer to follow this train of thought. In defense of their perversion, which of course they do not see as a perversion at all, they say that no harm or suffering is inflicted. They do not abuse their partners since these chose for it themselves in the first place. The relationship always has a voluntary character. Beforehand sadist and masochist have agreed on what they are going to do and how far they will take things. In other words, the coercion is an illusion and not for real. The S/M play unfolds with mutual consent. The partners agree on a code word which the masochist will use when he can`t take anymore.
According to them, psychiatrist lumping sadomasochists together with sex murderers and rapists is unjustified. At this juncture, with people attaching importance to sexual equality and democratic relations, the arguments of the defenders of S/M sound almost believable. The play comes about of free will, knows certain rules and stops when one of the partners has had enough. Real violence is out of the question: at the most for kicks there`s some simulation, hardly worth mentioning. My objection to this argumentation concerns its character of respectability. It takes the sting out of S/M, which doesn`t have to be so dull and democratic and doesn`t have to go by fixed rules. I think the S/M play only becomes juicier when limits are not respected, but stretched. It`s exciting to take things just one little step further. And those code words, what to think of them, when the masochist`s mouth has literally been stopped? Isn`t it more sadistic and horny for a gay masochist, when his sadist boyfriend lets him be beaten by a woman and makes him lick her? It has been said before: precisely that, what you don`t want and what disgusts you, can turn you on immensily when you`re forced to it. For many people what they abhor most is also the most exciting. Which precisely goes for S/M .

New norms

The concept of sexual equality is very recent. Before 1900 nowhere in the world equality and mutual consent were the sexual norm. Till way into the Seventies of the last century men could do as they pleased with their wives. Relations of gay men with errand boys, soldiers, sailors, servants, of queens with straight boys, were unequal in terms of money, beauty, strength and male and female. Young but poor devils with muscles who looked good, earned an extra penny with gentlemen having nothing of the kind and who were turned on at times by boys showing off their heterosexuality by bragging about women.
In those days a certain degree of sadism came with most homo- and heterosexual relations. Sadism as a perversion cropped up at the moment cruelty and unequality in sexual relations were put in the wrong. The new norm brought about a new perversion, the liberal dogma got as its poor relation the perverted sadist, who by all means tried to become legitimate again and chimed in with the choir of free will and mutual consent. He might have better put such ideas into perspective, emphasize the horny importance of unequality and point out social coercion, which strongly limits the space of free will. Have you ever overheard somebody objecting to the strong pressure put on boys to become a hetero or a real bloke?
Since sadism goes against the current belief in equality and non-violence and is so easily equated with sex murders and rape, it takes most S/M novices a long time before coming down to brass tacks. Many people will hide their desires in this direction for themselves as well as for their environment and will never indulge in them. Or only experience them in a modified version, when barking at their partners, scratching them or overpowering them sexually. Like some dikes from way up north once said: in the old days we played with belts and whips for a change, but did we know that was called S/M?

Next time: Richard von Krafft-Ebing



In the New Issue of Gay News, 323, July 2018

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