Book review: A hiding to nothing

A DEFENCE OF MASOCHISM by Anita Phillips, Faber pounds 9.99
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Whenever I hear the words, "Use me, abuse me, do anything you want with me!" my heart and my manhood always sinks. This is not because I have any problem with the idea of using someone: rather it's that I know that not far behind this invitation to selfishness are always the words, "Not that! This! Not there! Here!"

And Anita Phillips wonders why masochists have such a bad name. Far from being a slave to your desires, it turns out to be their pleasure that they're interested in, just like everyone else. Worse, not only is their pleasure even more tediously exacting than most people's you also have to pretend that it is your pleasure. While the idea of having someone around the home to clean the toilet and bathroom floor with their tongue might appeal in an abstract kind of way, it always, always turns out to be much more boring than doing it yourself and conducting a common-or- garden, non-masochistic, missionary-position-under-the-floral-duvet relationship. As Phillips admits, the best partner for a masochist is not a sadist, but another masochist. Sado-masochism, in other words, is a bit of a con and should be prosecuted under the Trade Descriptions Act.

Madonna's early Nineties flirtation with s/m chic sent it squeaking and creaking up and down the catwalks and into advertising ever since. And while David Cronenberg's Crash, a film about people who take pleasure from being on the receiving end of mutilating car accidents, did provoke outrage and censorship from some quarters, many thought it disappointingly tame. Meanwhile the recent film Sick: the Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist seems to have elevated masochism to a kind of super-heroism; how long before we hear: "Mum can I have a leather harness and cling-film cape for Xmas, please?'.

So why bother to defend masochism? A recent European Court ruling asserted that assault cannot be consented to (which means, of course, an end to boxing, surgery and supporting Arsenal), and even if many people who don't wear wigs and suspenders for a living are now more laidback about the issue, there are still a number of common misconceptions and prejudices about masochism, most of which Anita Phillips dispatches here with aplomb: most notably, the idea that masochism is always someone else's perversion. Phillips investigates, via Freud and American academic Leo Bersani the universality of masochistic impulses, the thin line between pleasure and pain, and shows how the curdling of these impulses into a condition and a type changed what it means to be human.

"Masochism" is one of the inventions of late 19th-century sexology in the Gothic shape of Baron Dr Richard Von Krafft-Ebing. It was only ever intended to apply to men; women were "naturally" masochistic, so pleasure in pain on their part was not perverse, and therefore not a problem to be explained or pathologised. There was a shift in gender roles in the west in the 19th century which was concerned with institutionalising women's subjugation. As Phillips points out, "From Dante's ordeal in the Inferno to be reunited with Beatrice, to John Donne's love poetry, sacrificial masculine love has been a crucial theme; only in this century has what for many centuries seemed the natural, desirable form of male love been redefined as effeminate perversity, masochism."

Phillips believes that this reformulation of male identity, excluding masochism, made masculinity "blatantly misogynistic, emotionally inept and homophobic". She also believes that it was this new masculinity which led in part to the "corrective" of feminism. Ironically, the exclusion of masochism from the male psyche has produced a public scenario of their punishment and chastisement by women which continues today. The feminist is Ms Whiplash.

Male masochism is now making a comeback - what else could explain The Verve and the tortured "soft lad" tendency? And while this rise of male self-dramatisation/self-obsession may or may not be good news for women in general, it is definitely good news for women like Phillips who enjoy masochistic sex. Now that men are relinquishing their grip on the whip handle, women need no longer feel like they are betraying their sex by expressing fantasies of domination.

As with most cases of special pleading, Phillips' argument often slips into evangelism. We are told that masochists are "imaginative risk-takers" and that "real eroticism" requires a certain "shattering of the self". In other words, masochists are on a higher sexual plane to those poor souls who don't want to get whipped, trussed up and locked in a cupboard for three days. But those of us who prefer our sex weak and thin, with the gore and entrails strained out, are not necessarily sad. Rather there is something rather pathetic in the sexual liberationist dogma which everyone is supposed to subscribe to now that sex is simply "good" and that the more you have of it, the more you wave your legs in the air at it, the better a person you are. Perhaps most people refuse to indulge their masochist leanings any further than a spot of slightly embarrassed spanking or coy nipple- tweaking because they have better things to do with their time than trying to "discover their limits" remaking Hellraiser.