Sociological notes: Are you sure you are not a masochist?

MASOCHISM ENTERED the vocabulary a hundred years ago. The early Austrian sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing was responsible for giving us masochism, alongside a wide collection of other secular sins, including beast-defilement, necrophilia, and the other lurid, often ludicrous categories that fill out his extensive encyclopaedia of the perversions, Psychopathia Sexualis.

He named the new discovery after a well-known contemporary of his, who lived in the same town, Graz, and had taught in the same university. Leopold von Sacher-Masoch was the author of novels involving powerful, temperamental women and sensitive, strategic men. For Krafft-Ebing, masochism was a masculine perversion that involved the enjoyment of being dominated by a woman.

In other words, even temporary gender-role reversals were to be ruled out of court, exiled to the twilight world of the perversions. It would have made absolutely no sense to this psychiatrist to suggest that masochism was applicable to women. For him, feminine submission to the male was normal behaviour. (The same view, elaborated and sophisticated, appeared later on in Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis: masochism was a perversion that only applied to the male.) Feminism, of course, changed all that, giving women equality in an unexpected area and yet another thing to worry about.

Throughout this, some people kept their nerve. Sacher-Masoch's best-seller Venus in Furs has remained as potent an influence on transgressive counter- cultures as Krafft-Ebing's works have upon the mainstream. For those few who are not desperate to hand themselves over to ever more narrowly defined norms of human behaviour it has provided continuing inspiration. But what cheer is there for those who are more anxious, more easily deterred?

First, there is this: most people, possibly all people, are masochists. There is more than one way of being masochistic. Anyone over the age of 30 thinks twice about getting themselves up in a rubber suit with only a tiny hole to breathe through. This reluctance is well-grounded: the dressing-up box of S and M doesn't suit everyone. But tweedy types, investment dressers, flowery people and those who haunt the bargain bins of Gap are just as likely to have this particular quirk of nature. Clothes don't have much to do with it.

People from all walks of life and of both sexes are masochistic. But perhaps you are sure that you are not. Well, ask yourself the following questions.

Have I never enjoyed pandering to another person's desires and whims, being ordered about, acting submissive and docile - even if that isn't my usual style? Have I never experienced the thrill of being slightly squashed by the body of a chunky lover? In short, could it be that the weak, passive, disgusting side of me is howling to get out? Even if none of these things apply to you, you are probably still a masochist, because the tendency is deeply rooted in the imagination and in any strong sexual excitement.

Another thing: masochists are explorers of an imaginative world, not pawns in someone else's game. As you may have guessed, sadism has nothing to do with it - sadism has its own patterns, its own rules, ones that are incompatible with masochism. The game of masochism is elaborated between two people, not forced on one by another. Nobody plays unless they want to - we aren't on the level of beast-defilers after all. Masochists are persuasive, resilient, artistic, and, like all artists, vain. But not sleazy or creepy or pathetic.

A final point. Leopold von Sacher-Masoch lived the kind of life he wrote about in his novels. Krafft-Ebing did not. The difference is important: the original masochist was a risk-taker, an extramural adventurer, but the sexologist an anonymous figure hidden behind a plethora of diagnostic labels, reducing the roar of passion to the annotation of museum specimens.

After a century of sexology, perhaps it's time for something else.

Anita Phillips is the author of `A Defence of Masochism' (Faber & Faber, pounds 6.99)

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