All tickle and no slap

We sugar it for mainstream consumption, or box it off as unthinkable and 'other'. But taking the sting out of sado-masochism is missing the point.
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Q: Who, and what, are sado-masochists? A: Anybody but us.

We can stud our tongues, pierce our navels, wear the leather, rush to the latest Mapplethorpe retrospective, burn hot viewing Nine and a Half Weeks, smirk through the Bass ale ad showing a manacled male love slave licking a woman's stiletto, and do that extra thrust-thrust-thrust at climax, dimly conscious that we're showing the Significant Other who's boss. But sado-masochists? Oh, no.

Just because we sometimes bite, gnaw, nip and maybe even plead, as the lovestruck Helena does, "Use me but as your spaniel, spurn me, strike me/ Neglect me, lose me; only give me leave/ Unworthy as I am, to follow you" doesn't mean we harbour "dangerous" desires. We live in the materialist world, simultaneously hierarchical and chaotic, but never play the game of winner and loser, domination and submission. Not us. We are permanently in control.

Sado-masochists are always someone else. Skin Two readers. Frank Bough caught in a dungeon. The freaks at London's annual SM Pride march, fresh from workshops in safe sadism, knot-tying and the uses of standard office equipment. The 15 gay men sent to jail in the wake of Operation Spanner for committing "genital torture". This after 26 years of quietly, consensually assaulting one another with nettles, nails, sandpaper, canes and the occasional scalpel. All the weirdos who make SM magazines the most popular form of pornography on the planet. These people are Other. These people have a big problem. A big problem with hyper-consciousness of the body and distinguishing between pleasure and pain.

But if sado-masochists confuse pain and pleasure - they'd argue that they blend the extremes - then we are all, to greater or lesser degrees, sado-masochists. Anorexia, bulimia, exercise and steroid addiction are self-inflicted agony and ecstasy. We recoil from the scalpel employed in the Spanner case, yet increasingly submit to an array of invasive surgical procedures - breast enhancement, penile extension, facelifts, collagen injections, chemical peels. These are the techniques of what used to be known in certain Eighties movies as Body Horror. Now they're a kind of common Body Art, though those who have been under the knife will not - cannot - recognise the cultural currents that carry both them and such art world favourites as, say, Stelarc, famously hung on 16 meat hooks, or the work of the New Primitives, off on the shining path to understanding via branding and a little light crucifixion. The truth is that the body sags, bleeds, reminds us it has a sell-by date. What we do is swallow the airbrushed ads that daily mob us: eternal youth, thin forever, buff for always, never going to die. Our suffering is sanctioned and thus acceptable. We ask - pay - to have it inflicted, yet blithely deny sado-masochists their consensual argument: Yes, I really was asking for it. And hold the anaesthetic.

Now that it has been ramraided by fashion, feted by high art, used to flog beer, cars and Madonna, the practice, as well as the imagery, of SM is becoming harder to piss on (though it has been known to ask). Why, even the Law Commission has recommended the legalisation of "sexual violence between consenting adults" and a Times leader has agreed. Now that homosexuality is mainstream, it may be SM's turn to come out, and come in. The price of entry appears easy. A convincing answer to a basic, unavoidable, boring question. Not who, or what, but instead, why? Why do they do that to each other?

One reply - the true answer - of course, is why not? As a friend of mine can be forced to whimper, "It's only mutilation and torture, but I like it." This won't do, however, if acceptance is the aim. Fun is too frivolous an answer, and "Mind your own business" too aggressive. SM might worship treat-me-mean, but now it must perforce make nice. It must ingratiate itself, wheedle, take off the frighteners, convince - beg, aptly enough. It has to remove the gag and talk in soothing, academic tones. Or offer, too, a touch of tickle with the slap. Crack a few jokes. Be self-deprecating.

Thus the simultaneous appearance of Anita Phillips's treatise, A Defence of Masochism, and Kirby Dick's controversial documentary Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, SuperMasochist. Each is being touted as "breakthrough" material and as "shocking", too. And they're shocking, all right. As in the phrase, "shockingly conventional". Banal almost.

Take Phillips. Sure, she admits to cruising for a bruising - bad girl! naughty girl! - but she is careful to write in the I-want-to-be-reviewed- seriously vein of Andrew Sullivan's Virtually Normal: An Argument About Homosexuality, and in her historical/theoretical/ psychological/sociological/sweetly reasonable manner is about as pious. You want reasons? Phillips has 163 pages of them. She explains her head off: SM can be a fetish for some, a sexual orientation for others or perhaps even a phase. You can dabble in bondage and discipline, burn out and move on. Or you could incorporate handcuffs and ankle straps into a varied sex life. And did you know that just because you're a masochist in bed doesn't mean you're a weakling outside the boudoir? And that strict (ho, ho) sadists and masochists don't really get on - that a touch of both is required in the personality?

What Phillips doesn't provide is heat. Sex. Glamour. A turn-on. If we're all sado-masochists, there is no nasty, honest appeal to urges, either primal or conditioned, within. Instead Phillips writes like an agony aunt: "There is no obvious reason why sex should always be loving and gentle ... Bland sexuality is no sexuality at all ... The decision to consider confessing one's fantasies is a big step ... [In SM] a theatrical impulse ... is at work. Sado-masochist sex bears little resemblance to actual emotional or physical violence in that the gestures and parts of the body employed are different ... Within consensual SM there is no place for bullying."

Not that this will stop fundamentalist feminists from queuing to smack the bitch up. If Phillips's defence is obvious and her tone calmer-than- thou, this won't stop the arid old anti-rant: that submissive women reflect and distil oppressive gender roles and invite violence on other women. Never mind that in SM submissive men are the rule, not the exception. Phillips stands at the blackboard and points: Girls on top? See? The scenarios are set and limits agreed. There is trust. There is play. Power is exchanged. SM is sharing and caring, mutually respectful.

Phillips's foes will grasp that she's toning down SM, pitching it at the liberal, intellectual, taste-forming middle-classes and that SM has to be more of a blast than she's letting on. Still, if it fails, there's always the second arm of the pincer movement: effrontery. The make 'em laugh school of persuasion. We're talking Sick, Kirby Dick's film about Bob Flanagan, the late American performance artist cum pin cushion and his love-slave relationship with his wife, stern mistress and muse, Sheree Rose. Sick was controversy numero uno at last year's Sundance Film Festival, where it scooped the special jury prize. As soon as it opens here the Daily Mail will bare yellow fangs and modish dinner guests across Cool Britannia will wave their cultural credentials: "Did you look away when the steel ball was rammed up his butt/his penis was pierced/nipples were whipped/chest was sliced with a scalpel?" And did you wince or did you hoot, as Sick invites you to, when Bob reads from his Fuck Journal (sic) and presents his museum show Visiting Hours, in which he is hoisted from a hospital bed by Sheree and dangled by the ankles? String 'em up - it's the only language they understand. And could you pass the sherry, please? And, oh, yes, most importantly, did you weep when Bob croaks - literally - from cystic fibrosis?

Sick is extraordinary, and, consciously or not, extraordinarily shrewd. Think: what makes Sheree stitch Bob up? Why do they do that to each other? The answer is cystic fibrosis, plain and all too simple. We're clued in early, when Flanagan's mother talks about her son knowing pain from birth, and how he'd howl when the doctors stuck pins into his infant lungs to drain the mucus. Heads in the audience nod. Of course: it's life-affirming SM. Flanagan's trying to make sense of death. To reject this would be akin to ignoring a dying man's last wish. And we know Flanagan is dying - the movie is punctuated with the low rattle of his wheezes - a knowledge that brings subtle pressure to bear. It renders the radical reasonably respectable. It makes Flanagan less Other, more human.

But the graphic isn't quite the same as the candid - a tough distinction to draw, admittedly, when a terminally ill satirist is waving his neatly sutured scrotum in your face. Titillation can be such a useful distraction. Like Bob being served up as an artist, outrage and rebel when the cystic fibrosis actually transfigures him into a martyr-saint; a postmodern St Sebastian grooving on the arrows. It's undeniably timely. Right now SM requires a martyr-saint, not a rebel: it needs someone whose suffering makes sense.

Okey dokey. But what about masochists who've never had so much as a head cold? Sick doesn't deal with that sort. Just as well. One of the worms might turn and snap that a gift-wrapped Freudian reason gives punters an excuse not to search their own psyches for similar urges. Indeed, Sick never once swaggers or crawls around the SM club scene, where denizens attempt to impress with whip, not wit. Those people aren't ironic, they're grindingly serious. Sick - inadvertently or not - confines Flanagan and Rose's interaction with this to Flanagan singing (hilariously) and reading from the Fuck Journal (hilariously) before the Society of Janus SM Club. Though one sequence of stills in the film might lead the cynical to suppose that Flanagan and Rose were not unacquainted with the sort of establishment where slaves are passed around. Were there logistical difficulties in setting such scenes up? Or would their inclusion have exploded the neat cosiness?

One feels bad for even raising the notion. Who wants to quarrel with a dying man? Or quarrel with Sick's double-edged title: sick as in sado- masochist or sick as in ill? It's insoluble. What is certain is that Sick is finally about sympathy, not empathy. Sympathy as a phase could be entirely necessary, as Phillips's dogged dullness is necessary. Maybe right now you need scenes like Flanagan performing at a camp for children with cystic fibrosis, plucking guitar and heart strings. That may be what it takes to widen debate, lower the threshold, broaden minds. And maybe it's worth it for the film's extraordinary, moving intimacy; for the late-night moment when the high Sheree slurs, "If you loved me, you'd submit to me" and Bob can only gasp, "I can hardly breathe". Besides, guess what? Bob and Sheree find that their religion hasn't prepared them. Not one whit. "He's not a masochist any more," Sheree complains. Well, death robs us of all our roles. Surely the one indisputable fact about the body is that it abandons us. As a fading Bob says: "Am I dying? What's going on? It's the weirdest damn thing ... I don't understand." Though he does, of course. Masochism can be instructive. It's about the illuminating need to feel small

'Sick' opens at the ICA Cinema, London SW1, the Lux Centre, London N1 and the Cornerhouse, Manchester, on 13 February. 'A Defence of Masochism' by Anita Phillips is published by Faber & Faber on 2 March, price pounds 9.99.

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