Books: Beating a path to pleasure

No pain, no gain, argue the advocates of bedroom role-play. Michael Arditti begs to differ
A Defence of Masochism

by Anita Phillips

Faber & Faber, pounds 9.99

Sex in the Nineties is performance. The conventional "how was it for you?" has become increasingly like an aftershow inquiry in an actor's dressing room as the advent of consumerism, feminism and disease has led more and more people to explore role-play. The missionary position is beginning to seem as archaic as its name.

Boundaries are being extended in bookshops as well as in bedrooms. Anita Phillips is the latest writer concerned not just to legitimise practices long regarded as taboo but to stress their value in nurturing the psyche. This she does by examining their expression in history, religion and art.

The word "masochism" was coined by the late 19th-century psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing from the name of the Polish novelist, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Not only did Krafft-Ebing abbreviate Sacher-Masoch's name, but he reduced the complex fantasy life of author and characters to the dry case-study of a man who connived in his own humiliation. It is the fictive elements of masochism - underestimated also by Freud - Phillips is determined to emphasise. She sees it as no accident that masochism was named after a novelist, and suggests that artists are professional masochists in view of their willingness to allow extraneous sensations and fantasies into their psyches. Thus she props up her arguments not with psychoanalytical texts but passages from Fanny Hill, Marguerite Duras' La Douleur and, crucially, The Story of O.

In Krafft-Ebing's scheme, masochism referred exclusively to male behaviour, but Phillips is mainly concerned with women. She sees it as an aspect of the feminist "shadow", containing images and longings discarded by feminism, but which remain present in women's lives. In daily life, she insists, "people who enjoy sexual masochism are likely to be the assertive, risk-taking kind, living up to the ideal that is deflated and turned inside out in the bedroom". Phillips insists on the need to work out a preliminary contract and has an amusingly convoluted passage on the importance of shoes. She takes issue with the association implied by "sado-masochism": since the true sadist and masochist are incompatible (the one wanting control through force, and the other through playful manipulation), such encounters are likely to be as unsatisfactory as any metaphoric slap and tickle.

This is an honest and engaging book. To many readers, Phillips's espousal of sexual experiment will be less controversial than her inability to connect sexual excitement and love. But, although she makes a strong case for masochism as catharsis (in which the whips and chains of the sexual scenario can deflect the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune), it ultimately fails to convince. After seeing Bob Flanagan torturing his body in the film Sick or reading of the coprophiliac encounters with tramps in Samuel Delaney's The Mad Man, I suspect that such masochists are not "rewriting oppression as pleasure" but ritualising their self-loathing.