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Sadomasochistic Literature  
 
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Over the past two decades, sadomasochistic literature has emerged as one of the most controversial and vibrant forms of lesbian and gay writing. A fantasy space of leather, sex, power, and performance, S/M is increasingly becoming a privileged arena in the lesbian and gay community for debating the nature of gender identification and sex.

The theatricality at the heart of S/M practice has prompted the production of an enormous body of S/M writing, a literature whose breadth and quality has helped make S/M more visible, if not more tolerated, in America and abroad.

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The Controversy over Sadomasochistic Literature

Authors of such pioneering books as The Leatherman's Handbook (1972) and the lesbian S/M anthology Coming to Power (1981) have made revolutionary claims for S/M literature as a force of liberation.

Others in the lesbian and gay community have regarded S/M as an embarrassing cousin, a negative force that, at best, has no real liberating influence and, at worst, actually reinforces oppressive behaviors and attitudes.

Undoubtedly, the subculture of S/M remains so central to gay and lesbian life because it speaks not only to the binary oppositions of public-private, male-female that help shape sexuality, but also to the vexing issues of domination, submission, uniformity, and humiliation. S/M literature as a genre confronts these aspects of gay and lesbian experience and, for better or worse, poses a constant challenge to them.

The Variety of Lesbian and Gay Sadomasochistic Literature

Lesbian and gay S/M literature abounds in variety and resists overarching definitions. In part, this reflects the difficulty of defining S/M sexuality in general. To say that sadomasochism is simply the giving and receiving of pain for erotic gratification belies the complexity of the behavior, let alone its representation in literature.

Although S/M, like homosexuality, is generally considered to be a transhistorical and transcultural phenomenon, the term sadomasochism was first used in the late nineteenth century by the medical forensic specialist Richard von Krafft-Ebing.

Mark Thompson, among other S/M advocates, has found significance in the fact that in an effort to pathologize certain behaviors and to some extent control them, "sadomasochism" and "homosexuality" became categories in the medical community at roughly the same historical period.

Derivations and Definitions

Sadomasochism is a performative, fantasmatic practice, and so it is fitting that it receives its name from literary sources.

The term sadism derives from the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814), a French nobleman imprisoned for his libertinism and for writing fantastic novels such as Justine and Juliette (1797) that equated sexual pleasure with the inflicting of pain, humiliation, and cruelty.

The term masochism derives from Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (1836-1895) whose novels, such as Venus in Furs, are classic tales of submissive males and cruel mistresses.

Following Krafft-Ebing's lead, Freudian psychoanalysis has had much to say about sadomasochism, generally regarding S/M behavior as a narcissistic attachment that directs both aggressive and libidinal (erotic) energies against the self through the partner who is a representation of the self.

Contesting the Sexual Assumptions of the Majority Culture

For most people, however, S/M has the less subtle connotations of whips and chains and pleasure in pain. But for many of the people who produce and read S/M literature and who practice S/M as part of a dissenting subcultural tradition, S/M is believed to be a means of radically contesting the sexual assumptions of the majority culture.

Generally speaking, these self-proclaimed radicals choose to define gay and lesbian S/M as a consensual exchange of power involving physical pleasure and eroticism among two or more homosexuals who play the roles of sadist/top/dominant and masochist/bottom/passive.

Consensual S/M partners are said to disavow cruelty, coercion, and force in favor of a heightened sense of the kinds of boundary breaking, trust building, and creativity that is part of all erotic life.

Sadomasochistic Literature in Earlier Cultures

More than anything else, S/M literature has depended on the S/M subculture for its existence and vitality. This is not to say, however, that S/M motifs have not played an important part in the literary traditions of many cultures throughout time.

Ancient Greece, Rome, Persia, and Asia, for example, produced a considerable amount of prose, drama, and poetry with homosexual sadomasochistic themes. Euripides' Greek tragedy Chrissippus is lost but Petronius's Satyricon, with its scenes of dissolute sex in the Roman Empire, still exerts an influence on the S/M imagination today.

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