The History of Sadomasochism Is Strange, Dark, and Occasionally Sweet
The ideas behind it originated in some dark places but have become much less creepy and more consensual over time.
There's a BDSM club just a few blocks from my apartment in Chicago. I usually drive past it without giving it a second glance, even though the clientele are less than shy. It's not unusual to see guys dressed like extras in a bondage video, waiting at the bus stop outside like it's no big deal they've got a ball gag hanging from their wrist like a purse. It's all just part of the scenery of a big city.
But since reading A Lover's Pinch: A Cultural History of Sadomasochism, a new book by journalist Peter Tupper, I’ve had a newfound curiosity about this community. Whenever I’m sitting at a red light near the BDSM club and I see a guy in full leather loitering outside, I want to roll down my window and ask if he knows how much his lifestyle choices are thanks to some really dirty Christians.
The history of BDSM has been a bumpy one, and until recently no historian has managed to connect all the dots. Mostly because the lion’s share has happened in secret, behind closed doors (and occasionally in dungeons). There’s not a lot of public record for the first master/slave relationship, or at least the first “consensual” one. (You will never read another history book that contains as many uses of the adjective “consensual.”)
It’s a difficult topic to write about if you’re at all sympathetic with modern BDSM—and Tupper, who’s the co-founder of Metro Vancouver Kink, a non-profit for the local sadomasochism community, clearly is. Because the origins of this lifestyle aren’t always pretty. There were a lot of self-flagellating clerics, and dehumanizing slave owners, and kinky Nazis. Nobody the reader would be all that inclined to root for. Tupper was tasked with putting this horrible backstory into context with modern BDSM, to show how the ideas originated in some dark places but have become so much less creepy and more consensual—there’s that word again—over time.
I called Tupper to talk about the good, the bad, and the occasionally sweet in the long and weird history of sadomasochism.
The title, A Lover’s Pinch, feels a little tame given the subject matter. There's a whole hell of a lot more happening here than just pinching.
Yeah, yeah, I know.
You mention the importance of maintaining eye contact while fisting on the first freaking page.
Sure. I had a lot of problems with the title. Way back when I started working on the book, it was called Beauty and Darkness. When I was shopping the manuscript around, I called it The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. That was a William Blake reference.
I still think Eye Contact While Fisting might’ve been the way to go.
Maybe. I like A Lover's Pinch. It’s a Shakespeare quote, which always adds a hint of class.
It helps if you’re trying to reach a mainstream audience.
That was the challenge. I'm in the odd position of being in the intersection of two niches, which is history and kink. I want to appeal to people who enjoy both things. Someone once said that the simplest, most fundamental form of kink is tickling.
We’ve all done it.
Kids do it to each other all the time. It feels innocent, and it's something where you squirm and jump around and laugh. It's aggressive but not really. It's playful aggression. I think that’s a way of letting people who are vanilla start to understand what kink is all about.
There are lots of villains in your book. But you have an almost impossible task as a writer, because you have to write about them through a sympathetic 2018 filter.
How do you mean?
It’s not like a history book about Hitler, where we all agree, "This guy was fucking awful.” You’re writing about the history that brought us to modern BDSM, which is something you ostensibly think is a healthy, alternative lifestyle community.
I do, yeah.
And it started with guys like Marquis de Sade, who were not exactly good sexual role models. He wasn’t somebody who asked his partners, “Are you okay with this? What’s your safe word?”
No, that wasn’t a priority for him.
But you’re still trying to look at how he paved the way for what BDSM would become, which isn’t nearly as non-consensual and icky.
I tried to make a point of saying, yes, this is awkward and ugly and uncomfortable. But it’s important to understand where BDSM came from, and where it comes from is not always pretty. If you look at modern science fiction, you have to look at guys like HP Lovecraft, and HP Lovecraft was a raving racist.
The worst kind of racist.
The history of BDSM is filled with really ugly stories, like American slavery and the Holocaust, which were filtered and transmuted into fantasy. I know there are people in the kink world who absolutely hate the idea of Nazi fetishists, for example.
Especially these days. Nazi role-playing is a hard thing to be okay with.
But there are people who say it's no more or less valid than any other kind of play. A lot of people don't like to use the term master/slave. Or they think the whole harem fantasy has become kitsch. I can sympathize with those points of view, with people who think it's trivializing or disrespecting. It’s a logical way to respond to this kind of historical trauma.
Was there anything you discovered when doing research for this book that surprised you, where you thought, ‘I did not think that had any connection to BDSM culture?’
All the time. I found these weird connections to Harriet Stowe’s Uncle Tom's Cabin that I did not anticipate.
An anti-slavery novel is not something that most of us associate with "Oh yeah, lots of erotic stuff in there for the spank bank."
Not at all!
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So what are we missing?
Harriet was very careful about not including anything that was terribly salacious. But when it came out in the mid-19th century, it became this massive, multimedia juggernaut, with all these authorized and unauthorized adaptations and merchandise. People were squeezing in all these other things that were completely at odds with her original vision. You have Sam Beeton, the British publisher, traveling to meet with Stowe about getting the rights to publish the book in England and showing her the plates from one of the unauthorized additions and it was a much more sexed up image then she ever would have included in her own work.
Sexed up how?
It was an illustration of a black man beating a bare breasted woman in chains while another man watched.
Well yes, that’s a little more sexed up than I remember Uncle Tom’s Cabin .
This kind of thing turned up a lot. You look at the writings of early sexologists like Freud, discussing how patients were inspired by Uncle Tom's Cabin and other abolitionist media. Stories like this keep going through cycles of reinterpretation and re-fantasizing and turning into things that differ pretty strongly from their origin point. It's like that old game of telephone where you whisper something to your friend and it works its way around the circle and by the time it got back to you it’s incomprehensible.
“Oh, my polemical treatise on the injustice of slavery is now about how you like to get tied up and spanked.”
Right. That’s how it gets re-interpreted. It’s like those Ilsa movies in the '70s starring Dyanne Thorne.
She Wolf of the SS!
It's supposed to be horrifying but it’s also titillating.
Probably the biggest gift of your book is reminding me that I haven’t watched Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS since I was a stoned college student, and I really should watch it again.
It's a very confusing movie if you think of it in a broader context than just a campy sexploitation movie about a Nazi dominatrix with big boobs.
It's very strange. They go to the lengths of putting this pseudo-documentary introduction on it, and yet it's this ridiculously over-the-top thing. What's interesting is that even though Ilsa is killed at the end of each movie, she somehow comes back in, what is it, three more sequels?
Yes. They’re all excellent.
And each time she’s working for a completely different political entity.
She runs a harem, a gulag, and a psychiatric hospital.
You watched them all?
I’m trying to be a responsible journalist.
She's this archetype of the monstrous, castrating, sexually voracious woman who can get attached to any political system regardless of whether it makes any particular sense.
But she’s a Nazi.
Which is not something any sane person is supposed to think of as arousing.
The circuits of fear and the circuits of arousal are very closely linked. We're seeing this taboo of the sexually aggressive, sexually domineering woman. At the end, she's sort of the monster who must be killed to restore order to the hierarchy of gender and politics. But she keeps coming back. She comes back in, what did you say?
I guess you can't keep an evil fascist dominatrix down.
There’s one story in your book that stood out for me, and it didn’t have any Nazi imagery or allusions to race-based slavery or anything else that would make it difficult to find the sex appeal in 2018. It’s just the story of a man and a woman and her dirty, dirty chimney.
Pretend I never read the book. Tell me what’s so fascinating about this guy named Munby.
Munby was a 19th century gentleman and minor poet, and he was utterly fascinated by working-class women. The female ideal at this time was about being delicate and not working. But Munby was attracted to the opposite. He wanted women who were big and dirty and did hard manual labor. He wanted a women who had calluses. One of them was a woman he met named Hannah Cullwick. She was a servant woman and she fit his type perfectly. They began this covert master-slave relationship.
But she wasn’t technically his slave, right?
No. This was happening while there were real slaves toiling away in America, but she was just a domestic servant earning a paycheck. They both kept diaries so we know in considerable detail the extent of their relationship. It lasted for years and they even secretly married and lived together, both as master and slave and husband and wife. They built this little fantasy world all to themselves, in private, and it gave them a great deal of pleasure.
It wasn’t even about their physical interactions, right? He just got turned on reading about her back-breaking labor.
That’s right. She would write these very detailed descriptions of the amount of work she did, like 16-hour work days, sweeping out chimneys and things.
The chimney letter is fascinating. She writes about getting naked before climbing into the chimney, where she gets ridiculously filthy and there’s “a lot o' soot and it was soft and warm.” I mean come on!
Read that with a Dick Van Dyke Cockney accent and it’s like the best/worst Penthouse letter ever written.
It really is. This is the same era when some magazines in Victorian England were publishing firsts-person letters about tight-laced corsets and flagellation and forced crossdressing and things like that. This is the beginning of that culture.
Part of the reason I love Munby so much is that, from my vanilla perspective, the whole master-slave relationship is hard to wrap my head around.
It’s too much?
It just comes with a lot of cultural baggage. Maybe it’s just the word “slave.” It makes me uncomfortable. But Munby-
He’s a different story.
It’s weirdly sweet. He doesn't like pornography, he’s uncomfortable with overt sexuality. He just wants a working-class woman whose demeaning work he can sexualize from afar, and he finds someone who loves being admired from afar for her demeaning work.
It’s a fascinating relationship. And from a historian’s perspective, it’s a miracle that we have so many details. Mumby could have destroyed his journals. He considered doing that at certain points in his life. But luckily for us, he left them for prosperity.
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