When Fifty Shades of Grey became a hit some years ago, I promised myself never to read the books or see the movie adaptations. I have kept that promise to myself. Having come out of abusive experiences when I was a boy, and having seen parts of the gay world that involved a nauseating overemphasis on domination-submission games, I didn’t want to go there. The fan base for this series of stories seemed to consist of the same demographic that the Democratic Party most relied upon: liberal white women, many unmarried or divorced, who identified as feminists in the day and then fantasized about strong patriarchal males at night. Sylvia Plath’s poem “Daddy” plumbs those grim depths for those who can stomach it.
The readership of Fifty Shades conjures images from Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown.” Like the protagonist of that short story wandering into the woods only to discover that the fine Puritans of Salem worshipped the devil at night, I suspected that if I were to indulge the ongoing discussion about BDSM at that time, I’d probably become too depressed for my own good.
Recently, however, I’ve had to reflect again on sadomasochism and why it seems to appeal to certain kinds of people.
What I know of S & M comes from the 1980s and 1990s though of course the basic social dynamics of it probably haven’t changed. I remember distinctly that it was extremely popular in the gay community. I also remember that in the leather scene where many S & M players intermingled and courted one another, submissives outnumbered dominants by a large margin. I also recall that in conversations in New York the other group fascinated with S & M was women, especially radical feminists. There was an entire BDSM “community,” if you can believe that, and they had many ongoing discussions about the ethics of their common perversion. Many discussions involved submissive gay men or submissive feminist women explaining that BDSM was extremely complex and misunderstood by outside observers. It looked like people being oppressed but really, the pro-BDSM people would say, it was all about empowerment. It was all about resisting the “heteronormative” capitalist military-industrial complex by trampling taboos. Or so they said.
Within this logic, by the early 1990s we had Madonna coming out with increasingly bondage-based imagery in videos and in her book Sex. The more offensive, the better. That was the reigning psychology when I was in that world. I remember being at events or gatherings where sadomasochism became part of the entertainment. My biggest reason for reacting with horror had to do with race. In the 1990s, a certain nihilistic wing of the gay community felt that all taboos were good to break, even taboos against racism. With the release of Pulp Fiction, in which Quentin Tarantino won credits for his bold craftsmanship by saying the N-word over and over again to Samuel Jackson’s face, there developed a certain craze about what was then called “racial.” That was a code name for S & M fantasies that involved racial degradation, racial slurs, or themes of exploitation. In my experience, a split racial market arose. Blacks were generally fetishized by gay culture as dominant figures. Asians and Latinos tended to be fetishized by gay culture as submissive figures.
At several parties where people began to do racial role-play in front of people, I couldn’t bear it and left. I remember writing a letter to one group of friends to tell them that as a Puerto Rican I couldn’t endure any of those kinds of events anymore. The same reaction took hold of me during some gay pride parades when people engaged in sadomasochistic and leather roleplay in public in front of people. If people gasped in horror, the crowd booed them and called them prudes. The degradation affected me personally. But even aside from race, all the performances of S&M in the edgy nightlife of New York bothered me. I knew there was a lot of dark truth under the seemingly carefree and fun role play.
By the late 1990s I suspected something which has been confirmed this year. I suspected that underneath the disavowals and disclaimers, S & M was real. People involved in it liked pain and power. They liked inflicting it and/or they liked seeing it inflicted on themselves. And along with that came power. The pain was never the sole object of S & M. More important was the erotic charge the participants felt at the demonstration of total power over another person. And I recall many instances where people role-playing deliberately spoke of more mental, emotional, and even spiritual domination. The submissive was supposed to obey the master in every way, not only in physical acts, but also in what the submissive said and even thought.
Many people involved in S & M came from strange religious backgrounds about which they held mixed feelings. Hence the line in Deuteronomy, repeated by Jesus Christ, about loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength became morphed into a perverted scene between two people exercising total domination and submission. Submissives who were willing to discuss this told me the appeal of the scene was the utter thrill they felt of losing all sense of their own will, their own stubborn motives, their own troublesome thoughts. By surrendering everything about themselves to another person, they felt free of any responsibility, and it felt liberating.
In the gay world, S & M always carried a particularly troubling circumstance. Many people who engaged in it were survivors of sex abuse who felt the scenes allowed them to relive their past trauma, but with a greater sense of control and safety. I cannot imagine that’s a healthy way to deal with the aftereffects of abuse, but that is how many men in the gay world did deal with it. Because so many men always wanted to engage in S & M when they were involved in homosexual liaisons, I concluded that many people in the scene weren’t really gay. Their survival of same-sex abuse led them to a series of adaptive responses to hold together their sense of self. I did not believe for an instant that these men were “born” gay; many were probably not even gay at all, insofar as their connection to men was not based on attraction but rather on reliving trauma, coping with abuse, and finding an outlet to reveal what was haunting them. From what I gathered, many people did not even engage in what we would call pleasurable sex acts; their homosexuality was entirely wound up in role-playing abuse and domination.
When I wrote the novel The Melville Affair, I purposefully placed in the center of the story two men trapped in a toxic S & M relationship: Austan Melville and Dodson Silva. Austan had been beaten up by Mexican boys when he was a white weakling in Texas, so he grew up to be an obsessive bodybuilder in Manhattan and developed a fetish for tying up and dominating Latino submissives. Dodson was a brilliant artist confronting racism in the arts world of New York, where he grew up; he wanted badly to please Austan because Austan’s wealthy family had a foundation to support creative young minorities. They became sexually involved under exploitative circumstances. To the extent that any love united them, they became closer the more that they publicly performed their master/slave relationship at gatherings attended by Austan’s high-society gay friends. I wanted the story to be a dizzying descent into the morbid psychology of the New York world I had lived through. Therefore I interwove dozens of other small characters with side plots, so that I could explore the suspicion I had all along: that in the so-called liberal or libertarian world, there is a powerful undercurrent of S & M that goes beyond sexuality and taints political and social relationships as well. Some day you’ll have to read the novel.
All this came back into my mind this weekend, as I watched the news about protests in cities across America. State and local governments have imposed such ridiculous restrictions on people in the name of stopping COVID-19 (from banning the sale of seeds to arresting people for playing with their children in their front yard), that quite predictably groups of patriotic citizens have risen up against governors. On Twitter, the sheer cruelty of many people mocking the protestors shocked me. Their tone and venal rhetoric gave me the distinct impression that they were not only stating an opinion. They were enjoying themselves. And they did not seem to realize that they sounded not only wrong but also perverted.
Look at some of these tweets illustrating people who supported cracking down on protests and who sided all too gleefully with an authoritarian government crushing people’s constitutional rights. The sadomasochistic tinge shines through, because one detects a surplus, an excess, or a surfeit of satisfaction in telling people that they have no claim to the dignity of citizenship. They not only feel self-righteous; they also delight in belittling and shaming people who want to resist tyranny.
And that smacks of S & M. Through Fifty Shades of Grey or by another means, the psychology of S &M has permeated our whole culture.
One persistent theme in S&M relationships was the deliberately excessive mockery of the submissive and the belittling of any sense of an adult identity in the submissive. I remember seeing S&M role play where a submissive would be asked something like, “oh, do you think I’m not being fair?” followed by a bruising blow or escalating punishment.
Notice the seeming delight the camera holder feels as they record this scene. I remember in S&M scenes, often masters would make a point to step back and observe, knowing that the submissive and whoever interacts with the submissive are aware that their animalistic and undignified behavior is being watched by a calm masterful observer. In some cases I remember masters pulling out a camera (we didn’t have cell phones then) and saying they were going to keep a record of the submissive being humiliated.
Sometimes in S&M scenes, the master of one submissive would make a point to gather another dominant friend to talk about the submissive in the third person, commenting on how worthless and stupid the submissive is. This excited some masochists.
In the midst of this lockdown crisis, Harvard shamelessly holds a conference about how to eradicate homeschooling. This is sadistic in nature. To a country forced into homeschooling by onerous government and realizing that their children are being mistreated by schools, the Harvard elite flaunts their prestige and the power it gives them–power to take away the one thing homeschooling parents have as a safeguard. This is like a dom/sub relationship I know of once, where the master told his slave he was not allowed to keep a diary and the master had to read anything the slave wrote to anyone else.
These pictures, posted by someone in remembrance of Waco, Texas, conjure our memories of S&M in Clinton’s era. See the sick aesthetics of men posing like matinee idols in front of a smoking crater where 75 of their fellow citizens were just killed.
I doubt Patton Oswald is so ignorant as to believe that everyone in America gets to wait out the lockdown watching Netflix and playing video games. This is excessive for the fun of it. It reminds me of when dominants would intentionally take more luxuries than submissives; for instance one couple would role play where the dominant slept in his lush bedroom while the submissive had to sleep on the floor on a sheet, and would be beaten or otherwise punished for showing any signs of not liking it.
Who but a sadist pulls out the term “withering critiques and contempt”? Why would anyone throw that into a tweet except to indulge a deeply embedded and perverse cruelty?
Nancy Pelosi seems to have absorbed the S&M energy of San Francisco where she lives. You can see this tendency in her, for she mimics the dominants’ game of giving the submissive impossible tasks under the pretense that the tasks are doable; the dominant then comes and says, “why haven’t you been able to do this?” and rewards the submissive with what the two wanted all along, some kind of melodramatic spanking or punishment. Pelosi lives to humiliate and threaten Trump, but for the game to feel real, the dominant has to seem convincing when setting the standard for the submissive as if the standard is possible.