|Could you please shed
any light on this question for me? Why are there taboos against sadomasochistic
behaviour between consenting adults? How has the law been used in Britain
to prosecute such behaviour as if it were a violent assault? (writes
Bill from Tahoma)
Nice one this (sorry I took a long
time to get back to you). Funnily enough, I just taught some material on
this last semester, on a course called Leisure and the State. My
own views, for what they are worth, go like this...
The State reserves the right to
regulate and ban harmful sexual behaviour. Of course, it all depends on
what counts as 'harmful'. Some people might define harmful to include behaviour
that physically injures people,or that results in (costly) medical treatment
(which might cover some of this sort of sadomaso stuff?). Less tangible
kinds of 'harm' include those associated with laws on porno (that they
can deprave and corrupt minors etc), or cause public disorder (assuming
they take place in public). Private and consensual behaviour seems to meet
most of these objections though? Maybe the argument here might be that
such behaviour could escalate into the equivalent of 'addiction' or 'hard'
sexuality (such as snuff movies)?
Laws might be reflecting more general
taboos, of course, rooted in cultures. For some people, sadomaso sex might
be 'unnatural', a 'perversion'. The 'natural' kind of sex would only be
between consenting heteros where it leads to childbirth? Freud is often
invoked here, of course, since he saw 'perversions' as resulting from blocked
perceptions of adult sexuality, usually arising from some typical infantile
misunderstanding -- maybe the infant saw daddy and mummy having sex and
it looked as though daddy was hurting mummy and that she liked it. Or they
were caught masturbating by a responsible adult who spanked them soundly
and set up this association between the one and the other. Adults develop
more 'normal' kinds of sexuality as they realise what was going on, but
some people never do and these infantile perceptions remain to dominate
(sic) their own sex lives as adults.
Sociologists might have a different
account of taboos, of course, as 'surface' ways of enforcing some basically
functional or socially adaptive behaviour. The usual case here is the taboo
against incest, which a number of thinkers have explained as necessary
to prevent threats of social confusion -- if you impregnate your sister,
is the resulting child your brother or your nephew? This might be
OK but it won't really fit sadomaso which seems a much less socially-threatening
form of activity? Others connect sexuality with a desire to regulate and
control. Foucault argues (to be very brief) that talk about sex is very
useful for would-be regulators since they can spin out a whole discourse
involving the rights and duties of adults versus kids, men versus women,
population control, control of the body,.regulation of desire and all that
stuff. That's why there is so much public interest in sex for Foucault,and
so much attention given to it by busybodies and 'moral entrepreneurs' (
to borrow another angle -- 'moral panics' help strengthen particular groups
in society, notoriously the police and politicians who gain a lot of attention
and resources in their heroic fight against the forces of perversion).
Foucault also suggests that sex has to be 'talked up' a bit, to encourage
people to do it. We might be able to see some forces opposing the imposition
of taboos here? Sex therapists, for example, might encourage a little experimentation
to revive jaded married heteros -- perhaps a mild bit of sadomaso included?
Other forces against moral condemnation
are to be found in the increase in 'lifestyle politics' which a number
of theorists of postmodernism and modernity have written about (including
Giddens). As the old constraints against non-vanilla sex have weakened
(with the demise of the classic family, say), people are now more culturally
liberated and are able to explore their own sexuality. This is a big theme
in the work of people like Plummer advocating gay rights. Hetero sex is
NOT especially privileged as 'natural' says Plummer -- humans can and do
sexualise anything (and desexualise anything), since fantasy is so important.
Maybe those fantasies include a little sadomaso, chosen deliberately rather
than representing the force of some dark infantile compulsion? You could
see those who oppose sadomaso as the 'fundamentalists' EITHER having their
last blast against an inevitably more 'cultural' form of sexuality OR as
the inevitable result of people wanting to get back to some ort of secure
reality having been panicked by postmodernism.
I dunno if any of this is of any
use to you at all. One book which contains some of this stuff on sexuality
in general is Brake On Human Sexuality, which has bits of Freud,
Foucault, Plummer and several others. It seems to be very well-thumbed
in our Library,for some reason. An excellent case study of great interest
is the so-called Spanner case of recent years (quite a few websites devoted
to it --search under <Spanner>). A group of consenting males got together
for a sadomaso sessions involving, for example, nailing each other's penises
to planks of wood. They video-d proceedings for their own amusement. No
non-consenting people were involved, no minors, no publication of the video
was planned, no one needed treatment in hospital afterwards - and yet the
police got to hear of the episode and prosecuted the men for assault. They
were convicted and punished. Their appeal to the European Court was not
upheld -- so lots of good issues to discuss there. I am sure many fetishist
sites will also help in explaining their pleasures, trying to calm any
fears of real violence, and in arguing for rights for sadomasos.
I hope you won't mind, but I think
I will include this on my Q and A section ( without naming you, of course).
Apart from anything else, words like 'perversions' should drive up the
hits most impressively!
Good luck with it