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  • Rethinking Gendered Perversion and Degeneration in Visions of Sadism and Masochism, 1886–1930
  • Alison Moore (bio)

A large range of texts from the late nineteenth century through the early twentieth century from authoritative medical and psychiatric writings to popular novels and erotica viewed latent masochism as the natural sexuality of women, regarding its manifestation in men’s fantasies as aberrant, effeminate, and degenerate. Another ongoing discussion also elaborated a kind of sadistic or masochistic perversion that followed apparently normative gender roles and yet developed them to a hypernormative extent. This article considers how we might account for this apparent contradiction in late-nineteenth-century texts, looking at how the various images of such desires were related to atavistic explanations of perversion. It then tracks the movement of discourses about sadism, masochism, and gender roles into texts produced in the interwar period, noting how degenerationist motifs were perpetuated in new anxieties about the hypernormative perversions of female masochism and frigidity.

Recent scholarship on psychiatric visions of masochism at the fin de siècle has tended to emphasize the alignment of this new pathology with anxieties about gender differentiation. The masochistically passive man and the sadistically predatory woman were commonly pathologized figures in late-nineteenth-century French, German, Italian, and British visions of sexuality, crime, and monsters. As a number of scholars such as John K. Noyes, Suzanne Stewart, and Carol Siegel have shown, the male masochist at the fin de siècle was imagined as perverting normative masculinity by abdicating his penetrative agency and relocating his pleasure in bodily zones other than the penis, which was considered the only legitimate organ of male pleasure.1 Moreover, in flagellation (the most commonly discussed [End Page 138] masochistic pleasure) it is frequently the buttocks that take the role of the primary erotic zone—one associated with humiliation, shame, infantilism, and femininity. Less commonly observed by scholars is the fact that the female sadist implied by the masochistic scenario was also the object of a pathologizing gaze. Depictions of such women appeared less frequently and more ambiguously than depictions of male masochists in fin-de-siècle texts by virtue of prevailing assumptions about women’s weaker sexual drive, making deeply aberrant perversions unlikely to occur in females. So alien was dominance to late-nineteenth-century visions of woman’s nature that a female sadistic agency was only conceivable as a kind of monstrosity. Male masochists, on the other hand, were all too imaginable, reflecting widespread social anxieties about masculinity in middle-class life and confirming visions of national threat and racial degeneration.2

The sexual scenario in which a sadistic female subjected a masochistic male to her will was discussed as perverse in a range of late-nineteenth-century texts because it reversed what was deemed to be a natural gender order in which men dominated women. A number of feminist scholars have argued that visions of heteronormativity as male sadism/female masochism have infiltrated modern cultures through the influence of a generalized cultural misogyny.3 In many such readings the notions of “masochism” and “sadism” are imputed to texts that do not themselves employ such terms, implying that these are real categories of desire with clear and accepted meanings. In this article I consider how gender norms intersected with constructions of sadism and masochism where these terms were specifically invoked in the work of psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, and writers on sexuality across a period when sexual perversion as degeneration was being rethought. From the late nineteenth century on these terms came into use to describe sexual desires for domination and submission in a range of French, German, and British psychiatric and pseudomedical texts. Their elaboration was closely bound to degenerationist visions, and they were frequently discussed in relation to appropriately normative gender roles.

Gender-role reversal was not the only criterion used to define sadism and masochism as deviations from an imagined gender-appropriate axis. Just as the frigid woman of late-nineteenth-century sex talk was somehow [End Page 139] perversely that which all women were normatively assumed to be (cool, passive, and less sexual than men), so too the sadistic male and the masochistic female represented aberrations of excess, a kind...


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pp. 138-157
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