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  • That Was Then: This is Now:Ex-Changing the Phallus
  • Lynda Hart

In A Taste for Pain, Maria Marcus recounts an anecdote about a women’s studies conference in 1972. Germaine Greer, the keynote speaker, was interrupted by a young woman from the audience who suddenly cried out: “But how can we start a women’s movement when I bet three-quarters of us sitting in this room are masochists?” Greer replied: “Yes, we know women are masochists—that’s what it’s all about!”1

Twenty years later, I am more likely to hear the complaint that all women are masochists in the context of lesbians lamenting the scarcity of tops in the community. Whether they are “real” butches, or the newly popular femme- tops, a good top is hard to find; most lesbians prefer being bottoms.

While feminists continue to debate the pros and cons of lesbian sexual practices, “masochism,” the term that has become synonomous for some feminists with internalized oppression, has undergone a theoretical renaissance in which the erotics of submission have been reclaimed by a diverse group of scholars as an emancipatory sexuality for men. Indeed if we are to follow Leo Bersani’s argument, which strikingly concludes that “sexuality—at least in the mode in which it is constituted—could be thought of as a tautology for masochism,” anti-s/m feminist arguments would be tantamount to barring women from sex altogether.2

For feminists who are struggling to articulate a sexual subjectivity that does not submit to the psychoanalytic imperative of an exclusively masculine libido, which ineluctably consigns femininity to a masculinized fetish, Bersani’s theory might be welcomed since it takes us out of the discourse of the symptom into a “nonreferential version of sexual thought.” Parental identifications, which inevitably reify Oedipus, are no longer constitutive; and the “lost object,” which is relentlessly relegated to a feminized fetish, is diffused so that any object and any part of the body can become an erotogenic zone.3 This theory does not of course undo the historical/social attribution of masochism to women, but it does suggest a psychic model in which the sexual positions one takes up are not necessarily gendered. Nevertheless, Bersani implicitly assumes the now privileged masochistic position as a male preogative, and hence claims sexuality itself for men. This presumption is clearer in his essay, “Is the Rectum a Grave?” when he describes the dominant culture’s revulsion at the sight of a man seductively and intolerably imaged with “legs high in the air, unable to refuse the suicidal ecstasy of being a woman.”4

This is a graphic enactment of Freud’s third form of masochism, “feminine masochism,” which he also presumes to be occupied by a male subject in a feminine situation. The male subject in this space signifies “being castrated, or copulated with, or giving birth to a baby.”5 Since women presumably already experience one or more of the above, the notion of a feminine “feminine masochism” is redundant at best, if not impossible. In short, linguistically masculine feminine masochism is performative; feminine feminine masochism is constative. The latter merely reports an adequation; it corresponds with the “facts.” The feminist campaign to free women from their masochism was never then about giving up something that they had, but extricating women from something that they were.

Although Kaja Silverman acknowledges that psychoanalytic sexual difference relegates female masochism to a virtually ontological condition when she defends her focus on male subjectivity by explaining that the female subject’s masochism is difficult to conceptualize as perverse because it represents “such a logical extension of those desires which are assumed to be ‘natural’ for the female subject,” she nonetheless accepts and repeats the terms of a psychoanalytic symbolic in which there is only one libido and it is masculine.6 Women are denied sexual agency because they are incapable of mimesis. Their options are to take up the position of passive “normal femininity,” or to reverse the position and appropriate masculine subjectivity and its desires, in which case they can “perform” sexuality, but only through their “masculinity complex.” Bersani’s desire is aimed at the pleasures gay men might experience...

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