- Ovid's Art and the Wife of Bath: The Ethics of Erotic Violence
Desmond opens her study of medieval erotic violence with reflections on an academic panel on sadomasochism (S/M) entitled "Safe, Sane and Consensual S/M: An Alternate Way of Loving" that was part of a women's studies conference in 1997 (1). The panel title provoked controversy at the time: journalists decried the scandalous topic; politicians worried about its presumed queer agenda; feminists expressed anxiety about nonconsensual sex; and academic administrators called for an ethics investigation. This anecdote frames the author's interest in the similarly scandalous aspects of medieval Ovidian literature, which in her reading constructs feminine masochism and masculine sadism. On the day I sat down to read this book, a local news headline made the topic seem particularly timely. According to the Ann Arbor News, a University of Michigan law student had decided that prostitution was the best way to come up with her next tuition payment, and she had agreed to exchange sex for money in a local motel. Once there, she had also agreed to being struck on the buttocks with a belt, but, she later claimed, her sex partner crossed a line when he slapped her face. She filed a police complaint alleging he violated their implicit contract. The media entered the fray, as did academic administrators calling for ethics investigations (it turned out the man is a member of the university faculty) and feminist commentators. The various responses closely resemble those arising from the 1997 panel. Other recent stories about academics and S/M hint that such narratives may be more common than university administrators would like and suggest that questions about effective consent to S/M are as much a concern now as they were in 1997 (see, for instance, the commentary on a case reported in New Mexico, http://dankprofessor.wordpress.com/2008/03/17/sadomasochistic-posing-professor-found-fit-to-teach, [End Page 568] 12 December 2008). Erotic violence is obviously an important topic with a kind of currency few academic tomes achieve.
S/M can, of course, encompass a wide range of behaviors, not all of which raise legal or ethical questions or fit the psychiatric standards for paraphilia (as defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders [DSM-IV]). Desmond's opening example locates S/M in the social context of modern love relationships, where a liberal middle-class "emphasis on safety and communication" seems both possible and reasonable (1) and where consent appears unproblematic. From her perspective, modern S/M is closer to erotic role playing than to a distressing psychosexual fixation on painful pleasures. Indeed, that is her point. She uses the conference panel to foreground the performative aspects of S/M—that is, the staging of apparent sexual violence between consenting partners, complete with scenarios, scripts, props, and costumes, all of which apparently function to contain if not preclude actual violence. S/M appears paradoxically nonviolent, remote from the disturbing ambiguities of consent that trouble some modern feminists.
Desmond posits that such modern performances of S/M worry many commentators because they simultaneously reveal and mask the erotic violence occurring elsewhere in the culture: the "structural violence" against women evident throughout the culture, manifest in the widespread toleration of domestic abuse as well as in the symbolic violence of compulsory heterosexuality (4). The author derives Western culture's pervasive erotic violence from the institution of marriage, which, she argues, structures the roles of dominance and submission that constitute heterosexual desire. In other words, Desmond represents S/M as the normalized sexual orientation of married heterosexuals, the cultural origin to which modern (queer) S/M performances endlessly refer. The historical argument offered in support of this claim is shaky. Desmond posits a decisive cultural shift between Roman marriage (not based on erotic desire, not violent toward women) and Christian marriage, "an institution that structures eros" and "simultaneously becomes an institution that both elicits and regulates violence...