Friday, October 19, 2012

Fifty Shades and the sadomasochism of everyday life

Lots of women are reading 'Fifty Shades of Grey'. Really really lots. They read it on trains, on planes, in airports. Quite a few of them complain that it was badly written and that it was a struggle to read all five hundred pages, not to mention what a drudge it was to read the sequels. Some compare it adversely to 'The Story of O', which was much more literary, apparently. Few mention that it was any sort of turn-on.

What's unusual about Fifty Shades is that it's S&M for women. Although it's often taken for granted that womens' sexuality is somehow linked to masochism, there isn't much evidence of this in the form of material actually aimed at women. There's a huge amount of material designed to gratify male masochism. S&M permeates 'straight' male porn, and non-porn or 'soft porn' depictions of sexy women. Fetish clothes and props like whips and riding crops abound. These objects have more or less become signifiers of sexualisation. Images of men being dominated by leather-clad women with whips are commonplace in fashion photography and in music videos. What was once a slightly shameful 'outlaw' sexual orientation is now heading for the mainstream.

What is behind this? I think that sexual masochism, for both women and men, is a response to the increasingly complex demands of modern life. Everyday life involves ever more choices. Some of these are trivial (like which of 27 different kinds of milk to buy), but they still take up brain resource. Others are both very difficult to make and of great consequence – how to save sufficient money to avoid an old age of misery while still managing to live somewhere decent enough to bring up a family. This paradox of choice has been much commented upon. It's been observed that the richer you are, the less time you seem to have – because having more money means that more options (even for pleasure) are open to you, competing for your time and mental resources.

Everyday life involves more role conflict than it used to. We are parents for longer, because though our 'children' have their own ideas about how to dress, socialize, and spend their time earlier than their predecessors, they are financially dependent on us until much later in life, because the demands of the education system, the labour market and the current housing market are much more cruel to them. We are children for longer too, because our parents live longer than their predecessors, surviving the physical ailments that used to kill them to 'enjoy' a life of declining mental faculties and social disadvantage in a culture that does not celebrate or value old age. The flexible labour market means that our jobs are not secure, the 'delayering' havoc of repeated waves of management consultant-led reorganisations have done away with the expectation of a career path, and a self-managed career means both frequent job changes and lots of effort to demonstrate 'good attitude'. And that's at the same time as being a good parent and a dutiful child.

There are a few palliatives to this. A few people can manage to practice mindfulness and meditation, consciously and actively clearing this stuff from their minds when it isn't helpful or appropriate – but this is really hard word that takes a lot of training and effort. Activities that offer total engagement and 'flow' can do the same thing via physical discipline, which some people find easier than mental training. Joyful submission to a religious system cuts down on lots of choices and gives strong guidance on how to resolve those that remain. For those looking for a quick fix, safely bounded fear of the kind offered by a horror film or apparently dangerous theme park ride can provide a few hours or minutes of relief by focusing the mind exclusively on present circumstances.

And then there's S&M sex. Sexual arousal provides the focus on the moment, and sexual submissiveness provides the abication of responsibility and the demands of role. Under the control of another, it's possible to escape from all those choices and conflicting demands. For the time of the session, the submissive is completely absorbed in their own feelings, of both pain and pleasure. It's been suggested that the these two sensations are linked rather than opposites, that the distinction between them is not as clear-cut as sometimes supposed – or that at least some people have their wires crossed in such a way as to confuse the way that they experience pain and pleasure.

That may be so, but I think the pay-off from sadomasochism is primarily social and cognitive rather than physiological. The benefit is the freedom from choice and responsibility; pain is the price that the submissive pays in order to lend versimillitude and make it feel like the freedom is genuine. That's what the props are for too – the whips, the bondage, the fetish clothing. They are necessary to sustain the fantasy, in the same way the price of a lottery ticket is needed to sustain the brief fantasy of winning the lottery. Having nasty things done to you, or being forced to do nasty things, is proof to yourself that you really can't make any choices, and are therefore genuinely 'free' from your responsibilities.

This has usually been presented as the domain of high-status men (as depicted in the film about Cynthia Payne 'Personal Services', where all of the clients seem to be generals and high court judges), but it now seems to work for lots of men, and as the success of Fifty Shades illustrates, for women too. We've all got too much responsibility and too many choices now.

The consequence is that S&M comes to stand for the kind of transcendence from the everyday that sex used to represent. When music videos represent a woman as sexy, she wears leather or latex and waves a whip about. Whereas once a sitcom would get a laugh out of allowing a couple to be discovered having sex, now it depicts them as having S&M sex. When an advertisement depicts an executive having a session with a prostitute in his office, she is a dominatrix. For many men, the props of S&M have become quite literally fetishes, in that they are imbued with the aura of sex even though they are not sexual objects.

Ultimately this is bound to lead to disappointment. As  S&M becomes mainstream, it loses the power to offer total absorption. It's one thing for Madonna to suggest that she is a bit of a dominatrix in her personal life as part of maintaining her fifty-year-old 'edginess'; when Kylie Minogue not only incorporates S&M scenes into her stage act but is also is photographed at a charity event with a pair of nipple clamps we've entered a new phase.

The extent to which S&M is already a familiar theme in advertisements suggests that this process is well under way. Eventually that whip will remind you to buy shoe polish rather than take you out of yourself.

There is another reason, too, why S&M sex is not a useful escape route from the pressures of everyday life. Acting out domination fantasies actually takes a great deal of care and attention. Few people really enjoy serious amounts of pain and discomfort. There is a thin line between sustaining the pretence that the submissive has surrendered control and actually hurting. As the anti-porn feminist Andrea Dworkin, and lots of others more sympathetic to S&M have noted, it is the submissive who is really in control of the S&M session. But where can the submissive find someone who is up to this difficult task? More men might be inclined towards submission, but there isn't a corresponding increase in the number of women who want to play the role of the dominatrix. They're all out looking for their own Christian Grey.

S&M is not an escape from the pressures of everyday life but a dead end, an engagement with yet another set of roles and responsibilities to be negotiated. Maybe it would be different under socialism...

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