History of Single Life

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A series about hooking up through the ages.

There’s a certain amount of masochism inherent in putting oneself on the dating market to begin with, but certain people have made pain an integral part of their relationships. These are, of course, the devotees of bondage, domination and sadomasochism (BDSM), who voluntarily enter into relationships with extreme power imbalances. Typical, one partner gets to order around, verbally castigate, tie up, spank, pierce and otherwise hurt and/or humiliate the other. In other words, BDSM is much like grad school, although the BDSM crowd tends to wear more black leather and get more erotic gratification.


     The practice is as old as humanity. In his 1996 Prehistory of Sex, archaeologist Timothy Taylor describes a prehistoric figurine of a female figure with her hands bound behind her as the first evidence of BDSM. Cultures that have shown a propensity for rough sex range from the ultra-civilized Romans, who readily submitted to the scourgings that were a part of the mystery religions they imported from the East, to the Vikings, who wore their love-bites and nail-scratches as marks of honor. The term sadisme (after the Marquis de Sade, bien sur) was added to the French dictionary in 1834, though the world had to wait until 1870, when Leopold von Sacher-Masoch published Venus in Furs, for "masochism" to join it and until 1967 for Lou Reed to write a song about it.
     While such proclivities might seem an odd subject for a column ostensibly devoted to the history of mating, BDSM deserves a closer look because its practice says a lot about society. The correlation between the mating instinct and the giving and receiving of pain may be a constant of the way our brains are wired, but the form such acts take has always been shaped by culture. Medieval ascetic mystics such as Catherine of Siena did not see self-scourging, humiliation and extreme discipline as sexual, but they plainly derived from them a feeling of ecstasy that would not be unfamiliar to anyone who’s done time on a St. Andrew’s cross. Caning, which was the predominant form of discipline in schools before the twentieth century, was similarly recognized as a particularly British fetish, and whorehouses in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century

Sacher-Masoch’s passion is nothing more than a burlesque inversion of nineteenth-century bourgeois sexuality.

London kept a ready supply of canes on hand for the former public-school students who might drop in. In the same way, Sacher-Masoch’s passion for having his wife and lovers beat, humiliate and cuckold him, when examined objectively, is nothing more than a burlesque inversion of nineteenth-century bourgeois sexuality, with its insistence on the moral superiority of women and physical superiority of men.
     However, American BDSM culture bears only a tenuous relation to previous ages. For the most part, it emerged from the men who served in World War II, and their love for machines, military gear and each other. The "leather" subculture emerged when the style of postwar motorcycle clubs was adopted by gay men, to whom slipping into a biker jacket and onto a military-surplus Harley as protection from harassment, a means of finding potential sex partners and a huge turn-on. The anthropologist and gender theorist Gayle Rubin has identified two stylistic poles emerging from these origins — one involving a "military" model of hierarchy, discipline and training, and the other a "biker" model of anarchic freedom and self-realization. These two tendencies persisted, even after the "scene" began to incoroporate straight Baby Boomers raised on Bettie Page, neo-medieval fans of John Norman’s Gor novels, suburban goth kids who saw handcuffs as yet another way to ├ępater les bourgeois, and those who didn’t fit neatly into any category, such as the San Francisco-based lesbian BDSM group Samois. To wit, New York City’s Eulenspiegel Society —

What was once so shocking has become domesticated.

which was founded in 1971 and claims to be the oldest and largest BDSM support group in the U.S. — simultaneously claims that pursuing "joy and happiness in one’s own evolving nature" is a basic human right and offers classes that teach safewords and the proper way to tie someone up.
     The BDSM subculture is more widespread than one would think. In the late ’40s, Alfred Kinsey found that twenty percent of white, college-educated males and twelve percent of females were aroused by BDSM-oriented literature. In the 1986 book On Sex and Human Loving, Masters and Johnson estimated that five to ten percent of Americans regularly engaged in BDSM. From my own informal surveys of my friends in New York City, I’ve found that it’s the rare couple who hasn’t experimented with blindfolds. The downside is that today, BDSM imagery and experimentation — if not its actual practice as a lifestyle — has become decidedly mainstream. What was once shocking has been domesticated, used to do everything from selling perfume to convincing the record-buying public that Trent Reznor is a talented musician. As an integral part of human nature, BDSM is more than just a fad, but the way in which this need is met will always be dictated by culture. In the end, we’re all slaves to the urge to consume products, experiences and, ultimately, each other.  

©2006 Ken Mondschein and
Ken Mondschein is a Ph.D candidate at Fordham University and the author of A History of Single Life.