Monday, June 20, 2016

The Social Psychology of Kink Safety

This post is dedicated to the dead, wounded and traumatized in the Pulse nightclub shooting and all those who love them.  It is also dedicated to those who sense of safety has been diminished by this horrific act.  Potentially, that is a lot of people, including the author.  Although gay, lesbian, queer, trans, and gender fluid people know less safety than many of us, all of us are correct to feel that the realities of terrorism, anti-homosexual ideology, and toxic masculinity make us less safe than we may have previously imagined.  Finally, I want to particularly spotlight Eli Green, AASECT Annual Conference Co-Chairs Melissa Keyes DiGioia, and Mariotta Gary-Smith who worked so hard to promote safety at AASECT16 when we were threatened by a lesser invasion that was only made more disturbing by the Pulse shooting.

Kinksters are very concerned about safety.  It is possible to be an outsider with relatively low levels of stigma, but when you know that your sexuality is judged as threatening and crazy by others, you carry stigma about it even when you are not out, and when there is no immediate threat.  All kinky people are vulnerable to some social stigma, and, depending on their preferred practices, many are vulnerable to legal prosecution as described in previous posts on Elephant.  Even before learning about kink communities, potential members learned to conceal their sexual desires, to manage double lives, to handle internal and external stigma, and to control as much as they can how others perceive them.

Social Participation:

Is it safer to be out or not?  It depends on which risks are important to you.
So the first line of kinksters’ defense in the struggle for safety is not being out.  In the 2014 Consent Violations Survey, 70% said they were not out to someone.  We didn’t ask, but there is a large but unknown number of kinky people who have never been out to anyone.  They were not likely to have been in our sample.  These are people who learned their desires were forbidden before they ever had the opportunity to express them.  They may be so afraid they do not act on them ever.  Why I periodically take issue with the ‘sex addiction’ discourse here on Elephant is that some children and adolescents fear to masturbate to their fantasies for fear of becoming addicted and losing control of how other people perceive them.  They internalize stigma and feel shame and hatred of their desires.  So for the fearful, the price in judgment of knowing themselves can be enforced celibacy and lonely secrecy.  Is it any wonder that out kinksters are often counterphobic?  To own their sexuality, they have no alternative to facing their fears.

Because sexuality is a private matter in conventional public life, one does not need to lead a double life to be kinky.  An unknown number of kinky couples exist out in the world who read books, or respond to movies or other media, or are introduced to kink by a partner and take to it like a duck to water. They recognize that they have kinky desires, and reveal their kinks only to a few willing partners and achieve safety through appearing conventional in everyday social life and doing as they please in bed.  They hide their toys from the kids, and lock up everything when guests come to stay for a few days.  For these people, safety may feel routine and pose modest psychological burdens.  The more polyamorous one is, the harder this is to pull off, because it is harder to conceal multiple partnerships under the cloak of hetrro-normativity.  For most gender fluid clients it is impossible, and for gay clients, so-called marriage equality holds out some hope that they too can avoid stigma through maintaining sexual privacy that previously was available only to heterosexuals.

A wise words from Oscar Wilde.  Come to think of it,though, didn't he do time for being out!
For others, the inability to tell significant others about their desires leads to behaviors we would consider risky.  They chose to lead double lives.  They contact other people through personal ads and express their kink outside of their primary relationships.  They decide the fears of relationship loss are the lesser of the evils relative to never discussing their desires.  We often interpret the resulting secrecy and duplicity as proof that they do not value their relationships, but it would be equally true that they value them too much to risk speaking of their kinks!  (Lest you credit me with this gem, know that I learned it first from Ether Perel’s work on affairs!)

Leading double lives can be elaborate, and sometimes the rituals of doing this become eroticized.  Contacting new partners who might accept you and share your excitements can be hot.  So can doing something illicit.   So swiping the correct direction can feel like rolling the dice, and you may feel a rush when the object of your intense interest responds with an encouraging text message.  In the past, kinksters chose aliases and wrote away to re-mail services.  Sometimes letters arrived saturated in perfume, and filled with sexy pictures.  Now mostly this happens electronically.
Did someone say "Red Room of Pain'?  This is actually from a bondage B&B in Edinburgh
Wealthy people build secret dungeons equivalent to Christian Grey’s Red Room, and hold private parties by invitation only.  Despite the intimacy of play, they may not know one another’s real names, occupations or marital statuses.  At CARAS every year a therapist discussion group is held for kinky therapists who worry about managing their caseloads of kinksters in the incestuous environment of their local scene, and worry that if they play anywhere 300 miles from the office that a client’s therapy will be damaged by an unplanned social meeting at a kink event.  So the sources of unsafety, and the complexity of solutions when a double life is undertaken, can vary tremendously and require a huge amount of attention and energy. When the burdens of maintain these arrangements become too great, safety is often sought in therapy, as kinky clients worry that the burdens of dealing with stigma constitute proof that their kinks are ‘pathological’.
Of course, double lives can provide one kind of safety at the expense of other dangers.  Lying and deception can sour the relationship with the primary partner and destroy trust.  Partners that might have lovingly faced their own fears and judgments about kink might lack the trust to make the attempt if they discover yours only after learning about a prolonged deception.  All the things one sought to protect with deception can be precipitously damaged when deception fails.  Therapists long experience with secrets suggest secrets and confidences tend to slip out more frequently in times of acute stress, conflict and crisis, such that damage can be very hard to contain and repair.  Therapists as a community tend to be pro intimacy and pro honesty and to question the benefits of double life behaviors, so people using these face psychological risks of being confronted about their relationship strategies in therapy.  Kink-aware therapists can be expected to handle these situations in non-directive and client-centered ways.

Informed Consent as a source of safety:

Negotiation and contracting are the foundations of kink safety.  In their ideal form they operationalize informed consent.  Ideally, they work best if the following conditions are maintained continuously:
Equality:  The parties in the negotiation come to the negotiation form a place of existential equality and negotiate freely as equals. 
Honesty:  Each participant has good communications skills and negotiates honestly about what they do and do not want.
Empathy:  Each participant has a high degree of empathy for the other parties in the negotiation.
Limited but Shared Interests:  The parties negotiate with a flexible acceptance that negotiation partners have not only interest that align, but also differences that do not, and they are prepared to be accepting of the irreducible differences.
Self-Discipline:  Each participation maintains discipline about their expectations.
Risk tolerance: Each participant is aware and tolerant of the risks of negotiation.
Explicit agreement:  The negotiation is explicit and limited in its specifications of what is to be agreed.
The negotiation contains serious considerations of what might go wrong, and has a safety plan for dealing with potential problems if everything agreed to does not proceed smoothly and expectable difficulties arise.
It is important that the above description is my ideal statement of negotiation for informed consent.  In actual practice, actual negotiations rarely maintain ideal standards on all of these dimensions.

This Your E-Card is a great example of how 50 Shades of Grey has altered the conversation about kink.
Contacts often lead to the expression of hard and soft limits.  Hard limits are activities that you do not want to do under any circumstances.  If you have breathing difficulties, that might mean no gags, ever.  A fear of spiders may mean no role playing Little Miss Muffett.   If you have a prominent public position, that may mean no pictures, or no scenes where you are locked outside the hotel room naked for the excruciating thrill of humiliation.  Soft limits are limits you are prepared to relax under special circumstances.  Examples might include no public play unless we are a safe distance from home, or unless you are masked and hooded.  Someone who was afraid of her potential for angry reactions might only agree to sensation play when she’s securely bound so she doesn’t hit back.  Or some behavior which was extremely hot and anxiety provoking might be OK in private play, but never OK in a group scene.  Using negotiation, hard limits and soft limits, kinksters can titrate their fears and desires and their desire for risk and adventure with their needs for safety into scenes that have the best chance of being fun and sexy.

From This one hit a little too close to home; our cat's name is Khatzie!  So sue me!
Safewords and contracts are about safety.  Although it may be hot to imagine that you are helpless at the hands of a sexy sadist, cramps, sudden illness, an accident, or emotional triggering can all lead to dangerous situations in which ending the scene immediately is imperative.  Often kinksters play with making safewords less safe, by making them long or difficult to say, or by imposing penalties for using them.  Also, submissives often try to avoid using their safewords under the theory that good role players don’t do such things, or the top might be hurt or inconvenienced.  These are a dangerous ideas, but also illustrate one of the key safety principles of kink:  that one never has to be any safer than they want to be.  Much safety in kink just about doing your best to make an informed choice about exactly the level of safety you want, and about the human fallibility of getting it.

Aftercare is partly about safety.  Getting emotional support and processing your experiences are important parts of getting safety both through sharing understanding of your experiences, processing any problems that arose, and consolidating possible new learnings about yourself from play.

Community Safety Resources:

Please note that the photo and links immediately below are from commercial sites, and some videos may require you to pay a fee and/or subscribe.  By way of personal disclosure, some videos may be by personal friends and professional colleagues of the author.  I have received no fee or other commercial consideration for using these examples.

What?  There are only 50 skills?  This piece of shrewd marketing to newbies is from KinkUniversity at, an excellent source of on-line kink training videos.  Kink is also recomended.
Kink Academy
The logo of  The Eugenspiegel Society in New York City. The United States first aboveground kink social group founded in 1972
Society of Janus, the second oldest kink social group, marching in the San Francisco Pride Parade.
There are now a great many local BDSM social communities in medium and large cities and many university campuses.  The best palce to locate a local group is on

Joining a kink community can have risks, like being more ‘out’, but often puts people in touch with many new sources of safety.  Kink communities endlessly educate, and safety is very often a main theme of kink educational sessions.  Kink groups often provide mentoring programs for new members.  In mentoring programs, safety is learned directly by processing one’s own emotional reactions with experienced players.  Mentors can help you decide what new things you are ready to try and under what conditions you are most likely to enjoy them.  They can serve as sounding boards that help you understand what your actual play partner might be thinking and feeling when they are doing new things with you.  Good mentors check on your safety techniques to help make sure they are working as you intend and as they are intended to work in the community you are joining.  Direct instruction can teach about safewords, safe play methods, the physiological consequences of different techniques and behaviors.  It is a typical feature of mentoring programs that mentors do not play with their charges.  This makes it easier for mentees to keep clear that sexual self-interest is not coloring the mentor’s advice.

Often, kinksters chose close confidants to be their ‘safeties’ from within their local communities.  A safety is a person who serves as a spotter for you when you are playing.  They are similar to people who help keep you safe when you are practicing trampoline or diving.  They can observe while you contract and watch with neutral eyes while you play.  Sometimes another pair of eyes will serve to deter someone who would go beyond their agreement with you because such behavior would make them look bad in the eyes of the community.  Safeties can stop play, or question it, if something appears to be going amiss, even if you are in top or subspace.  When you make explicit arrangements to visit a private party or other venue, you can arrange to text your safety with where you are and when you plan to report in so that someone else knows you are safe and can call for help if you fail to check in.  Safeties don’t just deter other people who might not be careful or scrupulous enough not to harm you, but also can serve as an experienced and neutral source of judgment in helping you to keep from taking greater risks in the heat of desire than you intend to.  Safeties differ from mentors in that they are often relative equals, and often they are in the same roles you prefer to explore in the community.  Different people can play the role of safety for you at different times, where as a mentoring relationship is usually filled by just one person and for a prearranged period.

Friends can serve as support for discussion and understanding what you have experienced.  Those in the scene are a valuable source of information about norms and community history.  Just as Elephant in the Hot Tub is often about context, knowing and influencing the context of where you play and who you play with can be an important source of safety information and risk.  Friends can help with those efforts.
Actual playing technique is often a source of safety.  Many things you see on Porn Hub and kinky illustrations are either artistic license, or scenes carefully crafted by unique and highly experienced models.  Just because you can fantasize doing something and get off on it does not necessarily mean you can do it safely.  Educational sessions can keep you from practices that might lead to injury or worse if done without instruction.  For example, many kinksters lack partners and engage in self-bondage.  If it is important to you to be genuinely helpless, it is a real risk that if you tie yourself up that you will be unable to free yourself.  Furthermore, positions that are hot for short periods can become highly uncomfortable or dangerous if circulation gets cut off or cramps ensue.  Learning ways to free yourself may seem self-defeating, but may spare you the embarrassment of calling the authorities, or neighbors to get free, or suffering genuine injury.

E Gary Gygax makes an animated guest appearance on Futurama as a Dungeon Master.
This is not the kind of Dungeon Master we'er looking for.! It is another one of those wonderful multi-cultural double entendres like CBT.  The term Dungeon Master arose independently and nearly simultaneously in the 1970's in D&D and BDSM sub-cultures.

In group playing situations, Dungeon Masters operate to ensure that group rules about play and personal conduct are observed.  Those of you who attended the Taste of Kink event in Minneapolis last June saw both safeties from AASECT and Dungeon Masters from the demonstrating local group in operation.  Play groups and BDSM social organizations always have policies.  Alcohol and drugs may be banned, both to protect players’ states of mind and to ensure that authorities do not have an excuse to raid playspaces.  Personal touch and touching of others’ equipment is generally prohibited, in part because people with past histories of boundary violations have been known to test limits like these and such rules bring their attention to group leaders.  Photos and recording are prohibited to protect group members’ anonymity and privacy.  Dungeon masters are generally senior and high status members of the community who have a broad familiarity with techniques, and can observe that play is safe and have full authority to stop it.

Groups also often have reporting policies in the event that people make complaints about a group member’s behavior.  Often there is considerable dispute about the ways that communities regulate play, and what rules the community should adopt.  A climate of anarchic radical personal responsibility prevails.  But leathersex traditions and histories of community violators have led most to have them.  Therapists of new community members should ask them to enquire of their kink social organization about what the response procedures are if something untoward happens.

It is common practice in kink social organizations for new members to ask for references when playing with someone for the first time, and this is especially true when playing outside the group playspace.  References are far from infallible, but using them to rule out problem players is a really good idea.  In the 2014 Consent Violations Survey, references were not always sought, but when they were, 74% of reported violations were committed by someone with a good or excellent rating, so references are not infallible protection.  They are mostly useful to weed out known unsafe players.

A group photo of participants from the Folsom Street Fair (FSF) ironically serves to illustrate dress codes.  Ironic because FSF is a rare event with no dress code, and no prohibition against photography.  You automatically consent to being photographed, and that is why I often select it for stock photos.  Although black is not required, yet it is very prevalent. 
Dress codes are often enforced at kink events.  These offer the relatively weak protection that the people who attend kink events are actually kinky, not passing tourists or voyeurs who do not share group norms and commitments.  Depending on the group, these dress codes can be pretty broad, and offer rather little additional safety.

Trigger warnings and trauma safety:  Some kinksters play despite trauma histories.  It may seem surprising, but some explicitly play with past traumas.  Many kinky social groups are already familiar with this possibility, and they may have members who are trained and familiar with trauma, and systematic efforts are made to make sure not only that participants are aware when intense experiences are planned, but they also have support if a participant or observer reacts unexpectedly.  If you know your vulnerabilities, it is good to share them before you play and have a support plan prepared ahead of time.  Informed consent is not just important for you, but for those who play with you.

Munches are social meetings where kink is discussed, but there is no play.  Meetings are generally in local restaurants.  The fact that they are in public space with no play scheduled makes them safe from physical boundary violations, but may be uncomfortable for people who do not want to be observed discussing BDSM in public.  Munches generally do not have dress codes so that new members are not outed by hanging out with leather clad ‘undesirables’.   Sometimes people go off and play together from munches after sizing each other up in safe space, a practice commonly practiced in all forms of on-line dating.  Obviously if you leave a munch with someone you like, you have the potential for privacy, but loose the protections of public space.  Munches provide a great way for new members to size up the people in the group, and to make judgments about how much they would like to share of themselves with group members.  Many people who are attracted to kink are not comfortable with playing in public, so it is quite likely that those who join kink social organizations and play together are among the more adventurous for whom the voyeurism, exhibitionism, and group processes are not barriers to entry.

Attitudes, Values, and Process that Produce Safety:

Gradualism is a characteristic of safety strategy in which new recruits to any sub-culture gather information, try out new behaviors, test their assumptions against experience, and develop new commitments, identifications, and even sexual orientations.  It provides the time and information to bring feelings and knowledge into integration, and allows the building of new relationships that support social participation in the sub-culture.  Munches are a deliberate part of this plan, and they exist also for asexuals, old friends, and newbies to meet together where the possible pressures of sexual excitement are less, and friends can interact at whatever level of participation they prefer.  The social rules in play groups are more strict, and munches can be a relief from some of these.  Sometimes psychological safety means being protected from your own desire and the desire of others, and a relaxing of social roles that are otherwise very exciting to play out.

An attempt has been made here to be exhaustive about the kinds and sources of safety in the kink community, and to discuss both generic and arcane aspects of kinky communities that help people manage their risk taking behavior.  Obviously, a truly comprehensive list is impossible, and for all these efforts, safety is never complete.  I strongly encourage readers to add additional examples of safety to this thread using the comments section.  Eventually, many people who do not know the conventions of the kink communities will read this article and profit from consideration of your commentary.

This week’s horrifying attack on the Pulse Disco in Florida is a shattering demonstration that, despite the fact that terrorism constitutes a very modest threat to American citizens—you are in much greater danger from falling in your bath tub, let alone negative health consequence’s for your diet, lifestyle or traffic accidents—safety is never complete, and kink involves deliberate risk taking.  This article eschews the usual kink slogans of SSC or RACK, but love and sex and spiritual pursuits all entail risk.  The kink communities know this, accept it, plan for risk and for things to go wrong despite everyone’s best efforts.
Not everyone is benign.  Not all players are skilled in all things.  Highly skilled people still make errors.  Even those of us who strive continuously for self-knowledge have limitations.
Prevailing community attitudes produce safety:  A general ethos prevails in BDSM of radical personal responsibility.  Radical in that, in the face of laws and norms that may make some kink activities illegal, many kinksters make up their minds to do them anyway.  But the responsibility for risk taking until laws and social attitudes can be changed remain theirs.  This attitude may assume some risks, but is inclined to see responsibility for one’s safety as primarily one’s own responsibility. 

In that spirit, when assuming responsibility for your own emotional safety, aftercare with your play partners is important, but it is also necessary to plan for your own self-care when trouble disrupts your plan to receive care from others who may become unavailable.  It is in precisely that spirit, that this blog provided the link to an excellent sub and top drop safety kit:Top and Sub Drop Safety Kit

Analogous to kink?  Serious leisure.
Kink has provided all these safety tools and resources because we live in a word where complete safety is not always desirable, and the panoply of different kink loves, activities, needs, and risks is so great.  Kink demands communication because any given partner’s knowledge and skill in the midst of this diversity cannot be assumed.  Although many dating sites have tried kink activity checklists as a place to begin discussions with potential partners, they are not a very big start.  There is a lot of safety to talk about and lots to learn.  Emily Prior and DJ Williams have likened kink to extreme sports; a kind of serious leisure in which participants become partially professionalized.  Skills offset risks, and ideology embraces planful risky behavior.  Unlike extreme sports governed by the logic of athleticism and competition, kink embraces unreasoned passion as a primary motive for play, so the serious leisure analogy isn’t perfect.  Whether you accept their sociological analogy or not, kink requires lots of safety.  But many people have faced the same safety problems before you have, and they have a large history of solutions.   

© Russell J Stambaugh, June, 2016, Ann Arbor MI, All rights reserved

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

#AASECT16--Consent 201: Consent and Its Discontents

Susan Wright and I presented a 90-minute program at AASECT's 48th Annual Conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico entitled Consent 201: Consent and its Discontents on June 9, 2016.  At the end of that presentation, Susan and I promised to mount the slides and notes on FetLife under the Consent Counts discussion thread, and here on Elephant.  The posting is delayed until Sunday, June 19 while I get an upgrade to my tech skills!  Sorry for the delay!

Consent 201: Consent and its Discontents

Here are some of the takeaways I think this presentation about complex and ambiguous consent and the 2014 consent violations survey offers:

1)  While there are many costs to confronting stigma and being 'othered', outsiders have insights their unique histories and contexts can offer us.  We can learn from them, or just learn the hard way.

2)  Consent is not simple and will not work by rote for kinky folk or for conventional ones.  Kink has a long history of what consent can and can't do.  Communication lessens the dangers, but does not fully ameliorate power imbalances.

3)  Community offers powerful protections, but we only achieve them if we are not only inclusive, but show vigilance for our most vulnerable members and fully socialize them.

4)  Even in counter cultures like kink, the cultural weaknesses of our larger cultural context bleed through.  Kink is egalitarian, but not fully equal.  Males, heterosexuals, tops, and those with clear gender boundaries are less likely to report consent violations than women, submissives, queer, and fluid folk.

5)  There are serious risks of over-victimizing consent violations in our efforts to decrease them.  Half are not serious, bumps and bruises are to be expected from risky play, and we dare not decrease the agency of all participants.  The passion to share risk creates the opportunity for understanding our shadow and our vulnerability.  Safety training and aftercare need to operate not just between immediate players, but within the larger communities they play in.  2014 Consent Violations Survey is part of a long history of community commitment to that care.  So is posting these results for others to learn form them and apply them.

Enjoy, learn, play safely, and lead with empathy, not conflict.

© Russell J Stambaugh, June, 2016, Ann Arbor MI, All rights reserved

Saturday, June 4, 2016

The Psychotherapeutic Theories of Kink: Myths and Realities about Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud is the towering figure in the invention of psychotherapy and is one of the most important thinkers to contribute to Western notions of modernity.  Born in Moravia (now part of the Czech Republic) in 1856, Freud’s Jewish father was a moderately successful textile salesman who brought his family to Vienna and paid for his son’s education at the gymnasium, thus qualifying Sigmund to enter the University of Vienna.  Sigmund studied first medicine, then neurology, training with some of the most famous Swiss and French neurologists of his day and became a lecturer at the University of Vienna.  Throughout his tenure there, Freud was very much split between teaching, his private practice as a psychotherapist, and his prolific career as a writer.  An inveterate publicist and promoter of his ideas, he invented psychoanalysis, organized it as a clinical and academic discipline, and wrote seemingly tirelessly about its clinical technique, theory, and larger societal implications.  Although Freud was not religious and never practiced as a Jew, he was a pillar of the Viennese social community and married Martha Bernays, the daughter of a prominent rabbi from Hamburg.  From 1902, he held continuous weekly meetings about psychoanalytic topics, and in 1905, he founded the International Psychoanalytic Association.  The so called Standard Edition of his works translated into English by James Strachey runs 24 volumes and thousands of pages.

Freud's inner circle circa 1920:  Top, left to right: Otto Rank, Karl Abraham, Max Eitingon, Ernest Jones
Bottom:  Sigmund Freud, Sandor Ferenczi and Hans Sachs.
By this time, Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, and Wilhelm Stekel were already gone.
Between the publication of The Interpretation of Dreams in 1901 and his departure from Vienna in 1938, Freud’s psychoanalytic circle anointed all the greatest thinking about therapy.  Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, Otto Rank, Sandor Ferenczi, Karen Horney, Marie Bonaparte, Erich Fromm, Lou Andreas Salome, Harry Stack Sullivan, Wilhelm Reich were all pillars of the International Psychoanalytic Association at one point or another.  In his later years, Freud increasingly turned his attention to social phenomena like religion, education, and the relationship between society and repression.  Just after the Anschluss in which Austria was absorbed by Nazi Germany, the Freud family emigrated first to Paris, and then to London, by June 4, 1938.   By the time he left Vienna, he had suffered from the effects of mouth cancer for more than 15 years, the disease was initially diagnosed in 1923 and Freud went through a long and difficult history of treatment.   In September of 1939, without further treatment options and in the face of weakness and chronic pain, Freud arranged for legal physician-assisted suicide on September 23, 1939 at his new home in Hampstead, London.

Freud poses with a cigar.  He famously said "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."when asked if his habitual cigars were phallic symbols.  Actually, cigars are never just cigars.  Sometimes, they are a cause of mouth cancer.

Anna Freud, who assumed the intellectual leadership of psychoanalysis after her father’s death, was so embittered that she did not return to Vienna even for visit until 1972.  Because of that and difficulties associated with his emigration from Vienna and the death of Sigmund’s four sisters in Nazi concentration camps during the war, Freud’s extensive library, archeological artifacts, and clinical consulting room were recreated and kept in London and never repatriated to Vienna after his death.

Anna Freud (1895-1982), in 1957. 
Freud not only invented psychoanalysis, he was a prominent mythologizer of the field.  He constantly portrayed psychoanalysis as victimized by the very forces of repression that he was striving to overcome through psychoanalytic insight.   As a consequence, of this dramatic struggle, the popular imagination about Freud is plagued by a variety of hyperboles and exaggerations about Freud’s already immense role in modern thinking.  I will proceed to break a few of these down, and try to put his real contributions into a larger perspective:

Myth #1.  Freud Invented Talk Therapy:

Physicians had been talking to their patients for years and already realized that reassuring conversation, non-medical advice, patriarchal solicitousness, and even placebos, could have powerful effects on patient health.   Mesmer and Charcot had already demonstrated powerful effects from talking interventions like hypnotism.  Freud invented psychoanalysis, the term he used for his particular theoretical and technical rationale about what made the talking cure work.  So Freud did much to popularize and refine the talking cure, but did not invent it.

Myth #2.  Freud Set Out to Invent Talk Therapy:

Freud thought of himself as a neurologist, and imagined that the clinical phenomena he was seeing in therapeutic conversations with patients were neurological, not psychological phenomena.  Until 1900, Freud was engaged in an elaborate and failed study, the Project for a Scientific Psychology, in which attempted to describe mental phenomena in neurological terms.  This effort was premature and awaited technological breakthroughs, including the identification of neurotransmitters and CT, PET, and fMRI imagining techniques that were not developed until long after his death.  Were Freud working today, he’d probably be seeking NIMH grants for brain studies using the latest scanning technology!

Freud's couch ready for it's scan.  It could happen!
Myth #3.  Freud Was a Cocaine Addict and His Work Was Nonsense Because of Chronic Intoxication:

Turn of the century apparatus for administering the 7% solution of cocaine.  93% was saline.
In 1974, Nicholas Meyer penned a novel that threw Sherlock Holmes and Sigmund Freud together on a case.

Freud was an enthusiastic early user of cocaine and wrote rhapsodically about its stimulating effects.  At the time (late 1800’s) its addictive properties were not known, and laws had yet to be passed against its use.  Freud’s extensive body of writing has withstood the test of time, and while some of it is clearly wrong, it is much more limited by his times and the extant medical knowledge and social conventions, than by the researcher’s use of psycho-active drugs.  It should be noted that Freud’s cocaine use was conventional in his time, but would constitute impaired professionalism in the modern context.  Recognition of the dangers that opiates and cocaine posed led to the Harrison Act of 1911 in America.  That legislation established non-medical uses as illegal, commenced limited regulation of the pharmaceutical industry, and self-prescription would eventually be forbidden.  European countries passed similar laws around this time as well.  It is estimated that around the turn of the century, 1 in 20 Americans was addicted to patent medicines that contained alcohol, opiate derivatives, and/or cocaine.   Freud may have remained vulnerable to self-prescription due to cocaine’s analgesic effects it most likely had on the pain associated with advancing mouth cancer.
Snake oil.  Yes, it sometimes contained the oil from freshly squeezed snakes!
The active ingredients, however, were cocaine, alcohol, and opioids.

Myth #4.  Freud Invented the Idea of the Unconscious:

Jean Martin Charcot presents on hysteria circa 1870.
Actually, the idea of the unconscious pre-dated Freud’s work and the idea that people were not fully aware of what they were thinking was in common currency during Freud’s training as a neurologist and the staple of early learning theorists.  Franz Mesmer’s ideas of animal magnetism were known to be involved in hypnotism and, relied on the existence of an unconscious.   Similarly, Jean Martin Charcot, the founding father of modern neurology, came to believe that repression was involved in hysteria and he demonstrated how memories could be lost and recovered from the unconscious under hypnosis.   Freud did, however, invent and popularize the idea of the dynamic unconscious as a mental agency in which socially intolerable instinctual impulses were kept from consciousness lest we think badly of ourselves and violate social rules.  It is the Freudian model of the unconscious that undergirds popular thinking today about our mental lives and self-concepts.

Myth #5.  Freud Thought Everything Was About Sex:

Austro-Hungarian machine gunners in World War I.  Freud served his country during that war, and saw the psychological consequences of industrialized combat.  Maybe not everything was about sex.

Although this myth seems difficult to refute, it is important to realize that even in its most extreme form, Freud’s position was more nuanced.  In his initial theorizing, sex played an exclusive explanatory role, but Freud was not speaking of foreplay, intercourse, or suspension bondage.  For Freud, sex was an underlying human motivation derived from direct but largely unconscious instinctual expression.  It was a natural consequence of our Darwinian animal nature and our evolutionary purpose to pass our genes on to the next generation of human beings.  Libido, that natural biological energy that sometimes resulted in direct mating behavior, got sublimated into all other social acts like going to school, attending church, everyday labor and social interaction.  So for Freud, behaviors that didn’t look sexy at all were energized by underlying sexual motives.  Later, Freud also hypothesized a death instinct which was equally mutable and unconscious.  Most writers after him have preferred to translate his death instinct as ‘aggression.’  Both of these instinctual drives were balanced in their social expression by the conscious abilities of the person, and their internalizations of social rules, norms, ideas and values, so libido was only expressed in directly sexual ways a small percentage of the time, even for the sexually preoccupied.

Myth #6.  Freud First Recognized the Importance of Infantile Sexuality:

Victorian urban life was crowded and unhealthy. John Harvey Kellogg was a great popularizer of hygiene that included anti-masturbatory messages.  Childhood sexuality was denied even as massive prevention efforts were undertaken.  Its enough to give 'repression' a bad name!  The flakes aren't bad, though.

This myth partially depends on what you believe the importance of infantile sexuality really was, but it is certainly true that the Victorians, including their physicians, did not recognize that children experienced sexual feelings and did not recognize childhood behaviors as sexual in nature.  In fact, the Victorians didn’t recognize that people were sexual throughout the life span, dramatically understated female sexuality, and struggled to accept Darwinian ideas.  Thank heavens we are all past that today!  Victorian physicians who operated vibration clinics as a way to release stress in women would not have been able to do so, had the full sexual nature of the relaxation response been properly recognized for what it was! 

Albert Moll (1862-1939) German psychiatrist and among the first to recognize childhood sexuality.

Albert Moll was the turn of the century sexologist who was first in advocating for the recognition of childhood sexuality.  When Freud advanced his own developmental theory that suggested the sucking, defecation, urination, and Oedipal behaviors were all manifestations of infantile libidinal expression, this idea was revolutionary.  But you have to think the proliferation of anti-onanistic interventions and ideology, from sports advocacy to gender-segregated education to aphorisms like ‘Idle hands are the devil’s playground!’ reflected some Victorian suspicion that children weren’t all that innocent.  Even today, the role of direct sexual expression in childhood is largely under-recognized, and this underlies social phobias around comprehensive sexuality education in the United States.

Myth #7.  Freud Was the First to Recognize the Importance of Bisexuality:

Sorry!  This is not the kind of bisexuality Freud meant in his theory.

Freud probably learned about the concept of libido and its bisexual nature first from Charles Darwin.  It certainly figured prominently in Freud’s early theories of sexuality that libido was bisexual in that a child could feel love for both the same and opposite gendered parent.  If Freud had encountered the idea of gender fluidity, he would doubtless have endorsed that love could be expressed by people of any gender towards any other.  However, Freud operated in a bi-gendered social world, and his theory had to account for the obvious clinical observations that children loved both parents and were in conflict about it.  However, if Darwin came first with the theory that libido could be expressed across gendered lines, Freud’s theory did not really address behaviorally bisexual sexual behavior, which he would doubtless have categorized as homosexual behavior and seen as further proof of his theory.  Freud did not really write about bisexuality in the way that we use the term today.

Freud did accomplish some great things that are probably under-recognized, notwithstanding his role as the most prominent clinical writer in psychology.

Freud broke the philosophical stalemate between Krafft-Ebing’s excessively constitutional theory, that claimed sexual deviance was largely an expression of constitutional degeneracy, and the early learning theorists, or ‘associationists’ like Alfred Binet, who claimed that all sexual behavior was learned.   Freud’s theory allowed for a middle ground that allowed roles for instinctual and learned factors.

Freud is best known for his model of what makes talk therapy effective.  He did not think that benign paternalistic discussion cured hysterics of their pseudo blindness or paralysis.  Rather, he believed these patients inflexibly refocused their infantile sexual conflicts on the therapist and felt towards him as they did towards their fathers.  Their guilty ambivalence about loving their fathers and feeling guilty about wanting to supplant their mothers and to do socially inappropriate things with fathers, led to the personal disempowerment seen in their terrible symptoms.  By helping the clients to recognize and refocus these transference feelings in the therapy, normalizing them, and seeing that the feelings need not be harmful, the hysterical clients could give up their symptoms.  This is the Freudian description of the transference cure.  Did it work?  At least sometimes, but it was far from infallible.  Considering the severity of disability from such symptoms as paralysis and blindness, it could be a big help.

Freud is also associated with a rather extreme version of analytic neutrality that many patients and practitioners regard as emotionally depriving.  A look at today’s austere psychotherapy offices suggests the pervasive influence of fears that betraying any portion of the therapist’s personality might become a distraction and interference with the process of transference.  After all, if the therapist displays masculine qualities, for example, this kind of reasoning might expect interference with the patient’s possible need to experience maternal transference feelings.  If the therapist appears gay, perhaps the client will be reluctant to express heterosexual feelings.

Girl Before a Mirror (1932) by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)  This was definitely not the original in our anecdote.   It hangs in The Museum of Modern Art in New York City  I chose this for thematic contrast with Titian's Venus with a Mirror in the first von sacher-Masoch essay. 
This is no idle concern.  When I was in graduate training, there was a famous supervising analyst who was extremely proud of his original and expensive Picasso, which hung prominently in the consulting room in which he saw is clients and supervised his mostly rather impoverished graduate students.  The analyst’s presumed need for phallic display was much discussed, and evidence marshalled for his excessive egotism.   It was my fortune to never have actually met this person, so I never had the chance to assess any of this for myself, but it is certainly true that his deviation from presumed orthodoxy had a big impact on his reputation.

Freud's Vienna home and  office at Berggasse 19, now a museum.  The sign is a recent addition!
(stock photo)
Late last year, I had the opportunity to visit Vienna for the first time.   Despite the fact that our tour did not include a stop at the museum that had been made of Freud’s home and consulting room -- are contiguous on the second floor of Berggasse 19 on the edge of the Old Jewish section of Vienna -- I arranged for a private tour.  I knew that Freud had amassed a large number of artifacts collected in the early twentieth century heyday of classical archeology, and had heard these were displayed profusely in his office and consulting room.  I was nearly disappointed.  Most of his collection had been removed to London after the famous French analyst, Marie Bonaparte, generously donated the rapacious emigration fees the Nazis required of Jews before they would allow them to flee the country prior to the beginning of World War II.  Only a handful of Freud’s artifacts were available in Vienna for display, and only the actual waiting room was furnished.  But with a keen eye for history, Freud had hired a photographer to make a record of his rooms before his furniture and collections were shipped away.  The pictures showed a dense Edwardian riot of pictures and artifacts!    Short of stiffly lying on the analytic couch and staring resolutely at the ceiling, Freud’s clients were surrounded by a surfeit of visual stimulation.

The consulting room, replete with artifacts.  Yep, that's the couch back from the fMRI! (stock)
A tiny fraction of Freud's collection left behind in 1938 (photo by author)

Sometime a clay penis is just a penis! (photo by author)

This drawing hung in his waiting room (photo by author)

Freud's Vienna waiting room (photo by author)

Freud’s consulting and waiting rooms were anything but a modern study in bland neutrality.  One can only wonder at the ways in which Freud telegraphed his areas of interest to his clients amid 19th century drawings of swooning classical nudes, every imaginable combination of mythic imagery, and his collection of phallic objects from cultures around the world.  Either Freud was completely awash in repression of how all his interests impacted his patients, or he operated on the idea that for transference to be the powerful force that unified every therapy under the aegis of his recommended techniques, it must be so strong that the client imported it willy-nilly into all situations, largely regardless of context, and that propensity made it powerful and neurotic enough to require analysis.

In the next post, I will start to turn to the discussion of Freud’s specific theories about sexuality as they affected thinking about sexual variation.  Freud has the reputation of being very judgmental, and Freudians get much blame for the patholigization of kink.  Some of this is well-founded, but it would be well to remember that Freud believed that everyone had a dynamic unconscious, had ways in which they were reluctant to completely grow up, and that most under-sublimated expressions of libido were peccadilloes, not pathologies.  Kind of like kinks, it the pre-idiomatic sense of that term before it came to be applied to sex variations.  We will look at how Freud might have come to be mistaken for judgmental by his successors, despite his demonstrated flexibility and acceptance as a writer.  And we will see that in many ways, his critics were correct.

 © Russell J Stambaugh, June, 2016, Ann Arbor MI, All rights reserved

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Sadism and the Marquis de Sade

Alphonse Donatien Francoise, Comte de Sade. (1740-1814)
Alternating senior de Sades use 'Comte' or 'Marquis', and posterity has decided on Marquis.

On this day, 276 years ago, Donatien Alphonse Francoise was born in Paris to a French diplomat and his wife who were not getting along any too well…  I would wish him a Happy Birthday today, but his singular achievement seems to have left Western philosophy in a bit of a bind about what kind of happiness we should want to have!

Richard von Krafft-Ebing chose as his poster boy for the paraesthesia for sexual satisfaction in the infliction of pain, degradation and suffering a far more famous and imposing figure than Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.  He selected the most notorious libertine, the Marquis de Sade.   De Sade is an imposing figure of the Age of Reason because, relative to the company of social, political and economic giants, he was the only one dead set against reason.  Despite spending nearly half his adult life jailed, he is remembered today precisely for his demand for absolute freedom and rejection of reason and law.  He was acutely ironic figure, for he particularly detested religion even as the age’s greatest philosophers were coming up with new discourse justifying it even as it was declining in power, yet he was heavily persecuted for religious reasons.  Whatever he didn’t like about authority, he was utterly inept at resisting it.

Because de Sade’s influence on modern thought greatly exceeds von Sacher-Masoch’s, it will not be possible to be encyclopedic about his life and influence in a short essay.  Born 100 years before von Sacher-Masoch, he had already been subjected to much more analysis and discourse than Von Krafft-Ebing’s other exemplar.  The psychiatrist was far from the first to use the term ‘sadism’ which was courant long before Psychopathia Sexualis.  But de Sade influenced Nietzsche, Apollinaire, Barthes, Genet, Breton, Sartre and de Beauvoir, Bakunin and especially, Sigmund Freud.  Through them, he goes to the core of our notions of modernity, freedom of expression and individualism, even those of us that find him repellant.

How did such an impulsive, defiant, and aggressive man become so important in Western thought?  That requires a good deal of historical context.  de Sade came along at a juncture of Western civilization in which social change was altering traditional ideas about the relationship between the individual and society and the sources of institutional legitimacy:

Pope Leo X (1475-1521), by Raphael
Pope Leo failed to reach accommodation with German princes and Martin Luther,
precipitating the 30 Years War and Wars of Religion.  

Religious absolutism was being challenged:  Prior to the Enlightenment, the Roman Catholic Church had the power to dictate what reality was.  Then Protestantism arose to challenge for that power.  Recoiling from the ferocious and devastating Wars of the Reformation, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism had battled to a standstill.  The Western thinkers were looking for reasons to stop fighting, and one of the solutions was reason itself. 

Anton Van Leuwenhoek (1632-1723), a tradesman who specialized in optics and invented the first microscope.
He thereby discovered cellular life and human red corpuscles in his own blood.  He makes a great example of scientific change, being neither clergy, nor noble.

New scientific breakthroughs and the beginnings of industrialization and spreading literacy were democratizing the discourse about how government should work and how knowledge about the world could be gained.  Newton discovered gravity, Galileo observed its workings on the ground and in the heavens.  The science of optics was invented, human cells observed for the first time, and maps profited from the Cartesian coordinate system and navigation based physical principles.  Direct observation of the natural world was yielding scientific breakthroughs and challenging religious authority.

Francoise-Marie Arouet (1694-1778)  You are more likely to know him as Voltaire.
Like de Sade, he was an ardent critic of the Roman Catholic Church.
Redefinition of politics: Europe and the colonies in America were in a discussion about reason as an alternative to faith.   At a time when every major European country had an official state religion, the nascent United States of America would simultaneously bring about constitutional protections for religion, but also protect government from official religious affiliation.  Soon, that thinking was going to infect France.  de Sade was a powerful voice in the context of that time.

Louis XIV of France (1638-1715)  "I am the state."
Louis XIV had marked the high water mark of absolutism.  He had uttered the famous dictum “L’etat, c’est moi”, literally “The state, that’s me!”  and he had the leadership ability to pull off so grandiose a claim.  But his heirs were not nearly as able, nor as long lived, nor as fortunate as Louis XIV had been.  The state that seemed to function so well under Louis XIV that it was the envy of all Europe lacked sufficient system of public finance, and, following the expulsion of the Protestant Huguenots, had a depleted merchant class just when commerce was becoming crucial to state finance.   When he died in 1715, the proper functions of government were tilting towards greater democracy and individualism because absolutism was failing.  Epicureanism, republicanism, and freedom of thought preoccupied philosophy.


John Calvin (1509-1564) As Calvinism spread, Libertines were originally reacting against his determinism.
Libertinage arose from the conflicts between the prominent Protestant John Calvin and French Catholicism.  Calvin preached religious absolutism in Geneva in opposition to the militant Catholicism that later revoked the Edict of Nantes (1598, revoked 1685) and drove the Protestants out of France.  Distaste for Protestant determinism led philosophers to questioning whether Catholic and Protestant doctrines might both be incorrect.  Libertines were people who stuck up for the right to consider the possibilities that neither faith was the ultimate truth.  Initially, libertinage had nothing to do with sexual freedom, it was about freedom to rethink doctrine.  Free-thinking would influence philosophy in many ways, not the least the philosophical justifications for the American Revolution; states governed for the benefit of the people, by the consent of the people, and dedicated to life, liberty -there it is now-and the pursuit of happiness.  The happiness referred to here that government is instituted among men to pursue is a rational happiness.  It fits well with the unruly political actors of Hobbes and Locke, the self-interested economic actors of Adam Smith and the separation of powers of Montesquieu.   All of this would thrive under people who, freed from original sin by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s insight that people were born good until corrupted by bad institutions, could best govern themselves.  If people are born innocent and capable of making their own political decisions, then perhaps their sexual choices should be free and are inherently good too!

De Sade was far from the only Libertine to have seized the license to pursue his selfish sexual interests.  It didn’t take long for people to recognize that if they were free to reject religious doctrine, they could be freed from religious notions of sexual restraint.  But Sade insisted on his right to indulge all of his passions without restraint, and maintained that no other criteria, not reason, law, or even the consent of others should stand in his way.  Sade bought Rousseau’s notion that man was the sum of his passions, but declined to restrain himself to that which was socially licensed as good.

This is a fascinating twist on Rousseau, whose defense of passion was actually performed in the service of defending religion.  Rousseau saw reason as partly antithetical to spirituality.  If science was vastly more capable than previously thought of explaining the natural world that God had created, and people were born innocent, what was the proper basis of religious belief?  Rousseau’s answer was that passion was the basis for faith.  De Sade, who’d seen the passion to inflict harm and to dominate in religion was not giving Rousseau a free pass to conjure up a modern idyll grounded on idealizations of innocence.  In doing this, de Sade rubbed Rousseau’s nose in the problem of power.  Perhaps because the Comte de Sade never recovered from exactly that same demonstration when it was perpetrated upon him.

de Sade’s life:

18th century corporal punishment was not just practiced upon children.
De Sade was born in Paris in 1740.  Although de Sade was his parents’ only surviving child, his father abandoned the family, his mother joined a convent.  de Sade was raised by an indulgent uncle and was soon widely regarded as spoiled even as an aristocratic child.  Sent to an abbey for his early education, he was subjected to the severe corporal punishment that was characteristic of Jesuit education of the age.  The Jesuits in the 1740’s had not yet gotten Rousseau’s message that children were born innocent!  It is easy to imagine the intensity with which the Brothers and Sisters attempted to whip the Devil out of de Sade.  de Sade became obsessed with corporal punishment even before he was out of his teenage years and developed a passionate hatred of the Church.  At age 14 he was sent to military school, and then entered military service and rose to the rank of colonel in the dragoons in time to participate in the 7 Years War ending in 1763.  Military service had agreed with him well enough, he had risen rapidly through the ranks despite the fact that France did poorly, and war debt would be a factor in the coming French Revolution.

Chateau Lacoste today, with a statue commemorating the Marquis's incarcerations and defiance.
The young colonel mustered out in 1763 and lived near Paris where he got into several altercations with prostitutes (he insisted in incorporating crucifixes in his sexual acts which offended the prostitutes and was regarded at the time as the serious crime of blasphemy) and was briefly imprisoned.   The family forced de Sade to marry, in hopes this might end his embarrassing activities, but there is little to suggest this restrained him.   By 1768 he had been banished to his family’s estate Chateau Lacoste, in Provence and far from Paris.  Shortly thereafter he lured a beggar woman, Rose Keller to his property with the promise of employment, then launched on a campaign on nonconsensual behaviors including tying her up, making incisions on her and pouring hot wax in them.  After hours of this abuse she escaped by jumping from a second story window.  De Sade’s mother-in-law became involved in the ensuing criminal matter and obtained a lettre-de-cachet from Louis XVI to have de Sade imprisoned without the need for a trial.  She was a devout religious person, and de Sade and she loathed one another, no doubt in part due to complaints from de Sade’s wife.  Eventually, De Sade was banished or escaped to Italy in the company of his wife’s sister (yes, they had an incestuous relationship), where he was again incarcerated and escaped.  He returned to Lacoste, where he hid for a time and became involved in a prosecution for sodomy with several prostitutes and his manservant.  Although sodomy was widely practiced and tolerated among the aristocracy in pre-revolutionary France, de Sade’s mother-in-law saw to it that he was fully prosecuted.  Eventually de Sade was lured to Paris on the pretext that his mother was dying.  There he was arrested and incarcerated for about a decade in the prison at Vincennes.  De Sade also spent time in the Bastille, where he was far from a model prisoner.  On July 8, 1789 he was heard yelling to a gathering mob that the authorities were killing all the prisoners.  On July 14, 1789, the mob stormed the Bastille, the symbolic opening of the French Revolution, but two days too late to liberate the Marquis, who was relocated to La Conciegerie.  In fact, the authorities had not executed anyone, but all but seven of the prisoners were removed before the prison was liberated by the people.  Nonetheless, in the French mythology of the Revolution, de Sade practically started it!

During his incarceration, de Sade became a prolific writer.  And this is the source of his protracted influence on Western philosophy.  I am not a huge fan of his work, but de Sade wrote compulsively.  He could be an incisive and provocative social critic.  His sexual writings dwell heavily on corrupting others, hatred of church and other officials who inflict atrocities on the helpless, and compulsive escalating scenarios in which his characters top themselves by repeatedly doing more extreme, intense, cruel and numerous abuses.

If inflicting pain and degradation are not your thing, and blasphemous descriptions of venal churchmen don’t tickle your transgressive funny bone, you are in danger of finding his work boring and very repetitive.  Two stars!

The manuscript of 120 Days of Sodom preserved by Iwan Bloch, now in French hands within the Museum of Letters and Manuscripts in Paris
But on another level, de Sade’s drive to express himself is that of any writer, and he was nothing if not urgent about his need to speak.  While incarcerated in the Bastille, he was deprived of pen and ink and wrote the manuscript for 120 Days of Sodom in ‘blood and excrement’ on a huge role of paper smuggled in one square at a time and the glued together.  It was hidden, and re-found and published by the pioneering sexologist Iwan Bloch at the beginning of the 20th Century.  Some critics claim that the plot is derived from the life exploits of Gilles de Rais, a famous lieutenant of Jean D’Arc who is notorious as a serial murderer of children, and Elizabeth Bathory, a Hungarian serial murderess of young girls.  120 Days of Sodom is a categorization of all of de Sade’s fantasies of penetrating, torturing and killing young people.

Storming the Bastille, July 14, 1789.

One might have imagined that, with the removal of de Sade from the Bastille, his incarceration would have continued.  However, in the early days for the French Revolution, the practice of lettres-de-cachet was abolished and, despite his aristocratic heritage, he was freed, and even given a seat as a deputy to the national convention that sought to draw up a new French constitution.  In 1790 he was out of prison and trying to get his works published anonymously.  He was a member of the radical left, advocating against elites and for common people.  As the Revolution entered its paranoid phase and devolved into the Reign of Terror, de Sade opposed it.  He even intervened to preserve the life of his hated mother-in-law!  When his son deserted the French Army, besieged as it was on all fronts by anti-revolutionary forces, de Sade narrowly avoided execution himself.  As it was, when Maximillian Robespierre took power, de Sade was imprisoned for ‘moderatism’.  This is probably the first and only time he was ever accused of that.  But de Sade was so oppositional that he played a dangerous game.  He went so far as to criticize the guillotines in the Pace de la Concorde as offensive for executing people for bureaucratic and civil reasons rather than out of pure passion.  He was lucky to have escaped with a mere year in prision when over a thousand lost their lives.  He was released in 1794 with the death of Robespierre, who eventually fed the maw of the guillotine he had unleashed.  For the next several years de Sade was largely destitute, and lived in Paris, his Chateau Lacoste having been sacked earlier in the revolution.

During his period of penury, de Sade was able to get two his novels, Justine and Juliette published.  They tell the stories of two sisters who are separated young and make diametrically opposite choices.  Juliette embraces vice early on, gets drawn into perversions such as papal orgies but thereby is able to live a comfortable life and turn towards virtue.  Justine is made of sterner stuff and fixes her star rigidly on virtue from the start, only to careen from one terrible misfortune to another and inadvertently cause great harm to others.  Justine turns to the church, to the wealthy, and to the courts for justice only to be violated and exploited every time until she is finally rescued by her sister.  No sooner is she freed by Juliette than she is struck dead by lightning.  Unlike 120 Days of Sodom, Justine and Juliette are not mere catalogs of vice, but an active indictment of the futility of trying to live virtuously, and of the classic sources of authority.

Napoleon Bonaparte as First Consul by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres

In 1801, Napoleon Bonaparte came to power following his impressive military victories in Italy in war against Austria.  He read Justine and Juliette, and pronounced Juliette “the most abominable book ever engendered by the most depraved imagination.”  Napoleon signed the order personally to have its anonymous author imprisoned without trial.  Later entreaties from his family removed de Sade to the French insane asylum in Charenton where he spent the final 13 years of his life.  In Charenton, the Marquis’ reading and writing were mostly encouraged.  He did write plays that were produced by the local populace outside the asylum, but not, as has been written in popular representations since, using the inmates as his actors.  On Dec 2, 1814, de Sade died in Charenton.

Cultural Significance:

The Marquis de Sade’s primary cultural significance is as a bête noire or bogeyman.  He is a cautionary tale about the depravity and tragedy that will befall us if we give ourselves over to our innermost natures.  This role was already well established by the late 19th century when Richard von Krafft-Ebing took him up as the exemplar and the name for his perversion of sexual satisfaction at the suffering and degradation of others.  But, aside from Freud, most depictions of de Sade represent his general satisfaction at making others suffer, rather than his sexual response.  So the term sadism in common usage has lost its explicitly sexual origin.  de Sade and his acolytes remain staples of modern horror mythology.

De Sade considered his depictions of sex as naturalistic, just as Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’ was a description of man’s natural condition.  de Sade opposed supernaturalism, and thereby considered himself a kind of natural philosopher of human sexuality.  This idea would be affirmed by Iwan Bloch and the early sexologists, who saw in his work a kind of encyclopedia of perversions.  Freud would incorporate this idea into his notion of the id, much taken by de Sade’s conflict with authority.  Freud’s eternal conflict between our inner morality and instinctual impulses owes something to de Sade.  Likewise, Andrè Breton, one of the founding fathers of the surrealist movement took up this Sadean unconscious as the goal of surrealistic representation, and images of suffering, dismemberment and decay in Salvador Dali owe a little to de Sade.  For more of this than you can take, take as much of a look as you can at the opening eye sequence in Un Chien Andalou, Breton’s classic of surrealist cinema.   Breton is responsible for referring to him as “the Divine Marquis” in celebration of his ability to see into the same inner truth of our natures that the surrealists were at pains to depict.
Simone de Beauvoir, author of the The Second Sex, and ardent opponent of censorship.

de Sade also retains huge influence today as a symbol in the struggles between artists and censors.   In 1957, the French government came into possession of the original manuscript of 120 Days of Sodom, and debated destroying it.  Simone de Beauvoir, the famous French existentialist and author of The Second Sex wrote and important anti-censorship essay Must We Burn Sade?  That essay grounds existential authenticity in passion, not principles, and de Beauvoir defends Sade as the existentially authentic despite his crimes, basing all of this on his criticism of institutional murder during the Reign of Terror.  It is difficult today to imagine the resonance of such an argument for a country that had been occupied by hated German oppressors, and had forced to collaborate in the transportation of dissidents and Jews to the death camps of 1940-45.  For modern free-thinkers de Beauvoir and Sartre, de Sade’s hatred of privilege and institutional power were important corollaries to personal responsibility, even if his behaviors were crimes.  Ultimately, the manuscript of 120 Days of Sodom was not burned and is treated as a national icon, although its acquisition and display lagged the famous essay by 50 years.

Geoffrey Rush as the Divine Marquis in Quills (2000) 

The other great exploration of de Sade as resistance to repression is Doug Wright’s Quills, a meditation on art and censorship.  Played fearlessly by Geoffrey Rush in the 2000 film adaptation, Rush was nominated for an Oscar.  The manic, chronically provocative de Sade is locked in mortal combat with an enlightened doctor who has been sent by Napoleon to ‘cure’ the madman who wrote Justine.  While the play and movie take considerable liberties with history, they capture de Sade’s struggle against authority and repression brilliantly.  There is a good chance you are looking at decent approximation of the ‘real’ Marquis de Sade in Rush’s performance.  De Sade never sat for a proper portrait, so we have only a rather effete and beautified engraving of his likeness.  It does not do historians any good that his humiliated family destroyed many of his writings and did their best to minimize the damage he did to the family name by eradicating his history.   He was never discussed among the family for five generations, and many of his writings were destroyed.  It is safe to say that if his portrait had ever hung in the family gallery, it had long since been taken down.

de Sade’s hatred of authority influenced the 19th century nihilists who claimed that power was too corrupted to serve as a constructive source of meaning.  Had de Sade lived to debate this, I suspect he would have denied this conclusion, claiming instead that meaning lies in the natural expression of his passions, but would have taken delight in the trouble nihilism was to cause.  Had he lived, de Sade would have been panicked by the rise in state power that followed the Second Industrial Revolution and World War I.

The Divine Marquis and Kink:

Were Alphonse Donatien Francoise alive today, there is a good chance he’d be in jail, but he would be endlessly celebrating modern kink.  That he might have inspired others to debauchery over two hundred years after his death would delight him.  But he is a highly ambivalent figure for modern kinksters.  We have come to accept the Freudian insight that we are inherently ambivalent in a way that de Sade strove to avoid with his flamboyant acting out.  De Sade’s natural man may well have been murderous, but he was not ambivalent.  He would have had no tolerance for our ambivalence about him!

de Sade regarded consnet as a token concession to authority, which by its very nature, existed to privilege some to have their desires and to deliver others up to them.  So modern kink has had to disavow de Sade, even in the face of elements of the community who have argued against the doctrines of Safe, Sane and Consensual for just this reason.  Sade negotiated nothing, and regretted nothing in his writings.  This is why von Sacher-Masoch had the opportunity to introduce the ideas of consent, negotiation and contract 75 years later.  And resistance remains to any need to negotiate one’s impulses because it lessens the perceeived power of toping and pure freedom of bottoming.  But only a self-destructive few are so wedded to their fantasies of extreme surrender that they are willing to knowingly dispense with the need for consent.  When John Wayne Gacy advertised on and lured gay men to their deaths,  de Sade would have seen integrity and authenticity where we see only tragedy and murder.  Modern kinksters don’t really worship at the altars of Bathory and de Rais.

Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Secretary.  Its not really about routine office power relations, is it?
Kinksters bemoan the social confabulation of sexual sadism with the routine sublimated joys of degrading others.  Plenty of opportunity exists in organizational life for routine dominance and submission, and part of what makes kink exotic and special is counter-cultural lust to take dominance and submission out of the desexualized, prosaic, and mundane contexts in which we all ordinarily have to do these things.  That is the fun of The Secretary in which Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader infuse their professional relationship with lusty kink despite no explicit sexual relations.  This dynamic often applies even of those who claim that their primary satisfactions from kink are not ‘sexual’.  Perhaps not, but they are even more emphatically not mundane or utilitarian. de Sade was already known to have applauded this as we saw in de Beauvoir’s essay.  Indeed, part of what made de Sade shocking in the 18th century was that he used lust, not utilitarianism, to justify his protagonsits’ behaviors.  The same treatment of slaves was in many places not even criminal.  So modern kink and de Sade are strongly allied in making kink passioante, not utilatiarian, in its ultimate motives.  Although de Sade distrusted religion, I believe he would have applauded those who seek spirituality in sensation play as long as it did not conform to institutionalized religious power structures.

De Sade never saw power as exchanged.  He desired to corrupt others by inciting and shaping their desire.  That struggle has been displaced in modern kink to obtain consent under conditions of ambivalence.  Power is experienced in getting the ambivalent so excited that they face their fears when highly afraid!  De Sade was never satisfied that he had had all the fun he could until dozens were destroyed.  So the modern irony is that kinksters love to play out imitations of de Sade, while fearing to encounter a ‘real’ one.  And no matter how glamorous his ideas may seem, de Sade was a rapist.  When feminists and conventional moralists attack kink as violence, it is this image of de Sade that makes BDSM’s discussion of consent seem like superficial rationalization to them no matter what de Beauvoir wrote.

The Marquis and the DSM:

If the Marquis de Sade were alive today, no Krafft-Ebing or DSM would be needed to diagnose him anymore than the forerunners of psychiatry were needed at the turn of the 19th century.  The real de Sade broke countless laws, and his modern counterpart would do the same.  If called upon to diagnose him, the emphasis would be on which personality disorder was needed to describe him.  Was he borderline, narcissistic, or just antisocial?  Ultimately, antisocial personality disorder better describes de Sade than sexual sadism, which he also had (and pedophilia, hebephillia, voyeurism and exhibitionism.  But all in the service of defying our norms and laws about how individual power must be limited.  For de Sade was not compulsive about which sexual behaviors he preferred, but that they be transgressive.

There is a superficial similarity between the childhood life stories of de Sade and von Sacher-Masoch.  Both are raised Roman Catholic.  Both are subjected to harsh corporal punishment, and both become feverish writers of kink.  Both become manifestly self-defeating.  But this simple equation belies a much more complicated and mysterious picture about the relationship between childhood corporal punishment and subsequent kink.  Although the cultural contexts of mid-eighteenth French and mid-nineteenth Austrian cultures had many similarities, both widely license corporal punishment for children, yet these cultures produced few de Sades and Sacher-Masochs, even allowing for singular genius in their aptitudes for writing.  We can imagine von Sacher-Masoch discovering ecstasy in the adrenaline/endorphin rush that accompanied beatings he was forced to experience, but surely many similar child victims of beatings experienced this without the intensity of connection that imprinted this particular gifted boy.  De Sade, rather than reveling in the sensuality of his neurochemicals, identified with the power to force and degrade others.  In this, he is the perfect case study for Alfred Adler, whom we will take up much later[i].  Was he somehow able to activate his adrenaline and endorphins by identifying with the exquisite suffering of his victims?  We know that he occasionally had himself whipped during sex, an idea that is as old as time itself and certainly familiar to well-read libertines.
But the superficiality of von Sacher-Masoch’s and de Sade’s early experiences with corporal punishment did not account for their differences.  De Sade, for all his extolling of the virtues of unlimited power over others, was strikingly intolerant of being on the receiving end of such abuse.  Yet he did not start getting into real trouble throughout his army career, where discipline was no less tight than in Jesuit education.  Note, however, de Sade had ever increasing power as a rising cavalry commander, which he did not have as a student in the abbey, nor after he mustered out aristocrat in Paris.
Ultimately, we do not know why these two life histories took such different turns.  Early history of corporal punishment may have loaded the dice, but did not dictate their outcomes.

For a time, the DSM flirted with the diagnosis self-defeating personality disorder.  Although this had nothing to do with his professed ideology, but when one examines Alphonse Donatien Françoise’s life history, de Sade seems to have allowed himself a rather limited expression of his natural instincts so vividly and compulsively displayed in his writing.  Despite the privilege of his rank in pre-revolutionary France, he got prosecuted for a string of fairly minor (relative to his writings) sex crimes.  Despite a passionate sympathy for the revolution, he got himself incarcerated by Robespierre for being too moderate.  Despite being allowed to write and produce plays for the citizens of Charenton, he got forbidden to write for a time.  And he had no trouble so offending Napoleon that he was imprisoned merely for writing.

Napoleon crowns himself while the Pope watches in  Bonaparte's 1804 coronation as Emperor of France.  Detail from The Coronation of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David (1808)

And this makes for a stunning contrast.  Napoleon Bonaparte, then the French First Consul, thought so highly of himself as the ultimate new revolutionary man that, three years later, he would not allow the Pope to crown him, and instead crowned himself Emperor of the French December 2, 1904; and de Sade, a man who repeatedly assaulted a poor washer woman, gave too much Spanish fly to a prostitute, and had sex with his manservant, squared off against one another other.  Napoleon was the most brilliant military mind of his time whose behavior, directly and indirectly, led to the 4.1 million deaths of the Napoleonic Wars.  I am rather glad that neither is my next door neighbor, but please do not ever imagine for a moment that the Marquis de Sade is everybody’s ultimate boogeyman and Napoleon is just a great general from the past because it suits the legitimization of institutional power to tell the story that way.  The Marquis de Sade is no hero.  But he bemoaned the routine destruction of life to enforce the power elite, while Napoleon spent lives liberally to sustain and enhance his power.  de Sade may not be my idea of a healthy person or a hero, but he comes off pretty well in comparison with the French Emperor who jailed him.

[i] Alfred Adler was an early Freudian who came to disagree with Freud about centrality of the Oedipus Complex.  Adler thought power was a key underlying motive, and came up with the theory of masculine protest, and the still current idea of identification with the aggressor.  He would have argued that de Sade became obsessed with taking on the powerful role of the punishing religious teachers who had disciplined him as a youth.

© Russell J Stambaugh, June, 2016, Ann Arbor MI, All rights reserved