Sadomasochism and the Liberal Tradition, by Hilde Hein
(As published in Against Sadomasochism: A Radical Feminist Analysis, edited by Robin Ruth Linden, Darlene R. Pagano, Diana E.H. Russell, and Susan Leigh Star [Frog in the Well, 1982] pp. 83-89)
The ethic of individualism affirms that every person is an autonomous agent, subject to the will of no other and free to carry out his or her own objectives up to the point where their implementation infringes upon the identical freedom of other persons. Governments are defended on bureaucratic and juridical grounds as necessary to orchestrate these many freedoms and to adjudicate where individuals or individuals and institutions conflict. The formulators of the doctrine of individualism, including the American "Founding Fathers," entertained visions of infinitely expanding and wide open frontiers. If the ambitions of one agent became incompatible with or abrasive to another, one of them could be expected to move on to a more hospitable place, and so the threat of intrusion could be at least conceptually contained.
But the exponential growth in population and its accompanying avalanche of technological connectedness have put an end to such frontiers. There is no hiding place, no place to go. Space colonies are not, at least not yet, a viable option. Neither one's identity nor one's freedom is coterminous with the surface of one's skin. Clearly, we are interdependent. Yet, more than ever, we are defensive of our autonomy.
This state of affairs is clearly recognized by the theorists of modern capitalism, who are rooted in philosophical individualism. But capitalism derives its longevity from its capacity to make altruistic accommodations. Capitalism could not survive, here or elsewhere, by promoting egoism unsoftened by social conscience. The institutions of modern liberal society, though committed to traditional possessive individualism, expound the ideals of compassion, freedom from exploitation and the minimization of suffering. By making such declarations capitalism wins the support of even its most oppressed victims, some of whom espouse its ideals without perceiving that their achievement rests upon the perpetuation of someone's (possibly their own) victimization.
Victims are encouraged to think of themselves as potential victors, constrained only by extraneous circumstance and ill-developed personal skills. Such limitations can, in principle, be remedied; the "disadvantaged" person can aspire to full, effective social participation. According to this (liberal) model of society, individuals, like the free floating atoms of a gas, are threatened only by excessive compression, i.e., by each other. This analysis leads to the conclusion that a condition of over-crowding, material scarcity and poorly adapted personal self-seeking can lead to defensively perverse and aberrant social behavior.
It is sometimes argued that such practices as sadomasochism, the mutual and intentional infliction of punishment and pain for erotic pleasure, are implosions of a society turned upon itself. Inescapably contracted upon one another, people use and abuse each other. When such behavior is private and "consensual," it is regarded as a tolerable deviation from the social norms which serve as a private and public safety valve. Properly contained, it can even be endorsed as a part of the cost of individualism and free choice.
I believe, however, that sadomasochism--both on the part of its practitioners and of the community of media voyeurs which propagates it--is not a deviation from the philosophical origins of liberalism but a realization of them. For this, if for no other reason, anyone with a concern for the quality of life must reconsider the philosophical roots out of which our mutual adaptations and accommodations have grown. I do not mean the biological metaphor to suggest an inevitable and naturally determined working out of human social interactions. However "natural" they may appear to be, the political relationships of people as well as their conscious interactions with their environment are ideological. Social and political life stems out of philosophical commitments, attitudes and intentions which are rarely defined with clarity and infrequently understood. They may nevertheless be articulated and must be subjected to critical scrutiny. They could have been, and might have been, otherwise. Even now, what has come to be is neither fixed nor necessary.
Philosophical liberalism is ultimately committed to individualism and to egoism both as psychological descriptions of human nature and as ethical prescriptions. According to this doctrine, one's final obligation, to which all other moral constraints are subordinate, is to oneself. While one may choose self-sacrifice for the sake of another person or ideal, even this is to be understood as a mode of self-realization. For in the end, personal survival--in whatever glorifying or aggrandizing way that may be defined--is the only imperative.(1)
What is meant by the "pursuit of happiness" has never been very clear to anyone, but it is a right to which we are allegedly entitled by nature. When the creature needs of food and shelter and the social needs of health care, education and work have been satisfied, are there other psychic and/or aesthetic needs which merit the same protection? Clearly not, if their gratification entails the deprivation or exploitation of another person. Liberal doctrine provides explicitly that no one is to be used as a means. We are described by liberal philosophers as inhabiting a "kingdom of ends," ideally one in which all individuals legislate wholly and exclusively unto themselves.
But suppose that my happiness depends upon doing injury to you, and you express willingness to undergo that injury. You derive satisfaction from my pleasure and so the submission, even to pain, constitutes a self-realization on your part. Having formed such a partnership we are both content, each achieving our symbiotic fulfillment without trespassing the moral boundaries of one another 's autonomy. Such an argument seems to sanction anything short of murder (and perhaps even that) as long as it is carried out between consenting adults. The defense of sadomasochism as voluntarily practiced thus represents the pleasure of A in hurting as coincident with the pleasure of B in being hurt. Since (presumably) no damage is done to anyone else, the arrangement seems laudably equitable and even rather elegant. And it is philosophically correct if liberal individualism is the correct philosophy to live by.
However, my contention is that it is not. Strictly speaking, the intended scope of liberal individualism never has been universal. Those who proclaimed the freedom of the individual were nearly always men addressing themselves to other men, notably to the real or abstract paterfamilias in whose person a wife and children, along with other "possessions," would be included. The idea of women and children as holders of rights, conceived apart from the men in whose identity their own interests were allegedly merged, is a comparatively new phenomenon. Indeed, it is partly because women have begun to claim rights and freedoms for themselves that some of the implications of liberal theory are becoming evident. One thing is clear: independently of the increase in population, the sheer number of individuals demanding their equal entitlement is multiplying. Everybody is claiming their due. But what are the consequences of the recognition and the guarantees due them? Are the protection of the right to hurt and the legitimization of being hurt necessary consequences of guaranteed civil liberties? I think not.
In effect, it seems to me the liberal tradition is mistaken in its absolute prohibition of the use of others as a means. Rhetoric apart, this is an untenable and impracticable aim. Everyone uses others in various capacities, some, but not all of which are rewarded by payment or even simply by gratitude. Not to be used at all is tantamount to being worthless. Most people want to be of use, to do something which is useful to and valued by someone else. Harm is done by misusing or abusing another person. If anything, there is a satisfaction to be found in being well used, for this represents a recognition and appreciation of one's capacities. Women often feel wasted because those qualities and abilities which we treasure in ourselves are disregarded and devalued by male-dominated society. Whether or not we are being used (properly or improperly) in other dimensions, women languish through ill-use because we are not used according to our own choices or self-attributed capabilities. Mere utility, like that of an umbrella or typewriter, which is appointed but not self-identified, is not enough. Liberal theory is correct in making this distinction.
Does it follow that a person who chooses to be hurt for the sake of another's pleasure or to inflict pain because another enjoys suffering is well used? I think the answer must be negative. This instrumentalization of self differs in quality from that indicated by the putting to use of one's skills and abilities. If I participate in the achievement of your ends by giving you the benefit of my expertise, as carpenter, teacher, friend or lover, then we can both come away from that experience enriched in accomplishment. But if my utility to you lies exclusively in the fact that I have objectified myself--made myself your object and subordinated myself to you--then my use is a negation of me. (To be negated is not the same as to be used up. The latter, a state of total exhaustion, may nonetheless be an exhilaration and a fulfillment.)
My negation does not entail an aggrandizement of you, although this is often cited as its ostensive purpose. Your being, or your wellbeing, though possibly hampered or assisted by some feature that I possess, cannot be dependent upon my non-being. For whatever I may contribute as a person to you, you are who you are with or without me. I do not define you; you do not define me. But by reducing myself to your object or allowing you to do that to me, I demean the two of us regardless of either of our pleasures.
Let us assume, as contemporary sadomasochists would have us do, that the submissive partner is not coerced by violence or threats, but undergoes his or her treatment, as declared, by choice. Are all choices equally commendable? Nearly every historic form of hedonism, from that advocated by Protagoras to that of the French "decadents," has promoted a strategy of enlightened pleasure seeking even while exalting pleasure as the ultimate good. Many have counseled discipline and moderation, meaning discipline not in the sense of whips and chains, but of orderly conduct and self-restraint. As they observed, limited desires are more easily satisfied than extravagant desires. Even those hedonists scorned by Plato, who condoned a more extreme range of experiences, regarded pain as a necessary consequence of and an inevitable retribution for pleasure. But contemporary devotees of sadomasochism want to excise that causal connection between restraint and pleasure.
Using the all-tolerating liberal principles as legitimation, sadomasochists represent their behavior as not only morally acceptable and reasonable, but as entitled to protection by law. Social scientists now defend these practices as expressive of a new freedom, as well as cathartic of the anxieties of our age. Health and sex counselors give sober and well-meaning advice in the public media and offer private workshops on how to avoid the infliction of permanent injury and accidental death in sadomasochistic encounters.(2) Middle class families sit in their homes watching leather garbed Nazis on television and murmur to themselves about the state the world has come to. But few actually dare to contradict the laissez-faire morality by which we have arrived at that state. When we accept the precepts of liberalism, then spikes and studs become merely a matter of "personal habit" to which I have no more right to object than you do to whatever private indulgences may be the entertainment of my choice.
It is a fallacy of liberal individualism that any behavior is purely personal. Whatever we do takes place in a social context and has an effect upon other human beings. To degrade someone, even with that person's expressed consent, is to endorse the degradation of persons. It is to affirm that the abuse of persons is acceptable. For if some people may be humiliated and despised, all may be. It does not matter whether or not they despise themselves. To voluntarily make a victim of oneself is to endorse the state of victimization implicitly for others as well.
This contention must not be misunderstood as a case of "blaming the victim." The victim becomes a responsible agent through acquiescence but it is obvious that the perpetrator of an act is guilty of it. Furthermore, it is apparently not uncommon that victim and oppressor in sadomasochistic activities voluntarily reverse and alternate roles. This very "playfulness" contributes to the intolerable character of the sadomasochistic defense. To treat with levity a self-chosen condition of humiliation which is a hated oppression to multitudes of other people is to reduce their suffering to a mockery. Every joyous torturer and willing torturee negates and denies the real agony of six million Jews, countless Blacks and untold numbers of others whose victimization remains substantial and involuntary.
If civilization has made any moral progress, it is surely that we can now reject the claim that any individual or group of people has absolute sovereignty over the life and fortunes of any other. Individuals who offer themselves up in pain and servitude to others merit pity, but deserve neither tolerance nor support in that undertaking. In saying this I do not mean to retreat into paternalistic interventionism "for the subject's own good." I do believe that it is occasionally possible to know better than another what is in that person's best interest. But this is not invariably a reason for interfering. Sometimes things are better left alone even where free choice is badly used. I would not, under all circumstances, try to prevent a suicide or prohibit a person from taking risks I consider to be foolish and dangerous. Some things must be learned by oneself. But intervention is justified to preserve the vestiges of human dignity that reside in that person for the sake of the rest of us. In this case, it is human dignity as such that is being defended.
We have become reluctant to be labelled as moral crusaders in an age when human potential has degenerated to "doing your own thing." We are conditioned to making bland observations and cynical jokes in response to obscenities of a national scale and perversity of universal magnitude. We are numbed to the point of being at home with cruelty and despair. Sadomasochism is but one more absurdity to be greeted with a blank stare. But to do that is to yield to yet another assault upon our own decency. Whatever contempt the human race may have merited in the past and may have brought upon itself, we are not destined to live by the traditions which perpetuate it. We cannot capitulate to the liberal dogma which treats as normal and neutral the volitional debasement and humiliation of one human being by another. If this is the logic of liberalism, then feminist philosophy can and must do better. Traditional philosophy would be well served by such revision.
1. A possible exception to this rule might be the case of maternity where a considerable degree of self-sacrifice is sentimentally expected. But even here, as is evident from the recent disputes on the permissibility of therapeutic abortion, the struggle for survival between alleged souls in competition is a pitched one.
2. Pearl Stewart, "Safety Workshops for S. F. Masochists," San Francisco Chronicle, March 12, 1981, p. 1.
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