Of Masochism and Submission

Mar 24, 2011 • Culture, Feature, Philosophy

Venus in Furs

When did masochism become synonymous with submission, and sadism with dominance? Are these two truly synonymous?

For the sake of illustration, let us refer to the classic Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. In the novella, the protagonist, Severin, wishes to become the slave of a widow named Wanda. Wanda claims that the desire to dominate a man is latent in her person, but by the end of the book, we are left feeling as though she not only doesn’t desire this, but seeks the exact opposite: to be dominated herself. However, being enraptured by Severin, she undertakes the task as he describes: wearing furs, striking him when specified, and eventually completely enacting his ultimate fantasy: to take a lover and allow him to abuse Severin.

This last act is the furthest Severin’s fantasy goes. Afterward, Wanda is left with no options for further engagement, and, lacking the desire to truly dominate him, she abandons Severin in favor of her lover, who is far more dominant. Up until that point, however, Wanda has become the paradigm of dominance — as dreamed by Severin.

When he is abandoned, Severin rebels against the dream of a powerful woman in a complete reversal, becoming a despot over women. But is it a complete reversal? Was he not always in control? Did he not essentially spoon-feed what he desired to Wanda, not merely in the sense that submissives agree to their limits, but specifically dictating everything he desired her to do to him, from what she wore to how she touched him? He called himself her slave, but was he truly serving her or did he merely desire the illusion, without ever relinquishing control of his needs in her service, the way a submissive should?

We’ve all heard of “topping from the bottom” — it is an expression usually employed with derision, indicating defective behavior in a submissive. But is it possible that masochistic dominants do exist?

The image below displays a scale I have created to illustrate both masochistic and sadistic desire in terms of dominance and submission in the context we are exploring. Please click to enlarge.

Dominance to Submission Scale

The image puts the delight in pain and humiliation on the same side as the delight in doling out pain, humiliation, and discipline. I use the word communion very loosely — as certainly the dominant can and does commune with a submissive — and for lack of a better term in the ten minutes I spared to make the scale. The enjoyment in giving pain, humiliation or discipline because another desires this pain, humiliation or discipline is, it would seem, more a submissive characteristic than it is a dominant one.

I have presented the topic to the community at Fetlife, a social network for people who live the BDSM lifestyle. To take a look at their responses, go here.

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