Sadomasochism and the Social Construction of Desire

By Karen Rian

(from 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 Press, 1982)

I think the title of this book, Against Sadomasochism, misses the point. And I think the contemporary debate over whether or not sadomasochism is compatible with feminism is also missing the point. In essence, the bottom-line issues of the debate, as they have been articulated, are the repressive intolerance of sexual minorities versus the incompatibility of feminism with power and/or violence in personal relationships. The point being missed is that sexuality and sexual relationships are socially constructed in a complex dialectical way. The issue, then, is not whether sadomasochism is “politically incorrect.” Rather, I think the real questions to be addressed are: what do we like and dislike about our sexuality as we currently experience it, and how do we want to reconstruct our sexuality and sexual relationships?


To begin with, I don’t consider it “politically incorrect” to be turned on by or to practice sadomasochism. But I do think it is analytically incorrect to assume that any sexual desire is an innately or psychologically given character trait, a fixed and unchanging part of one’s personality. The pro-sadomasochism argument frequently rests on the libertarian principle that a person should not be discriminated against because of “the way she is.” This principle usually implies that “the way one is” is either a condition with which one was born, or an attribute which was acquired at some point and will remain until death, or a purely personal (i.e., nonpolitical) inclination. This “civil rights” approach is similar to the argument that it is unreasonable to discriminate against lesbians and gays because they are “born that way” or “just are that way.” While certainly the civil rights argument is valid, it sidesteps the vast range of political issues (such as conscious self-determination) that are crucial to an analysis of lesbian and gay oppression and liberation.

One of the most far-reaching insights of feminism is that “the personal is political.” Women have discovered that the details of personal life are not just a matter of individual inclination or innate characteristics. Rather, our lives—our attitudes, desires, intimate interactions, etc.—are shaped by social structures. And because social structures such as the family, media and public education are characterized by a multitude of power imbalances, our personal lives and relationships are also characterized by inequalities and power imbalances.

Our sexuality is not immune to the social and political forces which shape other dimensions of our lives—the sexual is also political. As such, it is also subject to evaluation, modification and change. Sadomasochism, then, is not a psychologically given determinant of any person’s sexuality; like any other sexual desire or practice, it is a mode of sexual satisfaction which has been learned in an alienating social context and which remains satisfying as long as its social context remains unchallenged.

Because political conditions are humanly constructed, our sexual relationships are potentially subject to our conscious efforts to redefine and reconstruct them. In realizing that our sexuality is socially constructed, we may also realize that it has been constructed by others who have had power over us, according to their interests, not ours. And because there is consequently a conflict of interests, there is also a conflict of power between those whose interests are served and those whose interests are not served by this construction. In claiming control over our own lives, it is thus within our power to create our sexuality according to our own interests, and, if we so desire, even to remove sexuality from the realm of power relationships.

While the pro-sadomasochism arguments often suffer from psychological determinism (the belief that our behavior is the result of fixed inner psychological influences over which we have no control), the anti-sadomasochism arguments usually suffer from utopian idealism. That is, they have mistakenly assumed that our desires and behavior can be changed automatically by mentally accepting the “correct” political ideas. Those who oppose sadomasochism sometimes argue that, since unequal power relationships and physical violence are antithetical to feminist goals, a feminist should not desire or be aroused by physical manifestations of dominance and submission. The problem with this argument, however, is that it too ignores the social and political realities in which our sexuality is constructed.

To use another example, some feminists have argued that jealousy is a destructive emotion in personal relationships, and that therefore it is wrong to be jealous of our lovers. While we may agree that jealousy is undesirable, we cannot simply wish it away—it is a reasonable and perhaps unavoidable response to a social reality which overwhelmingly perpetuates our insecurity. The point, then, is not just to do away with our undesirable emotions but also to create new social realities in which the kinds of relationships that we desire can flourish. To borrow a formula from Karl Marx: If we want to get rid of dominance and submission in personal relationships, we have to get rid of the conditions that require and engender dominance and submission.

By now, feminists might have learned that we can’t find individual solutions to social problems, that we can’t create perfect feminist relationships in the midst of an imperfect, male supremacist society.

And so all-pervasive is the male bias of our culture that we seldom notice that the fantasies we take in, the images that describe to us how to act, are male fantasies about females. In a male world, female sex is from the beginning unable to get a clear picture of itself.( 1)

How, then, does female sexuality begin to get a clear picture of itself?


First, I would like to move the debate over sadomasochism out of the realm of what is “politically correct” and into the realm of what is politically desirable. The question is not what should our sexual desires and interactions be (we’ve already had enough of that), but what do we want our sexual desires and interactions to be? How do we want to treat others and be treated in our sexual relationships?

The pro-sadomasochism arguments usually assume—either implicitly or explicitly—that power is a necessary component of any relationship. Therefore, sadomasochism is merely an honest expression of the “complementary” will to dominate and will to submit. It is clearly the case that power is a predictable, if not inevitable, dynamic of relationships in this society. All of our socialization for relationships is done in the context of power imbalances—parent over child, man over woman, boss over worker, beloved over lover, etc. And a great deal of our sexual socialization associates sex and violence (see Sally Wagner’s essay, “Pornography and the Sexual Revolution: The Backlash of Sadomasochism,” pp. 23-44 of this volume). It is not a coincidence that we speak of being “conquered” or “overpowered” by love, of “submitting” to a lover, etc. So all-pervasive is our society’s association of power and love that it is hard to imagine an intimate relationship in which power confrontations did not exist. And so all-pervasive is our society’s expression of power through violence, and the association of violence and sex, that it’s almost a surprise that sadomasochism is considered to be “kinky” rather than “normal” for sexual relations in this society.

Although power imbalances are an existing reality, I do not believe they are inevitable or unchangeable. To the extent that we justify expressions of power in intimate relationships, we capitulate, I believe, to the ideologies and social structures which present personal aggressiveness as a necessary condition of human nature. That is, we take the historically specific characteristics of a hierarchical, competitive and alienating social organization as inevitable. If dominance and submission are inevitable, there is really no point to a feminist transformation of society—including personal relationships. This is one sense in which I believe sadomasochism and feminism are not compatible.

Additionally, there is the question of desirability: if power imbalances are not inevitable, is it possible that expressions of dominance and submission are nonetheless desirable? If so, are they desirable as a means to an end or as ends in themselves? For purposes of comparison, I first want to bring up a related issue concerning feminist relationships.

Feminists often argue that it is important for lovers to express their anger with each other, that fighting is “healthy” or “necessary” for successful relationships. The underlying intention of this position is to avoid harboring resentments which can become destructively explosive if they are perpetually internalized rather than expressed. However, the practice of fighting as a means to creating harmony has too often come to be seen as an end in itself. Fighting and the expression of anger may be effective means to overcoming hostilities, but this does not mean, as I have sometimes heard, that a relationship is “unhealthy” if it does not include periodic fights. Nor does it mean that the more people fight, the “healthier” their relationship. Especially when no hostilities exist, the glorification of fighting strikes me as a ludicrous regression into destructive masculinist values. It seems to me that interpersonal hostilities are a deterrent to mutual and self-respect, and that we would do better to overcome them than institutionalize and normalize them.

Dominance diminishes the power and the self of another; submission to dominance is self-diminishing. Personal strength can be used to diminish another person and can be given up in self-diminution to another person. But strength can also be mutually given and received to enhance both one’s own power and the power of another. As the sexual expressions of dominance and submission, sadomasochism may be a means for some women to resolve perceived inequalities in power, perhaps in much the same way that fighting may resolve hostilities. (It may also be the case that conflicts of power and hostilities can be more constructively resolved through peaceful methods of negotiation.) However, insofar as sadomasochism is seen as a desirable end in itself, self-diminution becomes glorified and institutionalized. If cooperation, conscious self-determination and the elimination of power imbalances are feminist goals, then sadomasochistic relationships as goals are incompatible with feminist goals.


I think the issue of “mutual consent” is utterly beside the point. The pro-sadomasochism argument often justifies lesbian sadomasochism as a matter of mutual consent and therefore, beyond reproach. However, I find this argument as irrelevant and unconvincing as the anti-feminist argument from women who claim that their greatest satisfaction is in “consenting” to sexual subservience to men. Since our sexuality has been for the most part constructed through social structures over which we have had no control, we all “consent” to sexual desires and activities which are alienating to at least some degree. However, there’s a vast difference between consent and self-determination. The latter includes the former, but in addition entails control over the social structures which shape our lives, including our sexual desires and relationships. In other words, self-determination requires that consent be both informed and self-informed.

Ultimately, sexual liberation is not simply a matter of having the freedom to do whatever we feel like doing. (If sexual liberation were so simple, we should have no objection to men “getting off” on pornographic portrayals of sexual violence against women.) Rather, sexual liberation involves the freedom to redefine and reconstruct our sexuality, which in turn reshapes our sexual desires.

While no one is in a position to judge the “political correctness” of anyone’s sexual desires, we can—and must—discuss the political desirability of our goals for sexual relationships. I, for one, cannot accept dominance and submission as a desirable goal for any area of personal relationships, including sexuality. I believe that an appropriate feminist goal is not the expression—or even equalization—of power, but rather the elimination of power dynamics in sexual, and other, relationships.


1. Linda Phelps, “Female Sexual Alienation,” Woman: A Journal of Liberation, Vol. 3, No. 1 (1972), p. 13.