The phenomenological construction of meaning and expression
of emotion in sadomasochistic behaviour.
Definitions of sadomasochism often centre on the eroticisation of power relations, pain and humiliation (Eisler, 1951; Meredith, 1982; Nadeau,1995), sometimes going so far as to explain sadomasochism as replication of the phenomenology of oppression (Linden, 1982). Explanations which bring to mind images of senseless torture and persecution, devoid of meaning or legitimate pleasure, hidden behind the excuse of consent and freedom of choice. I will attempt to demonstrate how a phenomenological approach can explain how people derive meaning and pleasure from what would often be termed pain, depravity and even criminal.
It is imperative to note that sexual behaviour and it’s understanding, is culture bound and is marked by great historical diversity (Merleau-Ponty, 1965). Even individuals within a culture and historical period will vary in their sexual behaviour over time and situations (Gagnon and Simon, 1974). Merleau-Ponty (in Crossley, 2001) theorises that there is no fixed sexual instinct, which Gagnon and Simon (1973) pursue, to state that almost anything can be sexual or not. This may identify why S&M is not considered sexual by everyone, or indeed individuals in every context. Under this explanation, the eroticisation of pain is just as valid as more generally acceptable forms of sexual expression. It also follows that any number of behaviours could become sexually meaningful to individuals, depending on their sexual history (Crossley, 2001).
In this light, it is meaning which underpins any action or behaviour, where the meaning of any action, situation or object is derived from it’s symbolic system (Crossley, 2001). These components only have meaning within the context to those who identify the particular meaning associated with them. Cutting a person’s skin, for instance, may be seen from the outside, as a violent action, but in the context where those involved deem the behaviour to represent love, this behaviour is love. This is explained in Merleau-Ponty’s 1971 work (in Crossley, 2001), which explains that emotions are not hidden psychic elements, beneath behaviour, but exist within the gesture. Violent behaviour may contain love, for those who understand the symbolic intention of the behaviour. Of course, violent behaviour may not always contain love beyond the particular context. This explanation does not attempt to justify violence as an universally appropriate or recognised transmitter of love, but as a behaviour given special meaning within certain contexts for certain people.
In the case of individuals engaged in this type of behaviour, it is useful to think of the emotion existing for the participants because they are comprised in their embodied manner of relating to each other (Crossley, 2001). In this case, the meaning, embodied in the behaviour, directly engages the participants, because they share a common understanding of the context, intention and behaviour. S&M therefore presupposes that the participants should share a common understanding of emotion and being emotional (Crossley, 2001). This explanation also recognises that for those who don’t share this attribution of meaning, the behaviour may be incomprehensible or reviled. This can be understood in the way that individuals do not recognise or understand emotional expression of people in different groups or cultures (Merleau-Ponty, 1962 cited in Crossley, 2001).
This explanation is particularly useful because it does not imply value judgements upon the behaviours. Between individuals who share common habits of emotional expression, any expression which is understood to embody love, can be regarded as such. Indeed it could even be taken that within a S&M context, more culturally accepted behaviours may be lacking in meaning, misunderstood or inappropriate.
Crossley (2001) explains emotions as ways of being-in-the-world, acting in and making sense of the world. Emotional states allow perception of the world to be altered, to be perceived and experienced differently, transforming the world, it’s meanings and how one reacts to them (Crossley, 2001). Crossley identifies that emotional states ‘come over’ a person, and can be engaged by acting out particular states and behaviours (2001). This implies that to those who understand S&M as pleasurable, a state which engages this emotion may be attained by engaging in behaviours which are understood to embody the desired meanings and emotions.
This is exemplified in the way that some of those who practice S&M, create and participate in pre-organised situations and tableaux in order to feel pleasure (Airaksinen, 1995; Jonel, 1982; Moore, 1996; Nadeau, 1995). Grosz (1995) identifies that indeed any region of the body, even internal organs may be intensified and exited by not only pleasurable caress, but also pain and force. Grosz (1995) goes on to specify how pain is even possibly more capable of inscribing pleasure upon the bodies of sadomasochists.
Emotion can also be viewed as a means of transforming a situation or behaviour by imbuing it with new forms of meaning (Sartre, 1974). In this way sadomasochistic behaviour summons forth new forms of meaning in the situation, which are understood by individuals as pleasurable. The transformative aspect of emotion and meaning may explain how desire can transform the physical experience of pain into a meaningful experience of pleasure and love. The pain is still felt as physically painful, however it has been suffused with emotion and meaning, which becomes a salient and intensifying aspect of the experience (Crossley, 1998). Under this understanding, it is not the pain itself which is directly arousing – as that would imply that pain could be arousing in every context – but that within particular contexts it is the meaning associated with the behaviour that causes arousal. From this, it can be clearly seen that almost any activity, object or behaviour could be felt or thought of as arousing, regardless of social acceptability.
However, a single individual may find arousal in the pain of another in a purely ‘sadistic’ manner, without the other’s consent or arousal (Airaksinen, 1995; Moore, 1996). Kojéve (1969) highlights that humans have a desire for desire, which stems from one’s understanding that others have a consciousness and are conscious of our consciousness of them in turn. This results in a desire to prove oneself to another, in order to prove ourselves to ourselves (Crossley, 2001). In this way one proves their love or desire to themselves by engaging in some mutually understandable action which embodies that love and desire in the minds of both parties. However, the case can arise when an individual embodies their love in violence which the other individual does not recognise as love. This occurs when the two parties are of two minds about the context of the violence, or do not understand or identify the behaviour as having the same meaning. This is not to say that the feeling of love is any more or less worthy to either individual, but that the meaning and emotion are not communicable when both individuals do not share similar understandings (Crossley, 2001).
The desire for desire identifies how popular, socially understandable behaviours become ingrained in society as acceptable ways of being emotional and transmitting emotion to others (Honneth, 1995). From this it can also be seen how socially unaccepted methods of transmitting or showing emotion become regarded as unusual, inappropriate or abhorrent by those who do not share an understanding of them. This sense of what is appropriate in a society develops into a demand to subscribe to, and excel above, others prescribing to the same values (Mead, 1967). In this manner, a way of displaying emotion and desire can become superior in a society above other expressions in other societies (Mead, 1967). Members of the same group may also seek to outdo each other within the realm of the same understanding of emotional expression, explaining why individuals may be gratified by parading what they view as a superior expression of sexuality, desire and emotion (Crossley, 2001; Linden, 1982). In these situations, objects, practices and behaviours take on symbolic and emotional meaning for individuals, within contexts which support these meanings, such as the attachment of the sadist to the whip (Grosz, 1995; Kojéve, 1969).
Now that sadomasochistic behaviour has been explained and validated as a possible form of emotional expression and meaning, a phenomenological analysis of the experience of sadomasochistic behaviour can attempt to explore how meanings and emotions can be elicited and created via these behaviours and actions.
As phenomenology is concerned with the experience of being a body (Crossley, 2001; Merleau-Ponty, 1965) and sexuality and sexual activity with the physical arrangement of bodies (Gagnon and Simon, 1974) it makes sense that S&M entails a particular style of experience of sexual activity and being a body. Physical stimuli have sensuous and perceptual meaning for individuals which they respond to, meanings which are built within societies, histories and cultures but also have a great element of personal preference and style (Crossley, 2001). It can then be understood that the release of emotional pain or desire could occur though physical harm to oneself or another (Brite, 1993). If one is a body, it seems reasonable that a meaningful, embodied action should be able to articulate emotions and desires.
To perceive oneself as a body lends a particular meaning to S&M through the experience of pain. Perception is described as an active process where the individual interrogates and experiences the world bodily, creating a subjective environment where objects, actions and encounters take on and are responded to with subjective meaning (Crossley, 2001; Merleau-Ponty, 1965). Physical pain is experienced by bodies, which an embodied, perceptual consciousness can experience and perceive to be meaningful.
In this light, one can experience one’s own body and the bodies of others in meaningful ways, incorporating pain as an element of transforming and intensifying meaning (Crossley, 1998; Grosz, 1995; Sartre, 1974). Brite describes a character testing his domain over his own flesh:
To know the strange human jelly below the surface, part layer upon cell-delicate layer of skin, part quickening blood, part pale subcutaneous fat that parted like butter…(Brite, 1993: 112).
This demonstrates the phenomenological experience of one’s own body as a body. The character is not dislocated from their body, but experiences the action of cutting through his own flesh as an embodied action invested with meaning and purpose.
Following this, the phenomenological experience of another’s body is also possible: by recognising that the other being is a body also, one can use embodied actions to experience another body and to perceive minuscule details to deepen the experience with meaning.
Zach thought of putting his mouth against those eyelids, of feeling the lashes
silky against his lips, the secret caged movement of the eyeball beneath his
tongue. (Brite, 1993: 168)
Knowing oneself bodily and knowing another bodily can then allow a more intimate knowledge of another person, imbuing bodily activity and experience with meaning. From this basis, emotion and desire can be articulated though the use of one’s body to explore the experience of at once being a body and being a body experiencing another body. Pain may then be just another bodily aspect to be experienced in order to know a body more thoroughly. Pain then can be found pleasurable as it is invested with an intimate and perceivable significance.
Skin may then become another barrier to knowing someone and oneself, a barrier which in the Sadean philosophy, needs to be breached (Airaksinen, 1995; Moore, 1994). Phenomenology understands the body as an atomised construct which is not dislocated from the identity or mind of the individual (Crossley, 2001). With this in mind, one can begin to understand why meaning could be constructed around experiencing another’s body without the limits of even physical barriers. Touching a body, indeed exploring the body can become meaningful, intimate and permeated with emotion.
Zach’s body beneath him was exhilarating, this complex, delicious bundle of blood and bones and thoughts and nerves and muscles captive in his arms, willingly so, gladly so. (Brite, 1993: 212)
Here, the body of another is in no way dislocated from the mind or the individual who comprises and experiences the world from within it. One can experience another’s body with their own body, as a whole being (Grosz, 1995). The above passages are also illustrative of perceptual attitudes: the character’s attention is engaged and practically directed from within the character, rather than a detached observation (Merleau-Ponty, 1965). These examples also highlight that the specific activity of the character shapes the character’s attention, displaying how perception is formed by perceptual schemas, a function of action and a origin of focal interests, rather than a disinterested gaze (Crossley, 2001).
With a phenomenological perception of another’s body, an individual’s sense of space is merged with the subject of enquiry, the body, the being of the other (Crossley, 2001). Erotic attachment and desire are expressed through the dissolution of boundaries and bodily organisation and the merging of body parts by orgasmic dissolution (Grosz, 1995). The body becomes ‘the puzzle of flesh’ (Brite, 1993: 354), illustrated graphically here:
‘I just want to know how you’re made…I love you so much Zach. I want to climb inside you. I want to taste your brain. I want to feel your hear beating in my hands’…yielding flesh in his hands, hot with fear, sticky with sweat and blood and already smelling of heaven. Helpless bones to crack, helpless skin to rip open, sweet red river to drink from. He had to do it. He had to know. With his eyes and his hands, with all his body, he had to see. (Brite, 1993: 358)
Of course the above is an extreme example, but it helps to highlight a level of intensity and meaning attained through the consciousness taking form within activity, becoming a function of the experience (Crossley, 2001). The experience is completely dependent upon perception and action, located between the protagonists rather than within or exterior to them (Merleau-Ponty 1965). The sense and meaning of the behaviour can only be understood in reference to what it means to the individuals themselves, it’s purpose and intent (Crossley, 2001). Another important note is that the protagonists in such a situation are not conscious of the overall structure of the tableau, but are so engaged that every action, every perception and expression of emotion and desire embodies its structure, logic and meaning (Crossley, 2001).
From the beginning of this essay I have been concerned with how a behaviour, which is often incomprehensible to those who do not experience it or understand its significance to others who do, can articulate the same meanings and emotions as more universally acceptable forms of emotional expression and activity. Sadomasochism can be a complex form of sexual expression, not merely a eroticisation of negative and violent behaviours intended to debase, harm and devalue a victim. Indeed, sadomasochism and the meanings it can contain may transmit and articulate desire, love and compassion in the same way as any sexual behaviour; and for some, in a much superior fashion and context.
This is not to suppose that everyone would find this to be true. As Gagnon and Simon recognise (1974), what someone may find arousing or sexual, others may not find sexual or arousing in the slightest. It is my intention to demonstrate that S&M is a legitimate form of sexual expression for those who find it to fit with their desires, not to propound it above other forms of expression. Of course it may be the view that S&M is dangerous because it goes against society’s moral expectations of sexual behaviour, or eroticises pain and domination. Indeed sadistic behaviour can be destructive, out of context and it does eroticise pain and domination within it’s scope. Sadistic motives can motivate harm against others, but I am not attempting to defend S&M as a lifestyle, or to claim it should be given free-reign in society. The purpose of this essay is to explore the construction of meaning and expression of emotion in a complex sexual behaviour, a behaviour which can be just as evocative and arousing as any other.
The phenomenological construction of meaning and expression
of emotion in sadomasochistic behaviour.