Lucy Kumara Moore: An A-Z of S&M

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Mano Destra, 1986 [Film still]

For the latest edition of her ‘SEXNESS’ column, Lucy Kumara Moore shares a guide to the cultural and intellectual underpinnings of sadomasochism – spanning film, philosophy and literature

SEXNESS is a new monthly column exploring the shape of 21st-century desire from Lucy Kumara Moore, director of Claire de Rouen bookshop. A drive from the deep, a contested ground, a spur to our true identity, desire is manifold. Without aiming to be comprehensive, SEXNESS interweaves conversations with friends and personal perspective, to generate a PLEASURE-POSITIVE transmission from the cultural now.

An A-Z of S&M makes sense. An A-to-Z is very headmistress. Very Sir. It has a clear structure that can’t be deviated from. A set pattern. Reciting an A-Z has something ritualistic about it. And the alphabet is the basis for our language, which is like a contract we sign up to so we can communicate with each other. Contracts are very S&M. On the other hand, you could say the alphabet is about as real as it gets. A is always A, B is always B. Perverse sexual practices create their own worlds, their own ‘orders’ (as Mr Deleuze would say – see below) that make explorations of the self and intimacy possible in a way that a normative world doesn’t. Here follows 26 notes on the darkened minds of Sade and Masoch.

A is for Aurore

Aurore Rümelim was Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s wife; they married in 1873. Aurore adopted the name of Wanda, the heroine of Masoch’s novel Venus in Furs (see: M for Masoch).

B is for Belle de Jour

Belle de Jour, released in 1967 and directed by Luis Buñuel, tells the story of Séverine (Catherine Deneuve), a bourgeois woman who, bored in her marriage, solicits excitement by joining the books of a local, high-class brothel. It is Séverine’s masochist fantasies that she hopes to satisfy through her prostitution (in one oneiric scene she is tied to a tree and has mud thrown at her). See also: M for Masoch – Séverine is a feminine version of Severin.  

C is for Chris Kraus

In Aliens and Anorexia, American novelist Chris Kraus writes: “There is no experimental theatre in sadomasochism. Character is completely preordained and circumscribed. You’re either top or bottom. There isn’t any room for innovation in these roles. And as you play them, something flips and you believe it. Balinese danceNoh and Kathakali all use ancient gestures to create emotion. As the playwright and director Lee Breuer describes it, “the gestures reverse their way up through the stimulus system of the body, and go back into the ganglia and make emotion. It becomes a loop, and these loops together constitute the performing energy flow.” See: I for Imagination, for a different perspective. 

D is for Gilles Deleuze

In his essay Coldness and Cruelty, French philosopher Gilles Deleuze insists that, although there is sadism to be found in masochism and vice versa, the two are not “accomplices”. He suggests: “The pain [the libertine] suffers is an ultimate pleasure, not because it satisfies a need to expiate or a feeling of guilt, but because it confirms him in his inalienable power.” By contrast, for the masochist, “sadism is a culmination; it is as though expiation and the satisfaction of the need to expiate were at last to permit the hero what his punishments were previously intended to deny him”.

E is for Escape

Into a world with behavioural limits set only by those who are part of it. Or, from the burden of power (see: H is for Hierarchy). 

F is for Flinch

A sadist’s reward. 

G is for Good

And bad. Sade, who wrote The 120 Days of Sodom in 1785 while incarcerated in the Bastille in Paris, was interested in “transcending the law”, which he saw as a tyrannising power, dependent on “the complicity of slaves and masters”. Deleuze writes: “Sade often stresses the fact that the law can only be transcended toward an institutional model of anarchy.” Camille Paglia (see: SEXNESS No. 2!) considers Sade’s position to be a riposte to the Enlightenment’s idea of the inherent goodness in man. 

H is for Hierarchy

It’s no surprise that men and women in positions of power often enjoy being dominated. It’s a relief to be at the bottom of the pile for a while.

I is for Imagination

The wellspring of all perversion. Anita Phillips writes: “Masochists implant ideas and fire the imaginations of others to draw them into their own visions of eroticism.”

J is for Juliette and Justine

Titles of novels by Sade.

K is for Krafft-Ebing

Psychiatrist Dr Richard von Krafft-Ebing, who coined the term ‘masochism’.  

L is for Libertine

“A person, usually a man, who leads an immoral life and is interested in pleasure, especially sexual pleasure.” (Oxford English Dictionary)

M is for Masoch

Leopold von Sacher-Masoch was a decorated 19th-century Austrian writer whose novel Venus in Furs (1870) gave rise to psychiatrist Dr Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s formulation of a perversion – masochism – two years later. The novel is inspired by Masoch’s affair with a woman named Fanny von Pistor, with whom he signed a contract which included the clause: “Fanny... undertakes to wear furs as often as possible, especially when she is behaving cruelly.” The male masochist in the novel is called Severin. 

N is for Nightmare

One person’s nightmare is another’s dream.

O is for Story of O

Story of O is Dominique Aury’s masochistic fantasy, published in 1954.

P is for Punishment

And the pleasure of it.

Q is for Questions

The answers to which create the conditions for consent, complicity, and mutual pleasure.

R is for Roles

As Frenchy Lunning writes in Fetish Style, the dominatrix inhabits “roles invented by the dominatrix and the ‘submissives’ themselves. Many of these character roles are based in the nurturing and caretaking roles of women for children (the governess), the sick (the nurse), the sinner (the nun), the subordinate (the military captain), the master or mistress (the maid), the serf (the countess), the pet (the lion tamer, owner), the baby (the babysitter) and more.” 

S is for Sade 

Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade, a French nobleman who was a prolific writer, philosopher and revolutionary politician. His novels resulted in his arrest. His writings and his continued extreme behaviour engendered the term ‘sadism’.

T is for Torment

The masochist’s dream.

U is for Cleo Ubelmann

The Swiss filmmaker who directed Mano Destra (‘Right Hand’), a lesbian bondage blue movie, in 1986. 

V is for Velvet Underground

And their song Venus in Furs.

W is for the Kiss of the Whip 

Also: Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, described by American social critic Camille Paglia as a sadomasochistic novel. See: SEXNESS No. 2.

X is for Extreme


Y is for Yes

According to Deleuze, the masochist gives consent, the sadist would be repulsed by it. Hence, the two are not complementary but separate ‘orders’.  

Z is for Zone

A completely different one... See: E is for Escape.