Explaining bdsm, in 1629

Johann "It's a wig" Meibom

Johann “It’s a wig” Meibom

Nearly four hundred years ago, a German doctor, Johann Meibom, noticed that some of his patients were reporting something that struck him as odd: they got sexually excited by being whipped across the buttocks and upper thighs.

Whipping happened a lot back then, but very little of it was intended to turn people on. Meibom did some thinking about why people could take sexual pleasure from pain. Eventiually, in  1629, he published a treatise about it: On the Sexual Uses of Whipping (Flagrorum Usu in Re Veneria). 

Meibom’s explanation was that whipping brings blood rushing to the assaulted area, and if the whipping is close to the genitals the increased blood supply will make it easier to achieve arousal.

“Blows on the buttocks and loins (that is, the groin, hips and lower abdomen), the area of the body most involved in producing sexual fluids and carrying them to the genitals,” he wrote, “warm and inflame those parts and contribute strongly to the arousal of sexual desire.”* 

"The irritation of Lechery", as they used to say, around 1629.

“The irritation of Lechery”, as they used to say, around 1629.

Meibom’s was one of the first attempts to explain the causes of bdsm sexuality and, by suggesting that a sexual response might have a sexual cause, he made a promisingly sensible start.

The question of what causes bdsm desire, where it comes from, is one of the first questions asked by people who discover bdsm desires in themselves or in someone they love. (Yes, it should be a joyous discovery, but it isn’t always that way at first.)

When people raise questions of cause and origin – of aetiology – it’s only partly out of curiosity. They also want to know how the aetiology of bdsm affects the answers to some other questions.

Those questions include whether bdsm is part of the natural range of ways of being human and sexual, or whether it’s a sign that the person drawn to bdsm is pathological or damaged; and whether or not a person can simply decide to have, to to get rid of, bdsm desires.

If they turn to more recent medical or psychiatric theorists for answers, they may find that medicine and psychology have taken some giant backward steps since 1629.

Take Karl Abraham, for example, the twentieth century psychoanalyst who argued that “sadomasochism” was caused by … teeth.

Nah, let’s bring him on tomorrow. 


* I was going to use the contemporary translation by Edmund Curll, because he’s a hero of mine (all underground publishers are), and because he used the phrase, “the irritation of Lechery“, which I love. But for clarity’s sake I’ve provided a modern translation.

Why isn’t everybody into bdsm (a lot)?

elephant swimI’m going to be writing, off and on, about what we know about why some people like bdsm, and respond sexually to bdsm-like situations, while others don’t.

 I’ve been putting this off for a while because it’s a huge task, and I’m revising the Probation Officer novel into (I hope) publishable form at the same time.

But I promised I’d write something about why corporal punishment of children is a bad idea, and that topic fits into the bigger topic: where does bdsm come from, anyway?  

Since the nineteenth century, most people trying to come up with explanations have come at this issue the wrong way. Bdsm is thought of as pathological, “sick” and evil, and yet there are people who are drawn to it and enjoy it, so psychologists and theorists asked “what is it about those people? What went wrong with them?”  

But bdsm is intensely pleasurable. It seems to work by taking some sexual things that everybody shares (surrender, for example, and the desire to make your partner respond to what you do), and making those things even stronger.

So what mystifies me is: why isn’t everybody into bdsm? 

That oceanic metaphor...

That oceanic metaphor…

Another way of looking at this is to agree that pretty much everybody actually is into bdsm to some extent, which is why so much love poetry is about conquest and submission, why some lovers scratch and bite each other, and so on. It’s just that some people only explore the shallowest edge of bdsm, getting their feet wet paddling at the shore, while others dive into the ocean and have a whale of a time.

Some of us like bdsm a lot, and some only a little bit. So … why isn’t everybody enthusiastically into bdsm? 

Watch this space. 

50 Shades, Nine and a Half Weeks, and bdsm exploitation

So there’s a film of 50 Shades of Grey coming out. Not many people on the bdsm world seem to be especially happy about this. Well, based on the trailers, it does look kind of crap.  

The 1980s Mickey Rourke, and Kim Basinger's hair.

The 1980s Mickey Rourke, and Kim Basinger’s amazing acting hair.

I recently saw Nine and a Half Weeks, though, which was made in the 1980s, when Mickey Rourke was a good-looking, promising young actor. If you compare the 1980s film based on a bdsm book with the 2014 film based on a bdsm book, it suggests that there actually has been a tiny bit of progress.

Though it was based on a mildly scandalous bdsm novel, the 9 1/2 Weeks film had no bdsm in it whatsoever. On the other hand, in one of the 50 Shades trailers, Dakota Channing does get tied up, and at one point she has a riding crop waved at her, though it doesn’t actually come into contact with her skin. Maybe they’re saving that for the movie. So at least there’s a miniscule dose of bdsm. But on the evidence so far, the only thing that actually gets tortured is the song Wicked Game.

So there’s progress. From no bdsm at all in the 1980s bdsm film, to a tiny, homeopathic amount of bdsm in the 2014 bdsm film. Actually, unless you thought pouring the contents of your fridge onto Kim Basinger might be sexy, there wasn’t any sex in the 9 1/2 Weeks film either.

Which was a pity in a way, because the book that the film was based on was reasonably competently written. The book, 9 1/2 Weeks, was about bdsm, and it did have a couple of sexy scenes in it. Unlike the movie.

But even the 9 1/2 Weeks book is kind of annoying, because it presents bdsm as a pathology. The dom was fucked up from the beginning (Aspergers plus obsessive-compulsive traits plus psychopathology) and the submissive woman progressively lost the ability to do anything for herself, even brush her own hair. She even had to spend time in psychiatric recuperation after the horror of her actually quite mildly sexy experience.

That is, in the best tradition of the exploitation novels and films of, oh, 1930 to, well, now, the woman character goes off the rails of proper decent normality after a few introductory scenes. The reader or the audience gets treated to the promise (not always actually delivered) of some outre sex scenes, and then at the end the heroine comes back to the straight and narrow world. This is important, so that nobody’s ideas are ever actually challenged.

(Jenny Diski’s first novel, Nothing Natural, was one of those, too.)

Bend over, dollface.

Bend over, dollface.

I gave up on 50 Shades after reading a few excerpts on-line. There were sentences like, “Oh my god, he’s spanking me!” Though I treasure this one: “Pulling off his boxer briefs, his erect penis springs free. Holy cow!” *

Based on the bits I’ve read – supposedly the sex scenes – I’d say it’d have read better if it was entirely in text-speak.

On the other hand, if you figure that bdsm is roughly where homosexuality was in the 1950s in terms of social acceptability, then visibility in crappy exploitation books and films (that promise more exploitation scenes than they deliver) is one of the stages that we’re just going to have to live through.

Still, one day someone will make a decent bdsm date movie, a rom-com with canes and nipple-clips.


penis* According to that sentence, Christian Grey’s penis pulled off his boxer briefs for him. I wish I could train my cock to do that for me. I could stand there doing the Charles Atlas pose, or make a paper airplane, while my cock does all the work.

But the thing I really love is that once the penis gets its kit off, she looks at it and thinks, “Holy cow!

Don’t leave us in suspense, woman: what the hell is wrong with that penis?

A Dubrovnik whore as a metaphor for Balkan politics 2

So a sex worker walks into a bar in Dubrovnik. It’s after mid-night. She’s tired – everything about her body language says she’s tired, though she does the slut walk with real conviction. She’s pretty, in the classic short black skirt that shows her stocking tops. She needs, or at least wants, one more customer for the night. 

There were three men in the bar, not counting the bar staff. I was one of them, and she pretty much ignored me because I was eating. I’d been dragged out on a fishing trip, and I went for the sailing, but I don’t actually like fish. So I was starving when I finally got back. But a man having dinner is not a good bet for a quick pick-up. I was going to want to finish my goulash. 

Or maybe she just has standards. Anyway, she decided in a second’s glance that I wasn’t going to be a customer. She was right. 

That left two guys. They were young, they were fit, and they had haircuts that made me think they were possibly in the military. Or just some kind of gang. Anyway, they noticed the woman, and that she was selling sex, and they were both interested. 

At that point there could easily have been a mostly happy ending. The first one to whip out a credit card or a wodge of cash, and smile at the woman, would get to take her to his room, or to her place if the Hotel Imperial made it hard to take sex workers into your room.

The second guy would miss out, unless they liked two guys/one woman threesomes, but he could ask her if she had a friend and colleague, or just stay up a little later and wave her over when she was leaving.  

But instead things got competitive, politely at first. One guy waved at the other guy, meaning, “You go, because I renounce my claim in a grand gesture of generosity.” 

Now that would mean that the man who was waved at would get the girl, but that he would owe the other fellow, and be revealed as a less grand and generous man. So he waved back, meaning, “No, you go.” 

They kept this going for a while. Then the girl got bored, so she sat between them, giving them a show of leg to remind them that there are better things they could be doing with their time. She got half out of her chair to kiss one guy’s cheek while wiggling her ass at the other, and then turned and kissed the other guy’s cheek. 

croatiaSo the argument resumed, but now there were no more shows of generosity. They both wanted the girl. They shouted at each other, saying presumably insulting and threatening things in Croation or Bosnian or Serbian. Then one of them pushed the other. The other guy pushed back. Then they started throwing punches.

The woman got up and distracted them by leaning forward so they could stare down her blouse. The fight stopped. She made some suggestion, which was also in a language I didn’t understand, but it was probably sensible. (Maybe, “Gentlemen, I’m flattered. I can take you both, at once or serially. If it’s to be serially, why don’t you decide who goes first by flipping a coin?”) 

Anyway, things calmed down a little, because the men sat down, glaring at each other, and they only exchanged insults at a lowish shout. The whore waited patiently. 

taxiwhoreThe guys wound each other up and they stood up again. Once more, they started pushing and throwing punches. At that point the sex worker, who’d wasted over an hour of her time with these two, pulled out her phone and called a taxi. 

She left. But the two guys didn’t even notice. They were still fighting.

I finished my goulash and ordered a rakija, a really good one that’s based on distilled mistletoe. It was nearly two in the morning, now. The bar staff didn’t interrupt the fight, and I couldn’t blame them. It’s like breaking up a dog-fight; the human is likely to get bitten. Anyway, the guys were assholes, and I don’t think anyone else in that room minded if they hurt or injured each other. 

They were still going twenty minutes later. That was my cut-off point. It had been comedy, but I was getting tired and bored. I went to bed. 

No-one of the three got what they wanted. The girl got no money, and wasted over an hour of after midnight time when she plainly needed the sleep. Neither guy got laid. But at least they’d wake up in the morning with lots of new bruises. 

That’s another one of those parable things.

A Dubrovnik whore as a metaphor for Balkan politics 1

I was in Sarajevo on the 100th anniversary of the assassination of the Arch-Duke Franz Ferdinand. It’s a disconcerting experience, going past rakija bars at 8 in the morning, and listening to fat men in in their forties, in faded cammo gear, croaking out nationalist songs. That’s because you know that when they were singing those songs just 20 years ago, they were raping and torturing women and murdering men they’d put in cages so they couldn’t fight.

I spent much of the night talking with a woman about what it was like being a little girl in Sarajevo, with Serbs lobbing mortars at you and pouring sniper fire onto your school, when you’re five years old. Apparently it’s not scary at the time. It’s only when you’ve finished running, and you’re safely behind stone or out of range, that you start to feel the fear.

Kids shouldn’t know that sort of thing about fear. No-one should. But she told me this without any anger, which is one of the more amazing things about humanity.

dubAnyway, the next night I was in Dubrovnik, in Croatia. A little after midnight I was on the terrace bar at the Hotel Imperial, looking down over the Adriatic and the old city. The old city of Dubrovnik is a walled Medieval town (see my picture to the left of this text). It’s been very skilfully restored after the Serbs – again – pounded it with shelling for three years.

There was a working girl there, in her mid-twenties, pretty and mostly well dressed. The way her skirt didn’t come down far enough to cover her stocking tops was part of her badge of office, as was her bag, and the walk. She was extremely good-looking, and by local standards I’m sure her rates were high. 

I’m not a potential customer for sex workers, but not because I disapprove of selling sex. I disapprove of the mistreatment of sex workers, which happens most and worst in countries where prostitution is illegal. But in countries where prostitution is legal, and working girls and boys can organise, buy or rent their own premises, and hire their own security, and don’t have to pay off the police and organised crime, I don’t have any ethical objection. It’s about decent working conditions. 

bad girlsBut I can’t imagine having sex with someone who doesn’t know me, and I have no reason to think she particularly, let alone passionately, wants to have sex with me. The idea of a woman putting up with sex with me is completely cock-crinkling. If she’d just as soon not be there then I’d just as soon not be there either, no matter how pretty she might be. 

Anyway, I’ll tell the rest of this story tomorrow. 

Nailed it for the cameras

I read in Fortean Times (“so it must be true”) that a few years back a group of those Philippine Christian worshippers who have themselves nailed to crosses at Easter time were pleased, at first, to see that they’d been joined by a young Japanese man.

Crucifixion season in the Phillippines. More painful than Civil War re-enactments?

Crucifixion season in the Phillippines. As painful as Civil War re-enactments?

He, like them, was dressed in a loincloth, and he had real nine-inch  nails driven through his hands and feet to keep him up there. So they thought he was a Japanese Christian, and he, like them, was there to share an experience with the late Jesus, and thereby acquire some of his holiness.

They wondered a bit, though, about the make-up and the film crew. And they weren’t pleased at all when they discovered that he was a Japanese bondage film star, and he was shooting a porno.

Every action that they took, he took too. The only difference between them was the narrative inside their heads about the meaning of they were doing.

It’s a parable.  

Happily whipping Jesus 2: Mary Magdalene as submissive

This is a sequel to the post Happily whipping Jesus, which was about how some Medieval and later art presented the flagellation of Jesus as a sort of bdsm event, with sexually excited floggers and spectators. For the earlier post, go here.

Mary Magdalene, penitent

Anyway, I was in the Irish National Gallery in Dublin a while ago, staring at a piece of bdsm porn. It was painted towards the end of the of the 19th century. It showed a pretty blonde woman with her eyes turned up.

She’d ripped her own shift so she was bare above the waist, pointing a pair of very nice breasts at the painter, and the ladies and the gentlemen in the gallery where she hung. Unlike a lot of 19th century breasts, hers had nipples, lovingly detailed. She had a multi-thonged whip in her hand, and she’d paused after whipping herself. There were whip marks, red furrows against the plump, creamy white skin of her shoulders.  

She had the soulful expression of a submissive who’s just been soundly punished. She looked thoughtful, grateful and satisfied.

I wasn’t expecting her. She was sexy, and she’d been painted by someone who knew what whip-marks looked like, but more importantly, had seen the facial expressions of someone who’d been whipped, who thought they deserved it, but also found it brought them close to orgasm. She was porn, with the impact of a punch in the solar plexus.

She was Mary Magdalene, the frame said, the companion of Jesus. 

I couldn’t take a photo, and I can’t find a reproduction on the net. But there are plenty of similar images, though that’s the most overtly sexual one I’ve seen.

Christian art has always included a lot of bdsm imagery. If an artist wanted to paint a naked woman in bondage, for example, he or she used to paint Angelica from Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, chained naked to a rock. It’s the same image, of course, as Andromeda chained naked to a rock, but by using the Ariosto story you make it a Christian rather than a pagan scenario.

But if you want to paint a naked woman in pain, or in sexual ecstasy, then you painted Mary Magdalene. That’s because Magdalene was imagined as a prostitute in a lot of Christian art. After the death of Jesus, she supposedly spend the rest of her life repenting, including by scourging herself. 

mariaSo if you want to paint a naked woman, especially one in submissive pose, then Magdalene was your subject. Your painting could be as sexy as you could make it, while apparently being a holy religious work. Here’s one by Jules Joseph Lefebvre (1876), of her repenting, beautifully, outside a cave in France. 

But if you want to go a little further into bdsm, Magdalene will still oblige you.

Francisco Masnera y ManovensHere she is in a 19th century painting by Francisco Masnera y Manovens. She’s stretched out naked on the floor, looking up at someone who isn’t in the picture, seeking whatever will bring her forgiveness. The cross digs into her bare breast. 

siraniThis 18th century painting (I don’t know the artist) shows her with her whip pressed against her right breast. There aren’t any whip marks painted on Magdalena’s shoulders, but you can tell from the ecstatic, satisfied expression and her blissed-out eyes that the whipping is over.  

By the way, it’s common in paintings of the Penitent Magdalene to have the whip merge with her hair. In some paintings (eg Tintorreto’s) the whip isn’t actually painted, but she holds a swatch of her hair, touching her breast and going over her shoulder as a stand-in for the whip. 

My favourite, though, is the sculpture of Magdalene by Canova. She kneels submissively, with her eyes cast down, and she is holding out a cross (made of bronze, and detachable; many photos are taken without it). The cross is narrower and rounder than a real crucifix would be: it’s a rod. She has a rope round her waist, to hurt her skin, which was also used in auto-flagellation.

The front view, with the cross: 


But it’s clearer, in some ways, if you detach the cross, and have her just holding out her hands. 


The rear view: Back View of Penitent Magdalen by Antonio CanovaIt’s a sexual image, it’s an image of submission, and it’s very beautiful.

Tom of Finland stamps, and the mighty Fisto

You’ve probably heard that Finland has celebrated the work of the gay porn artist Tuoko Laaksonen, better known as Tom of Finland, by putting his images on a series of stamps.

Tom of Finland drawing. Indian chief, cop, cowboy and sailor not shown.

Tom of Finland drawing. Indian chief, cop, cowboy and sailor not shown.

As Tom of Finland he drew pictures of improbably fit men wearing clothes that were just a bit tighter than their skin. The look was modelled on Marlon Brando in The Wild One, if that had been a porn film. So the guys in his pictures had erections as big as police truncheons, and as hard, inside their denim jeans, and they had arses that were, well, the sort of thing you’d really like if you liked male arses. 

It’s nice that Finland is cool enough to give him his own series of commemorative stamps. And there’s a joke available about licking the rear of a Tom of Finland character that I’m not going to touch.

They get sticky when wet, too. 

Anyway, this reminded me that years ago there was a cartoon series on the tellie, He-Man. Like He-Man’s powers, the show was terrible beyond belief.

But it was interesting that while nearly all cartoon superheroes have a slightly obsessive urge to name themselves after their gender – Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, Catwoman, and so on – He-Man took it to the extreme. Both components of He-Man’s name insist that he’s male, and they don’t say anything else. 

Fisto. Apparently there was another character in He-Man cartoons who was called Ram-Man. Maybe he was an Aries.

Fisto. Apparently there was another character in He-Man cartoons who was called Ram-Man. Maybe he was an Aries.

The other interesting thing about the He-Man universe is the most obvious and extreme of its homoerotic figures, someone whose special super-characteristic, and preferred practice, is way more perverse than anything Tom of Finland came up with. 

I refer, of course, to Fisto.

That’s one amazing brachio-proctic fist of luurve he’s got there. And, arguably, fist of justice, so long as he only uses its special powers for good. With great fist comes great responsibility. 

Oh, “brachio-proctic”? “Brachio” means the arm, and “proctic” means the general area up the bum. The term “brachio-proctic eroticism” was invented as a way of talking about fisting without bringing a blush to the cheeks of the innocent and naive. It was coined by Professor Basil Donovan, at the University of New South Wales. He was actually joking, but it seems to have taken on a straight-faced life of its own.

Bondage in the Ice Age: BSDM 20,000 BCE!

About twenty-two thousand years ago a tribe of humans crunched across white grass in a frozen landscape that’s now called Russia. Somewhere near the Don river valley they left behind two little sculptures. That’s how we know that these people, whoever they were, passed that way. It’s also how we know something surprising about their sexual imagination.

Kostenski Venus figurine, with her wrists bound

Kostenski Venus figurine, with her wrists bound: 20,000 BCE

These two sculptures, each one about the size of your hand, are of women. Like other Paleolithic “Venus figures”, the women are naked, or nearly naked, with exaggerated sexual features: their breasts hang hugely, like great sacks of grain, and their bellies swell, pregnant and vastly fat, like a ship’s sails.

What’s unusual about them is that one of the two women is shown with her wrists cuffed and tied, while the other woman is shown wearing a sort of harness that both restricts her movements and emphasises her breasts. That’s all they are depicted as wearing, although these images were created in the middle of an Ice Age. These two little sculptures seem to be the oldest known bondage erotica.

That tribe moved on, their destination and fate unknown. Since their day humans have done and built a lot of things, but some things don’t change. For one thing, it can’t be said that Russia’s improved much.

For another, it’s still true that whenever a new medium appears, from carving rocks to 3D imaging, one of the first things people will do is use it to make sexual images and tell sexual stories. And shortly after the first nudes are produced, someone else will come along and use the new medium for more specific sexual desires.

So the cultural history of what people now mostly call “bdsm” began about 21,000 years ago. 

Constanze Mozart: Mozart wrote to her, promising her a "thorough spanking on her dear little, kissable arse", when he got home. Di he deliver? The look in her eye says yes.

Constanze Mozart: Mozart wrote to her, promising her a “thorough spanking on your dear little, kissable arse”, when he got home. Did he deliver? The look in her eye says yes.

People who are interested in bdsm have built up a quite impressive pile of art-works and artefacts. There are bdsm references in Mozart’s operas, Christopher Marlowe’s plays, and Mapplethorpe’s photos, just to skim the Ms for a second.

As a Mortimer, I’m quite proud of my sculpture, “Caning Bench No 1, with Comfort Saddle and Hooks for attaching Cuffs”. If some archeologist finds it  21,000 years from now, I hope he or she puts it to good use. 

But it’s odd that we – we people who do bdsm – have failed to celebrate our novelists, and our poets and painters and composers, and so on.

I’ll be doing to some of that celebration over the coming months.