Review of S and M: Studies in Sadomasochism

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A Review of S and M: Studies in Sadomasochism

by Thomas Weinberg, and G.W. Levi Kamel

Buffalo: Prometheus Books

Review Copyright © 1989 by William A. Henkin



I sought this book out because I found perhaps a dozen references to it in other people's contemporary writings about heterosexual SM. I was already familiar with Geoff Mains's Urban Aboriginals, Larry Townsend's The Leatherman's Handbook, Pat Califia's The Lesbian S/M Safety Manual, and the Samois anthology Coming to Power, but those books are oriented toward the gay communities, however useful they may be to hets as well. Gerald and Carolyn Greene's SM: The Last Taboo is a fair, traditional overview, but a great deal of behavior, theory, and understanding has changed since it was published in 1974. Gini Graham Scott's Dominant Women, Submissive Men, republished as Erotic Power, not only ignores the interchange between dominant men and submissive women but altogether fails to grasp the depth and meaning of these sorts of energy exchanges, remaining satisfied with the notion that they are somehow all about fantasies. Since the psychological literature in the field is dominated by late 19th and early 20th Century European ideas about pathology, and the experiential literature is imbued with late 20th Century American apporobations of homosexuality, I thought any volume so ubiquitous as Weinberg and Kamel's might contain information or insights I had not yet found concerning this increasingly trendy form of safer sex.

All in all I must say I was disappointed. I found S and M: Studies in Sadomasochism to be an intelligent book, an erudite book, and for the most part a pretty boring book. The editors turn out to be gay and so, once again, I find that no one has written cogently about heterosexual SM. But I can live with that small grief. I am more unhappy about the nature of this book itself. Though he is clearly a player and knows whereof he speaks, G. W. Levi Kamel still seems to be more concerned with developing or protecting an academic career than he is with making his knowledge accessible. The five essays he wrote or co-authored as contributions to the book are composed in the language and style favored by scholarly journals whose circulations number in the hundreds and whose readerships are mostly hopeful.


In order to explain these social-psychological events, we will be using the concept of "career." By "career" we mean a sequence of stages or steps along a path, with each career step suggesting a new level of involvement in leathersex and a new stage in the development of a leather identity. There are at least six such steps, which we have called "disenchantment," "depression," "curiosity," "attraction," "drifting," and "limiting."*


Thomas Weinberg's writing, similarly ponderous, is, in addition, repetetive and thick with footnotes. His lone solo contribution, the 13-page "Sadism and Masochism: Sociological Perspectives," contains 22 references even though four of the text pages contain nothing but interview and newspaper ad material; neither are his four collaborations, though informative, any more intended for the general reader than "The Social Organization of Sadism and Masochism," which he wrote with Gerhard Falk:


Sadism and masochism, the giving and receiving of pain for erotic gratification, have been largely neglected as areas for sociological study. As two recent papers point out, descriptions of the social aspects of this behavior are virtually nonexistent in the professional literature (Spengler, 1977; Weinberg, 1978). The apparent lack of interest in studying sadomasochistic behavior from a sociological perspective may be attributed to its having been traditionally examined from a psychoanalytic model. The influences of such writers as Krafft-Ebing (1932) and Sigmund Freud (1938) may have been to obscure the social aspects of this behavior by defining it solely in terms of individual pathology. Inasmuch as sociologists have until quite recently ignored sadomasochism, descriptions of its social aspects have been largely left to journalists (e.g., Coburn, 1977; Halpern, 1977; Smith and Cox, 1979a and 1979b). This is unfortunate, because these journalistic observations are neither systematic nor theoretical.


Those journalistic observations might, however, be written in readable prose.

Reading Vern Bullough's "Foreword" I was encouraged that this book at least would land in my general camp, since Bullough, a widely respected authority on human sexuality and Series Editor for Prometheus Books's New Concepts in Sexuality series, asserted that "what might have been regarded as merely eccentric behaviors became a psychopathology" due to the forensic efforts of Richard von Krafft-Ebing, rather than because any deity had decreed them so. As Bullough remarks, neither Leopold von Sacher-Masoch nor the Marquis de Sade was considered sick in his own day, and not until Krafft-Ebing derived his Psychopathia Sexualis entries from their names did they become synonymous with any sort of problem. The book's brief section called "Classical Perspectives on Sadomasochism" is therefore most valuable, to my mind, since it provides a few salient paragraphs from each of Krafft-Ebing, Freud, Havelock Ellis, and the contemporary Paul Gebhard on the subject of SM.

And the book does land in my camp, which is perhaps why I feel petulant about it: after those first 40 pages, S and M: Studies in Sadomasochism comes to seem very self-serving. Weinberg and Kamel wrote or co-authored seven of the remaining 13 articles, as well as all the introductory editorial material, and while I have no objection to a collection's editors having ample opportunity to have their say, the way they have made this collection implies that no one else has had anything useful to say on their subject. If true, Weinberg and Kamel ought to have commissioned more than the one specially-written article they included here, or to have written a complete book themselves; if false, their editorial research was lazy at best and incorrigible at worst.

Lawrence Mass's article, "Coming to Grips with Sadomasochism," is still as strong as it was in 1979, when it constituted a defense of SM as one variant homosexual practice; but the piece is mounted against Anita Bryant, John Briggs, and Idi Amin, among others, and does not amount to much of a "study in sadomasochism." I found "Manifest Sadomasochism of Males: Results of an Empirical Study," by Andreas Spengler, to be a noble and tedious academic report; but I found it hard to credit the background of an author who calls the Greene's SM: The Last Taboo "subcultural ... literature."

It may be that Toni Rose was "an incredible dominatrix" when she took "center stage in New York's S&M netherworld" back in 1979, but I would expect an erotic genius of such Rimbaldian stature to have become a legend within the past decade. That she did not suggests to me that Howard Smith and Cathy Cox, who interviewed her originally for The Village Voice, were more smitten with the embodiment of their own netherworld fantasies than with their subject's reality, and that the subject was also more taken with her own media image than any of the parties was with his or her own profession. Perhaps this piece was included in the book due to some attempt by Weinberg and Kamel to balance their very unbalanced book.

Certainly, "Juliette: Autobiography of a Dominatrix" and Pat Califia's "A Secret Side of Lesbian Sexuality" both read much closer to the bone than anything else in this volume does. These journalistic essays, first published in 1983 and 1979 respectively, stand the test of a brief breath of time. They are written out of their authors's experiences, without the trappings of the systems and theories Weinberg would prefer, and so they seem as true today as they did when they were written. John Alan Lee's "The Social Organization of Sexual Risk" displays its ignorance precisely where The Lesbian S/M Safety Manual displays its expertise, walking the line between the solid journalism of Califia and Juliette and the academic posturing that otherwise dominates this book.

All in all, S and M: Studies in Sadomasochism gets poor grades from me: a mediocre perpetration aimed at securing tenure and academic kudos, occupying the place of a much-needed book that explains what SM is all about.



*Kamel appears to be using the academic "we," as he is the sole author of "The Leather Career: On Becoming a Sadomasochist," from which this paragraph is taken.

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