Spank me silly: sadomasochism and the modern woman

Is there a genuine rise in the appeal for sadomasochist behaviour among women in 2012? flickr/Jeremy Brook

The poster for Secretary is up on my wall at work. I actually paid to see A Dangerous Method purely for Jung’s novel approach to therapy (and God do I hate period films.) While I probably won’t read all of Fifty Shades of Grey, I’ve certainly read the dirty bits.

No surprises: spanking has long been on my mind.

Journalist Katie Roiphe recently offered her take, writing in Newsweek about an apparent surge of reddened rears in pop culture. Roiphe proposes that while the spanked-into-subordination fantasy is nothing new, its contemporary popularity reflects women’s burgeoning power. Power in the workplace, power in the bedroom. Apparently we ladies are a little nostalgically misty for those heydays of patriarchy so we’re reminiscing through bedroom oppression.

While many sex-positive feminists have criticised Roiphe for overlooking women’s own sexual agency and for peddling an unsubstantiated thesis about women’s dissatisfaction with power, I kinda think she makes some valid points.

A high-flying businessman will occasionally pay for a whippin’ purely because he can. Because everything goes back to normal the second he groans out the safeword. Women, who might normally feel powerful and authoritative, similarly have the luxury of obtaining through sex the thrills that life fortunately rarely proffers.

Such ideas, after all, underpin some of most popular products of the sex industry.

Through porn, people can watch the dirty, messy, ugly and quite possibly illegal sex that they would never have in real life, enjoying it vicariously to avoid the stench and arrest and the identity crisis. Other people readily purchase the services of sex workers to help play out their fantasies – be it infantilism or bondage or degradation – purely for the novelty. They’re not infants, they’re not normally tied to bedposts or made to feel degraded or undesirable, but sometimes there’s appeal in sampling the unfamiliar. Particularly when they can be eroticised, savoured and then escaped at will.

Of course, I’m actually not interested in writing a defence of Roiphe. My interest instead, is offering alternate ways of interpreting the paddling penchant. I’m proposing that intimacy and consumer culture as two equally valid interpretations.

One of my favourite quotes about women’s sexual fantasies centred on the rape dream. Molly Haskell, writing for Ms magazine in the 1970s, claimed that women don’t really desire rape in the sex-without-consent sense, rather, their yen is more akin to “when Robert Redford can’t take no for an answer”.

It’s about being wanted, obsessively, by someone with a “just-you-try-and-stop-me” look in their eye. Context, negotiated parameters and the deliberate orchestration explains the appeal of the firm hand. The drawcard is being wanted in ways that aren’t rational, that aren’t necessarily romantic. The attraction lies in being with a partner who you trust enough to have sex with in ways which might conflict with your morals or politics or sense of propriety. The seductive stems from being spanked by a lover who you know won’t hit you any harder than you want it.

Instead of it being intellectualised, instead of it being some kind of expression of, response to or rebellion against feminism, sometimes a cigar really is just a cigar, and sometimes pleasure isn’t analysed, isn’t political; sometimes it’s just about the orgasm. Spanking sometimes is simply desirable because finding someone you trust enough to express your sexuality with is rare. And madness-inducing. And intoxicating.

As pro-spanking as I am, the cynic in me also sees popular interest being actively orchestrated by the market. We live in an age where advertising – and pop culture broadly – persistently tells us that our lives are boring. Compared to those thin and glossed and glamorous people looking back at us from stage and screen, we’re fat, we’re frumpy and we are complete and utter schmucks. The solution however, is readily purchasable as evidenced by the procession of goods available to mend every malady. Sex is not immune to this and kinky, props-laden sex is one such offering: the pitch, so it goes, is that the whip/dog collar/pleather boots will get you better sex. Better sex, of course, gifts a better life.

Just as we’re encouraged to constantly upgrade our technology, just as we are taught that the dress we bought yesterday can’t sate us nearly as much as the one we buy tomorrow, the same consumerist messages about sex are feverishly peddled. Everyone else is having it better, raunchier, kinkier, with far more screeching-heights-of-ecstasy than we are. In response, we should feel perpetually dissatisfied with our partner and seek out newer, slicker, sexier options, alternatively spice things up the way magazines urge us. With toys, with porn, with someone else’s expression of an excitement.

For every woman who gets a heady thrill from the pleasure/pain frisson of a wallop, there’s another who’s doing it because she’s been sold the idea that it’s what’s necessary to keep things spicy, to keep her man, to stop him for straying. While embracing the spank, the role of the market shouldn’t be ignored.

No fantasy can be narrowed to any one specific motivation. Just as fantasies with one partner might be completely unthinkable with the next, our interests in sex, in spanking, are personal, temporal and fluctuate with every gasp, every heartbeat and every thwack.