lundi 15 février 2010

Leatherman's Handbook

This “global epidemic” of S&M imagery needs to be acknowledged and interpreted as a deliberate cultural “construction” that reflects the inflationary reaction of symbolic powers under stress as well as the corroding creativity of fringe subcultures liberated by a massive paradigm shift. Symptom of a major crisis as well as an important factor playing in it, psychotronic sado-masochism is both an agent and a result of the multiple contradictions of an era of violent readjustments in class, gender and race relationships as well as radical socio-economic changes, starting with the film industry itself.

Whereas the second edition of APA’s diagnostic manual (DSM-II, 1968), strongly aligned to psychoanalysis, listed masochism and sadism as „sexual deviations“ and homosexuality as mental illness, one year later, the US anthropologist Paul Gebhard puts “Fetishism and Sadomasochism” in cultural context, a “scripted behavior” essentially marked by role-play breaking with Krafft-Ebing’s essentialist “perversity” paradigm. Following the Fromm and Reik debate, Foucault's influential History of Sexuality was to use the concept of sado-masochism as part of a critical strategy against the reductive notion of repression, generalizing the concept as the model for the social and the psychological in general. S&M subculture itself was becoming hugely popular as hundreds of gay leather bars opened in the USA and Europe during the seventies, as well as S&M groups following the The Eulenspiegel Society (TES) in New York (1971).

In 1972 Olympia Press published the Leatherman’s Handbook by Larry Townsend, the first S&M safety manual, breaking open the isolation of the gay Old Guard. A major shift to consensual bondage, as opposed to sexual abuse so insistently portrayed in fictions, was also bringing S&M elements to the whole sexual liberation scene, presenting it as an ars erotica emancipated from repressive and normative scientia sexualis, a new way to extend the sensual experience of sex. Sadomasochistic games (master-slave, parent-child fantasies) do not typically involve real acts of punishment but rather offer an arena in which past suffering, pain and humiliation can be enacted (this time with happier endings), thus underlining the theatrical and mastery elements in erotic life (J. O’Connell Davidson & D. Layder, Methods, Sex and Madness, Routledge, 1994).

mardi 9 février 2010

The Depraved

The transition from pop imagery to sexual subculture and back is adamant. In 1966 American sadomasochists adopt some terms from John Norman’s sci-fi trash epics Tarnsman of Gor, illustrated by cult fantasy artist Boris Vallejo. The same year Andy Warhol and musicians Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Maureen Tucker found the group The Velvet Underground, named after the S&M novel by Michael Leigh. In dark contrast to the Flower Power movement, the group performs in black leather, delivering songs loaded with S&M context, the best known being the explicit "Venus in Furs". Some of the more explicit underground films, often incorporating S&M iconography (K. Anger’s Scorpio Rising or Warhol’s My Hustler) crossed over into the commercial sexploitation arena by playing Times Square adult houses. Andy Milligan’s career highlights this transitional area, his sexploitation films prolonging the underground post-beatnik, pre-freak, off-Broadway theater experience of the Caffé Cino where he had staged Jean Genet’s The Maids. As Warhol and Morrissey Milligan understood he could subversively vent his sexual concerns using the horror genre. In The Ghastly Ones (1968) the murder scenes have heavy sadomasochistic undertones as the victims are intricately bound, gagged and hanged before being pitchforxed, disemboweled, dismembered and decapitated, (the image of a woman’s head in a salad bowl reinvents the traditional Isabella and the Basil-Pot motif) while The Depraved directly incorporated elementary bondage sex.

Increasingly exploiting the image of the emerging SM subcultures within the frame of a problematized “male gaze”, sexploitation triumphed in yet another stage, following the disappearance of the Hays Code during the “Summer of Love” and competing with the arrival of hardcore films. It suddenly seemed as if sado-masochism encompassed the whole of psychotronic productions, being the main force behind them and their massive consumption. The extent of this boom still challenges conventional narratives about the “sexual revolution” and the “golden age of heterosexuality”. Not since the Naughty Nineties had the pleasures of pain, sexual phobia and anguished misogyny –to the point of gynecidal imaginary violence- dominated high and low culture to such extent. Following the logic of “proliferation of perversions” that characterizes the micro-powers of a disciplinary society in crisis new subgenres arouse illustrating the sado-masochistic paradigm, from nunsploitation to Nazi exploitation, gang girls on rampage to women in prison, rape and revenge to cannibal sex and soft-porn sadean fantasies.

samedi 6 février 2010

Sadistic Thrills

Like gay iconicity, camp culture of the sixties was to increasingly exploit the image of S&M, from leather-clad agent Mrs. Emma Peel to Bondian femmes fatales. Echoing its Romantic sexual persona, the vampire became one of the dominant figures of the increasingly explicit fusion of sex and cruelty that ironically accompanied the Sexual Liberation. Starting with R. Polselli’s L’Amante del vampiro (1960) and Vadim’s high culture Et mourir de plaisir it was a mythical counterpart of the new figure of the psycho-killer, often obsessed with S&M sexual motifs. Following Peeping Tom and Psycho, this figure determined the giallo subgenre in Bava’s Sei donne per l’assassino (1964), being the ultimate construction of the medical and legal micro-powers (“a madness that would be a crime, a crime that would be madness” according to Foucault’s famous analysis (1)). It combined with earlier Sadean prototypes as the mad doctor or the deranged and sublime artist (from Corman’s humorous Bucket of Blood of 1959 to Jack Hill’s cheap and crude Blood Bath in 1966).

The traditional Sadean imagery was also revived through figures as the beautiful women tortured by lecherous priests in Andy Milligan’s Naked Witch (1961) while more modern iconography was being introduced from men’s adventure magazines. Exotic sadism was introduced by the Mondo films, promising “authentic catalogs of cruelty” like Sadismo (1967) that combined newsreel footage of Nazi atrocities with a lengthy medieval torture chamber sequence. S&M sexploiters Bob Cresse and R. L. Frost indulged in their own variants of the genre, Mondo Bizarro and Mondo Freudo while Stan Borden repackaged his Olga trilogy as Mondo Obscenita (66).

Representation of S&M iconography and constitution of a distinct subculture run in parallel. While the London rubber fetish magazine Pussy Cat was published in 1964, the first European gay leather club, Sixty-Nine Club, was founded in London two years later. The pornographic “undergowth of literature” studied by G. Freeman in 1967 was literally invaded by S&M from Two Spanking Teenagers or Teenage Thrashing to The Duchess of Pain or My Naughty Wife. “Women are pounded to a bloody pulp under the hooves of horses ridden by other women who are themselves constricted by harnesses which cut the flesh; monks and nuns perform medieval cruelties on young girls, tramps rape the bleeding bodies of women trapped in the cellars of old houses; prison wardresses in boots with spiked heels stamp under the faces of bound men”, summarizes Freeman in his cult essay on The undergrowth of literature (2). The major trends and genres of sexploitation are already recognizable in this literature derived from earlier Spicy pulps

“It came as something of a shock, says Freeman, to find that almost all the pornography available in England must be centred round sadism. 90% of pornographic books imported are sado-masochistic” (p. 79). Ten years earlier, in his seminal cultural study of working-class Uses of Literacy, R. Hoggart signaled the rise of novels “in which sex seems to be regarded as thrilling only when it is sadistic” (London, Penguin, 1957, p. 260). The massive presence of English vice sub-literature was a constant trait of British erotica since the Victorian era but its exclusivity at the end of the sixties is in itself an important symptom, as analized at the very same time by I. Gibson in his classic study The English Vice, Beating, Sex, and Shame in Victorian England and After (Duckworth, 1978).

(1) M. Foucault, Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and Other Writings, 1977-1984, ed. Lawrence D. Kritzman, 1988, 135-6
(2) The undergowth of literature, Londres, Panther Books, 1967, p.111