“I am tired, I am weary
I could sleep for a thousand years
A thousand dreams that would awake me
Different colors made of tears
Shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather
Whiplash girlchild in the dark
Severin, your servant comes in bells, please don't forsake him
Strike, dear mistress, and cure his heart.”
—From “Venus in Furs,” by The Velvet Underground; written by Lou Reed
I’m fascinated by sex. It’s the ultimate human drama, our greatest paradox. It’s simultaneously the simplest and most complex act human beings can engage in. The way I look at it, sex isn’t just about pleasure. It isn’t about procreation. At its very root, sex is about power.
That’s why this date is important to me. 115 years ago, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (Jan. 27, 1836-March 9, 1895), the man who lent his name to the term “masochism,” died in Lindheim, Germany. Although Sacher-Masoch was acutely aware of how sex and power often march hand in hand, his sexual peccadilloes prevented much of his work from being translated. Even today, only one of his novels, Venus in Furs, is widely available in English.
While the man himself is mostly forgotten, his legacy lives on in our cultural continuum. One of the seminal songs from the Velvet Underground catalog is an homage to Venus in Furs; one of Broadway’s hottest current hits is inspired by his works; and even today’s most advanced sex robot, Roxxxy, owes a debt to the godfather of masochism.
When Roxxxy was unveiled earlier this year, she was billed as having numerous programmed personalities, including “S&M Susan.” (With some experts claiming that human-robot marriages might become possible by 2050, the presence of a masochistic personality in today’s newest sex robot seems to indicate that robots of the future may also be programmed to take a little pain with their pleasure.)
Just who was Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, really? While best known for his 1869 masterpiece, Venus in Furs, most people are unaware of the breadth of his body of work. A cultural historian, Sacher-Masoch recorded numerous volumes of ethnic folktales and court stories, and was also very progressive, advocating both tolerance of the Jewish race and women’s suffrage at a time when both groups were considered second-class citizens.
But mostly, Sacher-Masoch was a man who loved to be whipped by women, and it was a fetish that he begged both his first and second wives (as well as his mistresses) to indulge him in. When whips alone were no longer enough to satisfy him, he added nails to the end of each whip to increase the amount of pain they would cause. He so craved the sensation of any painful in almost any form, he actually encouraged his wives to cheat on him, in order to fuel his desire to be constantly humiliated.
It was his relationship with his second mistress, however, that vaulted him from a minor literary personage to figurehead for an entire fetish community. Sacher-Masoch entered in to an agreement with a woman named Fanny Pistor (ultimately providing the inspiration for Venus in Furs) that read in part: “Herr Leopold von Sacher-Masoch gives his word of honor to Frau Pistor to become her slave and to comply unreservedly for six months, with every one of her desires and commands…Frau Pistor promises to wear furs as often as possible, especially when she is in a cruel mood.”
Nearly two decades after Venus in Furs hit bookshelves, Baron Richard von Krafft-Ebing coined the term “masochism” in his treatise Psychopathia Sexualis, a collection of case studies that outlined “sexually deviant” psychiatric patients. Krafft-Ebbing felt “justified in calling this sexual anomaly ‘Masochism,’ because the author Sacher-Masoch frequently made this perversion…the substratum of his writings.”
But while many people assume that Krafft-Ebing found masochists distasteful, he had a great deal of respect for the author. “As a man, Sacher-Masoch cannot lose anything in the estimation of his cultured fellow-beings simply because he was afflicted with an anomaly of his sexual feelings. As an author he…would have achieved real greatness, had he been actuated by normally sexual feelings,” Krafft-Ebing wrote.
Sacher-Masoch struggled with mental illness, becoming increasingly violent and delusional toward the end of his life, so perhaps it comes as no surprise that, for many, masochism is still inextricably linked to mental illness. While masochists find themselves saddled by negative stereotypes, society has evolved, and its current practitioners are making public statements in ways that would have never been possible in Sacher-Masoch’s time.
There are a number of sites that put masochists in touch with like-minded people, among them: CollarMe.com and FetLife, the latter of which boasts over 350,000 active members. Another community, ALT.com, boasts over 2.5 million users. Masochists are also making their presence known real world, and many are eager to break down false perceptions associated with their fetish. One group working to raise awareness about alternative sexual lifestyles is the Alternative Sexual Lifestyle Association at Washington University in St. Louis. As part of their programming this year, the organization “plans to host events about abusive relationships, the difference between BDSM and domestic violence, BDSM and the law, and other topics…[with meetings alternating] between discussions and having a speaker talk about various alternative lifestyles.”
While the date of his death is sometimes called into question (some researchers believe he was secretly whisked away to a sanitarium in 1895, where he was said to have lived for another decade), Sacher-Masoch was a man ahead of his time. Venus in Furs continues to spark debate about the politics of sex well over a century after it was composed. Uniquely aware of the dynamics of sex and power, Sacher-Masoch understood that in mining the delicate balance between dominance and submission, sex can be elevated from a merely pleasurable physical intercourse to a profoundly moving experience.
The current Broadway production of Venus in Furs has proved so popular, that its run has been extended not once, but twice. Billed as “90 minutes of good, kinky fun,” rather than merely sensationalizing kink, the play addresses the deeper meaning of Sacher-Masoch’s work. A riff on the time-honored “play within a play” tradition, here a director is holding auditions for a play based on Venus in Furs.
“Venus in Furs is basically…S & M porn,” says an actress dismissively as she takes off her jacket to reveal her “audition outfit”—a stereotypical black vinyl S&M get-up.
“Venus in Furs is a serious novel,” the director character corrects her. “It’s a great love story.”