College of Human Sciences

The Institute of Gender Studies explores female masochism

The College of Human Sciences’ Institute for Gender Studies hosted a research seminar on the topic, serialising female masochist subjectivities by mapping intensities from Deleuze’s Masoch to Macho Sluts and Fifty Shades of Grey. It was presented by Dr Chantelle Gray van Heerden.

Dr Gray van Heerden began her presentation by covering the evolution of the popular publication Fifty Shades of Grey triology which revolves around the characters Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele who explore and experiment with bondage, discipline, dominance and submission (BDSM), contractual relationship. She also spoke about the controversial publication Macho Sluts, a book of Lesbian short stories originally published in 1988, which did not receive a positive public reception like Fifty Shades because of its hardcore sexual descriptions.

She said that these two publications are different to one another but hold the same core of BDSM relations and practices which are presented in strikingly different ways. She went on to unpack both books through the lens of Deleuze’s essay Coldness and Cruelty.

“Masochists is about seeing what a body is capable of doing,” said Dr Gray van Heerden. She highlighted that certain treatments of masochism negates both urgency and creativity in the masochistic event and fails to account for the diverse motivations and practices of, for example female and queer masochism.

As an example, she said Freda Hock argues that female masochism maybe understood as actions which seem to be caused and sustained by self-hatred, and which by their very existence compel us to assume that the majority of sexual intercourse takes pleasure in suffering, thus equating female masochism with the patrilocal structure.

She further explained that Deleuze demonstrates convincingly that sadism and masochism are not dialectical opposites but rather that each has its own traditions with its own rules and anesthetic conventions.

In the two novels, Fifty Shades focuses on a contractual agreement where violence is normalised whereby in contrast Macho Sluts is centered around verbal agreement and the violence is frowned upon. Theses novels challenge the boundaries of long term relationships by practicing the intensities that are mostly seen as abnormal to society.

“Masochism has made itself a body without organs.” Dr Gray van Heerden highlighted Deleuze’s theory on how the body without organs is a map of intensities in our lives which are constantly circulating with desire. “Fifty Shades does nothing but describe the world of a happy ending whereas Macho Sluts allows the opening of thoughts through the outside; there is a search through pain for ecstasy.”

Pictured are Dr Chantelle Gray van Heerden (Postdoctoral fellow: Institute of Gender Studies, CHS) and Prof. Deirdre Byrne (Head: Institute of Gender Studies, CHS).

* By Nomshado Lubisi (COMSA President)