Monday, March 29, 2010

Tennessee Williams Festival: Erotica vs. Pornography

In my last post, I mentioned that the Saturday late night event of the Tennessee Williams Festival - Bedtime Stories - ended on a rather upsetting note for me. This post will attempt to explain why.

The Bedtime Stories late night event consisted of readings of erotic literature over the ages. The final reading, unfortunately, was an excerpt from The Story of O by Pauline Reage (pen-name of the French author Anne Desclos), published in 1954. I had heard about this so-called novel, and based on the lengthy excerpt read at Bedtime Stories, I would say that it is not erotica - it is hard-core pornography. The message of the excerpt I heard is that woman is fulfilled by sacrificing herself to the desires of man, even when those desires are extremely sadistic.

SUMMARY. This is a summary of the excerpt, as I heard and understood it. Some of what I will say is a graphic description of sadistic acts.

In this excerpt, O is a young woman being prepared for a life of sexual service to Sir Stephen. Interestingly, this woman has no other name than O. Perhaps this is to suggest complete loss of individual identity. Also interestingly, it is other women who are charged with preparing O. Perhaps Sir Stephen prefers to assign this dirty work to women, although one receives the strong suggestion that Sir Stephen will do plenty of his own sadistic dirty work to O once she becomes his. O is a willing participant in all this - she wants to give herself to Sir Stephen.

The preparation of O consists of these acts of sadism. O is tied up and beaten savagely on the insides of her thighs. Iron rings with Sir Stephen's insignia are inserted into O's labia. O is branded across the buttocks with Sir Stephen's name, using a red-hot branding iron.

Once the preparations are complete, O is taken to Sir Stephen. O feels proud to belong to her new master.

S & M. Now I want to say a word about S & M sex. S & M sex can work - so I've read - with truly willing participants. Below are some of the things it seems to encompass.

Receiving Pain. Some people find pain sexually arousing. Karen Armstrong describes this in her memoir Through the Narrow Gate, which recounts her years as a nun. Karen entered the convent at age seventeen, before she had had the experience of sexual arousal. As a nun, she was required to do penance using what is called the discipline. The discipline is a set of cords with which a nun flagellates herself to identify with the sufferings of Jesus and to help atone for her own sins and those of unrepentant sinners. Karen, however, found that her body came alive in a strange way when she used the discipline. The pain was sexually arousing to her.

Some people find it sexually arousing to be beaten. This makes sense to me because there truly is a fine line between pain and pleasure. There is actually such a thing as painful pleasure or pleasurable pain. For pain to be pleasurable, though, you have to stay on the right side of the pain/pleasure line. Once you cross the line, you get painful pain.

I can imagine a couple, one of whom is aroused by pain, agreeing to include beating as part of their sexual activity. If both parties agree to this, if the beating is truly a pleasurable pain to the one being beaten, if the act of providing the beating is not disturbing to the other, if the couple establishes clear guidelines and signals, then I think it can work.

Giving Pain. This is more problematic. Some people are sexually aroused by inflicting pain. A friend, years ago, told me that her husband was of this type. During sex, he did things that hurt her, and he wouldn't stop when asked. (My friend and this man are now divorced.) The problem with this is finding a mate who enjoys the pain inflicted. However, with some pain inflicters, I think that the arousal only occurs when the mate experiences painful pain. Inflicting pleasurable pain may not be arousing for the pain inflicter. I don't know the solution to this one.

Dominance and Subordination. Some people are sexually aroused by dominating or by being dominated. This is different from being aroused by pain per se. Inflicting or receiving pain could be part of the dominance or subordination, but the key is the dominance or the subordination itself. This can certainly be acted out with willing participants. The mate doesn't even have to find his or her role arousing. The mate only needs to be willing to act out the opposite role to please his or her partner. With clear guidelines and signals, I think this can work.

Overall: Healthy S & M. For S & M sex to be healthy - and I think it can be - you have a situation where both parties in a couple love and respect each other, communicate well, share their sexual fantasies, want to help fulfill the other's sexual fantasies, are willing to experiment, and establish clear guidelines and signals. They can then act out each other's sexual fantasies - and the key is "act out." The dominator, for example, is acting out a domination fantasy with a willing participant, not actually dominating a helpless victim. The subordinated one is acting out a subordination fantasy, not actually being tortured.

BACK TO THE STORY OF O. In The Story of O, O is actually being tortured. The things done to O are not sexually arousing for her. They are excruciatingly painful. O submits to them only because she wants to give herself fully to Sir Stephen, and this is what he demands. O's "fulfillment" is to satisfy Sir Stephen's demands, no matter how painful they are for O herself.

This is a terrible message to send to women and to men alike. A woman is not fulfilled in this way. And any man who enjoys subordinating a woman to real pain has allowed his soul to become twisted.

This is what I found upsetting in the reading of the excerpt from The Story of O at the Bedtime Stories event. The Story of O gives a soul-twisting message. It is not erotica - it is hard-core pornography. I have read that Anne Desclos wrote The Story of O for her lover, who admired the Marquis de Sade. (What a surprise that is.) To include The Story of O in an evening of erotic literature is to give literary legitimacy to something destructive.

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