Some Thoughts on . . .

Flagellation, Historically Considered

It has sometimes been suggested that the sexual game play of flagellation reinforces power positions between men and women in the real world and reflects the patriarchal subjugation of women. However, contrary to this view that flagellation is mainly a matter of men exerting power over women, it has always been my understanding that, historically, flagellation as a sexual stimulant is predominantly a matter of men desiring to be whipped by women. In the large majority of cases, the birches with which 18th and 19th century brothels were supplied were meant to be applied by female prostitutes to the buttocks of their male clients. The "English vice" is a fantasy that upper-middle-class English gentlemen have about being caned as if they were schoolboys. That is, the desire for flagellation is primarily passive and masochistic, and doesn't fit very well into the model of men as the dominant partner in sexual relations. The archetypal figure of this particular kind of sexual power is of course the dominatrix.

Of course it could be pointed out that the dominatrix etc. is a woman employed by a man to fulfil a man's desires, and she is not a subject exercising her own desires; hence the situation reflects dominance of a woman by a man despite the apparent role reversal. With regard to the important question about who really has the power in sex games between men and female prostitutes, I would have to agree that in a very general sense the man who plays the piper calls the tune. It is obvious in such situations that the services are laid on to meet the customer's demand, and at the customer's expense. Nevertheless, I believe that the prostitute who demands payment for such services is in fact the person in control, and the male client who has to pay for them can often be a bit of a wimp who is reduced to begging for the service. She has the power derived from offering a relatively hard-to-obtain and therefore expensive service, and she increases her power by knowing how to withhold blows as well as how to administer them. It is not simply a matter of temporary role-reversal. Most flagellation of this sort takes place on the premises of the prostitute, who is pretty well in charge of things from start to finish, and who can call in her bully if the client gets out of hand. The prostitute who specializes in offering such services is usually a pretty tough character, and is often the madam who runs the entire establishment.

This at least seems to be the case according to the historical data up to the later twentieth century. The power of the prostitute has generally declined since the eighteenth century. I don't really know what the situation is in contemporary society, and I believe that the female prostitutes imported from Eastern Europe really exercise no power at all over their customers. But I believe that flagellation is offered by a more professional class of prostitutes, who do have more power than amateur drug-dazed streetwalkers. The videos shown on the interesting pornographic website always conclude with a final episode after the game ends and the men and women sit laughing and joking together, which is meant to show that they are "normal" and that the preceding scenes weren't "real", but I judge that even in this final episode the women are still the powerful ones, the "sexy dominant bitches" who have humiliated the men in the preceding scenes. Of course, the whole thing including the final scene is carefully constructed and ultimately the producer of the videos is the one who has the power.

Some may object to my broad generalization that men are more likely to be whipped by women than to whip women. But regarding the historical prevalence of flagellation, I think there is lots of evidence demonstrating that flagellation as a sexual stimulant is far more closely associated with men than with women. Women whipping men is very common in pornographic literature, and in historical data about prostitution, women birching men seems to have been a fairly common practice, at least in England during the past few hundred years, and the reverse is not as common. In ancient classical literature (as well as French pornography), the figure of the elderly man being birched by a woman in order to raise his flagging spirits or jaded appetite is a common image. How far this essentially comic trope reflects actual practice is hard to say, but it probably does have some connection to actual practice. The administration of the birch to male posteriors and the loins has a physiologically stimulating effect, quite aside from its psychological stimulation of playing roles. That is, the social meaning has a biological base.

The nature of the evidence always has to be examined, but I think that this is the conclusion about flagellation regardless of the categories of evidence, some very trustworthy, others less so, and that there are few data to support the opposite conclusion. For example, in eighteenth-century trials of prostitutes accused of theft, an amusing defence is that they had to go to the extra expence of obtaining a supply of birch rods to thrash the client at his request, hence the money they demanded (allegedly took or stole) from him. This claim by the prostitute is designed to make their accusers appear foolish and may be wholly untrue. Sometimes juries didn't believe their claim, and sometimes they would acquit the prostitute on the grounds that the man got what he deserved. There are also first-hand accounts of observing such practices; there are fairly trustworthy reports of seeing bunches of birch rods in prostitutes' rooms and brothels; and there are prints of the interiors of prostitutes' rooms which show the presence of birches. These of course are mainly satiric prints, and perhaps they do not reflect reality but just reflect a stereotype. On the other hand, eighteenth-century satiric prints derive their force from the fact that they exaggerate reality, not that they totally falsify it. You can systematically "trouble" the evidence as much as you wish, but since all the evidence tends towards one direction, you would have to assume a universal conspiracy to present something that is untrue. You would also need to find some way to account for why the opposite image, whether true or a fantasy, has not been presented. That is, it ought to be easy and a useful defence for prostitutes in such cases as I've mentioned above, to claim that the client demanded to thrash them for the client's sexual pleasure – but in fact such claims are rare. (The claim that men began beating a prostitute after having sex with her is sometimes made, but that is also fairly rare, and a different matter from the topic being discussed, i.e. flagellation as a sexual stimulant; the issue of rape is also a different matter, in my view). In the nineteenth century we begin to collect more trustworthy first-hand evidence, e.g. from men who like to be birched, noted in private diaries not intended for publication, which I think tends to reinforce the probable accuracy of the earlier evidence. Ian Gibson's book The English Vice: Beating, Sex and Shame in Victorian England and After which was published in 1978 is getting fairly old now, but I don't think it has been superseded with regard to the historical data he collected, though I think his Freudian interpretation (which is that flagellation equals "oral agression" deriving from a childhood "trauma") is outmoded.

It might be countered that masochism in general is more common in literature bought by women ("bodice-rippers" and romance novels for women). However, flagellation as a sexual stimulant is a very specific erotic practice, which, for one thing, focuses narrowly on the buttocks. Expanding this into the broad subject of masochism, and further construing the meaning of masochism by intepretation of "implicit" meanings in fiction, really leads us far away from the original topic. It is also my understanding that sadomasochism, which ought to be narrowly considered as a set of physical practices for sexual stimulation, is more associated with men than with women. It is my understanding (derived from sexological literature) that all unusual or extreme or "deviant" or fetishistic sexual practices – i.e. "paraphilias" that narrowly focus on a specific act or body part – are associated more with men than with women; e.g. paedophilia is more common in men than in women; algolagnia is more common in men than women; foot fetishism is more common in men than in women; and so it goes.

Copyright © 2006, 2014 Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. Some of my comments originally appeared on the History of Sexuality Discussion List in April 2006.

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