Skip to content Skip to navigation

Painful Pleasures: Birch and Sensibility

Tuesday, March 2, 2021 - 19:00

This is a fascinating article and I only skim through the concrete examples it touches on. What is the relationship of pain to pleasure? And why is that relationship specifically focused around women's same-sex encounters? Is there a logical connection or are they simply tools in defining "normative" sexuality in contrast?

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Binhammer, Katherine. 2003. "The 'Singular Propensity' of Sensibility's Extremities: Female Same-Sex Desire and the Eroticization of Pain in Late-Eighteenth-Century British Culture" in GLQ 9:4, 471-498.

In this article, Binhammer compares the social meanings of three parallel forms of “sexual excess” in late 18th century British literature, and how the three are linked structurally in the popular imagination. Specifically: sex between women, sexualized whipping, and the emotional experience of extreme “sensibility”.

She begins with a familiar recounting of the difficulties of defining and studying lesbian concepts during the 18th century. She argues that female same-sex desire (in its various manifestations), rather than being scarce in 18th century contexts, is central to the development of late 18th century bourgeois models of sexuality, by participating in mapping the boundaries of acceptably moderate sexual conduct.

Same-sex desire could be viewed as a “propensity,” that is, a personal taste, among other non-normative sexual tastes catalogued at the time. But increasingly, sex was being defined around a central “acceptable” model of moderated heterosexual intercourse between married partners for the purpose of reproduction. Extremes of many sorts were felt to detract from or interfere with this goal, including excessive sexual activity, excess desire that could only be satisfied by alternative activities, or even an excess of emotional response.

Within this context, female same-sex desire became a signal of when moderate experiences and feelings became unacceptably immoderate. This is examined in three specific contexts. One is the rise of scenes of female erotic flagellation in pornographic literature, and possibly in actual practice. Another is the culture of sensibility and the fetishization of empathic emotional pain. Tying these together is an association of each specifically with female same-sex contexts.

The emerging fascination with sexual flagellation in pornography in the 18th century coincided with the rise of the culture of “sensibility”, especially within the novel.  In both contexts, there developed an understanding of pain (both physical and emotional) as obscene and deviant.  Pornography deliberately violated social taboos around sex, and the eroticization of pain defined it as forbidden and therefore obscene.

[Note: Perhaps because of the focus in this article on the specifics of the 18th century, Binhammer doesn’t touch significantly on the potential erotics of both physical and sympathetic pain in the medieval context of penance and contemplation of the passion. A religious connection is made in 18th century flagellation pornography, but within the context of anti-Catholic sentiment. And there is a comment that the flagellation scene in Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure is considered a turning point in the depiction of whipping as being primarily for erotic stimulation.]

Flagellation, like f/f sex, was commented on and described as an arbitrary taste. That is, something that an individual might indulge in and prefer for illogical reasons. And sexual flagellation came to be strongly associated with women, and especially with same-sex erotics, to the point where the two were intertwined. Such scenes typically involved a woman in authority over other women (governesses, schoolmistresses, the mistress of servants) where some excuse is found to require punishment. The erotic aspect might be present for the agent alone, or there might be a male voyeur in the scene, but the most common formula was for two women to act as partner in “disciplining” a third, subordinate woman or girl.

Within female institutions, the instigating event might be depicted as “innocent” sexual play between girls that then is punished by an authority. The whipping is then sometimes blamed for the awakening of an excess erotic desire in the victim (or in the agents) which then requires more extreme actions to satisfy.

Somewhat more unusually, one text described a female “flagellant club” in London in which the members drew lots for who would take each role, and then would trade off “when the sensation became too intense.” This was depicted as the equivalent of male social clubs, complete with meetings, speeches, and such. [Note: compare with the French depictions of the Anandrine Sect from a similar era.]

Such depictions in literature have been a source of contention among historians, on the one side declaring that they should only be understood as male fantasies, and on the other side noting that some women (in modern times) do engage in sexual discipline and one shouldn’t reject the possibility of actual female flagellant clubs on a “but women don’t do that sort of thing” basis.

The depictions of f/f sex in pornography contradict the heterosexist ideas that such activity is inconsequential, is only a precursor to heterosexual activity, or necessarily involves gender role-play. Contrary to the “precursor” image, sex between women is often depicted in these texts as a consequence of women being bored or unsatisfied by m/f sex. Pornographic flagellation involving men often depicted it as a way to excite a flagging desire, but with women it’s seen as a way to satisfy an excess of desire. The same theme is seen for f/f sex generally: that it’s a natural consequence of excess. [Note: the motif that f/f sex would merely stimulate women to a point of unsatisfied arousal that could only be requited by m/f sex was more dominant in a slightly earlier era.] This is one motif that we see in the depictions of Marie Antoinette as being sexually voracious and therefore turning to women when men were insufficient.

The final theme in this conjunction is the culture of “sensibility”, that is, a heightened emotional response including empathy for other’s distress and pain. While sensibility was considered a desirable characteristic, if taken to extremes it could be viewed as self-indulgent and generating perverse pleasure in suffering. [Note: This is exactly what Jane Austen is depicting in Sense and Sensibility in the character of Maryanne.] A key connection with erotic flagellation is the concept of excess, of going beyond accepted boundaries in one’s sensations. Excessive sensibility created erotic pleasure out of emotional pain, rather than physical.

This excess of sensibility in novels is evoked most often in relations between women, most often as depicted by female authors. Particularly in scenes of illness or suffering, one women will experience intense emotions in identifying with or caring for the sufferer. Even when women writers warn against this excess, they represent it in their work for the vicarious pleasure of the reader. One of the reasons women were warned against the reading of novels was due to the intense emotional reactions they were thought to provoke. The sympathy and care for a suffering loved one, when recorded in diaries and letters, may in some cases either encode or displace same-sex erotic feelings that could not be recorded directly, as in the scenes of tender care in Eleanor Butler’s journal.

In summary, Binhammer sees connections and parallels in the ways that “painful pleasures” are used to define and police the boundaries of acceptable eroticism, and how the excess of feeling associated with them was depicted as a uniquely female same-sex experience. In this, these connections do not define a “lesbian” experience, but show how same-sex erotics are part of a more general contrast with the narrow, bourgeois sexuality as it was being defined in the late 18th century.

Time period: