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  • Esmé James

Venus in Chains: The Enslaved Dominatrix of the Nineteenth Century

Updated: Aug 16, 2020

**Content warning: sex, BDSM**

The long boots, the latex cat suit, the leather whip; she’s a familiar figure to us all. For many, the dominatrix is a celebrated figure of female empowerment — confident in her sexuality, asserting her dominance with no hesitation over The Man™. She is fearless, powerful. With the flick of her fingers, grown men start cowering, desperately kissing the dirt off her pristine stiletto shoes. On the surface, she looks like the hero feminism both deserves and needs. Yet, the dominatrix has experienced a rather problematic history, one that has far too rarely been called out and challenged. These issues are particularly apparent in Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s infamous and widely read work, Venus in Furs. In a time when such sadomasochistic literature is experiencing a resurgence of popularity, it has to be asked — are we really listening to what Venus has to say?


The dominatrix has been around since time immemorial. Inanna, the ancient Mesopotamian goddess, forced men and Gods into her submission through her powerful sexuality, and Aristotle is said to have been seduced and humiliatingly ridden by the king’s mistress, Phyllis. However, the popularity of depictions of this character spiked during the nineteenth century. From Sacher-Masoch to Radcliffe, Wilde to Huysmans, the figure of the sexually dominant woman was prominent in many literary works across Europe. The dominatrix was lauded by men and women alike, providing both an outlet for taboo erotic desires and an alternative to conventional literary depictions of women as passive and subservient. The presentation of a powerful woman dominating a feminised man seemed to be a subversive attempt to challenge patriarchal gender roles, demonstrating the artifice and mutability of these ‘natural’ roles. The woman was celebrated for her ability to usurp power from the man, and likewise, the man idolised for giving himself over to the extremes of passion and sentimentality. By all appearances, the dissemination of the dominatrix fantasy was a progressive effort to interrogate gender conventionalities, exposing its performative nature.


However, recent feminist critique has endeavoured to expose the misogynistic values implicit in many of these ‘progressive’ literary depictions. Venus, they say, is not the one who is truly holding the whip. In fact, nineteenth century fascination with the dominatrix could be seen as a giant step back for the depiction of women within art. The female heroine was a prominent feature of eighteenth century literature, and — no matter how problematic these texts may now be — an effort was at least being made to grant and explore the complexities of the female psyche. Within Sacher-Masoch’s text, by contrast, Venus is nothing more than an object for the male gaze. She is created — and equally, destroyed — by the fantasy of the male observer. Venus in Furs details this progression through the relationship of Severin and Wanda. Completely infatuated with Wanda, Severin begs her to fulfil his super-sensual fantasy and become his Venus in Furs. Yet, beneath the guise of the ‘powerful woman,’ Venus is denied all depth, personality, and autonomy. She is mere art, made to be enjoyed and discarded. And the celebration of such a depiction as ‘feminist’ is perhaps even more worrying than explicit misogyny alone.


The masochistic fantasy has three clear stages: the indoctrination, the suspense, the fulfilment. In the first, the masochist explains his desire to the unsuspecting woman, laying down the role that she will play within this fantasy. In the case of Venus in Furs, it is very simple — Severin desires to be beaten, whipped, and finally, kicked aside by a cruel and indifferent woman. The performative nature of the fantasy is textually apparent. Wanda talks of how she will try to “act” the part of Venus and “embody his ideal.” It is in this stage that the woman must submit herself to the “submissive” man. By embodying his ideal, she forfeits all aspect of her sexual autonomy, acting solely for the fulfilment of his desire. Once this submission has been made, the fantasy moves on to the following stage.


Suspense is undoubtedly the heart of the masochistic fantasy. It is the frozen moment before the whip strikes and the man enjoys the height of his sexual pleasure. It is here that he may enjoy the fantasy of the fearful woman, sans the fear. She is still under his control. The moment of anticipation is dressed up, adorned with all kinds of bells and whistles. The submissive man revels in his observation of Venus trying on her furs, choosing her whip, raising her arm in preparation for the brutal blow. As Gilles Deleuze has noted about Sacher-Masoch’s text, all movement is suspended within these moments:


“The woman torturer freezes into postures that identify her with a statue, a painting or a photograph.”


It is in the process of becoming the object of the man’s desire that the woman ironically fulfils her purpose. During this time, she is his object of sublimity. As he waits and anticipates the fulfilment of his dream, his mind is transported, his sense overwhelmed — he can experience the sublime. It is the very moment when the woman successfully comes to “embody his ideal” that she loses her enchantment.


Within Venus, this moment is very clear. Severin is successfully beaten, whipped, and kicked aside — and for that, he condemns not only Wanda, but all women for their cruelty and vulgarity. As a form of conclusion, Severin plainly articulates the moral of the masochistic fantasy:

“That woman, as nature has created her and as man is at present educating her, is his enemy. She can only be his place or his despot, but never his companion… we have only the choice of being hammer or anvil… whoever allows himself to be whipped, deserves to be whipped.”

The woman becomes the means through which the man can cure himself of his super-sensuality, reforming his masculinity to conform to modern conventionalities. The fantasy ends with man’s rehabilitation into the modern world, liberated from any romantic sentimentality. The best the woman can hope for, by contrast, is complete eradication from the tale. — and at worst, death.


Rita Felski has stated that the popularisation of the man’s desire to be dominated by woman was born from the changing demands of masculinity at the birth of modernity. She states that:

“The desire to be dominated by a strong and powerful woman is associated with the thrill of perversity, the defiant exploration of unnatural and artificial pleasures.”

The figure of the feminine man offered hope for a radical alternative to the modern narrative of man’s industrialisation and domination of the natural world — an account which encouraged a view of masculinity that was alienated, hardened, and mechanic. The dominatrix fulfilled a masochistic fantasy of domination by the natural forces modern man was meant to fight against. She allowed men to take pleasure in the inevitable pain of their downfall.

The woman’s role in all of this, however, was far from liberating. She might escape the confines of her conventional womanly sphere, and she might dominate and assert her will over the male submissive, but she could only do so as far as the man’s fantasy would allow. Ultimately, she is a mere actor in the performance of the man’s erotic desires. She only attains the power to dominate by forfeiting her sense of self over to the man. As Suzanne Stewart has written:


The woman in the masochistic fantasy is committed to some form of death in order to redeem the self-sacrificing male.”


She becomes the object through which the man can achieve a state of transcendence, becoming the sublime object of desire, but never the subject.

Tales of the dominating woman, therefore, have nothing to do with the sexual autonomy of woman — by contrast, these tales depend upon the complete eradication of it. It is male desire disguised as female autonomy; Venus may be cracking the whip but it is Severin pulling her strings.


These tales of sexuality and submission should, however, continue to occupy an important place on our shelves. Despite being underscored by misogyny, they have made great contributions to our sexual knowledge, helping to normalise experimentation and alternative practices. What we need to reassess is the way we read these texts. The revised moral of dominatrix tales needs to be about the importance of communication and mutual benefit in sexual practices. They should outline the dangers of reducing others to signifying functions through the pursuit of our desires, and suggest that far greater enjoyment can be found through the fulfilled desires of both parties. And, most importantly, that this fulfilment is gained through a practice that is safe, sane, and consensual. In doing so, we lay the foundation for a discourse which can respectfully speak of Wanda’s pleasure in tandem with Severin’s — recognising the powerful woman as more than just a conduit for male fantasy.





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