WHEN MOST PEOPLE think of female masochism, the images of leather, chains and sexual deviance come to mind immediately. At first glance, Natalie Shainess's book seems to perpetuate that theme, from its title to its "searching but easy-to-take questionnaire [which] allows you to discover to what degree you have the problem." But in reality, her book goes far beyond that, providing an intelligent and sound exploration of female masochism, and in eminently readable one at that.
Shainess, a psychiatrist, is engaged in redefining masochism. It is not the usual deviant behavior that guys joke about in the locker room. Instead, it is at daily component in most women's lives. According to Shiness, masochism begins within the family when parents, perpetuating a pattern they learned in their first homes, begin to damage their child's fragile, new ego.
A child's first experience of the inequity of power comes in its relationship with its mother, or the primary mothering person... If the mother uses her power for the infant's good, anticipating its need, subordinating her own, the child will probably emerge from its first six to eight months of life with what Erik Erikson called "basic trust," a view of the world and its inhabitants as benevolent and nonthreatening.
As a child grows older the psychodynamics of the family continue to affect her, and as a dependent, she has no alternative but to adapt. Consequently she develops a series of defenses which lay the foundation for a masochistic personality. Overly critical parents, for instance, create a child who is anxious to please but also constantly seeking to avoid the accusations and blame meted out to it.
Just as a wolf attempts to escape death by baring its throat to a conqueror, the masochist offers a gesture of subservience by attempting to anticipate what an authority figure wants and rushing to comply. But this is not effective in the adult human world, because the masochist is attempting to second-guess what authority figures will do on the basis of her childhood learning.
The passivity, acquiesence and lack off self-respect many women learn at home; is only reinforced by the normative; definitions of feminity pervading our culture. What begins in the family is, compounded daily, in social interactions, movies, ads and television.
BUT THE SITUATION is even worse than your average feminist might think. Shainess demonstrates that women actually encourage such abuse, though not because they enjoy the pain (as the term masochism implies) but rather out of compulsion. Masochism is the only form of human relations known to them. They constantly draw attention to their problem with their speech and their behaviour. Shainess outlines the many forms of masochistic communication can take and most will seem surprisingly familiar. Sweet Suffering is replete with examples drawn from her psychiatric practice, from literature and film, as well as vignettes she has observed. These illustrations, combined with her lively, personal style, will convince most readers how pervasive a problem masochism really is.
Shainess not only demonstrates how prevalent masochistic tendencies are, she follows up by proving how dangerous can be. Not only does masochism permit women to be manipulated on the job or at home, but they increase the likelihood of serious exploitation, rape and mysogenistic violence. The masochistic woman's need to please, and her need for love regardless of the cost to her self-esteem, dominates her relations with other people. She that is, most women) will not only accept guilt and blame automatically, and accomodate the demands of a man without realizing that these demand may be unreasonable. Virtually convinced that suffering is her lot, she may also be unable to help herself, even in cases of extreme danger such as rape or assault.
Shainess is quick to point out that she is in no way implying that the woman is to blame, that she is "asking for it" in any way that would exonerate the victimizer. Shainess is merely acknowledging that women contribute to their own exploitation by being easy victims. In fact, Shainess includes a chapter delineating the victimizer's psychopathology in an attempt to explain how opportunities for masochism come about. Though she regrets the existence of victimizers, she accepts them as a given, and suggest ways by which women can protect themselves. This includes specific advice on how to avoid rape, sado-masochistic relationships and on the job harassment.
But the true cure-all, according to Shainess, is that women must become autuonomous individuals congnizant of their own worth. For even a slightly masochistic woman this requires a major reorganization of the ways in which she views herself and her relations with others. Shainess is adamant, however, that masochism can be overcome. She offers a variety of ways to facilitate the process, but (not unexpectedly) advocates some form of psychotherapy. Therapy, unfortunately, is a service the most victimized are the least likely to afford.
WHILE SHAINESS is both interesting and scholarly when explaining the origins and manifestiations of masochism in daily life, she verges on the simplistic in the chapters devoted to self-help. In addition, "the cure" Shainess is proposing is unettling in a couple of ways. First, she insists that women must develop a tough self-contained autonomy to avoid being victimized, on the premise that people will victimize if they see vulnerability. Granted, one should be selective about whom one opens up to (the masochist is characterized by a need to show her vulnerabilty to everyone), but Shainess fails to show how appropriate relations of trust and intimacy have a place in the lives of non-masochistic women.
Secondly, this tough autonomy becomes alarmingly akin to what is conventionally defined as masculine. It is unclear whether Shainess wishes to help women to become less masochistic or to become men. In the conclusion of her book she describes several famous women who may meet the standards of non-masochistic behavior. The ideal, apparently, is Golda Meir.
She never bore what could almost be thought of as the liability of physical beauty; undistracted men simply responded to her competence. Her success may have come about in large measure because people virtually ignored the fact that she was a woman...she was virtually accepted as a man, she became Prime Minister of Israel as though she were a man.
Masochism is no doubt a serious and widespread problem, destroying the lives and chances for happiness of many women as well as encouraging violence, pornography and exploitation. But wouldn't it be wiser to eliminate the victimizing tendencies of society instead? As an M.D., Shainess should know that it makes more sense to climinate the cause of the disease, rather than the patient.