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(Not) Dying of Shame

Female Sexual Submission in 1890s' Erotica

Chris White

Presented here is part of an on-going project concerned with nineteenth- century representations of sexuality that play with or deploy power hierarchies for erotic purposes. While there is a growing body of work documenting the ethics, practice, and pleasures of BDSM (a portmanteau acronym meaning Bondage and Domination, Domination and Submission, Sadism and Masochism),2 one cannot of course assume that the ends of the nineteenth century and twentieth century share an understanding of sexual activity where representations of power construct the relationships and acts in a (semi)playful scenario. However, for some BDSM participants the notion of ‘play’ is anathema since they regard BDSM as a lifestyle choice that defines their entire existence.3 Much of the nineteenth-century critical apparatus exercised upon representations of sexual power-play derive from a pathology of desire, the perversion of normative ‘healthy’ sexuality. Terminology is the first difficulty and its problems describe the nature of the theoretical difficulties in engaging with this material. In relation to the kind of material I will be discussing here, the terms most often invoked to define the sexual activity are masochism and sadism, neither of which has a particularly flattering lilt to it, since the words, as commonly defined, describe a self-destructive or destructive violence exercised through sex.

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Heike Bauer, Ann Heilmann, Emma Liggins, Angelica Michelis, Nickianne Moody, and Chris White

Notes on contributors