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.