Clinton St. Quarterly, Vol. 7 No. 1 | Spring 1985

It's the Thought that Counts ONE WOMAN’S PERSONAL STRUGGLE WITH SADO-MASOCHISM By Christina V. Pacosz These words are extremely difficult to utter, painjul to write: I am a radical feminist and a poet, struggling with sado-masochism. The images and memories lurk in my psyche, even now, after two years of concerted and loving effort at banishing them and replacing the programmed, stunted sexuality they represent. As far as" I know, few, if any, heterosexual feminists have "come out" as practitioners or adherents of S&M, either reformed or still actively participating. I cannot ignore or easily dismiss my personal qualms about “going public.” But the words of the poet Muriel Rukeyser keep circling, persistent: What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” In my search I found much had been written on the issues I saw as central in the S&M dynamic: power, violence, being female in a male world, rape, incest, battering, pornography, but little about heterosexual S&M. While I have been deeply and profoundly moved and grateful for a feminism that insists on and persists in examining what happens in the bedrooms we inhabit, I have hungered for an explanation of my reality, one that would make sense and help free me. f he seeds of whom 1came to be are scattered throughout my lifetime, particularly in the fertile soil of childhood: girlchild of the Polish working class, daughter of Detroit factory workers, student of nuns—who in their own alienation from eros were adept at using tactics of unpredictability, humiliation and intimidation to create a mini-regime of fascism within my day for eight years of my life. At home, in the bosom of the nuclear family, my beautiful, intelligent mother was sinking deeper and deeper into the mired silence of her rape before marriage, her thwarted ambition to be a nurse, and the absence of true creativity within the confines of marriage and family. My father sat in our shabby, cheaply- furnished living room, his thoughts far away, circling his home village in Poland, trying to comprehend what it was the Nazi’s had destroyed, and why. I learned about silent suffering at my mother’s table and about the lost people of the Holocaust at my father’s knee. The foliage grew lush when my father, suffering from a debilitating bout of ulcers, would lash out in anger at what he perceived as my verbal impertinence. After his slap, I would retreat to the safety of my bedroom and lie in bed feeling my heart literally break. I became a miniature female replica of Jesus’ bleeding sacred heart. My father would knock on my closed door, hesitant, embarrassed. He would stand just outside my room, leaning his upper torso in through the door, and apologize. His “I’m sorry,” genuine and heartfelt, would signal my joyous retreat from the pain of alienation I was feeling, a pain which was tinged with an erotic pleasure I have only recently been able to name. If there was any time of year when the Once I stole, an illustrated book of saints' lives while visiting someone’s house with my mother. Nothing was left to the imagination, except what fled into the recesses of my young psyche, to claw to the surface much later. garden would offer a profusion of bloom, it was Spring. The Lenten season, bursting into exotic blossom during the tension and expectation of Holy Week, would climax with Easter and resurrection. It was also in the Spring that my mother was institutionalized in mental hospitals, drugged and given shock treatments. Afterwards she would come back home and resume her duties as wife and mother, her double shift of cleaning schools as a janitor and taking care of our tiny home. Easter morning would find me dressed in my white Holy Communion dress, a blue and gold cape over my shoulders, a single Easter lily in my hands, as a part of the processional in the church celebrating the resurrection of the dead God. Much later, as an adult conducting poetry residencies at a Catholic grade school after Easter, I saw a bulletin board in the second grade classroom that succinctly proclaimed it all: Life through death! Clustered around were dozens of butterflies made by the children. While receiving instructions for taking Holy Communion, we were regaled with scare stories during the months of preparation. I remember one in particular. We were seven or eight and admonished never to allow the sacrilege of our unclean and mortal teeth with their unholy decay to touch the wafer of unleavened bread. We were told a macabre tale about a little girl (of course!) who did chew the host and found her mouth filled with blood. This was worse than the Saturday matinee horror movie. We knew this frightening thing could happen to us. Didn’t the nuns tell us over and over how weak we were? I collected quite a bouquet. O n c e I stole an illustrated book of saints’ lives while visiting someone’s house with my mother. A little paperback book for children with a dozen or so saints’ stories, the text lay on one page and on the opposite page was a full color, highly graphic representation of that particular saint’s demise. Nothing was left to the imagination, except what fled into the recesses of my young psyche, to claw to the surface much later. I remember the narratives, shared daily with us in school, describing the women who died horrible deaths on heated iron griddles, cooked like human waffles, raped, mutilated, stabbed like barbecued meat with sharp stakes and burned like the witches I would learn of later. Those women (and men) died in degraded and gory fashion, looks of ecstasy on their faces. An ecstasy I will recognize much later as submerged eroticism'. But at the time, my only commiseration with so much suffering and blood was to refuse to have anything to do with czarnina, duck’s blood soup, a delicacy of Polish cuisine, though I loved keiszka, a sausage made with blood. One stank, the other didn’t. I learned to handle contradictions early. M^ien, as a young pre-pubescent girl, I received my first doll with breasts (just introduced to the toy market), I began to act out S&M in my solitary play with her, my other dolls, and my lone boy doll. I was plunged into the pleasure-pain of discovery once by my mother’s entrance into my room unannounced. I knew enough to immediately cease my activity, knew intuitively what Iwas exploring was taboo. In so-called “primitive societies, something or someone became taboo because somehow the energies and relationships embodied or expressed were sacred, numinous. Mysteries. Women partook of taboo during their menses because they literally shed blood regularly without dying. Bleeding without dying is no mean feat. It has been mimicked by men throughout the ages, particularly in war, where it’s called heroism. Except men (and women and children) die from this twisted attempt to emulate female power. Is this what too many men are trying to beat and pummel into submission? The power of women? A power residing somewhere unseen and unknown, hidden within musky female bodies? Do men think, they partake of the sacred and the holy if they make women bleed? On cue? / acted out my S&M fantasies with one person, first in my early twenties when our mutual exploration included much of the sexual spectrum and little, if any, questioning of what we did or why we did it. That I was sexual at all felt like a miracle after my Polish-Catholic girlhood. When I opened the catalog from the R.D.F. Company, a pornographic outlet catering to S&M tastes with an address on infamous 42nd Street in the Big Apple, tiny images of women writhing in pain assaulted me. Their positions looked all too familiar. The woman is Oriental. Naked. She has wooden clothespins clipped to her nipples and her small body is tightly bound with strong rope. She is gagged. Resting on her thigh, too studied to be casual: a crucifix, the all-pervasive S&M image of the culture. Occasionally he is grinning, leering really, while she tries to smile, looking tearing and orgasmic through a grimace of pain. Or she is on a leash and the man tugging on her collared neck is white, dressed in a fashionable business suit. My male friend, and S&M partner, tries to reassure me. What I am looking at is all “put-on," staged, a harmless act. The women get off and get a lot of money for it too. It’s a job in a tight economy. A regular 9-to-5er with medical and dental, two weeks paid vacation. Maybe even childcare. I’m not convinced, though I want to be. To be convinced is to be off the hook, lulled and pliant before the tiny TV screens exposing various versions of the ultimate battleground of the sexes, of the self. Eight-millimeter color movies with titles like “The Torture of the Dissident,” “The Torture of the Witch,” provide the stills sold in sets of four. I am simultaneously horrified, outraged and aroused by what I see. I imagine duplicating some of the images on my flesh, though I reassure myself, nothing truly painful. How much pain is too much? The women in the catalog remain mute. Each relationship between my early sexual experimentation and my later careful and considered immersion into S&M was indirectly permeated with an S&M dynamic. Each sexual encounter had an undertone of violence, an absence of self-love, a repetition of the male/ female power-over mode inherent in the majority of heterosexual interaction. Each time I thought I loved someone, I found myself a victim, alienated and unable to communicate and share an erotic relationship. I felt controlled, policed, battered. When my ex-partner re-entered my life in my mid-thirties, the S&M dynamic insisted on prominence. Despite my radical feminism, I was still compelled to submit, I was still a willing sacrifice. I remember focusing on the intensity of sexual feeling within myself. My partner was essentially ignored. He'was there. I could “trust” him to do certain things, to manipulate certain parts and props of the drama and to stop at previously agreed- upon points. I didn’t have to touch him, to reciprocate in any but very limited and limiting ways. When I planned an evening with the riding crop and clothespins this last go- round with S&M, I would say (lie) to myself: I am assertive, strong and in-control in every other aspect of my life. What does it matter how I choose to have my orgasms; how can this pleasure be a “bad” thing for me to do? With my former partner back in my life, I was able to convince myself there was nothing “wrong” with my choice of sexual expression, but only for a very short while. I had changed greatly since last we’d been involved. I knew too much for the contradictions not to be apparent. Even though my S&M tastes fell on the mild side of an imaginary continuum, when I lifted my gaze from the relative safety at my end, the imaginary line became real and I began to see .real women. Reading Carolyn Forche’s book of poetry, The Country Between Us, brought the reality of the S&M continuum home. In “Return” she says: And that people who rescue physicists, lawyers and poets lie in their beds at night with reports of mice introduced into women, of men whose testicles are crushed like eggs that they cup their own parts with their bedsheets and move themselves slowly, imagining bracelets affixing their wrists to a wall, where the naked are pinned, where the naked are tied open; and left to the hands of those who erase what they touch. We are all erased by them, and no longer resemble decent men. We no longer have the hearts, the strength, the lives of women. I could not live the hypocrisy. I could no longer rationalize my orgasms. The clothespins gripping my nipples were a way of sharing pain, a new form of that “old time religion,” a vehicle for guilt removal. But while my flesh was “mortified,” real women were being tortured and murdered. Others, captives of pornography, were living with brutality, a death of spirit, a daily erosion of love and pride. Though my nipples were constricted by the clothespins, I was alive and “free.” And guilty. How could I reconcile my refusal to pay war taxes and my “safe” experiments with S&M in the bedroom? How could I be concerned and active about human rights, peace, justice in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Poland, South Africa, the Sioux Nation, the battered women’s shelter, the rape center, oh a myriad and evermultiplying list, when I was re-creating sanitized scenes of violence and torture and starring in them? • When I could no longer avoid the painful realization that the major portion of my eroticism was bound and gagged and mutilated and I didn’t want to be that victim any longer, I understood the nature of what I wanted to claim fully and completely at long last. What Audre Lord calls an “ and fearless underlining of my capacity for joy.... In touch with the erotic, I become less willing to accept powerlessness, or those other supplied states of being which are not native to me, such as resignation, despair, self-ef- facement^depression, self-denial.” 18 Clinton St. Quarterly