Identities and sexual differences: On economics of violence and transgressive pleasure

1Why are women subject to so much violence? As a key aspect of the issues that activists and researchers were examining in the 1970s, violence against women was at the heart of the reflections, texts, analyses and pamphlets produced at the time. But the institutionalization of feminist research in the 1980s radically transformed methods. Now, the questions of sexual violence are only seen from a psychological, demographic, criminological or medical perspective, and often from an extremely heteronormative one as well. What stands out most, however, is the wide gap between the end of the 1970s and today in the feminist reflections that seek to understand what rape is. [1] Many feminists at that time identified sexual violence as the core of male dominance and consequently considered it a crucial element for the functioning of a sexist society on the one hand and for the structure of gender binarism on the other. Subsequently, since the 1980s feminists have organized the care and treatment offered to victims. In their practices and their publications, they follow the lines of an understanding of the origins of this violence, and its functioning, that relies upon a specific analysis dating from the 1970s. The field of feminist and gender research has undergone several transformations since then, among other reasons through its institutionalization, through the “sex wars, [2]” or through the “gender” wave of the 1990s. [3] In this article, I would like to contribute to a renewal of feminist thinking on sexual violence, so as to then reconsider a specific moment in feminist thought: a discussion of Story of O that, in its way, examines the connection between violence and sexuality, particularly involving the process of sexuation. [4]

Violence as a constituent element of sexuation

2Sexual violence as a constituent element of sexuation, of the creation of subjects as heterosexual men and women, appears quite late in feminist thought, with Simone de Beauvoir. [5] In The Second Sex, Beauvoir describes all the complications of becoming a woman as a division within oneself, particularly in the chapter in the second volume on sexual initiation. Another monumental classic of feminist literature, Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, begins its considerations with literary descriptions of sexual violence against women. [6] She recalls how the woman, as far back as the great founding myths of humanity (Eve and Adam, Pandora’s box), is sexuality, embodies it: this is why she is a threat and why violence against her is justified.

3Among the forms of violence marking the phases of womanhood in its becoming, sexual violence has been analyzed specifically by feminists since 1970. Some considered it a special weapon of the patriarchy for subjugating women, a particular way in which men appropriate women’s bodies, a constituent element of what it is to be a woman in this society. The key text for this description is probably Susan Brownmiller’s book. [7] It is also from this perspective that feminists and radical lesbians in France rallied under slogans like “rape = crime against the class of women.” [8] The interpretation of rape led to a debate in France in the 1970s that crystallized around Michel Foucault. For Foucault, a rape was to be understood like any other form of violence, like a punch in the face. [9] He did not want to draw attention to the sexual nature of that violence: in other words, that characteristic was insignificant. Monique Plaza corrected him on this point in her famous response: “The will not to know of Michel Foucault.” [10] Plaza explains that rape cannot be understood independently of male-female relations and male dominance. Of course, rapes are committed against men and even sometimes by women, but the small number of these cases only serves to confirm Plaza’s argument that there is a significant link between male dominance and rape.

4Therefore, Plaza insisted on the fact that gender plays a crucial role in rape. But does rape play a crucial role in gender as well? And what about sexuality? Does a rape constitute a sexual act, or one of violence and power? Or both at the same time? Along the lines of Brownmiller’s classic argument, rape is not sexual, since its true purpose is as a demonstration of power over a woman. Participating in this tradition, some feminists wished to expand the use of the term “rape” in order to encompass all forms of harassment or sexual molestation. In this way, they sought to highlight the subjective effect of this experience, thereby shedding light on the structural links between all these acts. But putting any unwanted leer on the same level as rape risks trivializing real rapes, acts of intrusion into the surface of the body. If the definition of rape that insists upon the penetration of the vagina by a penis is undoubtedly too narrow, the philosopher Ann Cahill offers a definition that would include a form of penetration, passing into the body, independent of whether that penetration took place with a part of the body or with an object, and independent of the orifice that was penetrated. [11]

5The same complications occur in relation to the definition of sexual violence: what makes a violent act sexual? Brownmiller insisted on the fact that sexual violence serves to demonstrate power, which led some militant feminists to suggest the term “sexualized violence” instead of sexual violence. Other feminists, however, criticized this expression: it created the illusion of a sexuality that was good by nature and non-violent. From this perspective, only the macho use that some men make of sexuality occasionally renders it bad and violent. And indeed for Catharine MacKinnon as for Michel Foucault, sexuality is always already an exercise of domination or power. [12] For MacKinnon, society is stratified into men and women through sexuality—which is always violent, and the reason why “sexual violence” in her view is a redundancy. Sexuality is a constituent aspect of the (violent) subjectivation of men and women.

6Today, the analytical class-based approach to sex, which grounded Plaza’s thinking and was close to MacKinnon’s, is much less common. A renewal of the feminist outlook on rape and sexual violence is clearly necessary as the question remains: what role does sexual violence play in the establishment and reproduction of sexual difference and consequently in the construction of sexual and gender identities? As is often the case with feminist thinking, the question is establishing a wide separation between, on the one hand, the need to take account of the seriousness of a phenomenon and, on the other, the trap consisting in making it seem hopeless. How can social structures be described without presenting them as all-encompassing and inevitable? Cahill has attempted a major overhaul of the concept of rape and did not merely reiterate the definitional separation between rape and sexual harassment. [13] Taking an approach more or less influenced by Foucault, she also questions Brownmiller’s views on the role played by sexual violence in subjectivation and sexuation, in other words the idea that rape and sexual violence determine what a woman becomes.

7Cahill’s work is one of the few attempts to build on Brownmiller and Plaza’s legacy concerning the explanation of the scale of sexual violence against women, while critiquing that legacy at the same time. Her aim is to understand the role of sexual violence as the basis of that culture that some have decided to call “rape culture.” The intent behind this expression was to set out a vision of rape as widespread and fundamental, versus one that assumes it is an exception to the rule, the rule of non-violence. To that end, the panoptical effect of rape culture, which even affects women who have never been raped, must be taken into account. In fact, rape becomes a form of constant, intimidating threat and as a result, it regulates the behavior of many women (do not go out alone at night, do not hitchhike alone, etc.). [14] Furthermore, a consideration of the economic and political consequences of rape culture is needed in order to see how burdensome such a “culture” is, and to measure its true costs. The Austrian political scientist Birgit Sauer emphasized the institutional foundations for this violent culture by showing how the ideology of the state monopoly on violence was built upon guaranteed impunity for violence against women: this was the result of a historical compromise whose aim was to get men to accept the end of all forms of violence against police and soldiers. [15] According to Sauer, this compromise was reestablished after World War II, during the construction of the welfare states that were organized along the same principles of a division between public and private violence, one involving the isolation of women at home through a specific organization of labor. In fact, a structural analysis of violence against women seems indispensable in order to understand how feminized or masculinized subjects come into being in our society. And yet, are all subjects always and completely subjugated by the violent structures that form them? And how can space be made for sexual pleasure? This is the very question that one current of feminist thought asked itself in the early 1980s, a group known somewhat vaguely as the “pro-sex” movement, who sought to measure the relationships between oppressive structures and individual agency within these structures. Without fostering naive illusions of free will, these feminists warned against any position that would lose sight of the subject by concentrating too exclusively on social structures. They took desire as the starting point for understanding the relationship between the individual and social structures. In this way, sexual subjectivation becomes an extremely difficult undertaking, between patriarchal sexuation on the one hand and on the other, the desire women have to express their own sexual appetite.

8To a certain degree, these different feminist positions examine the link between sexuality and subjectivation in a constant tension between sexuality as a technology of power (from a Foucauldian perspective) and sexuality as a driving force (from a mainly Freudian one, although Freud did not under any circumstances deny the social or indeed the political nature of sexuality).

9In the following section, this tension will be examined with the help of several feminist analyses of Story of O. The debate is on sadomasochism, but we will realize very quickly that it is in fact on the connection between sexuality and subjectivity and that it essentially focuses on the question of the role of desire with the modern subject.

Story of O, or masochism and femininity

10With the recent commercial success of Fifty Shades of Grey, [16] the issue of “female masochism” [17] seems to be back on the table. It is a long-established discursive figure partly inspired by Freud’s writings, and the popularization of this figure has made sexism worse. But Freud did not consider the notion of “feminine masochism” [18] as a characteristic of women. On the contrary, it was a phenomenon that he observed as a perversion in men while implicitly considering it “normal” among women. [19] As is often the case with Freud, he detected an important phenomenon and described it with the care he was known for, without however denouncing the social and political structures responsible for it, or offering solutions to move beyond it. This is precisely why Gayle Rubin calls Freudian psychoanalysis a “feminist theory manqué.” [20]

11Fifty Shades of Grey is in reality an impoverished copy of Story of O, a notorious novel that has been subject to much debate in feminist circles since its publication in the 1950s. [21] Story of O sparked controversy in France; later, feminist researchers in the US made several analyses of the book, taking diverging positions on it. The best-known critiques are perhaps those by Andrea Dworkin and Susan Griffin. [22] Griffin’s text was produced at the time of the “sex wars,” [23] and expresses the polarization of this debate by presenting an overview centered mainly on the theme of sadomasochism: for Griffin, S/M is the height of patriarchal violence. Dworkin, whose article was written nearly a decade earlier, not only reads Story of O as a Judeo-Christian and spiritual ritual, but also expresses her fascination with the book. In fact, by analyzing the style of Réage who, in her view, always says everything and its opposite, Dworkin advises the female reader to “double double unthink” this style, to decipher it if you will, to read it as a code. If therefore Story of O presents men and women as radically opposed poles of humanity, at war with each other in fact, Dworkin’s decoding retains the declaration of war in order to direct it against men. Dworkin’s position on this is well-known. But what is possibly surprising is her words of warning against a certain attractiveness to the seductive nature of Story of O’s style, one that Dworkin clearly places on a spiritual level. Subsequently, with the polarization of the debate in the feminist “sex wars,” this attractiveness was completely rejected.

12It is not surprising that Story of O figures among the topics of discussion of the “sex wars.” As the focus of debate for American feminists in the early 1980s was in determining the connection between sexuality and subjectivity, Story of O could actually appear either promising or dangerous. Susan Griffin built upon Dworkin’s line of thinking while adapting it to her critique of sadomasochism, which in her view represented the fascist revenge of (male) culture on (female) nature:


Can it matter if oppression and pain are chosen? Feminists recognize that culture shapes desire. We know that when we have “consented” to coercion, our minds have been shaped to that consent by years of a social conditioning which we never chose. And consider this. Consensual sadomasochism is a choice to limit one’s nature, to abbreviate freedom.[24]

14In fact, consent is a complicated matter that blurs the clear lines between oppressor and oppressed on both sides: someone who consents to their own submission is already not entirely submissive. Griffin’s intent is to emphasize that consent does not appear spontaneously, but that it comes about in a social and political context that acts upon its formation.

15But the problem of consent also haunts the paranoia of the oppressor who wants to see their total victory in the consent of their victim. They cannot, however, be rid of that last immanent doubt about the active nature of a consenting gesture. The debate on consent is imbued with the nostalgia for a subject possessing free will, control over their body, and first and foremost, a desire for meaning. On the other hand, abandoning all possibility of consent and making the subject a pure product of its living conditions as Griffin does, in short extolling such determinism, seems just as totalitarian.

16The antipode to that vision is represented here by the analysis of Kaja Silverman, which was published in the collection of the papers from the famous conference at Barnard College in 1982. [25] Silverman interprets Story of O as a sort of allegory on the impossibility of a female form of subjectivity. She combines her reading of Story of O with that of the French feminists. In Silverman’s view, O “mimes or apes the zero with which culture signifies her in order to protect,” behind this mask, “her privileged relation with her body.” [26] By drawing on the work of Michèle Montrelay, Silverman asserts that in this way castration becomes a trompe l’œil. In psychoanalysis, castration is a prerequisite for all subjects, not just for women. The real dilemma of Story of O is not, therefore, just the story of becoming a woman, but rather the story of becoming a subject, period. Moreover, this becoming must necessarily be filtered through gender as a social regime. Silverman quotes Beverly Brown and Parveen Adams:


Many analyses take knowledge of the body to be automatically knowledge of one’s own person, and, where this is a sexed body, to be knowledge of oneself as a man or a woman. In arguing that the body is constructed, and constructed in a variety of ways, one is making […] identification impossible. If the body exists in a number of ways for medical and legal practice […] then, clearly, there can be no one sexed body to bear the burden of individuality.[27]

18In order to resolve this difficult situation and describe this almost impossible relationship between discourse and body, Silverman suggests a Freudian concept: Anlehnung, i.e. anaclisis. [28] The purpose of Silverman’s suggestion is to avoid any biological determinism, but without denying the existence of bodies, their materiality, what they feel, what they have experienced. As she puts it, “Close links are forged between actual bodies and discourses.” [29] In this way, she refuses to simplify the relationship between discourse and the real by deciding between independence or identity. [30]

19Her radicality lies in her rejection of the modern and patriarchal form of the subject. She calls upon feminists to invent other relationships to the discourse instead of fighting for a better place within the dominant discourses. [31] Silverman doubts the usefulness of a “reformist” strategy wishing to increase the percentage of women participating in important groups that were reserved for men for too long. Instead, she seeks a new relation to discourses, without giving us any leads or more specific examples. Is it possible that she imagines a completely different society, like the one that the women of the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective later proposed? [32]

20We may say that despite their differences, for Silverman as for Griffin and Dworkin, sexual violence is an integral part of female subjectivation. While Griffin interprets O’s behavior and choices as the expression of her submission to the patriarchal order, Silverman sees it as a strategy developed in order to escape it, with not being a subject as part of that strategy: exposing an injustice by taking it to its limit, perhaps making a caricature of it. As a result, sexuality is no longer / not just a tool of oppression, as for Griffin. On the contrary, sexuality, in the sense of a pleasurable practice, becomes a tool for escaping patriarchal subjectivation.

21What sexuality is, however, remains hard to determine, especially in its relationship to gender and subjectivity. In another article, I started considering the multiple dimensions of the term “sexuality.” [33] Depending on what feminists understand by sexuality (social structure, family ties, desire, practices, identity, love…), the interpretations of its place in the dominant scheme of subjectivation or in any strategies of liberation vary tremendously. Nevertheless, it seems to me that among all of these aspects, we find on the one hand a negative interpretation according to which sexuality represents a key element in the oppression of women or lesbians, and on the other a positive vision, that hopes to find in sexuality a subversive potential for emancipation. From this perspective, sexuality describes a factor of human nature that is not negative in itself: one just has to remove the oppressive aspects that religion or bourgeois capitalism have accreted on it.

22In moving beyond this binarism, two other feminist analyses of Story of O are particularly interesting: one by Susan Sontag from 1969, [34] and one by Jessica Benjamin later. [35] Sontag discusses Story of O as an example to see if pornographic literature is an art form or not. For her, pornography, like drugs, can be a way to explore the forms of human consciousness and help establish the foundations for new regions of the imagination. On this point, Sontag disagrees with the Freudo-Marxists, who consider sexuality a generally beneficial human characteristic. She, on the other hand, stresses that sexuality can also be a precipice, an extremely dangerous realm of human reality that contains amusements as well as pitfalls: not just for women, but for everyone.

23For Sontag, as for Jessica Benjamin, Story of O, and pornography in general, are more concerned with death than with pleasure. The questioning of sex in pornography can then be a way to explore this precipice, with all the danger that that involves. By perceiving drives, desires and practices in sexuality instead of identities or social relationships, Sontag feels that pornography can be a way to explore the humanity of these behaviors, their existence. Making sexuality a subject of research becomes political and subsequently the subject of critiques and transformations that transcend the individual and open the way to new possibilities. In pornography, Sontag sees tentative attempts toward a new transcendent language that would free itself from the religious language dominating our entire imagination today. The imaginative aspect is what interests her most in pornography; in it she places the hope for reinitiating Hegel’s failed project, [36] without having too many illusions about pornography as it currently exists. [37] Pornography could have potential for feminism in particular, because the only way of being a subject that the social order offers to women is to be an object, and thus becoming a subject is always already impossible for them. When pornography, in its transgression, tries to erase the limits between the social subject and their imagined animal nature, the subject is undermined as well. Here, Sontag hopes to find a liberating moment for women, who in any case must find alternative ways of being in the world. Sexuality—like drugs—can then help people free themselves from subjugation, from the misery of being a subject, particularly for those who are excluded from that position. It is a risky emancipation, fraught with danger, and returning from the experience is not guaranteed if the necessary precautions are not taken. Sontag seems to hope that these exploratory adventures can help, perhaps through pleasure, to explore or discover new forms of consciousness and existence in the world.

24Similarly, Jessica Benjamin sees mostly death in Story of O, but without its liberating potential. On the basis of Georges Bataille’s analyses, she assesses the complexity of the relationship between death and sexuality:


Réage’s tale is a web in which the issues of dependency and domination are inextricably intertwined, in which the conflict between the desire for autonomy and the desire for recognition can only be resolved by total renunciation of self. It illustrates powerfully the principle that the root of domination lies in the breakdown of tension between self and other.[38]

26For Benjamin, O’s activity represents “a search for an elusive spiritual or psychological satisfaction.” [39] O seeks this satisfaction in being “known,” “for the secret of love is to be known as oneself.” [40] This search fails, as O, confronted by her “masters,” experiences the breakdown of tension that may exist between self and other that Benjamin described earlier. Story of O is then for her a kind of staging of the drama of human consciousness that Hegel describes in the famous chapter of The Phenomenology of Spirit on the master and the slave.


The assertion of one individual (the master) is transformed into domination; the other’s (the slave’s) recognition becomes submission. Thus the basic tension of forces within the individual becomes a dynamic between individuals.[41]

28In conformity with the Freudian model, according to which domination is an indispensable element of civilization, Benjamin seems to conclude that Story of O is above all a strong/striking illustration of the origins and implementation of that domination. It is impossible for us to judge whether or not Freud was right, if in fact domination is an indispensable prerequisite for any cultural education. Benjamin’s and Sontag’s analysis, however, help us to grasp an important connection between violence and sexuality, which is not based upon gender binarism. On the contrary, gender binarism through sexual violence seems to be an expression of this preexisting link.

29This article examined the question of sexual violence in gendered subjectivation. We have seen that a substantial number of the feminist authors quoted agree that sexual violence plays a major role in becoming a woman, whether she has been subjected to it or not. But they do not agree on what that means. To illustrate these differences and find new lines of thought, the second part of this article drew on various interpretations of Story of O. They made it possible to increase the number of dimensions of sexuality, and dimensions of violence, taken into account. Bringing together these feminist perspectives that are rarely compared to each other establishes the grounds for an examination of the role of sexual difference and the gendered identities that sexual difference creates. The readings of Silverman, Sontag and Benjamin help in understanding the connections between the dramas of human subjugation, human consciousness and the patriarchal order that refuses the status of subject to women and all genders apart from cis men. This new perspective on sexual violence makes it possible to avoid a kind of fatalism: insisting only on the structural nature of this violence risks confining women to the role of eternal victims and men to that of eternal rapists, i.e. sexist depictions that should be resisted. How then may we grasp the extent of this phenomenon without naturalizing it and thereby perpetuating it?

30The analyses of Silverman, Sontag and Benjamin allow us to understand that in the creation of sexual difference and sexual identities—“heterosexual man,” “heterosexual woman”—the whole drama of the human being-in-the-world is reenacted. This may be the strange attraction that Dworkin feels for Story of O. It is a way of materializing the conflict in consciousness acting on that human being, engaging their animal nature, their naturalness, their “nature being”: in other words, their vulnerability and their mortality. The portrayal of sexual violence against women, in a great deal of pornography as well as in the real world (since these rapes and violent sexual acts also follow scripts, as Sharon Marcus observes so well [42]), rape culture as a whole appears to be a strategy of forgetting. Through violence against women, that is to say through gender as a form of social organization, this society settles its existential anxieties.

31This does not mean that gender and sexual violence are the only ways in which these anxieties are expressed, on the contrary. And indeed, gender itself can only be seen as an integral part of other forms of domination. Thus Angela Davis has critiqued racist and “Jim Crow” elements in the classics by Susan Brownmiller and Diana Russell who, for example, describe some forms of rape as “reverse racism.” [43] Similarly, in the 19th century, organizations made up of bourgeois women contributed to the control of the working classes, in particular of female sex workers. [44]These interconnections are crucial for a structural and historical understanding of sexual violence. Clearly, these issues cannot be understood by placing these struggles in some hierarchical form.

32A vast debate is needed on the role of sexual violence in our societies. The term “rape culture” has no explanatory value, other than pointing out the unexceptional nature of rape, which is indeed important to take into consideration. We must look for the true sources of misogyny in history, but also in the daily presence of tradition, for it is partly there that these sources are located: on the level of each individual’s experience of social and political history.

33This perspective has important consequences for feminist strategies, because limiting the fight against sexual violence to providing women with more protection, or adopting a criminological, psychological and demographic viewpoint, will not eliminate rape culture (although homes for battered women are an indispensable resource). If the foundation of rape culture is precisely the need to keep women in the position of eternal victims to distract people from considering our shared vulnerability, the feminist struggle against sexual violence must also deconstruct that symbolic order and imagine, even construct, new forms of human consciousness. It is also an appeal to artists, writers and poets for them to invent new imaginations. And feminist research is without any doubt one of the privileged starting points for such thinking. Dismantling the demagogy of religion is not enough: it will return, since the anxieties it feeds on are still present. Ideologies of this nature prove especially adaptive in embracing existential anxieties. One direction for developing ideas could be in recognizing solidarity as a powerful tool to reduce the dangers of human vulnerability. Any potential liberating form of the being-in-the-world will have to be found outside of families and nations, both of whom are creations of identitarian thinking, responsible for sexual and sexist violence.


  • [1]
    Although Pauline Delage does not mention it directly, we can note this absence of analyses of rape, this gap between the 1970s and today, in the references in her book Violences conjugales (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2017).
  • [2]
    A feminist debate in the early 1980s in the US on the place of sexuality in male dominance, which mainly concerned issues such as pornography, lesbian sadomasochism or the butch/femme culture.
  • [3]
    See Cornelia Môser, Féminismes en traductions: théories voyageuses et traductions culturelles (Paris: Éditions des archives contemporaines, 2013).
  • [4]
    As I write this article, the #metoo and #balancetonporc movements have revolutionized the discourse on sexual violence against women. Clearly, the debate to which I would like to contribute has already started.
  • [5]
    Simone de Beauvoir, Le Deuxième Sexe (2 volumes) (Paris: Gallimard, 1949) [The Second Sex, trans. and ed. Howard Parshley (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952); unabridged edition, trans. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009)]. [Translator’s note: each translation seems to have its supporters and detractors.]
  • [6]
    Kate Millett, Sexual Politics (New York: Doubleday, 1970).
  • [7]
    Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (New York: Ballantine Books, 1975). There is also Susan Griffin’s decisive article “Rape: The All-American Crime,” in Ramparts Magazine 10.3 (September 1971); p. 26-35, as well as the book by the South African author Diana E.H. Russell, The Politics of Rape: The Victim’s Perspective (New York: Stein and Day, 1974). She is attributed the maternity of the term “femicide.”
  • [8]
    Claudie Lesselier, “Les regroupements de lesbiennes dans le mouvement féministe parisien: positions et problèmes, 1970-1982,” in Crises de la société, féminisme et changement, ed. Groupe d’Études Féministes de l’Université Paris VII (Paris: Éditions Tierce, 1991), p. 87-103.
  • [9]
    Michel Foucault, “La loi de la pudeur” (interview with Jean Danet, attorney in Nantes; Pierre Hahn, journalist with the magazine Gai Pied; and Guy Hocquenghem, for the program Dialogues on the radio station France-Culture, 4 April 1978), later published in Recherches 37, subtitled “Fous d’enfance” (April 1979): p. 69-82, and in Dits et écrits – 1954-1988: vol. III, 1976-1979, ed. Daniel Defert and François Ewald (Paris: Gallimard, 1994), p. 763-777 (text #263) [“Sexual Morality and the Law,” trans. Alan Sheridan, Politics, Philosophy, Culture – Interviews and Other Writings, 1977-1984, ed. Lawrence D. Kritzman (New York/London: Routledge, 1988), p. 271-285].
  • [10]
    Monique Plaza, “Nos dommages et leurs intérêts,” in Questions Féministes 3, subtitled “no natur-elle-ment” (May 1978): p. 93-103 [“Our Damages Their Compensation – Rape: The ‘Will Not to Know’ of Michel Foucault,” in Feminist Issues 1.3 (Summer 1981): p. 25-35]. [Translator’s note: as noted elsewhere, for example in A Genealogy of Queer Theory, the subtitle of the English translation is a takeoff on La volonté de savoir, i.e. “The Will to Knowledge,” the French title of the first volume of The History of Sexuality.]
  • [11]
    Ann J. Cahill, Rethinking Rape (Ithaca; Cornell UP, 2001).
  • [12]
    Michel Foucault, Histoire de la sexualité, three volumes (Paris: Gallimard, 1976 and 1984) [The History of Sexuality, 3 vols., trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Pantheon, 1978-1986)]; Catharine MacKinnon, Toward a Feminist Theory of the State (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1989), chap. 7, p. 126ff”
  • [13]
    Ann J. Cahill, “Foucault, Rape, and the Construction of the Feminine Body,” in Hypatia 15.1 (Winter 2000): p. 43-63.
  • [14]
    For this very reason, Camille Paglia called on women to take the risk of rape instead of letting themselves be trapped within the claustrophobic vision of rape culture. On this subject, see also Virginie Despentes, King Kong Théorie (Paris: Grasset, 2006) [King Kong Theory, trans. Stéphanie Benson (New York: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2015)].
  • [15]
    Birgit Sauer, “Geschlechterspezifische Gewaltmaßigkeit rechtsstaatlicher Arrangements und wohlfahrtsstaatlicher Institutionalisierungen. Staatsbezogene Überlegungen einer geschlechtersensiblen politikwissenschaftlichen Perspektive,” in Gewalt-Verhältnisse: Feministische Perspektiven auf Geschlecht und Gewalt, ed. Regina-Maria Dackweiler and Reinhild Schafer (Frankfurt am Main / New York: Campus, 2002), p. 81-106.
  • [16]
    E L James, Fifty Shades of Grey (New York: Vintage Books, 2012). The 2015 film adaptation, directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson for Universal, was equally a box office hit.
  • [17]
    For a good feminist analysis of female masochism, but also of the phenomenon of rape fantasies among women, see Jessica Benjamin, “The Bonds of Love: Rational Violence and Erotic Domination,” in Feminist Studies 6.1 (1980): p. 144-174.
  • [18]
    Translator’s note: I decide to keep my earlier translation of Möser’s “masochisme féminin” as “female masochism”, because in the case of Freud he speaks of men who behave as women, so it seemed that a distinction would be helpful.
  • [19]
    Sigmund Freud, “Das ôkonomische Problem des Masochismus,” in Gesammelte Werke 1920-1939,, 1924 [“The Economic Problem of Masochism,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. XIX (1923-1925): The Ego and the Id and Other Works, ed. and trans. James Strachey, Anna Freud, Alix Strachey and Alan Tyson (London: Hogarth Press, 1953), p. 155-170].
  • [20]
    Gayle Rubin, “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex,” in Towards an Anthropology of Women, ed. Rayna Reiter (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975), p. 1851.
  • [21]
    Pauline Réage, Histoire d’O (Paris: Jean-Jacques Pauvert, 1954) [Story of O, trans. Baird Bryant (Paris: Olympia Press, 1954)]. Part of the “scandal” of its publication involved the mystery surrounding the pseudonym “Pauline Réage”: many people suspected that the “real” author was a man. Forty years later, Anne Desclos claimed authorship of the book. In it a young female journalist joins a sadomasochistic circle as a “bottom,” a passive participant, discovering a veritable vocation to such a degree that at the end of the book she abandons her humanity in order to become a disposable thing.
  • [22]
    Andrea Dworkin, “Woman as Victim: ‘Story of O’,” in Feminist Studies 2.1 (1974): p. 107-111; Susan Griffin, “Sadomasochism and the Erosion of Self: A critical Reading of Story of O,” in Against Sadomasochism: A Radical Feminist Analysis, ed. Robin Ruth Linden, Darlene R. Pagano, Diana E. H. Russell, and Susan Leigh Star (East Palo Alto: Frog In The Well, 1982), p. 184-201.
  • [23]
    Lisa Duggan and Nan D. Hunter, Sex Wars: Sexual Dissent and Political Culture (2nd ed.) (New York / London: Routledge, 2006); Gayle Rubin, “Blood under the Bridge: Reflections on ‘Thinking Sex’,” in GLQ: in A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 17.1 (2011): p. 15-48. See also issue 42.1 of the journal Signs, subtitled “Pleasure and Danger: Sexual Freedom and Feminism in the Twenty-First Century.”
  • [24]
    Griffin, “Sadomasochism and the Erosion of Self,” p. 187.
  • [25]
    Kaja Silverman, “Histoire d’O: The Construction of a Female Subject,” in Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, ed. Carole S. Vance (Boston: Routledge, 1984), p. 320-349.
  • [26]
    Silverman, “Histoire d’O,” p. 323. For similar analyses in psychoanalysis and psychology concerning the mask, see Joan Riviere, “Womanliness as a Masquerade” [International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 10 (1929): 303-313], reprinted in The Inner World and Joan Riviere: Collected Papers, 1920-1958, ed. Athol Hughes (London, New York: Karnac Books, 1991), p. 90-101; Frantz Fanon, Peau noire, masques blancs (Paris: Seuil, 1952) [Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann (London: PlutoPress, 2017)].
  • [27]
    Beverly Brown and Parveen Adams, “The Feminine Body and Feminist Politics,” in m/f: a feminist journal 3 (1979): p. 43.
  • [28]
    Silverman, “Histoire d’O,” p. 324-325: “The notion of anaclisis is also central to Lacan’s theory of the subject, within which desire, a cultural construct, derives sustenance from the drives, last vestige of the real. In an analogous way discursive bodies lean upon real ones.”
  • [29]
    Silverman, “Histoire d’O,” p. 324.
  • [30]
    Silverman, “Histoire d’O,” p. 345: “[T]he discourse of pornography leans so hard upon real bodies that it transfers to them its structure and significance, a structure and significance which are then internalized in the guise of a complementary consciousness and set of desires.”
  • [31]
    Silverman, “Histoire d’O,” p. 346: “Histoire d’O is more than O’s story. It is the history of the female subject—of the territorialization and inscription of a body whose involuntary internalization of a corresponding set of desires facilitates its complex exploitation. That history will never read otherwise until the female subject alters her relation to discourse—until she succeeds not only in exercising discursive power, but in exercising it differently.”
  • [32]
    Libreria delle donne di Milano, Non credere di avere dei diritti: la generazione della libertà femminile nell’idea e nelle vicende di un gruppo di donne (Torino: Rosenberg & Sellier, 1987) [Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective, Sexual Difference: A Theory of Social-Symbolic Practice, trans. Patricia Cicogna and Teresa de Lauretis (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990)].
  • [33]
    Cornelia Möser, “Sex Wars and the Contemporary French Moral Panic: The Productivity and Pitfalls of Feminist Conflicts,” in Meridians 16.1 (2018): p. 79-111.
  • [34]
    Susan Sontag, “The Pornographic Imagination,” in Styles of Radical Will (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969), p. 205-233.
  • [35]
    Jessica Benjamin, “The Bonds of Love: Rational Violence and Erotic Domination,” in Feminist Studies 6.1 (1980): p. 144-174; Benjamin, The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988).
  • [36]
    For Sontag, Hegel was the last thinker to dare to set out an all-encompassing theory on human consciousness, a project that for her still holds interest and remains to be accomplished.
  • [37]
    We must also remind ourselves that her text was written before the boom in visual pornography that took place in the 1970s.
  • [38]
    Benjamin, The Bonds of Love, p. 55.
  • [39]
    Benjamin, The Bonds of Love, p. 6.
  • [40]
    Benjamin, The Bonds of Love, p. 60.
  • [41]
    Benjamin, The Bonds of Love, p. 62.
  • [42]
    Sharon Marcus, “Fighting Bodies, Fighting Words: A Theory and Politics of Rape Prevention,” in Feminists Theorize the Political, ed. Judith Butler and Joan W. Scott (New York / London: Routledge, 1992).
  • [43]
    Angela Davis, Women, Race and Class (New York: Random House, 1981).
  • [44]
    For more on this legacy of feminist movements, see Judith Walkowitz, Prostitution and Victorian Society (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1980).