Is sadomasochism the bottom of the sexual barrel?
Until I read The Diaries of Kenneth Tynan (2001), edited by John Lahr, what I knew about sadomasochism (SM) could have been jotted down, with a thick crayon, on the back of a postage stamp. But now … well, let’s say with my eyes and mind slowly unboggling, I’m still wondering how Birmingham-born Tynan (1927−1980), managed to acquire the accolade of being the best English-speaking drama critic since George Bernard Shaw, given his unremitting dedication to the spanking of women’s bottoms – and all while struggling with debt, emphysema, and the challenge of smoking beagle-felling quantities of cigarettes.
Thus, on June 15 1975, he arrives at 14 Pindock Mews, London, anticipating the “[r]ealisation of a fantasy that has nagged at me all my life”. First, Ken and his regular spankee Nicole, are joined by Sally; a bottle of champagne is produced; a solemn toast – “To spanking” – is made; and then it’s out with the whips and a hairbrush for a fun-filled evening of SM.
And on May 9 1977, Tynan records what he did when his first wife Elaine confessed that she’d had an affair with Kingsley Amis: “I caned her, one stroke for each letter of his name ….” At least Elaine avoided bedding Engelbert Humperdinck, but by now I had registered a whiff of unwholesomeness about Tynan’s character, an impression confirmed by his revelation that he took out a life subscription to the pornographic magazine National Bottom. Given the spectrum of human sexual appetite, it’s fair to surmise that while Tynan lacked range, he clearly had focus.
So what is SM? One definition is that it’s a safe and consensual adult sexual activity that practices bondage and discipline, domination, and submission, and sadism and masochism.
My admiration for Kenneth Tynan’s pungent style of criticism remains undiminished, but to what extent should we allow the private sadomasochistic life of public figures to influence one’s judgement of them? Is an appreciation of Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies (1863) blunted by the knowledge that on All Saints’ Day he went “into the woods at night and lay naked upon thorns and when I came home my body was torn from head to foot”.? Or should the memory of T E Lawrence (of Arabia) be denigrated because he’d no sooner enlisted in the Royal Tank Corps at Bovington Camp, Dorset, than he’d recruited a fellow-trooper, Jock Bruce, to flagellate him regularly, a service costing him £3 a week?
It’s unarguable that the above incidents involved consenting adults, and none of them frightened the horses. But does the fact of Tynan, Kingsley, and Lawrence’s fame persuade us to shine a dimmer condemnatory light on their sadomasochistic actions, compared to one we might flash upon a plumber who pays one prostitute to beat him with a rolled-up copy of The Racing Post, while he chucks custard pies at another? There is an inclination, I believe, to judge the public figure as having, say, a “colourful sex life” and to damn the plumber as a “pervert”.
But what if SM leaks from the bedroom into the boardroom and beyond? Dr Richard R Kilburg considers “Sadomasochism, human aggression, and the problem of workplace mobbing and bullying: A commentary” in the Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research (2009, 61: 268−275). He contends that the phenomenon of workplace bullying is one manifestation of what he describes as “the universal human psychodynamic patterns of sadomasochism”. Such patterns include, for instance, the conscious or unconscious experience and expression of beating fantasies, and of omnipotence fantasies such as exerting total control over others.
So maybe it’s not quite so easy as we might think to confine SM activity safely sequestered in a bedroom or even (for the more prosperous) a recreational dungeon. Perhaps the brief definition of SM I offered above is not rigorous enough, and that any definition of SM which seeks to dissociate the activity from sexual violence, is turning a blind eye to some distasteful aspects of human behaviour which, for all I know, we might be all too prone to exhibiting.
One piece of evidence which I believe allows the inference that those who indulge in SM behaviour are treading a thin line between consensual adult behaviour and outright brutality was published last year in the journal Acta Obstetrica et Gynecologica Scandinavica (2012, 91: 301−307). In “Sexual assault and other types of violence in intimate partner relationships”, Alsaker et al set out to determine whether sexual assaults were more likely to co-occur with some types of abuse rather than others in violent intimate relationships. The Norwegian study investigated women who had sought refuge in women’s shelters over a two-year period. The authors found that intimate partner sexual violence was “… significantly associated with hair pulling, arm twisting, spanking (my emphasis) or biting, dominance, and isolation abuse …”.
Tynan made me laugh with his afterthought on de Sade’s view of sexual enjoyment as “a pleasure shared is a pleasure halved”. But, and it’s a big but (if you see what I mean), I can’t help thinking that he, Tynan, was not without a substantial degree of self-loathing. Could this have been the trigger for, or the outcome of, his obsessive SM-related shenanigans?
In any event, one can’t help feeling sympathetic towards his long-suffering wife Kathleen, whom he contrived to keep his diaries from, in case she might destroy them, knowing what they contained. As Tynan said to his daughter shortly before he died: “She found out that I am giving you the diaries, and she’s furious.”
Why on earth did Kathleen stay with Ken? Beats me.