Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Myth of Female Masochism, Debunking of Common Belief

The classic book, “The Myth of Women’s Masochism,” by Paula J. Caplin (2005, University of Toronto press) addresses the commonly held societal and psychoanalytic belief that females create and remain in painful relationships and situations because masochism is perceived as part of female nature. Caplan, analyzes the historical and psychoanalytical roots behind this myth. As a clinical and research psychologist, she explores how women are perceived by society and how women can empower themselves. She wrote another book entitled “Don’t Blame Mother” which I have not read but which would also be very interesting in relation to the subject matter of this course.

 “The Myth of Women’s Masochism” contributes greatly to the understanding of how motherhood is perceived in American society. A common theme in our readings and class discussions were “mother blame,” as well as physical and emotional suffering of women imposed on them by society. The medical establishment has imposed pain on women both with unethical misuse and research on birth control methods as well as the medicalization and pathology of pregnancy and labor.

Societal justification for the subordination of women goes back at least as far as the Old Testament. Religion has often been used as an argument for inequality between the sexes. The sadistic subjugation of women presented itself in the Old Testament when Eve is punished by God for giving Adam the apple. “To the woman He said, I will greatly multiply your pain in childbirth. In pain you shall bring forth children; yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Genesis 3:16, New American Standard Bible, p 2). This only demonstrates that the subjugation of women has a long history and needs to be addressed from many different angles, including theological.

 In chapter 2: What the “Experts” Have Said, Caplan discusses what various prominent figures in the fields of medicine, sexology, and psychoanalysis have said on the subject of masochism. The pioneering German sexologist Dr. Richard von Krafft-Ebing coined the term ‘masochism’ in his classic work “Psychopathia Sexualis” published in 1886. He defined masochism and as “the wish to suffer pain and be subjected to force” (Caplan, 19). The concept that females are masochistic in nature took root when Freud followed with his writings on female masochism; Caplan states “although Freud wrote about masochism in both sexes, he explicitly said many times that masochism is feminine. Even masochistic behavior in a man was labeled feminine by Freud, so that masochism, which was not considered normal or typical in a man, was thought to be both in a woman” (Ibid, 20). This, in turn, influenced psychoanalytical theory which postulated that since motherhood is self-sacrificing (a mother would sacrifice her own needs in order to meet the needs of the children), anyone who neglects themselves is masochistic (Ibid, 50).

Chapter 3 “Mothers” discusses why pregnancy in the modern age is perceived as more masochistic than in previous eras. If one can avoid pregnancy (which is synonymous with pain) why not simply avoid it? According to that logic, unplanned pregnancy is a form of masochism. The work of mothering is considered degrading and low status in society, and therefore anyone who desires such work is masochistic and has low self-esteem. Despite the publication of “The Feminine Mystique” by Betty Friedan, women continue to remain silent for fear of being seen as an inadequate mother, i.e. not a real woman. Simone de Beauvoir stated that motherhood is not only natural but “divine”; “given that one can hardly tell women that washing up saucepans is the divine mission, they are told that bringing up children is the divine mission” (Ibid, 49).

Caplan delves into how, beginning in the 1940s, psychoanalytic theory and practice started to focus on “overanxious” and “overprotective” mothers as the source of various problematic behaviors and/or developments in their children. Mother blame is utilized as the cause of everything from antisocial behavior, to developmental difficulties, criminal behavior. Although psychoanalytic theory has advanced since then, we still live in the shadow of it. Others are still blamed because societal expectations of motherhood still focus on unrealistic ideals of perfection. Women are expected to balance work and child rearing yet have few resources to help in such matters.

Once the suburbanization of America occurred after World War II, women became more isolated and started living further away from domestic help and female kin who would otherwise have assisted in child rearing and domestic work. Caplan elaborates on how this placed an added pressure on women in regards to adhering to the strict gender code of “the perfect housewife” and “perfect mother.” Psychoanalyst at the time felt that the woman was unhappy with that situation and she must be a masochist (Ibid, 60). She also elaborates on the five major types of mother blame that healthcare professionals and psychologists refer to: information gathering; attribution of blame to either parent; whether only the mother only the father was involved in the therapy of the child; and references to previously published works on mother blaming (Ibid, 52).

In Chapter 7: Women as Victims of Violence, Caplan brings up the important point surrounding the common misconception of women’s “rape fantasies.” This type of fantasies interpreted as proof that “women are masochistic in one take force” (Ibid, 154), when in reality these type of fantasies a less about brutality more about the desire to be ravaged by someone one is attracted to and wishes to have sex with, but wishes the other person to make all the sexual advances. “Both men and women may enjoy occasional rape fantasies without actually desiring to raped. Men and women raised in the sexually repressive moralistic tradition may use a rape fantasy because it allows them to fantasize being forced to engage in and enjoy otherwise forbidden sexual practices” (Francoeur, 537). The operative term to remember is whether this is consensual or nonconsensual sex.

This book is eye-opening and provocative in its discussion of the subject. I found it to be pivotal in my understanding of how women are treated in society and how women may perceive themselves. The categorization of the chapters and the inclusion of an index are definitely useful streamlining the data. Inclusion of Kinsey’s study on male sexual behavior which demonstrated that “sexual masochism” is much more prevalent among males and females is useful but I wish she had given specific statistics relating to that.

There are few things which the book could have expanded on, such as the subject of sadomasochistic behavior as a larger societal problem. Societal male sadistic behavior is not limited to mistreating females; numerous examples can be found in institutionalized behaviors such as male rite of passage rituals throughout the world in which boys and men are mistreated and abused, humiliated. David Gilmore’s “Manhood in the Making: Cultural Concepts of Masculinity” gives an anthropological view of male rites of passage throughout the world. An almost universal common thread in this cross-cultural study is the use of brutal pain and humiliation bestowed upon the boys who must endure these rituals. Institutionalized sadistic behavior by elders and higher status males to subjugate younger males of lower status can be found in cultures throughout the globe. Whipping, beating, harassment, solitary confinement, scarring, and various other forms of abuse are common rites of passage. Therefore, this is a wider problem within society, since male abuse of other males is extremely common, arguably as common as male abuse of females. Examples within American society are hazing rituals within the military and fraternities. Another example in American society would be bachelor parties which are an institutionalized rite of passage ritual which focuses on the humiliation the soon-to-be bridegroom. This is all part of a hierarchical structure which is deeply embedded in our modern culture.
The fact that Caplan is a clinical and research psychologist gave this book a unique perspective on the subject. The use of prevailing clinical perspectives and viewpoints on the question of female masochism was tremendously insightful. Her book took the task of setting the record straight from a psychoanalytical standpoint and I felt she did splendid job at it. Her central arguments revolved around psychoanalytic theory and how women were treated through the eyes of mental health authorities, such as therapists and counselors.

Caplan dissects the arguments put forward by Freud and other prominent and influential figures by looking at the use of the word masochism in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). Since the DSM-III-R (third edition revised, published in 1987) only contains “sexual masochism” as a category and not standalone “masochism” as a disorder, she is that as an argument against classifying women as masochistic in a psychoanalytic context. At first the American psychiatric Association proposed the category of “Masochistic Personality Disorder,” but since there was no scientific evidence proving that anyone derived pleasure from suffering, the term was changed to
“Self-Defeating Personality Disorder,” the description of which sounds rather similar to that of “good wife syndrome,” which entails self-sacrifice to the detriment of one’s own needs (Ibid, xx).
            The fact that she does bring up rape fantasies is good, unfortunately though she doesn’t question the colloquial use of such a term and how it may be misinterpreted. If the Gay & Lesbian community can be officially renamed to LGBT, then why not officially rename this fantasy from “rape fantasy” to “ravishment fantasy”? A name change would do a better job of describing the feelings involved in this sort of fantasy and therefore, help to eliminate the misperception that women desire to be raped.  Nancy Friday’s research has revealed that men have the same type of fantasies (Friday, 275). Yet, when men have these types of fantasies they are not called “rape fantasies.” It is important to ask why this double standard exists.
This book is most enlightening and I would recommend it as required reading for women in all walks of life because many of the examples given here are all too familiar in daily life. I read this book many years ago and I find that the points brought up here are still fresh in my mind and relevant for various subjects from pair bond relationships to women in the workplace, and from therapy to body image. It is an excellent jumping off point for Gender and Women’s Studies students and contributes much food for thought for years to come.

Caplan, Paula, The Myth of Women’s Masochism, iUniverse, University of Toronto, 2005

Holy Bible, New American Standard, Broadman & Holman publishers, Nashville Tennessee, 1977

Francoeur, Robert, (ed), A Descriptive Dictionary and Atlas of Sexology, Greenwood Press, New York, 1991

Friday, Nancy, Men in Love: Men’s Sexual Fantasies: the Triumph of Love Over Rage, Dell Publishing, New York, 1981

Gilmore, David, Manhood in Making: Cultural Concepts of Masculinity, Yale University press, New Haven, CT, 1990

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