Book Review: Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism

By Westland Academy| January 2, 2021 | Masochism, Race, Gender, Colonialism, Power, and Subjectivity

Title: Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism

Author: Amber Jamilla Musser

Year Published: 2014

Main Topics Covered: Theories of Masochism, Patriarchy, Colonialization, Queer Theory, Feminist Theory, Slavery, Power, Chronic Illness

Written for: Academics

Recommended for: Academics, Therapists

Perspectives Taken: African American, Queer, Feminist

Type of Resource: Queer, BDSM, Feminist

APA Citation: Musser, Amber Jamilla (2014) Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism.  New York, NY: New York University Press.

In Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism, Amber Jamilla Musser explores queer, feminist, and critical race theories of power, sensation, and difference by analyzing texts, art, and film on masochism. By examining sexuality, agency, and subjectivity with an attitude of empathic reading, putting oneself in the author’s shoes or character, the reader understands the sensation that people experience as power or subordination, mainly through the domination of the patriarchy, colonialism, and racism. 

The author starts with an overview of philosophical theories of masochism. In the late 19th century, philosophers first published information on masochism in scientific literature. Richard von Krafft-Ebing, a European psychiatrist, considered masochism as exceptional or unusual. He felt that women who engaged in masochism were not acting out of the range of societal norms. He viewed women as naturally subordinate.

In contrast, he considered men who took on a subordinate role in sex as pathological because he viewed them as wanting to become feminized. On the other hand, Freud saw masochism as a neurosis and linked it to the death drive. Musser then moves on to the mid-20th-century philosopher Foucault who praised S&M as offering new possibilities of pleasure and creating community. Leo Bersani looked at S&M through a psychoanalytic lens and considered it to be an act of self-annihilation. 

In Chapter 2, Musser discusses masochism as associated with patriarchy and colonialization. Radical feminist views of S&M during the 1980s linked the practice with patriarchal motives and espoused that it invited masculinity into the bedroom. Whereas Frantz Fanon, a French West-Indian psychiatrist and author, surmised that masochism resulted from colonialization and white practices of domination over black men. Fanon described the dynamics of looking at someone as an act of domination, privilege, and objectification. He wrote that the black male body was equated with sexual prowess and was subject to the white gaze, maintaining the black man at a distance of inferiority and otherness.

Chapter 3 details historically significant erotic novels to show feminine objectification, complicity, and coldness and how women gain or lose agency in S&M relationships.  Set in 1940s patriarchal France, the Story of O features a woman named O, who willingly submits to a masochistic relationship. Musser argues that contrary to the notion that the act of submission being innate to women, the character has agency through her complicit willingness to submit and her desire to be objectified. O also gains agency through her ability to gaze, her coldness, and her objectification of other women. 

In Chapter 4, Musser looks at the relationship between the labouring black body, whiteness, and masochism. Drawing on Fanon’s work, the negative white societal view between black bodies and the biological, raw, violent, and sexual renders black men depersonalized and without possessing agency. He also describes the process of ‘becoming black’ as being marked by pain and suffering (p. 89). 

In Chapter 5, the author introduces us to Bob Flanagan. He finds agency despite the uncontrollable pain and suffering inflicted by Cystic Fibrosis by choosing to engage in masochism and have some control over when he will experience pain. Audre Lorde’s (a breast cancer survivor) writing shares the pain of her illness with the reader, the threat of her illness to her femininity, and her eventual finding of community with black women and the erotic in her time of healing.

Musser concludes the book with a look at the relationship between black women and flesh. The artwork of Kara Walker helps to demonstrate the stereotypes of black women and how they limit black women’s agency. The author asks the reader to consider what it would take to maintain the multiplicity of the erotic, to have many voices, and an expanded community to enliven all bodies.

This book is an academic historical reflection upon the theory of masochism through the lens of psychology, feminism, colonialism, erotic novels of the 20th century, disability, and queer theory. It is a dense read with elevated use of the English language. If you enjoy reading academia, then this book may be of interest to you. Otherwise, it may be a challenging read especially for those who have English as their second language.

About the Author:
Amber Jamilla Musser is an Assistant Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Washington University in St. Louis.