Feminine masochism is an issue that has often been addressed. It will not be my point. But there is an incidental remark in the comments that Lacan makes on several occasions and which has caught my attention: feminine masochism is a fantasy of masculine desire.

This affirmation by Lacan covers a double thesis: first, what appears at first glance is that it reveals that in the unconscious of men there would be this idea that the woman likes to suffer in order to gain access to her femininity. Secondly, by this statement Lacan calls into question the response formulated by the Anglo-Saxon post-Freudians to Freud’s question: “What is a woman?”

For my part, I would like to try to shed light on the masochistic fantasy of masculine desire.

Let us see how Lacan comes to make this remark. During the congress on feminine sexuality in 1960 [1] he replies to Anglo-Saxon psychoanalysts:

For ten years, from congress to declarations, Anglo-Saxon psychoanalysts built their thesis of femininity on the scale of the development of the Oedipus complex and linked it to the biology and the destinies of partial drives. Men have the organ “which pushes them to conquer” [2], women are deprived of it, and this would not be without consequences for access to their femininity. It is the mother who denied them that they blame. In her article “Feminine masochism…” Hélène Deutsch affirms that “analytical experiences leave no doubt that the first libidinal relationship of the little girl to the father is a masochistic relationship and the masochistic desire in the first feminine-oriented phase is stated: “I want to be castrated by the father.” “In my opinion”, she continues, “this masochistic turn which is already taking shape through biology and its predispositions forms the first foundation of the definitive development of femininity. [3]

To take up in three words the result of Anglo-Saxon work, let us quote Hélène Deutsch in her communication of July 1927 in Oxford: “I try to deepen the genesis of ‘femininity’,” she says, “in other words the position feminine-passive-masochistic, in the psychical life of the woman”[4]. It is this articulation between these three terms, this equivalence which is made by the author (the feminine position is passive and masochistic) which Lacan will criticize very early on.

In this text, Lacan remarks that feminine masochism “cannot be considered to be simply a homonym for ‘passivity’.” He then asks the question: “Can we rely on what masochistic perversion owes to male invention and conclude that female masochism is a fantasy of male desire?” And Lacan adds: “In any case, I will denounce the irresponsible mental retardation that claims to deduce fantasies of the breaking of corporal boundaries.”

But let’s come back to this male fantasy. How does Lacan come to make this clarification?

Four years later, in his Seminar XI, when he deals with the concept of the drive, and more precisely the partial drives, Lacan returns to the confusion made by Anglo-Saxon psychoanalysts:

Is the activity/passivity relation identical with the sexual relation? [Lacan asks] I would ask you to refer to a passage in the Wolf-Man, for example, or to various others scattered throughout the five case studies. There Freud explains in short that the polar reference activity/passivity is there in order to […] metaphorise that which remains unfathomable in sexual difference. Nowhere does he ever say that, psychologically, the masculine/feminine relation is apprehensible otherwise than by the representative of the activity/passivity opposition. As such, the masculine/feminine opposition is never attained. […] Of course, it is well known that the activity/passivity opposition may account for many things in the domain of love. But what we are dealing with here is precisely this injection, one might say, of sado-masochism, which is not at all to be understood, as far as its properly sexual realisation is concerned, as ready money. […] the supposed value, for example, of feminine masochism, as it is called, should be subjected, parenthetically, to serious scrutiny. It belongs to a dialogue that may be defined, in many respects, as a masculine phantasy. There is every reason to believe that to sustain this phantasy would be an act of complicity on our part. […] It is quite striking to see that [the women analysts in our own group] are particularly disposed to maintain the fundamental belief in feminine masochism. [5]

Lacan further specifies: “the masculine ideal and the feminine ideal are represented in the psyche by something other than this activity/passivity opposition.” [6]

But then, how is this masculine fantasy constructed?

In 1973, Lacan sheds light on this question in particular in his Seminar XX, Encore when he will invent his formulas of sexuation: “on the side of man […] the subject never deals with anything by way of partner but object a inscribed on the other side of the bar. He is unable to attain his sexual partner, who is the Other, except inasmuch as his partner is the cause of this desire. In this respect […] this is nothing other than fantasy.” [7]

Two years later, he will give an interesting definition of the masculine position in love by specifying what a father is from the object a: “A father only has right to respect, if not to love, if the said respect is, and you’re not going to believe your ears, père-versely oriented, which is to say, making of a woman object a cause of his desire.” [8]

This equivocal neologism of Lacan, père-versely oriented, suggests that masculine love is characterized by being fetishistic. When Lacan specifies that masochism is a fantasy of male desire, this assumes that it is only a fantasy. The passage to the masochistic act is obviously no longer a fantasy but a sexual assault, or a perverse act.

Translated by Peggy Papada

Originally published in French, 25 September 2020, for Boussoles Cliniques, towards the 50th Study Days of the ECF,. Available Online: https://www.attentatsexuel.com/le-masochisme-feminin-un-fantasme-dhomme/

[1] Lacan J., “Guiding Remarks for a Congress on Feminine Sexuality” (2006), Écrits, trans. B. Fink, London/New York, Norton, 2006, p. 615.

[2] Deutsch, H., “The Psychology of Women in Relation to the Functions of Reproduction” (1925), International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 6, pp. 405-418.

[3] Deutsch, H., “The Significance of Masochism in the Mental Life of Women” (1930). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 11, pp. 48-60.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Lacan, J., The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XI (1977) trans. A. Sheridan, London, Hogarth Press, 1977, pp. 192-193.

[6] Ibid. p.193

[7] Lacan, J., Encore: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XX (1999) trans. B Fink, London/New York, Norton, 1998,  p80.

[8] Lacan, J., “R.S.I.”, Seminar XXII, lesson of 21 January 1975, Ornicar ? No. 3; pp. 107-108 (not available in English).

Image: Lee Krasner, Siren, 1966.