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objet de désir

Chapter XI of ‘The erotic eye and its nude

‘With lovers like men, who needs torturers?' (Kappeler).


Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell

John Keats

The image does not always show the nude – or the metamorphosis of the nude into the hermaphrodite or the animal with the two backs. More often does it stage the maltreatment of the nude. Already the eye of the little child transforms the loving interaction of its parents into the enactment of rape, if not some ritual murder, since the child wants to save the mother. But especially the image seems to be fond of such transformation. It matters to understand why.

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Sadomasochism is often understood in terms of a sudden change of love in aggression - or of pain in pleasure. No doubt, such sudden change is facilitated through to the morphological proximity, if not the considerable overlap between sexual and aggressive behaviour. In love as well as in aggression, the distance normally kept between interacting organisms is given up to enable erotic or aggressive entwining. Not for nothing does the child often confuse its parent’s loving embrace with fighting.

cain and abel

There is also an undeniable affinity between the expressions of love and aggression themselves. It is difficult to distinguish panting with anguish from heaving with pleasure, to discern cries out of pleasure from cries out of pain, and it might sometimes very difficult to tell orgasm from death-anguish. That goes especially for the images of these expressions: artistic conventions – or the inability to catch the precise differences between nearly related expressions such as crying and weeping – obscure the often nearly discernable real differences:

jörg oestreich

jörg oestreich


xavier sutter

Moreover, it is but a short leap from intensely kissing to biting, from intensely stroking to pinching, scratching, slapping or spanking, from eagerly embracing to strangling, from penetrating to ramming:

craig morey

lee stranahan

lee stranahan

goran bertok

And it is known all too well how the outer signs of sexual arousal may be produced by non-sexual causes. Spanking makes the skin 'blush':


and suffocation makes the victim gasp for breath, which reminds of the voluptuous moaning and heaving of orgasm. No wonder that Gilles de Rais timed his orgasm with the last breath of his young victims. Which also provided him with the orgasmic sight of the empty gaze or rolling eyes:

thomas kreyn

Suffocation, just like hanging not only makes palpable the enticing movement of exalted breathing, but also calls forth a rampant erection: hence the desire of the insatiable mistress in ‘The empire of the senses’ to strangle her lover. The same effect is achieved through inspiring fear, exposure to cold, and so on: j

Further, many a form of teasingly pretending to withdraw or resist, naturally calls forth the corollary, equally mock-aggressive coercion:

henning von berg

This only heightens the effect of the posture of unconditional surrender. In the photo below the effect is further enhanced through the reversal of the habitual scheme of denudation (see Chapter V) and the exposure of the nude on a table:

richard reed

This does not suffice, however, to explain sadomasochism. The similarities can only explain why love may suddenly change in aggression, not why the ‘aggression’ is continued or is from the beginning intended. It is not difficult to understand why many an ardent lover suddenly feels compelled to bite, to pinch or to spank, not why he continues to do so or why he is from the beginning out at such maltreatment of his beloved.

Furthermore, it is rather inaccurate to understand sadomasochism in terms of aggression: that would come down to a confusion of morphology and function. Genuine aggression, in animals as well as in men, stops short of mutilation or killing. It is merely a ‘symbolic’ threat that subsides as soon the threatened adopts an - equally symbolic - attitude of submission or really yields to the demands. Sadomasochism, on the other hand, not only threatens without obvious reason, it also deliberately carries out the threat. In that sense, it may be considered as a ‘desymbolisation’ of aggression. It is as if the animal that would like to deter a competitor, would proceed to real biting instead of merely showing its threatening teeth. In sadomasochism, things are put upside down. Aggression is elicited through staging refusal, rather than prevented through showing submission, let alone seducing! And since the ultimate goal is the implementation of the threat, sadomasochism also distinguishes itself from mock-rape, where the staged refusal is not an aim in itself, but merely a means of heightening the erotic attractiveness. When the arousal has reached its acme, feigning is replaced with unbridled sexual surrender.

The morphological similarities, though, are the key to a genuine understanding of sadomasochism: failing genuine and reciprocal sexual arousal, at least the outer appearance of it – the expression – is obtained through the infliction of pain. The sight of the expression elicits the urge to heighten it, just like with a real expression. That can only be realised through further infliction of pain. So, there is no transformation of love in aggression. Rather do morphologic similarities enable the integration of elements from the aggressive repertoire (fight/flight) in a sexual context: the ‘subsumption under the sexual primacy', to paraphrase Freud. During this process, the aggressive components undergo the required changes: think of the ‘de-symbolisation’ of threat.

This approach makes clear why the overlap comprises not only the expressions, but the corollary actions as well. Precisely because the expressions of love and aggression are not always clearly discernable, kissing, stroking and embracing can be replaced with biting, pinching, spanking or suffocating. Even when in both cases the same organs are used, the behaviour is totally different from a functional point of view. It is possible that their appearance is motivated through aggressive feelings, caused by the inability to produce the desired reaction. But once they turn out to produce the desired effect, the motivation is no longer aggressive, but sexual. Compare with the impatient baby that bites in the nipple of his absent-minded mother, and continues biting when it finds out that mama is finally looking and talking at him.

The integration of elements borrowed from the aggressive repertoire in an erotic context is provoked by the inability to be aroused in a genuine sexual way or by the refusal to surrender sexually. Such refusal or inability is found not only in many marriages, where one ought to love but no longer does, but also in extra-marital relations, where one is inclined to love, but ought not to surrender. This situation is the rule under the regime of the exchange of beauty for benefits and differential beauty, under which a majority has to content itself with a second-hand partner. And these factor are in their turn responsible for a more fundamental disturbance of the mechanism of arousal: the falling apart of reciprocal seduction in one-sided voyeurism and exhibitionism


"Je n'ai pu aimer que là où la mort mêlait son souffle à celui de la beauté."

Edgar Allan Poe.

Sadomasochism is not confined to natural behaviour like biting, pinching, spanking and suffocating. It has a remarkable predilection for instruments that enhance the effect of natural behaviour or that enable the sadistic version in the first place. Pinching is relegated to stickers, pincers or nipple clamps:

marcus lindner


if not heightened to piercing or pricking with pins: vh

goran bertok guy lemaire

the effect of moulding is obtained through the binding up of breasts or buttocks:

william alan

slapping or spanking is heightened to whipping or flogging:

william alan

keeping in check is relegated ropes and belts:

richard williams

marcus lindner

embracing to corsets and tight-fitting shoes:


heaving is enhanced through gasmasks, which have the addtional charm of covering the face that could betray the reluctance to surrender (see Chapter II) and accentuates the take over of the impersonal drive, penetrating is heightened to stabbing and the release of sperm substituted with the sprinkling with hot wax.


Once the instruments have been introduced, their advent seems to have become unstoppable. Ever more spectacular versions are introduced:

marc blackie

cora chaos

hermann foesterling

steve diet goedde

guy lemaire

In the last two examples, even the penis is instrumentalised.

Instruments also allow for the combination of diverse sadistic impulses in one and the same action: pinching and penetrating are combined in pricking with needles or pins: cutting and containing are joined in bonding with cutting wire.

The introduction of instruments paves the way for a further development of sadomasochism. Piercing - as is already apparent in Proust’s piercing live rats with hatpins until they died - is the mitigated form of stabbing; the tamer’s whipping of the butcher’s cutting or chopping up; and the handling of cigarettes and candles of the burning of the entire body altogether (Die Flambierte Frau). This dormant or repressed proclivity to mutilation is betrayed not only in the appearance of knife, dagger and sword

obstblum oren


and the suggestive bandages or trails of blood,

gianni candido

gianni candido

but first and foremost in the pegging out of the body on a metal or a cross in many a sadomasochistic setting (see Hermann Nitsch)

guy lemaire

herman pivk

The shift from merely suggested to overt mutilation is fed by the displacement of the vagina to the virginal surface of the skin or to the folds and axes of symmetry on the body, that are readily read as cutting lines or seams. Or, to phrase it with Angela Carter: even when the body has many openings where the penis might penetrate, the relation of the knife with the flesh is far more arbitrary: it can penetrate everywhere. Nude warriors fighting with knives or swords – think of the Celts or gladiators – only fuel such fantasies.

The transition to overt mutilation also lays bare the deeper motives behind the smearing of the body, as is rendered in the masterly photo of Lakomy:

xavier sutter

hermann foesterling

dirk lakomy

But not always does it get so bad. The majority of sadomasochistic procedures stop short of genuine mutilation and content themselves with the mere flirting with the anxiety-provoking idea of torture. Not surprisingly, these soon subside to some form of forced intercourse (mock-rape), if they are not reduced to some sophisticated form of foreplay to habitual intercourse altogether. In the image, this is reflected in the presence of a kind of aesthetic veil over the proceedings:

j.s. rossbach

michel charles


In completed sadomasochism, however, the ultimate release of both pain and the tension caused by its alluring expression, is brought about not so much by ‘la petite mort’ of the orgasm, but by genuine ‘grand death’ - exemplified in Gilles de Rais' timing of his orgasm with the death of his victims. The destruction of the masochist at the same time releases the tension caused by the expression of pain and the experience of pain that caused the expression. The paradigm of such primeval sadism is Sade’s outburst on Easter Sunday 1768, when he tied up Rose Keller, whipped her, cut her with a knife and dropped candle wax into her wounds. Such drama on Easter is surely an echo of that other drama on Good Friday in 1759, when two women let themselves crucify in public, in the wake of the Jansenist craze of the flagellants (Zanker 58ff).

Thus, the transformation of pain in sexual arousal turns out to be a mere foreplay for the sacrifice of love on the altar of aggression.

The substitution of pain for sexual arousal merely initiates the move toward the utter destruction of the beautiful body - the fountainhead of love - by which the sadomasochistic frenzy is appeased at last. We need only recall how, in an effort to bring the voyeuristic endeavour to its acme, the arousal of the skinner or ripper is released by being plunged into sheer vaporous ugliness:

matt lombard

Sadomasochism is essentially the sacrifice of love through the sacrifice of beauty. Such sacrifice is far more effective than castration. Castration only bereaves of the instrument of love and leaves the potential lover hopelessly at the mercy of inexorable beauty, that continues stirring the desire. It would be a mistake to consider the sadomasochistic sacrifice as some derivative of castration: castration, on the contrary, is a mitigated form of the sacrifice, of which it nevertheless may be an adequate symbol. The sacrifice is the veritable mortification of the ‘will’, as propagated by Schopenhauer and depicted in Wagner’s Parsifal.


Ich will deinen Mund küssen, Jokanaan!

(Oscar Wilde, Richard Strauss)

Also the female can resort to the techniques described above to remedy failing arousal. But we should not overlook the specific accents of female sadism.

Under the regime of differential beauty and the exchange of beauty for benefits, only the male is addicted to female beauty, while the female remains rather indifferent. She is rather out at enjoying the male’s arousal, while remaining cool herself. With her, no tension has to be discharged. The problem is rather how to prevent the discharge of tension in the male: orgasm temporarily suspends desire and breaks the spell of female beauty.

This form of female sadism is rather out at keeping the male at a distance – at fixating him in his status of a mere eye. As long as he merely looks, she can enjoy his eager eye as well as his erect penis. Ideally, she heightens the tension to the point when the man ejaculates without touching himself or her body. Thus, Keyes lets his dominatrix complain: “If I tease you enough, will your dick squirt without playing with it?” (Money). And that explains why the behaviour of the genuine ‘femina dominatrix’: in the full possession of her beauty the spell of her gaze dissuades from approaching. Noli me tangere! Don’t dare to touch me! (Klimt, Salome).

Another version of the femina dominatrix stages rather the economic foreplay to this sexual interaction: the female who lets the male slave, while refusing to sexually gratify him accordingly: the Venus Frigida, whose blessing we amply described in 'The ecstasies of Eros'.

A variant of the dominating gaze is the threatening gaze that looks up from an submitted face:


cora chaos

The femina dominatrix may endorse her dominating gaze with whips or other attributes. However much this version might stir deep-rooted male anxieties, it has somehting hilarious about it. Whereas the beautiful woman naturally enslaves the male with her mere beauty, an armed woman cannot but stir male aggression. The threat of an armed woman may only be effective when beauty first disarmed the poor male:


igor amelkovich

Far more convincing are teeth and claw: when the male throws himself in the arms of the female, he is vulnerable by those weapons indeed.

valery bareta

Furthermore, they stir deep-rooted oral anxieties (cat-woman, being devoured by a shark of a whale, the swallowing black of the vagina):

thomas kreyn

thomas kreyn

The counterpart of the woman that reciprocates male dominance with a whip of her claws is the tied up male: his eyes are allowed to see and his penis can stand up, but he himself cannot move. A variant is the male torso bereaved of the legs allowing him to approach the female and of the arms that threaten to embrace her.

Female sadism could suffice with these variant. The erect penis, however, contains a double danger. On the one hand, it threatens to ignite the frigid beauty of the female, and it is all the more out at releasing the tension, the more the beauty of the ‘femina dominatrix’ arouses it, on the other hand. To maintain her power – and to block the unfolding of love with herself as well as with the male – the female might feel tempted to castrate the man. The heightened beauty of the female can only survive in destroying that of the male, as with Kubin:

As opposed to the male, who with the destruction of female beauty also annihilates his own desire, the female is utterly left in the cold after having castrated with her beauty. Castration would have turned the male in a mere gazing eye (Dahl), were it not for the pain, that would have him lose all attention for female beauty. There is nobody left, then, to admire female beauty. That is why female sadism often comprises a final phase in which the femina castratrix incorporates the penis. She is thereby transformed into a female hermaphrodite. That is why the destruction of the penis is rather a removal leaving the penis intact in view of its impending incorporation, and not so much the release of the sadistic urge (Klinger, Salome).:

And that sheds a new light upon Salomé’s kisses.

While representations of male sadism preferably stage beauty destroyed, representations of female sadism accentuate the castrating female rather then the castrated male. Representations of castration itself are rather scarce. The reason is that Salomé prefers to relegate the job to an executioner. Already the use of weapons reduces the sovereignty of her pure beauty. The most refined version of the castrating woman is embodied in the Salomé of Oscar Wilde and Richard Strauss: as the price for the denudation of her beauty, Salomé demands that the one man castrates another. She is a mere onlooker on the proceedings: the triumph of female beauty as the prime mover. Even stronger is the power of beauty when the male is castrating himself for the sake of woman (Kybele)

That does not prevent that, over the course of history, the figure of Salomé has gradually condensed with that of Judith, who decapitates Holophernes with her own hands (Panowksy). Such condensation allows the artist to depict Salomé with the sward in her hand (Caravaggio).

There is also a form of ‘lesbian’ sadism that complies to the male scenario: generally an older and mostly not so beautiful, if not ugly, woman takes the place of the male and destroys the beauty of her victim. She is driven by the revenge of a minor beauty that feels eclipsed through the splendour of her victim. This variant of female sadism perfectly fits in the conception of sadomasochism as the sacrifice of beauty, although this time, the aim is the destruction of the object of jealousy.


Sadomasochism originates not so much in some mysterious transformation of pain in pleasure, but rather in the integration of elements of aggressive behaviour in the repertoire of love: the expression of pain as a substitute for the expression of erotic transport. In the ideal case, it leads to the destruction of beauty as a means of releasing the sexual tension or as a means of blocking the arousal as well as the approach of the male.

The paradigm of sadomasochism is the infliction of physical pain and the enactment of physical destruction. Nevertheless, it is not always physical maltreatment that fuels the sadomasochistic enterprise. Not seldom, the adepts of sadomasochism have a bad conscience about their proceedings. Already the predilection of instruments betrays a propensity to transfer the execution of the sadistic impulses to instruments. But it is only when the sadist transfers the handling of the instruments to an ‘instrumental sadist’, as Salomé to the executioner, that he can have clean hands. This truth is caught in the rather humorous photo of Bareta below:

valery bareta

Another way out is to switch to less painful substitutes, which are expressions of love nevertheless. There are lots of possibilities:

Lovers not only are looking for sexual gratification with each other, but also for reciprocal help. Thus, asking for help can be a way of asking for love. Here originates the classic ‘masochistic’ attitude of the helpless, poor or ill woman (‘La traviata’). That explains why, paradoxically enough, a lover can feel driven to harm his beloved: in a second phase, he can pose as the one who comes to the rescue. He thus can regain the love of his beloved. Parents are using the same trick, when they frighten their children by telling fairy tales, to all the more enjoy the ensuing intensity with which their children come to seek security in their arms.

Add to that the willingness to make sacrifices or to suffer deprivation for the sake of each other’s gratification, which is an unmistakable sign of love. Not for nothing do lovers endlessly repeat that they would go through hell for each other. That is why they not seldom are conjuring up the most diverse evils from Pandora’s box in the name of love. Very efficient is threatening to withhold love or to give it to a third party. The ultimate symbolic proof of love is the devotion to the most repellent excrements of the beloved one (Last Tango in Paris).

But these are merely extreme manifestations, even when the emphasis on food and drink betrays that this behaviour is derived from loving behaviour: lovers are supposed to feed, clothe and shelter each other. That is obvious from the less drastic performances where the partner has to behave like a dog eating dog food:

marc blackie

That sheds a new light on some secondary aspects of the original sadomasochistic procedure. The amount of pain inflicted or endured can be a measure for reciprocal dedication. It can also call forth the desire to come to the rescue. When the executioner afterwards comes to take pity on his victim, he covers up the traces of the initially sadistic enterprise.

Also the pleasure in act of submitting, inherent in the infliction of pain, is only seemingly of an aggressive nature. It only appears when the power of sexual attractiveness is waning and leaves room for artificial forms of domination or submission. There is also a non-sexual version of the femina dominatrix, the most subtle version of which is of a purely spiritual nature. The dominatrix then revels in seemingly aggressive, non-sexual forms of exercising power, and she does so because she is not or no longer able to exert real sexual power over her lovers. Conversely, the non-sexual submission of the masochist can compensate for the lack of real sexual slavery. In either case, we are dealing with a sexual relationship, and not with an enactment of power relations in society, as many an author – from Bloch, over Gebhardt and Fromm, to Foucault and Carter – will have it. In their urge to fathom the darkness of the sadomasochistic universe, they involuntarily are turned into the accomplices of the elusive sadist, who is only interested in obfuscating the sexual origin of his proceedings.

And, finally, the elusive sadist also summons up disobedience – or to phrase it more philosophically: transgression – in the service of love.


‘N’ajustez jamais la robe au corps, mais disciplinez le corps pour qu’il s’accorde à la robe’.

Elsa Schiaparelli,’la grande dame de la couture surréaliste’
(Borel, 115)

Many interventions meant to heighten erotic attractiveness have an unmistaken sadistic overtone: tattoos, bound feet, plastic surgery. That the infliction of pain is only a means of heightening beauty, seems to clear such sadistic intervention of any suspicion: beauty must suffer.

dominique lefort

But things are more complicated. The question remains whether (carvings) or tattoos really heighten the beauty of the skin. For they only come to break the evenness, the smoothness and the extension of the skin, and replace the sensuous appeal with its very opposite: signs. Also the ‘horror vacui’ speaks volumes: in the end, the skin is overgrown by tattoos: horror of the void as horror of sensuous luxury. Also the continued use of make up can deteriorate the condition of the skin, to the extent that only the disease can be the remedy. And many an uplifted breast has lost its natural suppleness, which makes already its mere sight to a painful experience. What presents itself as heightened beauty, turns out to be its mere negation:

Thus, it appears that the heightening of beauty has merely to avert the attention from its destruction. The heightening of beauty is in many cases a mere pretext to indulge in sadistic pleasures: the destruction of beauty in the guise of its construction. For it cannot be denied that tattoos are in essence marks. Where there is a mark, there has been a wound.

alain soldeville

The construction of seeming beauty is preceded by an overt destruction. This time, the sadist eludes us in time: in the past that has merely leaves its marks – not otherwise than the executioner that afterwards come his victim to the rescue.

goran bertok

Carving the skin and tattooing are a gory spectacle.

The screams are often shouted down with the beat of drums. Far more refined is the sexual justification of the screams, as when the master has his disciple have intercourse in view of making the skin even more sensitive to his sadistic intervention. At the same time, this staging allows for letting the pain pass for a surplus of sexual tension that has to be released in orgasm. Also the assistant can enjoy the expression of pain that he at the same helps to mask as an expression of sexual pleasure. A further stride is the so-called tattooed without tattooing. These have their partner tattooed by an ‘instrumental sadist’ in order to be able to fully enjoy her suffering.

That also explains why the repressed resurfaces, again and again. Many a (scarf) is re-opened and many tattoo is renewed (Kafka). Tattooing is a form a sadism that wraps itself in honourable veils, just like the ‘spiritual’ versions of sadism. The bad conscience about tattooing is betrayed even in the contention that the marks would heighten the pleasure when stroked (compare with the justifications of circumcision). The unvarnished versions of tattooing are the application of burning cigarettes or hot candle wax.

Piercing stems from the sm-scene and has become an innocent prop.

alain soldeville

Its sadistic origin is eloquently restored in the photo below:

richard reed

Its sadistic origin is further betrayed in that its in essence abhorrent effect is heightened through a kind of negative exhibitionism: making grimaces is obligatory in the corollary magazines. Also frightening and deterring, just like pain, have in common with the beauty they negate, that they exert an irresistible effect on the onlooker.

This sheds a new light on the contemporary aesthetic surgery and the fitness-culture. Not only fitness-centres, but also the operating table of the aesthetic surgeon – not to mention the apparatus for deforming skulls, elongating necks, lips, earlobes and labia minora – cannot but remind of the torture chambers and sm-cabinets, the dark prototypes of the white hospitals. Also the heavy efforts, the intense pains and deprivations imposed to become beautiful, take an auto-sadistic (’masochistic’) overtone in this context. Especially with fitness, the heavy and often compulsive efforts are not seldom supposed to release sexual tension. The same goes probably for the endless making oneself up, combing, dressing and sunbathing. Auto-castration precedes the destruction of beauty. Many endure the pain because it equally alleviates the feeling of guilt. By putting themselves in the spotlights, the competitors are driven off the scene. Suffering for beauty can thus come to function as a kind of self-punishment for the seizure of power and as a kind of means of transferring the guilt to the eclipsed: they should have been prepared to do some effort for it.

This time, the real destructive nature of the undertaking becomes only visible afterwards. Even when it cannot be denied that many an effort pays in the short term, in the long rung high heels deform the feet and corsets the chest, dieting degenerates into anorexia or bulimia and excessive sun-bathing leads to premature ageing of the skin, if not to cancers. And that goes equally for the danger of infection with tattooing and piercing, in which seldom the secret appeal of the whole proceedings resides.


Only seemingly is sadism a question of muscle and instruments causing pain. The kernel of sadistic pleasure is in essence voyeuristic: the sovereign contemplation of the destruction of the fountainhead of love – the beauty of woman reduced to her body or man reduced to his penis. And only seemingly is masochism a question of pain. From the sadist’s point of view it suffices that the masochist provides the necessary expression. The real pain and the actions through which it is inflicted, are of no further concern. Granted, to the masochist the pain is all the more real. But we shall soon understand how sadomasochism knows to eliminate also this last obstacle.

It begins to dawn on us that there might be a near relationship between sadomasochism and voyeurism/exhibitionism. The crux of the sadistic pleasure is the voyeuristic enjoyment of the exhibitionistic performance of the masochist. The visual aspect is fundamental. Sexual interaction can easily be performed in the dark. But a sadomasochistic relation is unthinkable without the visual aspect – or, what amounts to the same, the audible aspect. What is more: sadism can only come to its apogee when the contemplation of the suffering of the masochist becomes really sovereign. The elusive sadist already transferred the infliction of pain, first to instruments, and then to the manipulator of the instruments. That is not only a mechanism to obtain clean hands, but foremost to free the hands of any activity that might disturb the contemplation of suffering. Only as a pure voyeur can the sadist contemplate the proceedings of the instrumental sadist in all sovereignty. That leads to the sadomasochistic triangle: the master commanding the executioner or the dominatrix having the castration of her lover executed through a third admirer. That reminds us of the lover that had his beloved make love to her lover, to be able to contemplate undisturbed. In both cases, the greedy eye provokes the transformation of a dual relation in a triangle: the animal with the two backs or the sacrifice of beauty. Thus, sadism is unfolding to a variant of voyeurism. To give account of this profound affinity between these two perversions, it would be a good idea to coin the term ‘sadovyeurism’ and ‘maso-exhibitionism’.

On the other hand, voyeurism can only fully develop into a fully gratifying – and no lo longer a castrating – experience through its transformation in sadovoyeurism. In its most primitive form, voyeurism came down to a de facto castration: the voyeur as well as the exhibitionist resigned from every sexual gratification through confining themselves to a pure visual relation. The sadist, on the other hand, can fully be gratified, precisely because he visually witnesses the destruction of the source of sexual arousal. Granted, he pays a heavy price for such privilege: his gratification comes down to the ultimate resignation from beauty, the sexual arousal it ignites, and the genital release of it. The same goes for the sadomasochist. He no longer is consumed by a desire that cannot be satisfied: in the end, it is dead that releases him from the pain (Schopenhauer).

We have already seen how sadomasochism is fundamentally the sacrifice of love through the destruction of beauty, the fountainhead of love. We now can add that this is precisely the reason why voyeurism and exhibitionism of necessity have to develop into completed sadovoyeurism and maso-exhibitionism. By joining the already mentioned tendency to a generalised visualisation of love and through completing it, sadovoyeurism is fulfilling the real destiny of the perverse move: the self-annihilation of love. While beauty initially was the spark that made the fire of love ignite, the destruction of beauty is the black hole that swallows the orgasmic expansion of love, not otherwise than Kronos devouring his children.

Not for nothing does sadism feast its triumph in the two cultures that most resigned from real love through the development of a high culture of the image: Europe and Japan.


The image is the main catalyst in sadomasochism’s coming of age.

The mere adoption of a voyeuristic stance as such already comes down to a kind of destruction of the object: the reduction to a mere visual appearance equals the obliteration of the tangible body. That is only sealed in the image: since it merely renders the visual appearance of the nude, it only enhances the exclusion contained in the primeval scene depicted in it. This double frustration may be the main catalyst in the transformation of the representation of intangible beauty (or the primeval scene) in the staging of the sacrifice of beauty. Furthermore, the image has an outspoken predilection of the literal sadism of pain and wounds: the more concealed spiritual forms are invisible. Therein, the image counteracts the elusive sadist’s endeavour to render his undertakings more respectable.

But there is more. Reality exercises severe restraints on the sadomasochistic enterprise. The sacrifice must not be seriously injured, let alone be tortured to death. In every sadomasochistic setting, there is set in place a whole system of signals indicating which thresholds should not be crossed. Since this will not suffice, the aggressive frenzy, triggered through erotic releasers, has to be additionally contained through a compulsory ritualisation of the sadomasochistic performance (cfr compulsory neurosis). Such restraints are imposed by culture. In former times, nobody objected nearly related phenomena: all kinds of torture, cruel punishments (crucifixion), ritual cruelties (Azteks, Roman gladiators) and milder forms of cruelty like bullfights. More and more, the destructive frenzy that otherwise would culminate in a fully-fledged sacrifice, is mitigated to a ritually contained sadomasochistic performance, that eventually culminates in the sexual release it was meant to eradicate. ‘La petite mort’ triumph over ‘la grande mort’.

Things are totally different in the image. Since, in the image, the proceedings are merely staged and faked, nothing can prevent the mitigated real performance from culminating in staged outright sacrifice (Titian’s Martias). (Imaginary procedures) In the image of Ridgeway below, the sadist is relegating his torture to the forces of nature, which enables him to take the stance of a sovereign sadovoyeur.

Finally, the image disposes of purely intrinsic means of gratifying sadistic impulses. Greek sculptures are often mutilated: arms or legs are failing. Secret charms emanate from such mutilated sculptures. Ever since Rodin was struck by the sight of his study for Saint John the Baptist - a decapitated torso without arms and with deep marks – the decapitated torso without arms and legs has become a cherished subject in modern sculpture (Rodin’s ‘Iris messagère des dieux’ as the counterpart of Courbet’s ‘L’origine du monde’). Also in a two-dimensional image can the artist use the frame or digital manipulation as a means of mutilating the body:

ludovic goubet

The destruction of the body often goes hand in hand with a destruction of the image as such:

dirk lakomy


The obstacles to an unhindered development of the sadomasochistic enterprise are only totally removed when an animal replaces the human sacrifice, as in the Nitsch’ ‘Orgien-Mysterien-theater’, where animals are cut open instead of naked women:


For the same reason, the image enables the full visualisation of sadism to pure sado-voyeurism. The pleasure of torturing originates not so much in the activity itself, as in the expressions it produces. The required expression can directly be conjured up by the image, and at its highest intensity at that: as the orgasmic frenzy of death-anguish. The sadist can confine himself to a purely voyeuristic stance and dispense with mere instrumental sadism:

thomas kreyn

daniel long

The full sadomasochistic triangle can be replaced with the dyad of sadovoyeuristic onlooker and his victim. Also the masochist is transformed into a pure exhibitionist, a mere appearance. We already mentioned how the suffering did not concern the sadist, but was all the more real to the masochist. But since, for the sado-voyeur the victim has only to produce the necessary expressions, the image can easily get rid of the feelings of the masochist, as it did of the actions of the instrumental sadist. While the sadist is transformed in the sovereign sado-voyeur, the masochist evaporates into a mere apparition:

daniel long

The same image, then, that forbids the orgasmic unfolding of the very beauty it reveals, utterly gratifies the purified sadomasochistic greed without any restraint. It is the natural habitat of the sadomasochistic endeavour. Only in the image can the inbuilt trend of love to dissolve itself in a pure visual experience come to its apogee. This is the truth in Steiner’s contention that there is a secret affinity between the total freedom on uncensored erotic imagination and the total freedom of the sadist.

Not only exhibitionism and voyeurism, but foremost sadomasochism completed to sadovoyeurism owe their completion to the image. Only the image enables the full development of ‘la grande mort’ in making abstraction of the merciless pain that will forever be felt because the desire to be released by ‘la petite mort’ cannot be satisfied.

That does not prevent that – apart from snuff-movies and real murder – the examples are rather scarce and foremost male. We soon will understand why.


About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters...

Just as there is a voyeuristic triangle, there is also a sadomasochistic triangle. The completed sadmasochistic sacrifice is enacted through the sinister triad of the sovereign voyeur, the instrumental sadist(s) and the masochist. Under the guise of a punishing torture, the triangle is depicted in the flagellation of Piero della Franscesca.

The ordinary voyeuristic triangle is often obfuscated in an attempt to mitigate the pain of having to relegate one's role as a lover to a third party. Ideally, the sadomasochistic triangle is shortened into the dyad of the sovereign sadovoyeur contemplating the masochistic appearance
, as with the flagellation of Christ.

A bad conscience about the sadomasochistic proceedings can be an additional motive to expel also the instrumental sadist from the image, and staging merely beauty destroyed. This is a cherished procedure, not only in male, but also in female masochism:

But the triangle is often emphatically restored. The staging of the instrumental sadist allows the projection of the sadism of the sadovoyeur. The projection is masked in that the role of the instrumental sadist is relegated to an animal or a monster, as with Prometheus.The next step in the process of projection is that the sadovoyeur poses as the one who comes to the rescue. Here, the triangle unfolds to a quadrangle: the onlooker is split over two protagonists in the image, as in Ingres' 'Angelica salvata da Ruggiero'.

Just as the display of beauty can go hidden after some seemingly neutral action, just so can the ritual sacrifice of beauty be disguised – and justified - as the implementation of a punishment (to be distinguished from the scenario where the sinner is punished for his real sexual sins). The similarity of the techniques, should not make us overlook the distinction between the sacrifice of beauty and the diverse forms of punishment by political or parental authorities. With punishment, pain is inflicted as retaliation for the real of symbolical pain inflicted by the punished one. The punishment may range from an innocent smack in the face to the sovereign contemplation of two prisoners killing each other, as with the gladiators in Rome. All these forms of inflicting pain or killing are intended to gratify the feeling of power and retaliation, not to elicit sexual tension, as in the genuine sadomasochistic torture.

That is not to say that the more sophisticated forms or punishment cannot stir sadistic impulses. All kinds of torture have been real midwifes of sadomasochism and, conversely, sadomasochistic impulses have undoubtedly stimulated the refinement of the methods used:

The reverse is equally true: also erotic feelings can conjure up the need for punishment. Under the regime of compulsory marriage a passionate relation is always forbidden. Transgression cannot fail to conjure up the corresponding fear for punishment. The transgressor can try to get rid of his feelings of guilt through ascribing them to the machinations of a seductress and then relieve his feelings of guilt by punishing her. The sacrifice of beauty can then be justified as a punishment for an indecent provocation. The punishment is a mere justification, since it does not apply to the sexual arousal in the punisher, but to the provocation of the punished(?). The executioner of the punishment can only get rid of his arousal by destroying the beauty that provoked it. Thus, the threat with punishment, that initiated the displacement of sexuality to sadomasochism, comes to serve as the justification of sadomasochism: the sadist as well as his victim do not longer feel involved in a dark destructive undertaking. (This element can add to the charms of transgression as described above). Guilt can also be alleviated through transforming the desired woman in the punishing – castrating – woman. The ‘femina castratrix’ has the castration performed by an executioner or the sinful man itself.

The disguise as punishment explains the introduction of many a form of torture in the sadomasochistic universe. A speaking example is the crucifixion of Christ. Although crucifixion has become obsolete as a form of punishment, it remains a most cherished sadomasochistic procedure, as well in male as in female sadism. This is reinforced by the fact that not only the surrendering body, but also the raped body raped takes the form of an X, the Andreas cross: on the cross, the nude is as defenceless as in the image. The association of crucifixion and copulation is strengthened through the fact that Jesus Christ has been penetrated with a lance.

ben marcato

The same goes for the flagellation of Christ – imitated by many a monk or nun castigating themselves for their sins of the flesh – a practice that survived in many a brothel of the eighteenth century and the secret sm-room in many a modern house.

The propensity of sadomasochism to disguise itself as the infliction of punishment also facilitates the enjoyment of real punishments as a displaced sacrifice of beauty. Here originate the secret charms of the torture of Jesus Christ and the countless Christian martyrs like Saint Agatha (Piombo), the Holy Sebastian, and Saint Erasmus (Bouts and Poussin).

Victims of torture and punishment are even predestined to such displacement, since they cannot but summon up feelings of sympathy, which pave the way for a genuine sexual transport. Especially the fact that the martyr sacrifices himself for a higher cause and that he rejects the indecent proposals of his torturers, makes martyrdom resemble the sadomasochistic triangle. Not for nothing are religious, but also political martyrs a most cherished subject in painting, and not only in Western art.

It comes as no surprise that many an image makes the disguise undone.

ben marcato

The sacrifice of the nude can also go disguised in medical attire,

helmut wolech

helmut wolech

or in the depiction of suicide (Cranach, Lucretia).

It begins to dawn on us why the open depiction of the sadomasochistic primal scene is so scarce. It remains to be understood why the beauty destroyed is predominantly male. The obvious answer is that the same woman, that seems to have her problems with the overt enjoyment of an erotic male nude, does not object to be aroused by the sacrifice of a male under the guise of punishment or martyrdom, exemplary in the crucifixion of Christ, or by the sight of man that have been deformed or disfigured by blind fate. The theme is the more cherished since it allows sadism to go hidden behind the veils of motherly care. This is all too obvious with Maria and the nude maltreated body of her son on her lap, as in Michelangelo’s very suggestive Pietà. As soon as, under the auguries of feminism, women begin to produce erotic images, they soon proceed to overt depictions of the mutilated male body.

All this – apart from the fact that women are more interested in the signs of wealth and power than in the nude body - has to be taken into account when the female attitude towards erotic imagery is compared with the male.


At first glance, the completion of sadism is sadovoyeurism saves the image. Merely contemplating the seductive nude is a castrating experience, which evenutally makes the voyeur turn his back on the image. The sadovoyeuristic contemplation of the sacrifice of beauty, on the other hand, is, especially for man, a completely satisfying experience and its depiction in the image does justice to the image as a purely visual medium. It comes as no surprise, then, that the inherent logic of the image leads to the transformation of the representation of the nude in that of the sacrifice of beauty (with the hermaphrodite and the beast with two backs as intermediary stages). The unfolding of perversion thus comes to join the unfolding of the image. The image is no longer the forbidding forbidden, but the gratifying gratification.

But the simultaneous unfolding of perversion and image is at the same time their ultimate self-annihilation. The unfolding of love is reversed and swallowed up in the pure visual experience of sadovoyeurism, the negation of precisely beauty that is the spark that ignites the passion of love. And the image turns out to be precisely the contrary of what it intended to be: to reveal a heightened beauty. In a first phase it revealed a heightened beauty, that it at the same time made inaccessible by bereaving it of its tangibility. In a second phase it staged a fully accessible perfection, but a perfection that only contains the destruction of the initially promised ideal. Through enabling and enacting the destruction of what it originally was meant to reveal, the image comes to resemble what it represents: from a means of revelation it is turned into a catalyst of destruction. In that sense the shroud of Turin – Magdalene’s veil – may pose as the paradigm of such development. The void of love in the image as a void: truly, this is the veritable black hole, of which Malevich’s black square on black background, meant to seal the end of figurative are and to herald the advent of abstract art, is only the faint afterglow.


Through such sinister a diabolic dialectics, the image speaks out a ban against itself. In the end, it has become the forbidding forbidden again, but now in a far more profound sense: by forbidding love, it finally also forbids itself. Time has come to tackle the mimetic taboo.

© Stefan Beyst, june 2004

From the same author:
'the ecstasies of eros'

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waclaw wantuch gabriele rigon craig morey
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