Love and Pain/4

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Love and Pain by Havelock Ellis
Volume 4

There is another impulse which it may be worth while to consider briefly here, for the sake of the light it throws on the relationship between love and pain. I allude to the impulse to strangle the object of sexual desire, and to the corresponding craving to be strangled. Cases have been recorded in which this impulse was so powerful that men have actually strangled women at the moment of coitus.[120] Such cases are rare; but, as a mere idea, the thought of strangling a woman appears to be not infrequently associated with sexual emotion. We must probably regard it as, in the main,--with whatever subsidiary elements,--an aspect of that physical seizure, domination, and forcible embrace of the female which is one of the primitive elements of courtship.[121]

The corresponding idea--the pleasurable connection of the thought of being strangled with sexual emotion--appears to occur still more frequently, perhaps especially in women. Here we seem to have, as in the case of whipping, a combination of a physical with a psychic element. Not only is the idea attractive, but, as a matter of fact, strangulation, suffocation, or any arrest of respiration, even when carried to the extent of producing death, may actually provoke emission, as is observed after death by hanging.[122] It is noteworthy that, as Eulenburg remarks, the method of treating diseases of the spinal cord by suspension--a method much in vogue a few years ago--often produced sexual excitement.[123] In brothels, it is said, some of the clients desire to be suspended vertically by a cord furnished with pads.[124] A playful attempt to throttle her on the part of her lover is often felt by a woman as pleasurable, though it may not necessarily produce definite sexual excitement. Sometimes, however, this feeling becomes so strong that it must be regarded as an actual perversion, and I have been told of a woman who is indifferent to the ordinary sexual embrace; her chief longing is to be throttled, and she will do anything to have her neck squeezed by her lover till her eyeballs bulge.[125]

"I think if I could be left my present feelings," a lady writes,

"and be changed into a male imbecile,--that is, given a man's strength, but deprived, to a large extent, of reasoning power,--I might very likely act in the apparently cruel way they do. And this partly because many of their actions appeal to me on the passive side. The idea of being _strangled_ by a person I love does. The great sensitiveness of one's throat and neck come in here as well as the loss of breath. Once when I was about to be separated from a man I cared for I put his hands on my throat and implored him to kill me. It was a moment of madness, which helps me to understand the feelings of a person always insane. Even now that I am cool and collected I know that if I were deeply in love with a man who I thought was going to kill me, especially in that way, I would make no effort to save myself beforehand, though, of course, in the final moments nature would assert herself without my volition. What makes the horror of such cases in insanity is the fact of the love being left out. But I think I find no greater difficulty in picturing the mental attitude of a sadistic lunatic than that of a normal man who gets pleasure out of women

for whom he has no love."

The imagined pleasure of being strangled by a lover brings us to a group of feelings which would seem to be not unconnected with respiratory elements. I refer to the pleasurable excitement experienced by some in suspension, swinging, restraint, and fetters. Strangulation is the extreme and most decided type of this group of imagined or real situations, in all of which a respiratory disturbance seems to be an essential element.[126]

In explaining these phenomena we have to remark that respiratory excitement has always been a conspicuous part of the whole process of tumescence and detumescence, of the struggles of courtship and of its climax, and that any restraint upon respiration, or, indeed, any restraint upon muscular and emotional activity generally, tends to heighten the state of sexual excitement associated with such activity.

I have elsewhere, when studying the spontaneous solitary

manifestation of the sexual instinct (_Auto-erotism_, in vol. i of these _Studies_), referred to the pleasurably emotional, and sometimes sexual, effects of swinging and similar kinds of movement. It is possible that there is a certain significance in the frequency with which the eighteenth-century French painters, who lived at a time when the refinements of sexual emotion were carefully sought out, have painted women in the act of swinging. Fragonard mentions that in 1763 a gentleman invited him into the country, with the request to paint his mistress, especially stipulating that she should be depicted in a swing. The same motive was common among the leading artists of that time. It may be said that this attitude was merely a pretext to secure a vision of ankles, but that result could easily have been attained

without the aid of the swing.

I may here quote, as bearing on this and allied questions, a

   somewhat lengthy communication from a lady to whom I am indebted
   for many subtle and suggestive remarks on the whole of this group
   of manifestations:--
   "With regard to the connection between swinging and suspension,
   perhaps the physical basis of it is the loss of breath. Temporary
   loss of breath with me produces excitement. Swinging at a height
   or a fall from a height would cause loss of breath; in a state of
   suspension the imagination would suggest the idea of falling and
   the attendant loss of breath. People suffering from lung disease
   are often erotically inclined, and anesthetics affect the
   breathing. Men also seem to like the idea of suspension, but from
   the active side. One man used to put his wife on a high swinging
   shelf when she displeased him, and my husband told me once he
   would like to suspend me to a crane we were watching at work,
   though I have never mentioned my own feeling on this point to
   him. Suspension is often mentioned in descriptions of torture.
   Beatrice Cenci was hung up by her hair and the recently murdered
   Queen of Korea was similarly treated. In Tolstoi's _My Husband
   and I_ the girl says she would like her husband to hold her over
   a precipice. That passage gave me great pleasure.[127]
   "The idea of slipping off an inclined plane gives me the same
   sensation. I always feel it on seeing Michael Angelo's 'Night,'
   though the slipping look displeases me artistically. I remember
   that when I saw the 'Night' first I did feel excited and was
   annoyed, and it seemed to me it was the slipping-off look that
   gave it; but I think I am now less affected by that idea. Certain
   general ideas seem to excite one, but the particular forms under
   which they are presented lose their effect and have to be varied.
   The sentence mentioned in Tolstoi leaves me now quite cold, but
   if I came across the same idea elsewhere, expressed differently,
   then it would excite me. I am very capricious in the small
   things, and I think women are so more than men. The idea of
   slipping down a plank formerly produced excitement with me; now
   it has a less vivid effect, though the idea of loss of breath
   still produces excitement. The idea of the plank does not now
   affect me unless there is a certain amount of drapery. I think,
   therefore, that the feeling must come in part from the
   possibility of the drapery catching on some roughness of the
   surface of the slope, and so producing pressure on the sexual
   organs. The effect is still produced, however, even without any
   clothing, if the slope is supposed to end in a deep drop, so that
   the idea of falling is strongly presented. I cannot recollect any
   early associations that would tend to explain these feelings,
   except that jumping from a height, which I used frequently to do
   as a child, has a tendency to create excitement.

With me, I may add, it is when I cannot express myself, or am

trying to understand what I feel is beyond my grasp, that the first stage of sexual excitement results. For instance, I never get excited in thinking over sexual questions, because my ideas, correct or incorrect, are fairly clear and definite. But I often feel sexually excited over that question of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, not because I can't decide between the two sets of evidence, but because I don't feel confident of having fully grasped the true significance of either. This feeling of want of power, mental or physical, always has the same effect. I feel it if my eyes are blindfolded or my hands tied. I don't like to see the Washington Post dance, in which the man stands behind the woman and holds her hands, on that account. If he held her wrists the feeling would be stronger, as her apparent helplessness would be increased. The nervous irritability that is caused by being under restraint seems to manifest itself in that way, while in the case of mental disability the excitement, which should flow down a mental channel, being checked, seems to take a physical course instead.

"Possibly this would help to explain masochistic sexual feelings. A physical cause working in the present would be preferable as an explanation to a psychological cause to be traced back through heredity to primitive conditions. I believe such feelings are very common in men as well as in women, only people do not care to admit them, as a rule."

The idea of being chained and fettered appears to be not uncommonly associated with pleasurable sexual feelings, for I have met with numerous cases in both men and women, and it not infrequently coexists with a tendency to inversion. It often arises at a very early age, and it is of considerable interest because we cannot account for its frequency by any chance association nor by any actual experiences. It would appear to be a purely psychic fantasia founded on the elementary physical fact that restraint of emotion, like suspension, produces a heightening of emotion. In any case the spontaneous character of such ideas and emotions in children of both sexes suffices to show that they must possess a very definite organic basis.

In one of the histories (X) contained in Appendix B at the end of

the present volume a lady describes how, as a child, she reveled in the idea of being chained and tortured, these ideas appearing to rise spontaneously. In another case, that of A.N. (for the most part reproduced in "Erotic Symbolism," in vol. v of these _Studies_), whose ideals are inverted and who is also affected by boot-fetichism, the idea of fetters is very attractive. In this case self-excitement was produced at a very early age, without the use of the hands, by strapping the legs together. We can, however, scarcely explain away the idea of fetters in this case as merely the result of an early association, for it may well be argued that the idea led to this method of self-excitement. "The mere idea of fetters," this subject writes, "produces the greatest excitement, and the sight of pictures representing such things is a temptation. The reading of books dealing with prison life, etc., anywhere where physical restraint is treated of, is a temptation. The temptation is aggravated when the picture represents the person booted. I suppose all this will have been intensified in my case by my practices as a child. But why should a child of 6 do such things unless it were a natural instinct in him? Nobody showed me; I have never mentioned such things to anyone. I used to read historical romances for the pleasure of reading of people being put in prison, in fetters, and tortured, and always envied them. I feel now that I should like to undergo the sensation. If I could get anyone to humor me without losing their self-respect, I should jump at the opportunity. I have been most powerfully excited by visiting an old Australian convict-ship, where all the means of restraint are shown; I have been attracted to it night after night, wanting, but not daring to ask, to be allowed to have a practical experience."

Stcherbak, of Warsaw, has recorded a case which resembles that of A.N., but there was no inversion and the attraction of fetters was active rather than passive; the subject desired to fetter and not to be fettered. It is possible that this difference is not fundamental, though Stcherbak regards the case as one of fetichism of sadistic origin ("Contribution a l'Etude des Perversions Sexuelles," _Archives de Neurologie_, Oct., 1907). The subject was a highly intelligent though neurasthenic youth, who from the age of 5 had been deeply interested in criminals who were fettered and sent to prison. The fate of Siberian prisoners was a frequent source of prolonged meditations. It was the fettering which alone interested him, and he spent much time in trying to imagine the feelings of the fettered prisoners, and he often imagined that he was himself a prisoner in fetters. (This seems to indicate that the impulse was in its origin masochistic as much as sadistic, and better described as algolagnia than as sadism.) He delighted in stories and pictures of fettered persons. At the age of 15 the sex of the fettered person became important and he was interested chiefly in fettered women. A new element also appeared; he was attracted to well-dressed women and especially to those wearing elegant shoes, delighting to imagine them fettered. He fastened his own feet together with chains, attempting to walk about his room in this condition, but experienced comparatively little pleasure in this way. At the age of 15 he met a lady 10 years older than himself and of great intelligence. As he began to know her more intimately she allowed him to take liberties with her; he fastened her hands behind her back, and this caused him a violent but delicious emotion which he had never experienced before. Next time he fastened her feet together as well as her hands; as he did so her shoes slightly touched his sexual organs; this caused erection and ejaculation, accompanied by the most acute sexual pleasure he had ever felt. He had no wish to see her naked or to uncover himself, and as long as this relationship lasted he had no abnormal thoughts at other times, or in connection with other people. He never masturbated, and his sexual dreams were of fettered men or women. Stcherbak discusses the case at length and considers that it is essentially an example of sadism, on the ground that the impulse of fettering was prompted by the desire to humiliate. There is, however, no evidence of any such desire, and, as a matter of fact, no humiliation was effected. The primary and fundamental element in this and similar cases is an almost abstract sexual fascination in the idea of restraint, whether endured, inflicted, or merely witnessed or imagined; the feet become the chief focus of this fascination, and the basis on which a foot-fetichism or shoe-fetichism tends to arise, because restraint of the feet produces a more marked effect than restraint of the hands.


Original footnotes[edit]

[120] An attenuated and symbolic form of this impulse is seen in the desire to strangle birds with the object of stimulating or even satisfying sexual desire. Prostitutes are sometimes acquainted with men who bring a live pigeon with them to be strangled just before intercourse. Lanphear, of St. Louis (_Alienist and Neurologist_, May, 1907, p. 204) knew a woman, having learned masturbation in a convent school, who was only excited and not satisfied by coitus with her husband, and had to rise from bed, catch and caress a chicken, and finally wring its neck, whereupon orgasm occurred.

[121] Even young girls, however, may experience pleasure in the playful attempt to strangle. Thus a lady speaking of herself at the time of puberty, when she was in the habit of masturbating, writes (_Sexual-Probleme_, Aug., 1909, p. 636): "I acquired a desire to seize people, especially girls, by the throat, and I enjoyed their way of screaming out."

[122] Godard observed that when animals are bled, or felled, as well as strangled, there is often abundant emission, rich in spermatozoa, but without erection, though accompanied by the same movements of the tail as during copulation. Robin (art. "Fecondation," _Dictionnaire Encyclopedique des Sciences Medicales_), who quotes this observation, has the following remarks on this subject: "Ejaculation occurring at the moment when the circulation, maintained artificially, stops is a fact of significance. It shows how congestive conditions--or inversely anemic conditions--constitute organic states sufficient to set in movement the activity of the nerve-centers, as is the case for muscular contractility.... Everything leads us to believe that at the moment when the motor nervous action takes place the corresponding sensitive centers also come into play." It must be added that Minovici, in his elaborate study of death by hanging ("Etude sur la Pendaison," _Archives d'Anthropologie Criminelle_, 1905, especially p. 791 et seq.), concludes that the turgescence of penis and flow of spermatic fluid (sometimes only prostatic secretion) usually observed in these cases is purely passive and generally, though not always, of post-mortem occurrence. There is, therefore, no sexual pleasure in death by hanging, and persons who have been rescued at the last moment have experienced no voluptuous sensations. This was so even in the case, referred to by Minovici, of a man who hanged himself solely with the object of producing sexual pleasure.

[123] Eulenburg, _Sexuale Neuropathie_, p. 114.

[124] Bernaldo de Quiros and Llanos Aguilaniedo (_La Mala Vida en Madrid_, p. 294) knew the case of a man who found pleasure in lying back on an inclined couch while a prostitute behind him pulled at a slipknot until he was nearly suffocated; it was the only way in which he could attain sexual gratification.

[125] Arrest of respiration, it may be noted, may accompany strong sexual excitement, as it may some other emotional states; one recalls passages in the _Arabian Nights_ in which we are told of ladies who at the sight of a very beautiful youth "felt their reason leave them, yearned to embrace the marvelous youth, and _ceased breathing_." Inhibited respiration is indeed, as Stevens shows ("Study of Attention," _American Journal of Psychology_, Oct., 1905), a characteristic of all active attention.

[126] The exact part played by the respiration and even the circulation in constituting emotional states is still not clear, although various experiments have been made; see, e.g., Angell and Thompson, "A Study of the Relations between Certain Organic Processes and Consciousness," Psychological Review, January, 1899. A summary statement of the relations of the respiration and circulation to emotional states will be found in Kuelpe's _Outlines of Psychology_, part i, section 2, � 37.

[127] The words alluded to by my correspondent are as follows: "I needed a struggle; what I needed was that feeling should guide life, and not that life should guide feeling. I wanted to go with him to the edge of an abyss and say: 'Here a step and I will throw myself over; and here a motion and I have gone to destruction'; and for him, turning pale, to seize me in his strong arms, hold me back over it till my heart grew cold within me, and then carry me away wherever he pleased." The whole of the passage in which these lines occur is of considerable psychological interest. In one English translation the story is entitled Family Happiness.