Venus in Furs

Aubrey Beardsley illustration

Aubrey Beardsley illustration

Although giving and receiving pain has been part of the sexual landscape forever. In fact the Romans defined manliness – the quality of Vir – as the doing unto others… and to that extent anything went. Having it done unto you… well frankly that was just womanly!

As I was saying despite pain always having been part of humanity’s sexual repertoire, the words we use: ‘sadism’ and ‘masochism’ are relatively recent. Sado-masochism is just a conjunction of the two words and hence a bit of a cop out.

While most of us are probably aware the Marquis de Sade lent his name to sadism (the act of deriving sexual pleasure from giving pain), the Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, who gave his name to masochism (receiving pain as a sexual pleasure) is still relatively obscure.

In 1870, Sacher-Masoch published his novella called Venus in Furs. It was the story of a man’s relationship with a strong mistress; strong as in dominatrix, not simply determined.

Co-incidentally ‘rix’ is the feminine for words normally ending in ‘or’. A Dominatrix is simply female dominator; just as an Aviatrix is a female aviator – there is whole bunch of these words to look up if you are interested.

The plot, drawn from Masoch’s own life, was written as a story within a story and begins when the central character (the word ‘hero’ is probably not particularly appropriate here) dreams he is speaking to Venus while she is dressed in furs…. hey it’s porn… what do you expect!

He relates the dream to his friend Severin, who in turn tries break him of his fascination with his cruel mistress by describing his own relationship with a woman called Wanda. Severin is so obsessed with Wanda he makes himself her slave. Wanda fully exploits the situation to their mutual satisfaction, until she meets a man she wants to be dominated by. At which point Severin breaks off the relationship.

Severin’s tale concludes with a moral tirade about how women can only be slaves or despots to men; never companions….. And here he saves himself for posterity by adding… “until they are given the same education as men and the same rights.”

I love a happy ending, don’t you?

Sacher-Masoch with Fanny Pistor (in furs)

Sacher-Masoch with Fanny Pistor (in furs)

And now dear reader, as a Victorian novelist might say, here is some trivia you may enjoy…

In 1967 Lou Reed wrote a song called Venus in Furs which heavily echoes the book with lines like:

‘Shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather; Whiplash girlchild in the dark’


‘Severin, down on your bended knee; Taste the whip, in love not given lightly; Taste the whip, now plead for me.’

Pretty graphic stuff eh!  The Velvets were so cool! This version is brilliantly teamed up with a steamy scene from the 1956 movie ‘One Shocking Moment’. Enjoy!

And if you think that was good listen to the song called ‘Heroin’.

Both songs feature on their influential ground-breaking untitled first album with its peel down and see banana cover – a phallic fantasy courtesy of the pop artist Andy Warhol.

Velvert Underground Cover by Andy Warhol: Peel slowly and see

Velvet Underground Cover by Andy Warhol: Peel slowly and see

The main accompanying illustration is by Aubrey Beardsley. His exquisite penmanship and distinctive style makes any vice, no matter how abject, seem socially acceptable, if not actually desirable.

Light masochism in the form of corporal punishment was immensely popular in Germany and England right through the Victorian era and between the wars. According to contemporary writers such as Isherwood, Germany virtually cornered the book market in this form of titillation.

In England, spanking continued as the preferred vice of the ruling class up to the present day. Cynthia Payne an entirely charming woman, christened Madam Sin by the Sunday press, ran a bordello in South West London for the upper echelons during the 1970s and 80s. She believed the toffs like a good paddling on the bottom because of their upbringing: nannies and public schools. Personally I wonder if it is because they feel it is their just-deserts for continually screwing over us, the Great British Public.

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