Venus in Furs (1870)
Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs is an exploration of dominant and submissive roles in sexual relationships, a behavior documented in ancient texts and art. In the novel, the European nobleman Severin von Kusiemski approaches the object of his desire, Wanda von Dunajew, and submits himself to her, wanting to be her slave. Despite her initial hesitation, Wanda becomes intrigued as Severin encourages her to treat him more cruelly.
Severin eventually reveals the root of his submissive behavior: his cruel aunt, who liked to wear fur, abused him in his childhood, making him thank her for beating him. When the couple travels to Florence, Severin poses as Wanda’s servant, and her mistreatment of him intensifies. Eventually, Wanda loses interest, finding that she would rather be the submissive partner to another man, and she leaves Severin. Sacher-Masoch concludes the story by stating that women can only be dominant or subservient to men and that men and women could never be equals.
Much like the Marquis de Sade, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch incorporated his sexual preferences in Venus in Furs. According to a memoir published by his first wife, Aurora von Rümelin, his sexual proclivities are shockingly similar to Severin’s character in the novel; she also detailed his multiple affairs, especially with an aspiring writer named Fanny Pistor, the inspiration for Wanda. In his 1967 study on the difference between sadism and masochism, “Coldness and Cruelty,” twentieth-century philosopher Gilles Deleuze identifies Venus in Furs as an autobiographical work, with its depiction of female sexual dominance that Sacher-Masoch employed in his personal life.
Sacher-Masoch rejects the prevailing notion that all men need to be the dominant partner in relationships through his exploration of Severin and Wanda’s relationship. In 1886, Austrian psychiatrist Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing published his book Psychopathia Sexualis, in which he identified masochism, a term derived from Sacher-Masoch’s name, as the sexual preference of being under the power of a dominant partner. Sacher-Masoch was not happy with his name being used to describe a sexual fetish, yet we are still familiar with von Krafft-Ebing’s definition today. Sacher-Masoch’s name has become synonymous with the type of relationship that he describes in Venus in Furs, which is arguably his most famous work.