Leopold von Sacher-Masoch was the poet of what is now generally known as masochism. Venus in Furs, the best of Masoch’s novels, was written in 1870 and for its time was as shocking as a book could be. Although it describes all of the elements of masochistic sex — fetishes, whips, disguises, fur-clad women, contracts, humiliations and punishment — Masoch’s eroticism has a loving power that transcends the body and ultimately helped transform society.
As the main character, Severin finds his ideal in the cruel hands of Wanda von Dunajew. Infatuated with Wanda, Severin asks to be her slave. They travel to Florence together and Severin takes the generic Russian servant’s name of “Gregor” and the role of Wanda’s servant. In Florence, Wanda treats him brutally as a servant, and recruits a trio of African women to dominate him. Severin describes these experiences as suprasensual.
Astonishingly, this narrative was based on a true story. In 1869, Masoch and one of his infatuations, mistress Baroness Fanny Pistor actually signed a contract making him her slave for six months! The two of them would pose for the above photo. Famous at the time for his nonfiction, they took aliases and went by train to Italy – he traveled in third-class while she sat up front in first-class.
In the end, Severin loses Wanda to her real desires for another, and he is transformed about the very essence of love and sex. It is here that we catch a glimpse of Masoch’s feminist philosophy when Severin says, “She can only be his slave or his despot, but never his companion. This she can become only when she has the same rights as he and is his equal in education and work.”
After the success of the novel had quieted, he worked for women’s rights and fought against antisemitism in Austria. In the 1880’s he edited for a very progressive journal that worked for Jewish integration in Europe and also rallied for women’s education and suffrage. As a creative artist and a revolutionary figure in the history of sex, Sacher-Masoch opened the minds of 19th century readers and showed that masochism is something far more subtle than the enjoyment of pain.