Sadism in High Places

by Clare Voyens

(Clare Voyens is a TV Anxiety Aunt
and part-time sex therapist)

Sadistic Queen?
Sadistic monarch?

As most dabblers in Freudian dream analysis are aware, the subconscious likes a bit of word-play. Ever since the “pheasant pluckers” joke, the word “pheasant” has had an alternative, “charged” meaning to the unconscious mind (or at least that’s what Freudians would believe).

So it was no surprise to me when a recent photograph of the Queen of England strangling a pheasant, to “put it out of its misery” (it had been shot during a hunt), caused such a big stir in the UK. Of course, Freudian-psychologically speaking, the Queen wasn’t strangling a pheasant – she was strangling a peasant. That’s possibly why this story (which is otherwise quite banal) made headline status. But there’s more to this than meets the eye...

Let me explain. The Queen’s PR team is paid millions to project an image of a kind, caring “people’s monarch”. This PR seems to work – a high proportion of UK citizens “love” the Queen, even though they’ve never met her. On the other hand, there is widespread, lingering class resentment. Even the most worshipful royalists are dimly aware that the history of royalty – an undemocratic, hereditary ruling elite – is also the history of the exploitation and persecution of the lower “slave” classes.

The first “royal families” appeared in the Bronze Age, during a time of transformation from relatively egalitarian tribal cultures to authoritarian, “patriarchal” ruler-and-slave society. This new type of society instituted a hierarchical class system in which the rulers (the most ruthless thugs) hired priests to proclaim their “divine” mandate to rule. Meanwhile, the slaves (the vast majority of the population) did all the hard work, lived in poverty and died young.

Note: Judging from Plato’s writings, Greece in 400 BC had precisely this kind of authoritarian slave society. Plato was a well-connected aristocrat who supported the slave system and regarded the emerging democratic anti-slavery movement as subversive and degenerate. He was essentially an advocate of what we nowadays call “totalitarianism” – and, of course, he was later revered by the Christian church, which adopted his philosophy.

The authoritarian structure of society has persisted for thousands of years, right up to the present day. Some of its worst aspects have been mitigated by small victories of social progress (eg “representative democracy”, social security, women’s votes, workers’ rights, benign technology, medical advances, etc), and the word “slave” has mutated into, or been replaced by, a hundred other terms, including “peasant”, “serf” and finally “employee” – but the hierarchical class structure remains in most countries. And some nations actually still have that unfortunate remnant of brutal, dark ages: royalty.

But since we were talking about the Freudian subconscious, we should mention sex at this point. Institutionalised sexual repression is the key to the question of how authoritarian society has reproduced itself from generation to generation, over thousands of years, even while the economic conditions and technologies underlying those societies have completely transformed.

The post-Freudian psychologist Wilhelm Reich claimed that sexual repression and the “authoritarian family” style of child-rearing are responsible for the perpetuation of what he called “patriarchal society.” Reich traced sexually-repressive child-rearing back to the beginning of hierarchical ruler-and-slave society. For example, it was not in the interests of the ruling families – the chiefs, royals, lords, barons etc – to have their children “promiscuously” reproducing with persons of lower social status. Tight control of child/adolescent sexuality was in the economic and power interests of the rulers (eg via fixed marriages and dowries). And, as usual, the priests served their masters – the church instituted various strict morals and taboos, putting a “divine” slant on all this control and repression of sex.

Reich’s psychological theory is fairly complex, but in a nutshell it claims that the strict authoritarian repression of natural childhood desires leads to an inhibited character structure which is obedient, docile and fearful of authority. To quote Reich:

“[this] has a crippling effect on man’s rebellious forces because every vital life-impulse is now burdened with severe fear... in short, morality’s aim is to produce acquiescent subjects who, despite distress and humiliation, are adjusted to the authoritarian order. Thus, the family is the authoritarian state in miniature.”

So it seems that in the change from egalitarian to authoritarian society, sex transformed from an “innocent”, “natural” behaviour to something controlled and suppressed – a “commodity in the service of economic subjugation” as Reich puts it. The Christian church went even further and redefined natural sensual pleasures – symbolised by Eve in the Garden of Eden – as a central part of “Original Sin”. In particular, female sexuality, pleasure and eroticism were demonised by the clergy.

The concept of Original Sin has performed an important function in authoritarian societies. The Protestant Work Ethic, for example, was built around it. If pleasure for pleasure’s sake was seen as something sinful, then the opposite: endless hard work, with little or no relief, was (and still is) seen as a moral obligation. Original Sin was yet another stick to beat slaves with – to keep them working and stop them complaining.

Now let’s turn to sadism. The “patriarchal” style of raising children – with its emphasis on teaching discipline, respect, obedience and “moral fibre”, and on suppressing natural, pleasurable bodily sensations – although present in all social classes, has, historically, been most pronounced in the ruling classes (for reasons given above). Sadism and cruelty have also been observed to be characteristic of many ruling class practices and traditions (something which has often been portrayed in popular culture – eg the rich landlord horsewhipping insolent peasants etc.) Sadism is, of course, generally acknowledged to stem from over-repressive – especially sexually repressive – child-rearing practices.

Which brings us back to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, and her well-publicised liking for bloodsports (she doesn’t actually shoot guns, according to her PR team). The photo of the Queen “wringing a pheasant’s neck” is too blurred to see what’s going on – but it nevertheless attracted an enormous amount of media attention. A royal spokesperson said that one of the hunt’s dogs dropped the injured pheasant at the Queen’s feet, whereupon she “put it out of its misery”. An aide of the Queen, however, was quoted as saying: “it is something she has done hundreds of times over the years.”

So if I understand correctly, the Queen doesn’t like shooting pheasants, but she does like the strangulation part. I mean, let’s face it, a nation’s Queen doesn’t do something several hundred times unless she gets pleasure from it. Anything she regards as unpleasant she gets the slaves (I mean “aides”) to do. No, it’s clear that the Queen gets some sort of twisted gratification from strangling injured birds.

The day after the newspapers grumbled about her pheasant-strangling, the Queen was reported to be wearing pheasant feathers in her hat. The Daily Telegraph called this an “elegant rebuff” to her critics. I call it an unsubtle “screw you” to all the peasants she’d like to strangle.