The 2009 Unwin Memorial Lecture

Professors C Nemesis and P t Woodgnome
(Dept. of Antisocial Sciences, Draconis College)

English transcript

My thanks to the Master for such a warm welcome. For those of you who don’t know us already, I am Professor Nemesis – actually, I think that one way or another I do know most of you and I expect to know the rest shortly. I shall be delivering the major part of today’s lecture. This is Professor Woodgnome and he will be demonstrating his fine control of all things electrical and electronic and looking after the slides and sound equipment, and preferably not pressing the Big Red Button. Not if he knows what’s good for him.

The subject of this year’s lecture is ‘Pure and Applied Discipline in a Long Term Relationship’.

Yes, now look, do you think we could get all the sniggering and giggling over straight away? This is a serious topic, and although it has fallen to me to discuss it on this particular occasion, I would remind you that it is also a major part of our coursework on Human (and Other) Sexuality. Those members of the student body who report to me on a tutorial basis will already be aware that this topic is regularly covered in the end of year examinations. I am conscious that many of you are not members of the faculty and are attending today out of respect for the late Professor, or out of general and I trust not prurient interest, but those students who have listed this as one of their course options will need to research in greater detail the matters upon which I will touch today, and will need to treat them with all seriousness.

Thank you.

Now we have in previous lectures already identified our case histories; Professor Woodgnome is passing out brief notes on the couples to those of you who are not already acquainted with them, and for your sake I’ll offer a few background details.

Our first case history relates to a heterosexual married couple, N and F. N is a senior police officer; F is a professional woman who runs her own business. They are both in their late forties and their relationship is only a few years old. It is a second marriage for N and F has had several previous relationships, based on serial monogamy.

N is a sexual submissive; F is a sexual dominant; neither of them is interested at all in taking the opposing rôle. This couple feels no need for discipline in the context of control or punishment. They claim that this element of their joint life is purely sexual. F likes to hurt N; N likes to be hurt by F in the form of sado-masochistic play between them, often in a semi-public place.

I really hope that we are not going to have much more sniggering.

Now I would remind all students of the difficulty with all this qualitative data. We can describe specific pairings; we cannot argue from the general to the specific nor from the specific to the general. We simply do not have enough couples to form a statistically significant sample, and furthermore all our data – if data you can call it – is based on narrative. I’m sure I don’t need to remind my own students about researcher bias and social desirability bias at this point, but those of you from other discipl… I mean, those of you who come from other academic areas might consider that we ask our volunteers how they behave and how they feel and we write down what they tell us. They may be mistaken or lying; we, in making deductions about behaviour, filter their histories through our own experiences and beliefs. There is no measureable evidence.

Remember, ladies and gentlemen, that ‘data’ is not the plural of ‘anecdote’.

Our couple: N, as I say, is submissive. He is highly intelligent, strongly motivated in his chosen profession, and extremely successful at it. He claims to have been aware for most of his life of a degree of sexual submission, and his first wife and various partners before and after his first marriage have been intelligent, strong minded and successful women. However, he did not act directly upon his inclinations until such time as he met his current partner, F. His relationship with his immediate family is good; both parents and also his sister have, or have had, white-collar occupations. He has encountered since early childhood strong female rôle models, but his relationship with his father is sound. His father, however, was also a police officer and for much of N’s childhood, the constant presence was his mother, who worked only part-time outside the home, rather than his father whose duties caused frequent absences.

F, on the other hand, was brought up by a single mother, and her formative years did not include particularly strong male influences. Her choice of profession took her out of traditional female areas. She is strongly opinionated in matters of sexual politics and her family basis is weak.

Do we wish to consider Freud? We might argue that N has chosen a partner who resembles his mother in strength and organisation. F, on the other hand, may be combining her desire for a strong and reliable male partner – the father so decisively absent in her formative years – with her own desire to be in full control of her life and therefore also of his.

Refer back, please, ladies and gentlemen, to your earlier notes on cultural norms. In particular, consider that for both N and F, they are acting against the cultural norms of both their gender and their occupation.

There is a further complication added by N’s use of pain as a defence mechanism and a stress reliever. This takes, as far as can be established, two forms. There is the purely sexual: sex is a counter to stress; his occupation frequently leads him to feel stressed; the particular form of his chosen sexual foreplay reduces that stress. However, he also expresses the need for an extreme form of the behaviour in its own right, even without consequent or subsequent sexual activity, using a ritualised form which is intended to eliminate from his conscious mind the unpleasant part of his daily workload. This may involve extremes of behaviour from F towards him, demanding complete submission. Both subjects describe this as non-sexual, although further questioning did reveal that F finds satisfaction in the degree of trust expressed by N towards her even when she treats him with great severity.

We may now move on to our second couple: the homosexual pairing P1 and P2. For the sake of convenience we have tended to refer to them as P and Alpha. P is a professional sportsman – in point of fact, a rugby player – and Alpha, who is some twenty years older than P, was also a professional rugby player in his youth and has moved since his retirement into the spheres of training and management.

This couple is obliged to combine both a private (sexual) and a professional relationship; one of the means by which they avoid the difficulties of one bleeding into the other is through physical discipline. I would at this point like to refer you to your previous notes on Behaviourism, and in particular to the lectures on operant conditioning. For those of you from other faculties, that, in simple terms, means that P’s future behaviour is determined by the consequences of the past. A specific behaviour on his part – an action deemed unacceptable by Alpha – is followed by an unpleasant consequence. That is, P misbehaves and he gets a spanking from Alpha.

Settle down, please.

The reasoning behind this is that the consequence makes P less likely to repeat the behaviour. This is the classic stimulus-response which was covered earlier in the term. We are talking negative conditioning here: making P’s unacceptable behaviour less likely to occur by having him associate it with pain. By the way, I would remind you at this point that negative conditioning is not the same as negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement would act by removing something that P disliked; positive reinforcement presents P with something that he does like. Punishment, since it presents something that P does not like, is negative conditioning. Those of you who wish to go deeper into that topic should refer to Professor Pooky Verde’s December 2009 article ‘So Why D’You Need to Know This Stuff Anyway?’ or, although in my opinion it is not as clearly set out, to Professor Montgomery’s treatise ‘Yeah, What She Said’.

With this pairing we may also look at specific shaping, in that Alpha selectively reinforces successively closer approximations to target behaviour by the use of punishment implements of varying severity – that is, a mildly inappropriate behaviour on P’s part may result in a spanking; a seriously unacceptable action may result in the use of a cane.

Now in the case of this pair, Alpha is agreed to have authority over P’s professional activities, but he has not sought, nor has P granted him, general authority over P’s personal life, even insofar as it affects Alpha directly. However, they do also use milder pain play as part of their range of sexual activity: Alpha appears, as was true of F, to enjoy the measure of control over P and the expression of trust by P; P in turn enjoys the attention granted him by P and the endorphins resulting from such behaviour.

We may also at this point observe that there is another couple with links to Alpha and P; these individuals, H and T, also male homosexuals, have on occasion behaved towards Alpha as P does, with similar consequences. You may wish to review your notes on social learning theory and to observe accordingly that P’s awareness that H has been punished for some behaviour increases the likelihood that P will avoid that behaviour himself.

Those of you who have kept up to date with your reading lists will also be aware of The Insular Argument. That is our third case study: there are several examples in the available materials. Insular pairings are commonly but not exclusively same sex, and for the heterosexual couples, either male or female may be the dominant party. I refer you here to the copious material available on the subject of learned helplessness as it relates to the non-dominant individual, and to attributional or explanatory style. These individuals frequently appear to have pessimistic explanatory style: their view of negative events is personal and pervasive, as evidenced by the frequent expression of ‘it’s my fault, I can’t do anything right’. It is common for learned helplessness to be associated with ill health when the individual makes poor choices in relation to medication, diet etc.

Check your notes on Adorno’s authoritarian personality who sees everything in black and white, and who needs to live according to strict social conventions and order. This individual, commonly referred to as a Brat, requires both somebody to look up to, and somebody to look down on (Mr Barker, there is no need to repeat 1960s comedy routines in here. See me after the lecture please). The Brat requires somebody to tell him what to do, believes that there is a single ‘right’ way of behaving and that he must achieve it, is usually insecure and copes badly with change. It is not uncommon for him to end up in a tightly structured – hence Insular – community which he perceives as a safe place where he and his associates live according to the Just World hypothesis.

The dominant personalities in Insular (also known as Stanford, Zimbardo, or Milgram) relationships, by contrast, are frequently authoritarian, sometimes to extremes. It may be argued that they have an interest in maintaining the learned helplessness of their partners, in order to satisfy their own desire for moral and physical superiority. In fact, they are as much examples of Adorno’s authoritarian personality as their Brats are. They are both 'safe' as long as they know, and act according to, their assigned rôle, which is either being told what to do or having someone else to tell what to do.

To that end, there is an apparent quantification of behavioural characteristics, a grading scheme, designed to justify both the activity of the dominant and the passivity of the submissive parties by providing the system with order and a hierarchy. On that subject I would refer you to Professor Montgomery’s popular work ‘Aye, But It’s All Pish Anyway, Specially When They Say It’s Not About Sex’, and the subsequent volume by Professor Pooky Verde, ‘The Daft Buggers Have Forgotten That They Made It Up’.

Now, that’s enough from me; I’m sure Professor Woodgnome will be pleased to answer any questions that you have?


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