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When sexual fantasy is on trial

On the heels of former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's resignation and the media frenzy over the delicious irony of a zealous reformer brought down by the kind of illicit activity he'd crusaded against, the British tabloid News of the World broke an even juicier story about Max Mosley, the patrician president of the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile, or FIA, which governs Formula One racing.

Mosley's entire five-hour escapade was caught on tape — direct to YouTube — in all its baroque details. Not just one prostitute, but five! Not just sex, but S&M! Not just S&M, but Nazi choreography, complete with SS costumes and bad German accents!

It all makes Spitzer's romp with a Jersey girl seem banal — and unimaginative.

Mosley is defiantly hanging in. "Many people do things in their bedrooms or have personal habits which others find repugnant. But as long as they keep them private, nobody objects," he sniffed in a statement.

Understandably, Mosley is trying to distance himself from the nature of the activities themselves, but it's precisely the specific acts that have gotten him into trouble. Several critics have said that it was not the prostitution but the alleged Nazi role-playing that they found repugnant.

An added irony is the fact that Mosley is the son of Oswald Mosley, the controversial founder of the pro-Nazi British Union of Fascists. A lot has been said about how Sir Oswald and Diana Guinness (one of the madcap Mitford sisters) were married in the presence of Joseph Goebbels and Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, and how the family was interned after World War II and driven out of Britain for Mosley's political activities. It's not hard to imagine how this family drama might have led Max Mosley to develop erotic tastes colored by shame, defiance, stifled anger and secrecy — privately staging a past that he had to publicly disown.

Mosley insists that the sexual exploits had no Nazi overtones. One of his defenders dubbed the uniforms "more Alcatraz than Auschwitz." To my mind, the crucial detail in this scandal is not the sartorial element but rather the post-orgy cup of tea. After five hours of flogging, costume changes and bilingual chastisement, Mosley breaks for a cup of tea in the nude with his former tormentors. (It's only a matter of time before some enterprising ad agency works this image into a campaign for Britain's national beverage.) In its very absurdity, Mosley's cup of tea is a powerful lesson at this moment of political sex scandals.

The mundane gesture of taking tea with his torturers/victims signals how sexual fantasy can be separate from the rest of life: At the end of the scene, Mosley puts down the paddle and takes up the Tetley's. At the same time, the episode shows the contorted and ironic ways in which political and historical baggage make their way into erotic life.

Mosley's session with Mistress Switch is as British as the proverbial stiff upper lip. Not only has S&M had such an allure for generations of upper-class British men schooled in corporal punishment that it has been dubbed "the English vice," but the overtones of Mosley's antics are also in keeping with past British aristocrats who found Hitler and Benito Mussolini alluring alternatives to the oh-so-dull rule of the mob. This is a country whose second heir to the throne dressed up as a Nazi for Halloween not long ago.

The Automobile Association of America, a member of the FIA, has questioned whether Mosley's sexual behavior compromises his ability to serve as an international figurehead for "the interests of mobility and motor sport." The more important question is, should we require people's sex lives to be consistent with the rest of their lives, or is sex an arena that is colored by — but can also be kept separate from — the ethical and moral imperatives of public life?

Mosley's cup of tea suggests the latter.

Last year, a startling documentary debuted at the Jerusalem Film Festival. Ari Libsker's Stalags: Holocaust and Pornography in Israel told the story of popular postwar pulp novels, known as "stalags," that featured busty blond female Nazis sexually tormenting Jewish men in concentration camps. (The Jews usually rose up and overthrew the Nazi vixens.) The books sold in huge numbers at Israeli newsstands in the 1960s, until a court case deemed them pornographic and banned their publication. All this unfolded alongside the awful testimonies of the Eichmann trial.

How should we explain these ironies in which historical traumas are played out in controversial sexual fantasies?

Both Mosley's video nasty and the stalags recast history as erotic adventures choreographed to render those in power powerless and, conversely, to "empower" those who were historically powerless. They show how political dramas can get replayed, expressed — or exorcised — through sex.

Whether we laugh or despair at Mosley's "Springtime for Hitler" session, we should be mindful that erotic enactments do not necessarily reproduce the power relationships they portray, and we should beware of putting fantasy on trial.

Frost is a professor of English at Yale University and the author of Sex Drives: Fantasies of Fascism in Literary Modernism.

When sexual fantasy is on trial 04/19/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 28, 2010 10:38am]
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