Selección de idioma

Finishes y el «vicio inglés»

19 abril, 2007 a las 11:05/ por

Hablaba de ello Vargas Llosa a través de Flora Tristán en «El paraíso en la otra esquina». Y no era a finales del siglo XIX, sino a principios (por lo menos cuando transcurre el relato, que puede que existieran más tiempo).


«finishes.» These are disgraceful cabarets or else vast, sumptuous taverns where one goes to finish out the night.

The finishes . . . are as much a part of the English customs as are coffee houses to the Germans and elegant cafes to the French. In some, the attorney’s clerk and the commission merchant drink ale, smoke bad tobacco, and get drunk with the filthily clad girls; in others, the fashionable drink punch or cognac, French or Rhine wine, sherry or port. They smoke excellent Havana cigars, laugh and joke with beautifully and richly dressed young ladies. But in all of these, the orgies are brutal and horrible!

I was told, on the subject of the finishes, about scenes of debauchery that I refused to believe. This was my fourth time in London, and I had come with the intention of finding out about everything. So I decided to overcome my repugnance and go myself to one of these finishes, in order to judge how much confidence I could have in the various descriptions given to me. The same friends who had accompanied me to Waterloo Road again offered to serve as guides.

It was a sight to see, one that makes the moral condition of England better understood than anything one might say. These splendid taverns have a very special character. It seems that their frequenters are dedicated to the night; they go to bed when the sun begins to light up the horizon, and they get up after it has gone down. On the outside these carefully shut-up palace-taverns (gin-palaces) betoken only sleep and silence; but the porter has hardly opened the little door where the initiates enter than one is dazzled by the lively, brilliant lights escaping from a thousand gas jets. On the second floor there is an immense salon divided into two parts lengthwise. In one part is a row of tables separated by wooden partitions, as in all the English restaurants. On two sides of the tables are sofa-benches. Opposite, on the other side of the room, is a stage where richly costumed prostitutes are on display. They provoke the men with glances and words. When someone responds to their advances, they take the gallant gentlemen to one of the tables, all of which are loaded with cold meats, ham, poultry, cakes, and every kind of wine and liquor.

The finishes are the temples that English materialism erects to its gods! The acolytes are richly dressed servants. The industrialist owners of the establishment humbly greet the male guests who come to exchange their old for debauchery.

Toward midnight the habituates begin to arrive. Several of these taverns are meeting places for high society where the elite of the aristocracy assembles. At first the young lord recline on the sofa-benches, smoking and joking with the girls, then after several drinks, the fumes of champagne and the alcohol of Madeira rise to their heads, and the illustrious scions of the English nobility, and Their Honors of the Parliament, take off their coats, unknot their ties, and remove their vests and suspenders. They set up their own boudoirs in a public cabaret. Why should they restrain themselves? Are they not paying very dearly for the right to display their scorn> And as for the one they incite — they make fun of her. The orgy is steadily rising to a crescendo; between four and five o’clock in the morning, it reaches its peak.

Well, at that time one must have a certain amount of courage to stay there, a silent spectator of all that goes on!

What a noble use of their immense fortunes these worthy English lords make! How fine and generous they are when they have lost their senses and offer fifty or a hundred guineas to a prostitute, if she is willing to lend herself to all of the obscenities to which drunkenness gives birth.

There are all sorts of amusements in the finishes. One of the favorites is to make a girl dead drunk and then make her swallow some vinegar mixed with mustard and pepper; this drink almost always gives her horrible convulsions, and the jerking and contortions of the unfortunate thing provoke laughter and infinitely amuse the honorable society. Another divertissement greatly appreciated in these fashionable assemblies is to throw glasses of anything at all on the girls who lie dead drunk on the floor. I have seen satin dresses that no longer had any color; they were a confusing mixture of stains; wine, brandy, beer, tea, coffee, cream, etc., made a thousand fantastic designs on them — a variegated testimony of the orgy; human beings cannot descend lower.

The sight of this diabolical debauchery is revolting and frightening, and the bad air turns one’s stomach; the odors of meat, drinks, tobacco smoke, and others worse yet — all these seize you by the throat, press on your temples and make you dizzy. It is horrible! But this is life, repeated every night, is the prostitutes’ only hope of fortune, for they have no hold on a sober Englishman. The sober Englishman is so chaste as to be a prude.

Ordinarily it is about seven or eight o’clock in the morning when one leaves the finish. The servants go to look for cabs. The men who are still on their feet look for their clothes, put them on, and go home; as for the others, the tavern waiters dress them as best they can, in the first clothes they find, take them to a cab and indicate to the driver the address of the package they give him. Very often the address of these individuals is unknown; then they are put in a room at the back of the house where they simply sleep on the straw. This room is called the drunkard’s hole. They stay there until they have recovered enough to be able to say where they would like to be taken.

It is unnecessary to say that the things consumed in these taverns are paid for at enormous prices; and the drunkards leave with their purses completely empty, happy if their siren’s cupidity has spared them a watch, their eyeglasses with gold frames, or anything of value.

The lives of prostitutes of all classes in this intemperate city are of short duration. Whether she wants to or not, the prostitute is obliged to partake of alcoholic drinks. What constitution could maintain this continual excess! So three or four years is the life period of half of the London prostitutes; there are some who hold out for seven or eight years, but that is the extreme limit that few reach and that only a few rare exceptions exceed. Many die of horrible diseases or of pneumonia in hospitals, and when they cannot be admitted they succumb to their diseases in wretched hovels, deprived of nourishment, medicine, care, everything.

When a dog dies he is watched over by his master, whereas the prostitute ends on a street corner without anyone’s throwing her a glance of pity!

In London 80,000 to 100,000 girls, the flower of the population, live by prostitution. Every year, 15,000 or 20,000 of these unfortunates grow sickly and die a leper’s death in total abandonment. Every year an even greater number come to replace those whose frightful lives have ended.


vice anglais

vice anglais m
(slang) flagellation
(slang) homosexuality
The phrase is literally translated as ‘English vice’


The potential for erotic arousal among participants or viewers of Western European medieval religious ceremonies involving flagellation remains a matter for speculation, although Gibson, in The English Vice (1978), draws attention to an early fifteenth-century Catalan painting, ‘Flagellation of Christ’, in which the floggers certainly appear to be deriving sexual pleasure from their work. Renaissance humanist Pico della Mirandola described the passive flagellatory desires of a friend, which he found both puzzling and amusing. Elizabethan and Jacobean drama and poetry include motifs of sexualized violence, for example Cleopatra’s allusions to the “lover’s pinch, which hurts and is desired”.

In the Restoration period, Snarl in Shadwell’s The Virtuoso (1676) made, perhaps for the first time, the connection between pedogogical punishment in English schools and addiction to ‘le vice anglais’ in later life. Otway, in Venice Preserved (1682), depicted a masochistic Venetian senator engaging in what might today be termed ‘puppy-play’ or ‘kennel-training’ with his mistress.

The birch over the bed in Hogarth’s series of ‘The Harlot’s Progress’ alludes to flagellation as an erotic speciality for hire, further attested to by inventories of paraphernalia confiscated in raids on London brothels. ‘Fladge’ as a subgenre in pornography emerged before the end of the eighteenth century and proliferated during the Victorian era.

Erotic response to being flagellated was thus reasonably well documented from the Renaissance period, but there was less evidence for the erotic reaction of the actual flagellator. Havelock Ellis, in Love and Pain (1913), one of the first major studies of the subject, gave the earliest reported example he could find of “sadistic pleasure in the sight of active whipping” as 1672 (though Gibson, as mentioned, found an earlier visual allusion). Ellis pointed out that whipping as a punishment was common in European societies for many centuries, and beating of wives, children and servants an accepted practice: therefore devotees did not need to go far to seek it out and observe it for their own pleasure. By contrast, the desire of powerful members of society for apparently humiliating punishment was highly puzzling.

Theorizing painful pleasures
Although flagellation is often considered to be ‘le vice anglais’ par excellence, the first medico-scientific treatise on the subject probably came from Germany. De Flagrorum Usu in Re Veneria & Lumborum Renumque Officio (On the Use of Rods in Venereal Matters and in the Office of the Loins and Reins), by the German doctor Johann Heinrich Meibom, known as Meibomus, was first published in Leiden in 1629. It attempted to explain, in the light of contemporary understanding of anatomy and physiology, why chastisement might be arousing.

A more psychological explanation was given in the personal testimony of the Swiss Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his frank, though posthumously published, Confessions (1782). Rousseau recounted the lasting effects of youthful experiences of corporal punishment at the hands of his schoolmaster’s sister. Themes of sadism and masochism famously pervaded the works of the eventually eponymous Marquis de Sade (1740–1814), alongside other forms of sexual transgression, and their philosophical underpinnings were expounded upon at great length. These themes also figured in the fiction of the late nineteenth-century Austrian writer, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (1836–1895), author of Venus in Furs (1870), who gave his name to the passive endurance of pain.

A number of early attempts by sexologists to analyse the subject tended to conflate wider instances of cruel punishments within society with the (conscious) erotic enjoyment produced by similar experiences within a minority. The early sexologists also tended to make gender-biased assumptions, seeing sadism as an excessive manifestation of inherent male aggression, and masochism as merely an exaggeration of the submissive role assigned to women, even though male masochists were not uncommon. Following the rise of Freud’s theories, psychoanalysts elaborated complex explanations of sadistic and masochistic behaviour (conscious and unconscious). Well into the later decades of the twentieth century, discussions of sadomasochism tended to be framed in terms of psychopathology and dysfunctionality.

However, as the century drew on and attitudes towards sexuality in the Western world became more liberalized, various surveys of sexual attitudes and behaviour revealed that significant percentages of individuals admitted to finding pleasure in certain sadomasochistic scenarios, either in reality or as fantasy. In this changing social context, and with the increasing belief that sexual pleasure was in itself a good thing, subcultures of individuals interested in consensual sadomasochistic practices developed, gradually and with great discretion.

They developed codes of conduct to ensure the safety of participants, embodied in the rubric ‘Safe, Sane and Consensual’, prior negotiation of the parameters of a ‘scene’, and a system of ‘safe words’ to stop or slow down the action. Far from the masochist, or ‘bottom’, being at the mercy of the sadist, or ‘top’, it was widely claimed that the bottom controlled the scene by defining its limits; while the top was not indulging in a frenzy of violence, but consciously and attentively deploying certain practices, some of them demanding considerable skill and dexterity. Definitions were further complicated by the discovery that very few defined themselves as exclusively either sadistic or masochistic.

Sociologists researching these communities found the individuals involved very similar to the ‘normal’ population, and in many cases they were pillars of society, although uncomfortably aware of the social stigma their activities incurred. They strongly differentiated their activities in ‘play’, desired and experienced as pleasure by both parties, from violence and cruelty and extremes such as ‘lust murder’ with which sadomasochism had traditionally been associated.

Early writers such as Meibomius pointed out the anatomical reasons why stimulation, even painful stimulation, in the gluteal area might evoke arousal in the contiguous genital organs, as well as alluding to the general tonic effect on the system. Modern science similarly suggests that effects such as increasing the blood flow to the area would have this result. Havelock Ellis, in Love and Pain, pointed out that sadomasochistic practices were points along an erotic continuum, often consisting of the intensification of acts widely regarded as ‘normal’ concomitants of sexual activity. He also theorized that psychological factors played a part, since informants described being aroused simply by the thought of whipping. This theme was suggested in Rousseau’s account of his own proclivities, which he never seems to have indulged as an adult.

In the later twentieth century physiologists pointed out the effect of pain in producing natural endorphins and a resultant ‘high’, an experience which is also found in certain sports and other non-sexual activities, such as alternating hot saunas with cold plunges. It has also been recognized that, during sexual arousal, sensations which might be considered painful in the non-aroused state may be experienced as intense but pleasurable. Certain kinds of pain can also become eroticized through their association with sexual pleasure, or in anticipation of it.

A recent popular fantasy trilogy by Jacqueline Carey, Kushiel’s Dart, Kushiel’s Chosen and Kushiel’s Avatar, takes as protagonist Phèdre, a courtesan who is blessed, or cursed, by the god Kushiel to be an anguisette, experiencing all pain as sexually arousing. However, in real life, even the most dedicated masochist seldom eroticises or enjoys all and any pain, looking forward to a visit to the dentist, for example, with no more ardent anticipation than anyone else. Researchers have suggested that psychological and symbolic elements are significant in sadomasochistic pleasure and for many, though not all, an explicit context of dominance and submission is of considerable importance.

Although sadomasochistic motifs are rife within popular culture, there is still much discomfort and even taboo about these practices. Media reports of fetish events, or of allegations of celebrities indulging in ‘kinky sex’, typically strive for a jokey, distancing note. At a further extreme the severe sentences handed down in the ‘Spanner’ case of 1990, for what can well be argued were victimless crimes of engaging in consensual (albeit extreme) masochism, demonstrate the continuing unease that many feel at the blurring of the boundaries of pleasure and pain.

Lesley Hall is a senior archivist at the Wellcome Library for the History of Medicine, London.

Further reading
Bullough V, Dixon D and Dixon J (1993) ‘Sadism, masochism and history, or When is behaviour sado-masochistic?’ in Roy Porter and Mikulas Teich (eds.), Sexual Knowledge, Sexual Science: The History of Attitudes to Sexuality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ellis H (1913) ‘Love and Pain’, in Studies in the Psychology of Sex Volume III: Analysis of the Sexual Impulse; Love and Pain; The Sexual Impulse in Women (2nd edition). Philadelphia: F A Davis Co.

Gibson I (1978) The English Vice: Beating, Sex and Shame in Victorian England and After. London: Duckworth.

Meibomius J H (English translation, London, 1761, reprinted 1801) A Treatise of the Use of Flogging in Venereal Affairs

Thompson B (1994) Sadomasochism: Painful Perversion or Pleasurable Play? London: Cassell.

In order to explain such colossal prostitution, one must be aware of the immense increase in wealth in England in the last fifty years and remember that, in all nations and at all epochs, sensuality grows with wealth. The commercial incentive has become so powerful among Englishmen that it has upset all others. There is not one of them whose dominant thought is not to make money. Also, it is a necessity for the younger sons of the richest families to make a fortune; no one is satisfied with what he has.

The love of money, implanted in young men’s hearts at the most tender age, destroys family affections as well as any compassion for another’s misfortunes. Love has no part in their lives; a young girl is seduced without love; people get married without love. The young man marries a dowry, forsakes his wife, and ends by dissipating his fortune in gambling houses, clubs, and «finishes» in the West End. How repulsive is that wholly materialistic life of appetites and self-interests! Has society ever been as hideous– with money as the motive power and with only wine and prostitutes for pleasure!

In London all classes are badly corrupted; in childhood, vice anticipates age; in old age it survives burned-out senses; and debauchery’s maladies have penetrated all families. the pen refuses to describe the aberrations and depravity into which surfeited men let themselves be dragged, who have only sensations, whose souls are inert, whose hearts are corrupted, and whose minds are uncultivated. Faced with such depravity, Saint Paul would have cried: «A curse on fornicators!» And he would have fled from this island, shaking its dust from his feet.

In London there is no commiseration for the victims of vice; the fate of the prostitute inspires no more pity than that of the Irishman, the Jew, the proletarian, or the beggar. The Romans were no more insensitive to the gladiators who perished in the arena. Men, when they are not drunk, kick the prostitutes, beat them even if they are afraid of the scandal resulting from a fight with pimps or the intervention of the police.* Virtuous women have harsh, bitter, cruel scorn for these unhappy ones; and the Anglican priest is not the comforter of the unfortunates as is the Catholic priest. The Anglican priest has no pity for the prostitute; he will give a pompous sermon from the pulpit on Jesus’ charity and affection for Mary Magdalene the prostitute, but for the thousands of Mary Magdalenes who die each day in the horrors of poverty and abandonment, he has not a tear! What do these creatures matter to him? His duty is to deliver a sermon in the church on the appointed day and hour. That is all. In London the prostitute has nothing but the right to a hospital and them only when there is an unoccupied place. . .

* While I was in London, a city tradesman, ill with an infamous disease, believed he could attribute his illness to a prostitute whom he knew. He summoned her to a house of assignation. There he lifted her skirts above her head and tied them with a cord, enclosing the top of her body like a sack; then he whipped her with a switch and, when he tired of that, threw her in than condition into the street. That unhappy girl, deprived of air, was suffocating; she struggled, shouted, rolled in the mud. No one came to help her. In London one never gets mixed up with what is happening in the street: «That’s not my business,» the Englishman says without stopping, and he is already steps away when these words float back to your ear. the unfortunate one lying on the pavement no longer moved. She was about to die when a policeman passed, approached her, and cut the cords binding her clothing. Her face was purple, she no longer breathed, she was suffocated. But she was taken to a hospital where prompt rescue methods saved her life.

The author of this atrocity was called before a magistrate and given a fine of six shillings for indecent behavior on a public street.

In a nation of such ridiculous prudery, one see that it does not cost much to outrage the sense of decency of the public. And what is astonishing is that the magistrate saw in this incident only a breach of the peace to be punished. Yes, in this country of so-called liberty, the law is for the strong and the weak cannot invoke its protection. (pp. 67-73)

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