Near the end of Danzig's 1993 music video for "It's Coming Down" the camera cuts to a television screen focused on a man's lips stitched shut. Between flashes of shirtless, Iron Cross-wearing Danzig and his band mates performing the song to an audience of excited fans, sadomasochistic couples whip, thrash, torture, and gag one another. The music video was banned from almost all mainstream music channels, including MTV, mostly for the ending, when a man hammers a nail through his own penis. That man was the late Bob Flanagan, an infamous "supermasochist," and his penis was the property of Los Angeles performance artist Sheree Rose.
"I kept [Flanagan's] penis locked up most of the time," Rose remembers. "I enjoyed the idea of keeping the penis locked up."
Rose and Flanagan were inspired by the novella Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the man who lent his name to the term masochism. The underground classic follows the story of Wanda von Dunajew, a dominant beauty who eventually acquires Severin von Kusiemski as her slave to torture, degrade, and play with in the name of love. "[The couple in the book] had rules, contracts in their relationship," Rose tells me. "She was mean to him, cruel to him, and he liked it even more when he did not get what he wanted. [Flanagan and I] both loved that book and wanted to follow it as much as we could."
Together, Rose and Flanagan became a prominent performance artist couple in Los Angeles in the SM circuit, art and punk scenes, LGBT community—anything underground, though they became well-known in the SM world and even beyond after the critically acclaimed documentary SICK: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist came out in 1997. They performed together and alone, challenging what it meant to be a heterosexual couple in love with every endeavor. Flanagan focused his performance and art on the eroticism and control of the pain he suffered from cystic fibrosis, the disease that would eventually claim his life at 43, while Rose honed in on playing with ideas of women, dominance, and second-wave feminism.
Growing up in a conservative, Jewish family in Los Angeles, Rose says she was naive to life. Like most of her peers, she met her fiancé at age 20 and was married at 21, still a virgin. "It was the 1950s. I was so happy to be getting married, you have no idea," she says. "I remember to this day, driving in my car and looking at my left hand on the steer wheel thinking, 'I'm getting married.'" Too young to be a beatnik and too married (and then pregnant) to be a hippy, Rose followed tradition. She had a few kids with her husband, became a schoolteacher, and lived a pleasant, sheltered life. She witnessed social revolution and political change from her bubble; it wasn't until she and her husband went to see the cult classic film Easy Rider that her whole perspective flipped. "That movie opened my eyes to a whole different culture," she says. "The whole idea of getting away from what was normal society, experiencing freedom of not being constricted by what society tells you is the right thing to do."
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After 14 years of marriage, she "got the courage" to divorce her husband and was on her own for the first time, exploring her feminist education and her sexuality. She jumped right into the thick of it, enrolling in women's studies, dating casually and going to punk shows around Los Angeles. Although she says she was much older than the punks coming up in the early 1970s, she was enamored by the scene and fit right in. But the band that turned her on to her deepest fetish, cutting, was Los Angeles's X.
I enjoyed the idea of keeping the penis locked up.
"I became a groupie for X," Rose remembers. "I was madly in love with Billy Zoom, as every other girl was in LA, but I traveled with them, went back stage. I was at every show." The first time she ever saw people cutting for pleasure was while watching X. "They would have broken beer bottles and cut X's into their hands, arms, foreheads, whatever. I had never seen anything like it. I loved was that it wasn't violent, but passionate. [The fans] had such passion, and the only way they could express that level was by drawing blood. This was self-inflicted. It was about showing a devotion to the band. I was very turned on, excited by it."
Rose met Flanagan in the music scene (he also played in a band), and she fell for the rail-then 27-year-old right away. They were married a few years later and bonded over their intimate connection and agreement: She was his "mean mommy," and he was happily her slave. Through the Los Angeles underground piercing parlor The Gauntlet, Flanagan mastered the art of piercing. (Rose swears he pierced more women's labia than any other man; everyone knew him as a "safe male"—he was her slave, under lock and key, after all.) Rose was a founding member of the women-only SM group Leather and Lace while both she and Flanagan were involved in the group Threshold.
"I would cut my sexual partners, lots of women," Rose says. "The main one I cut was obviously Bob [Flanagan]. However, Bob was never into the blood. He did not like it. He did it because I liked it—that turned him on. He was such a masochist that doing the things he really did not like, just because I did like them, turned him on."
Rose helped Flanagan through his exploration of his own pain and disease, and he assisted her cutting fetish by being the body up for torture. She loved to stamp her signature "S" (with three straight lines) into her submissives' butt cheeks after a good spanking. The first time she cut was with Flanagan: They came up with a contract (just like in Venus in Furs), and she carved into his chest.
Doing the things he really did not like, just because I did like them, turned him on.
"There is something about [cutting]. I loved seeing the blood. The break of the skin," she says. "There is something with women and blood. I have had a lot of experiences with lesbians and they are very into cutting. I used to go to these lesbians parties where the women would be using knives, cutting themselves, and it always turned me on. It's like tattooing in a way. Seeing the actual blood... it's a fetish. Usually women are much more into it than men. I think because women bleed normally. The volition of choosing to make someone bleed."
Rose was always fascinated by sexual education and how it could be improved. Growing up religious, she questioned why there was so much shame around the body and pleasures one could derive from it. The lack of information about pleasure made no sense to her. Through out her feminist studies and performance art that challenged gender roles, sexuality, and femininity, she always wondered if what she was doing made a difference in the world. Now, less actively involved in the SM scene, Rose continues to perform when she is asked (she has done a series of performances with Martin O'Brien, a British masochist with cystic fibrosis who she thinks is the reincarnation of her late husband), and she is off to London at the end of November to perform and do a workshop with ten other female performers to challenge the idea of what happens to post-menopausal women.
"I look back and ask if what Bob and I did was really important," she says. "Then I think it's not up to me to judge." Rose still gets letters from all around the world, people telling her how seeing her and Flanagan in SICK changed their lives. She says that it has been especially influential to other people with cystic fibrosis, or any disability. "Just because you have an illness, does not make you un-sexual," she says. "But I don't necessarily see what Bob and I did as making the world a better place or anything."
"When I perform, I am not putting on a rehearsed play," she continues. "I am having a visceral, human experience in front of other people. And I like that idea: to share something with an audience that is not supposed to be shared, not knowing how it is going to turn out."