Sensational Flesh

Race, Power, and Masochism

272 pages

2 halftones

September, 2014

ISBN: 9781479832491



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Amber Jamilla Musser is Associate Professor of American Studies at George Washington University and the author of Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism, also published by New York University Press.

All books by Amber Jamilla Musser

In everyday language, masochism is usually understood as the desire to abdicate control in exchange for sensation—pleasure, pain, or a combination thereof. Yet at its core, masochism is a site where power, bodies, and society come together. Sensational Flesh uses masochism as a lens to examine how power structures race, gender, and embodiment in different contexts.
Drawing on rich and varied sources—from 19th century sexology, psychoanalysis, and critical theory to literary texts and performance art—Amber Jamilla Musser employs masochism as a powerful diagnostic tool for probing relationships between power and subjectivity. Engaging with a range of debates about lesbian S&M, racialization, femininity, and disability, as well as key texts such as Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs, Pauline Réage’s The Story of O, and Michel Foucault's History of Sexuality, Musser renders legible the complex ways that masochism has been taken up by queer, feminist, and critical race theories. Furthering queer theory’s investment in affect and materiality, she proposes “sensation” as an analytical tool for illustrating what it feels like to be embedded in structures of domination such as patriarchy, colonialism, and racism and what it means to embody femininity, blackness, and pain. Sensational Flesh is ultimately about the ways in which difference is made material through race, gender, and sexuality and how that materiality is experienced. 


  • “A lively and enlightening contribution to queer studies, investigating affect and embodiment as avenues for the radical reinvigoration of how we experience and think about raced, gendered, and sexualized subjectivities. Masterful in her engagement with queer, feminist, and psychoanalytic theory and their historical contexts, Musser provides incisive analyses that make for exhilarating and highly informative reading.”

    —Darieck Scott, author of Extravagant Abjection

  • Sensational Flesh explores the material aspects of power—how, in a Foucauldian sense, it is ‘felt’ in the body—unpacking the bodily, sensational dimensions of subjectivity. Comprehensive and exhaustive in scope, Musser leaves no stone unturned in her consideration of ‘masochism’ in all its different formulations, and in the often-contradictory ways it has been deployed.”

    —Jean Walton, author of Fair Sex, Savage Dreams: Race Psychoanalysis, Sexual Difference

  • "In Sensational Flesh, Amber Jamilla Musser explores the appeal of masochism via empathetic readings of historical texts, extracting meaning from writing that might otherwise appear outdated or limited in its perspective. . . . Musser does a fine job of weaving together various texts to present the reader with a nuanced view of the practice. . . . [F]or those with a basic understanding of the philosophical complexities of arguments concerning subjects, objects, and notions of the 'other,' Musser presents a compelling and deeply satisfying read."

    Bitch Magazine

  • "Musser has written a book well worth reading.”

    Sexuality and Culture

  • "The book is a rich intellectual history of the constellations of power organized as masochism in psychoanalytic, philosophical, feminist, postcolonial, and critical theory.”


  • “In a sex-positive era, Musser admirably defends black women’s rights to experiment boundlessly with sensations and the erotics of power, free from the restraints of the collective memory of slavery.”

    Gender & Society

  • “What does it feel like to be enmeshed in regimes of power? And how does masochism… challenge and extend notions of agency, subjectivity, difference, freedom, and representation? In Sensational Flesh, Musser probes such questions in an effort to distill how it feels to exist in the liminal space between agency and subjectlessness and, importantly, how to account for difference within these performances of submission.”

    GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies