Acurious double standard exists at a time when headlines about rape and sexual abuse continue to draw public attention and outrage, and shelters for battered women multiply. In a prolonged, graphically depicted scene in the new movie ``Blue Velvet,'' a psychopath inflicts violent verbal and sexual abuse on a night-club singer. Voyeurism, sadomasochism, rape -- director David Lynch spares his audiences nothing as this drug-crazed madman vents his tortured rage on his fragile victim.
In the context of the film, the scene helps to establish the depravity of the man (Dennis Hopper) and the vulnerability of the woman (Isabella Rossellini). Yet after the last credits have rolled and the theater has emptied, a thoughtful moviegoer can be left feeling that much of this sexual violence is excessive and gratuitous.
Miss Rossellini has defended the movie as a portrayal of the tragic mental state of a victim of sexual abuse. ``I'm sure that women everywhere will understand the serious intent of the film,'' she has said.
Don't count on it. In their general enthusiasm for the film, critics -- among them several women -- have been strangely silent about its violent sexuality.
The film has been billed variously as ``a psychosexual mystery'' and ``a comedy of the eccentric'' that is ``charged with its maker's psychosexual energy.'' It has been praised for its ``kinkiness'' and excused as an example of director Lynch's ``uncensored'' sexual fantasies.
``There are some women that you want to hit because you're getting a feeling from them that they want it, or maybe they upset you in a certain way,'' Mr. Lynch explained matter-of-factly in an interview with the Village Voice. ``I see this happening, but I don't really understand it.''
Would such casualness, such false ``objectivity,'' have passed unchallenged a few years ago, when the ultimate measure of ``insensitivity'' was to treat women as ``sex objects'' -- to say nothing of battered sex objects?
Nor is this simply a matter of accepting sexual degradation with a shrug as a ``fact'' of male taste. Producers of X-rated video cassettes are now wooing women -- if the phrase is not a contradiction -- as an untapped market to boost sagging rentals. According to a nationwide survey, women (or couples) rent 63 percent of ``adult'' videos.
Thus does the victim pay -- and pay -- for her own dehumanizing. Masochism indeed!
Sadomasochism has been further legitimized in the proliferation of sex manuals that list ``menus'' of sexual experiences, encouraging readers to expand their notions of ``normal'' behavior, with such devices as riding crops taken for granted as optional equipment.
In her new book, ``Re-making Love: The Feminization of Sex,'' Barbara Ehrenreich argues that the sexual revolution has changed women's behavior, but not men's. She also describes what must be considered the darker side of the sexual revolution, the increase in deviant behavior.
``Nothing could be further from the earlier feminist notions of sexual liberation,'' she writes, ``yet in one form or another sadomasochism has been assimilated into America's mainstream sexual culture, and not only in its `hard core,' male-oriented expressions.''
Consider a fable within a fable. In another film of sadomasochism released earlier this year, ``9 Weeks,'' Kim Basinger plays a woman who, in that brief period of time, is driven to the edge of suicide by erotic game-playing with a dominant lover.
In a kind of art/life parallel, Miss Basinger's director manipulated and humiliated her to extract the performance he wanted. When asked if she thought it was ethical to wreak havoc in her private life for the sake of art, she answered her interviewer: ``There were times when I was ready to quit, when I wondered if we weren't all sick to do this. . . . It would be hard to say if I'd do it again, but finally I would have to say yes. . . . If you are an artist of any kind, if you want to try to excel, there is pain.''
Here Basinger exactly expresses the confusion of the late '80s.
It happens not to be a new confusion. To see sexuality as a sort of dare to be free -- in fact, a frontier -- is an old story in America, where any reaction against Puritanism is regarded as liberation and ``progress.''
``It's a strange world, isn't it?'' various characters in ``Blue Velvet'' keep asking one another. Indeed it is.
But the strangest part of all is that after seeing through the subtlest manipulations of ``sexual politics'' during the last decade and a half, we should suddenly become oblivious to its crudest and most blatant aspects.