An Inside Look at S&M

It's the ultimate break from thoroughly modern stresses on the self.

You've got a respectably high-powered job. Maybe it's even visible one. You are regularly making difficult decisions that affect the lives of others, perhaps many others. You need to maintain a highly polished self-image. You like to feel in personal control. You're constantly advancing your independence, your responsibility, your success.

So how do you take a break? If you're like an unknown number of others, perhaps you've already signed up for a spanking.

Across the country, from sophisticated cities to subdued suburbs, men and women are acting out fantasies of sexual domination and submission. With their own partners or specially hired ones, they're turning to rituals of sadomasochism. To borrow their own favorite term, they've happily become "sex slaves" to their submissive desires.

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These are people--a minority of both sexes--who desire to be tied up, handcuffed, gagged, or bound in uncomfortable positions; adults who desire to be whipped or tormented with droplets of hot wax on bare skin. Some write longingly of receiving "an old-fashioned, bare-bottom, over-the-knee spanking." Others desire to be embarrassed, verbally insulted, given commands, made to walk on all fours like a dog, or displayed naked in front of others who are fully clothed.

"The mainstream mild submissive will have one or two favorites," psychologist Roy E Baumeister, Ph.D., reports. For many people, submission goes no further than wanting to make love blindfolded once in a while.

Have they thoroughly lost their minds? Probably not, contends Baumeister. At a symposium on "Bizarre Behavior: The Social Animal at the Outer Limits," psychologists learned what has previously eluded behavioral experts of all stripes: how to make sense of sadomasochism. Masochists, Baumeister believes, are taking a breather from the growing burden of selfhood.

Relief From the Needy Self

Why would anyone want to escape awareness of the self? Because while a self is a handy, even a necessary, thing to have, it's also very needy. It requires constant upkeep and maintenance. You have to work hard just to maintain a positive self-image. Or "to be in control."

"Modern Western culture has placed enormous and unprecedented demands on individual selfhood," Baumeister observes. "The self is an unending project, throughout life, that constantly needs to be built up and defended. It has to prove capable and autonomous and attractive, along with everything else. As such it is a source of stress, and hence worry and pressure."

And if there's one thing stress research has taught us, it's that any respite from vulnerability is a good thing.

Baumeister, professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, reports that his analysis of the writings of masochistic men and women reveal consistent themes that run counter to usual human strivings:

o Loss of control---captured in bondage fantasies, involving devices like ropes, handcuffs, and gags.

o Humiliation--the elaborate, exquisitely detailed humiliations masochists desire (spanking is just the beginning) signify abandonment of the pursuit of self-esteem.

o Pain--normally something the self goes to great lengths to avoid, but sought out by masochists; a great destructor from self-reflection.

If masochism is about contradicting one's identity, then socioeconomic status reveals masochists for what they are. "Masochists seem to be drawn largely from the privileged classes," Baumeister finds. They are above average in education and income. "Society's real victims do not seek out masochistic sex. Rather it is often the rich, powerful, and successful, the people with the heaviest burdens of selfhood, who need the escape of masochism."

Of course, masochists are not really out to ditch their selves. Nor do they want to be sex slaves in reality. They want the fantasy of shedding their own identity, with its autonomy and responsibility, and submitting entirely to the will of another.

With sexual pleasure thrown into the bargain--because it's a great reinforcer of submissive acts. "Studies of actual couples who practice these things suggest that total full-time sexual slavery is fairly impractical and therefore relatively uncommon," Baumeister reports.

Fantasies of sexual submission turn out to be particularly common among women, more so than among men, even though men engage in more masochistic practices than women. (Then again, men engage more in most forms of unusual sexual behavior.)

Women Are Not Masochistic

But that is not grist for that old Freudian canard that femininity is masochistic. Instead, Baumeister believes, submission is essentially feminine, one version--a cartoon one, at that--of a feminine ideal. Consider these findings:

o One common masochistic fantasy involves symbolic sex change--and given the rootedness of identity in gender, there's no clearer way to shed an identity than by changing gender. But the sex change is always one way: from male to female, never from female to male.

o Up to a third of all women may have fantasies of being dominated sexually (although few act them out).

That's why Baumeister thinks female masochistic fantasies hold the key to understanding submissive behavior in general. "If anything, female masochists desire to be turned into an extreme caricature version of femininity, something far removed from their normal selves."

A common female masochistic fantasy is submission based on having one's body displayed to others. One of Baumeister's favorite--perhaps apocryphal--stories is that of a woman whose husband threw her a birthday party, inviting lots of people. She was posed nude and spread-eagle on the hors d'oeuvre table. Every party-goer who reached for a cracker or the vegetable dip had to reach across her bare self.

The audience factor, observes Baumeister, drives home the point of the entire enterprise: There's nothing like other people's attention to dramatize the transformation of self. Not only is this form of attention contrary to the standard adult role, but "it crosses some sexual boundary, as in doing something you object to."

Maybe you have masochistic fantasies that contain some new kind of sex act. Or a first homosexual experience. Or something highly degrading. And that is exactly the point -- the shocking degree to which you can, with a little imagination, shed your normal self.

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