By PT Staff, published on November 1, 1995 - last reviewed on January 23, 2015
It's the ultimate break from thoroughly modern stresses on the
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.
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
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 Pain--normally something the self goes to great lengths to avoid,
but sought out by masochists; a great destructor from
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
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.