By Marianne Apostolides, published on September 1, 1999 - last reviewed on August 30, 2004
Bind my ankles with your white cotton rope so I cannot walk. Bind
my wrists so I cannot push you away. Place me on the bed and wrap your
rope tighter around my skin so it grips my flesh. Now I know that
struggle is useless, that I must lie here and submit to your mouth and
tongue and teeth, your hands and words and whims. I exist only as your
Of every 10 people who reads these words, one or more has
experimented with sadomasochism (S & M), which is most popular among
educated, middle- and upper-middle-class men and women, according to
psychologists and ethnographers who have studied the phenomenon. Charles
Moser, Ph.D., M.D., of the Institute for Advanced Study of Human
Sexuality in San Francisco, has researched S & M to learn the
motivation behind it--to understand why in the world people would ask to
be bound, whipped and flogged. The reasons are as surprising as they are
For James, the desire became apparent when he was a child playing
war games--he always hoped to be captured. "I was frightened that I was
sick," he says. But now, he adds, as a well-seasoned player on the scene,
"I thank the leather gods I found this community."
At first the scene found him. When he was at a party in college, a
professor chose him. She brought him home and tied him up, told him how
bad he was for having these desires, even as she fulfilled them. For the
first time he felt what he had only imagined, what he had read about in
every S & M book he could find.
James, a father and manager, has a Type A personality--in-control,
hard-working, intelligent, demanding. His intensity is evident on his
face, in his posture, in his voice. But when he plays, his eyes drift and
a peaceful energy flows through him as though he had injected heroin.
With each addition of pain or restraint, he stiffens slightly, then falls
into a deeper calm, a deeper peace, waiting to obey his mistress. "Some
people have to be tied up to be free," he says.
As James' experience illustrates, sadomasochism involves a highly
unbalanced power relationship established through role-playing, bondage,
and/or the infliction of pain. The essential component is not the pain or
bondage itself, but rather the knowledge that one person has complete
control over the other, deciding what that person will hear, do, taste,
touch, smell and feel. We hear about men pretending to be little girls,
women being bound in a leather corset, people screaming in pain with each
strike of a flogger or drip of hot wax. We hear about it because it is
happening in bedrooms and dungeons across the country.
For over a century, people who engaged in bondage, beatings and
humiliation for sexual pleasure were considered mentally ill. But in the
1980s, the American Psychiatric Association removed S & M as a
category in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
This decision--like the decision to remove homosexuality as a category in
1973--was a big step toward the societal acceptance of people whose
sexual desires aren't traditional, or vanilla, as it's called in S &
What's new is that such desires are increasingly being considered
normal, even healthy, as experts begin to recognize their potential
psychological value. S & M, they are beginning to understand, offers
a release of sexual and emotional energy that some people cannot get from
traditional sex. "The satisfaction gained from S & M is something far
more than sex," explains Roy Baumeister, Ph.D., a social psychologist at
Case Western Reserve University. "It can be a total emotional
Although people report that they have better-than-usual sex
immediately after a scene, the goal of S & M itself is not
intercourse: "A good scene doesn't end in orgasm, it ends in
S & M: No Longer A Pathology
"If children at [an] early age witness sexual intercourse between
adults... they inevitably regard the sexual act as a sort of
ill-treatment or act of subjugation: they view it, that is, in a sadistic
--Sigmund Freud, 1905
Freud was one of the first to discuss S & M on a psychological
level. During the 20 years he explored the topic, his theories crossed
each other to create a maze of contradictions. But he maintained one
constant: S & M was pathological.
People become masochistic, Freud said, as a way of regulating their
desire to sexually dominate others. The desire to submit, on the other
hand, he said, arises from guilt feelings over the desire to dominate. He
also argued that the desire for S & M can arise on its own when a man
wants to assume the passive female role, with bondage and beating
signifying being "castrated or copulated with, or giving birth."
The view that S & M is pathological has been dismissed by the
psychological community. Sexual sadism is a real problem, but it is a
different phenomenon from S & M. Luc Granger, Ph.D., head of the
department of psychology at the University of Montreal, created an
intensive treatment program for sexual aggressors in La Macaza Prison in
Quebec; he has also conducted research on the S & M community. "They
are very separate populations," he says. While S & M is the regulated
exchange of power among consensual participants, sexual sadism is the
derivation of pleasure from either inflicting pain or completely
controlling an unwilling person.
Lily Fine, a professional dominatrix who teaches S & M
workshops across North America, explains: "I may hurt you, but I will not
harm you: I will not hit you too hard, take you further than you want to
go or give you an infection."
Despite the research indicating that S & M does no real harm
and is not associated with pathology, Freud's successors in
psychoanalysis continue to use mental illness overtones when discussing S
& M. Sheldon Bach, Ph.D., clinical professor of psychology at New
York University and supervising analyst at the New York Freudian Society,
maintains that people are addicted to S & M. They feel compelled to
be "anally abused or crawl on their knees and lick a boot or a penis or
who knows what else. The problem," he continues, "is that they can't
love. They are searching for love, and S & M is the only way they can
try to find it because they are locked into sadomasochistic interactions
they had with a parent."
"I can explore aspects of myself that I don't get a chance to
explore otherwise. So even though I'm playing a role, I feel more
connected with myself."
--Leanne Custer, M.S.W., AIDS counselor
Meredith Reynolds, Ph.D., the Sexuality Research Fellow of the
Social Science Research Council, confirms that childhood experiences may
shape a person's sexual outlook.
"Sexuality doesn't just arise at puberty" she says. "Like other
pans of someone's personality, sexuality develops at birth and takes a
developmental course through a person's life span."
In her work on sexual exploration among children, Reynolds has
shown that while childhood experiences can indeed influence adult
sexuality, the effects usually "wash out" as a person gains more sexual
experience. But they can linger in some people, causing a connection
between childhood memories and adult sexual play. In that case, Reynolds
says, "the childhood experiences have affected something in the
personality, and that in turn affects adult experiences."
Reynolds' theory helps us develop a greater understanding of the
desire to be a whip-bearing mistress or a bootlicking slave. For example,
if a child has been taught to feel shame about her body and desires, she
may learn to disconnect herself from them. Even as she gets older and
gains more experience with sex, her personality may retain some part of
that need for separation. S & M play may act as a bridge: Lying naked
on a bed bound to the bedposts with leather restraints, she is forced to
be completely sexual. The restraint, the futility of struggle, the pain,
the master's words telling her she is such a lovely slave--these cues
enable her body to fully connect with her sexual self in a way that has
been difficult during traditional sex.
Marina is a prime example. She knew from the time she was 6 years
old that she was expected to succeed in school and sports. She learned to
focus on achievement as a way to dismiss emotions and desires. "I learned
very young that desires are dangerous," she says. She heard that message
in the behavior of her parents: a depressive mother who let her emotions
overtake her, and an obsessively health-conscious father who compulsively
controlled his diet. When Marina began to have sexual desires, her
instinct, cultivated by her upbringing, was to consider them too
frightening, too dangerous. "So I became anorexic," she says. "And when
you're anorexic, you don't feel desire; all you feel in your body is
Marina didn't feel the desire for S & M until she was an adult
and had outgrown her eating disorder. "One night I asked my partner to
put his hands around my neck and choke me. I was so surprised when those
words came out of my mouth," she says. If she gave her partner total
control over her body, she felt, she could allow herself to feel like a
completely sexual being, with none of the hesitation and disconnection
she sometimes felt during sex. "He wasn't into it, but now I'm with
someone who is," Marina says. "S & M makes our vanilla sex better,
too, because we trust each other more sexually, and we can communicate
what we want."
Escaping the Modern Western Ego
--Roy Baumeister, Ph.D., professor of psychology, Case Western
It is human nature to try to maximize esteem and control: Those are
two general principles governing the study of the self. Masochism runs
contrary to both, and was therefore an intriguing psychological puzzle
for Baumeister, whose career has focused on the study of self and
Through an analysis of S & M-related letters to the sex
magazine Variations, Baumeister came to believe that "masochism is a set
of techniques for helping people temporarily lose their normal identity."
He reasoned that the modern Western ego is an incredibly elaborate
structure, with our culture placing more demands on the individual self
than any other culture in history. Such high demands increase the stress
associated with living up to expectations and existing as the person you
want to be. "That stress makes forgetting who you are an appealing
escape," Baumeister says. That is the essence of "escape" theory, one of
the main reasons people turn to S&M.
"Nothing matters except you, me and the sound of my voice," Lily
Fine tells the tied-up and exposed businessman who begged to be spanked
before breakfast. She says it slowly, making her slave wait for every
sound, forcing him to focus only on her, to float in anticipation of the
sensations she will create inside him. Anxieties about mortgages and
taxes, stresses about business partners and job deadlines are vanquished
each time the flogger hits the flesh. The businessman is reduced to a
physical creature existing only in the here and now, feeling the pain and
"I'm interested in manipulating what's in the mind," Lily says.
"The brain is the greatest erogenous zone."
In another S & M scene, Lily tells a woman to take off her
clothes, then dresses her only with a blindfold. She commands the woman
not to move. Lily then takes a tissue and begins moving it over the
woman's body in different patterns and at varying speeds and angles.
Sometimes she lets the edge of the tissue just barely brush the woman's
stomach and breasts; sometimes she bunches the tissue and creates swirls
on her back and all the way down. "The woman was quivering. She didn't
know what I was doing to her, but she was liking it," Lily remembers with
Escape theory is further supported by an idea called "frame
analysis," developed by the late Irving Goffman, Ph.D. According to
Goffman, despite its popular conception as darkly wild and orgiastic, S
& M play has complex rules, rituals, roles and dynamics that create a
"frame" around the experience.
"Frames suspend reality, They create expectations, norms and values
that set this situation apart from other parts of life," confirms Thomas
Weinberg, Ph.D., a sociologist at Buffalo State College in New York and
the editor of S & M: Studies in Dominance & Submission
(Prometheus Books, 1995).
Once inside the frame, people are free to act and feel in ways they
couldn't at other times.
S & M: Part of the Sexual Continuum
S & M has inspired the creation of many psychological theories
in addition to the ones discussed here. Do we need so many? Perhaps not.
According to Stephanie Saunders, Ph.D., associate director of the Kinsey
Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction at Indiana
University, "a lot of behaviors that are scrutinized because they are
seen to be marginal are really a part of the continuum of sexuality and
After all, the ingredients in good S & M play--communication,
respect and trust--are the same ingredients in good traditional sex. The
outcome is the same, too--a feeling of connection to the body and the
Laura Antoniou, a writer whose work on S & M has been published
by Masquerade Books in New York City, puts it another way: "When I was a
child, I had nothing but S & M fantasies. I punished Barbie for being
dirty. I did Bondage Barbie, dominance with GI Joe. S & M is simply
what turns me on."
Whip Smart: Beyond the Boundaries of Safe Play
While S & M can be a psychologically healthy activity--its
motto is "safe, sane and consensual"--sometimes things do get out of
It is rare, but some "Tops" get too involved in power and forget to
monitor their treatment of the "Bottom." "I call them 'Natural Born
Tops,'" says dominatrix Lily Fine, "and I don't have time for them."
Also, some bottoms want to be beaten because they have low self-esteem
and think they deserve it. They are forlorn, absent and unresponsive
during and after a scene, in this case, S & M ceases to be play and
A small percentage of people inappropriately bring S & M power
play into other facets of their life. "Most people in S & M circles
are dominant or submissive in very specific situations, while in their
everyday life they can play a whole range of roles," says psychology
Professor Luc Granger. But, he continues, if the only way a person can
relate to someone else is through a kind of sadomasochistic game, then
there is probably a deeper psychological problem.
The Use of S & M as Therapy
People often confuse the fact that they feel good after S & M
with the idea that S & M is therapy, says psychology Professor Roy
Baumeister. "But to prove that something is therapeutic, you have to
prove that it has lasting beneficial effects on mental health...and it's
hard to prove even that therapy is therapeutic." In mental health terms,
S & M doesn't make you better and it doesn't make you worse.
Excerpts from an S & M Glossary
Sadomasoonism (S & M): An activity involving the temporary
creation of highly unbalanced power dynamics between two or more people
for erotic or semi-erotic purposes.
Bondage and Discipline (B & D): A subset of S & M not
involving physical pain.
Top: The dominant person in a scene; synonyms: dominant, dom,
Bottom: The submissive person in a scene; synonyms: submissive,
Switch: A person who enjoys being a Top in some scenes and a Bottom
Sadist: A person who derives sexual pleasure from inflicting pain
Masochist: A person who derives sexual pleasure from being abused
by others. Sadist and masochist are sometimes used playfully in the S
& M community, but are generally avoided because of psychiatric
Scene: An episode of S & M activity; the S & M
Negotiating a Scene: The process of loosely outlining what the
players want to experience before they begin a scene.
Play: Participation in a scene.
Toy: Any implement used to enhance S & M play.
Safe Word: A prearranged word or phrase that may be used to end or
renegotiate a scene. This is a clear signal meaning "Stop, this is too
much for me."
Dungeon: A place designated for S & M play.
Dominatrix (pl. Dominatrices): A female Top, usually a
Lifestyle Dominant/Submissive: A person involved in a relationship
in which S & M is a defining dynamic.
Fetish: An object that is granted special powers, one of which is
the ability to sexually gratify. It is often wrongly confused with S
Vanilla Sex: Conventional heterosexual sex.