Sadomasochism can be defined as the giving or receiving of pleasure, often sexual, from the infliction or reception of pain or humiliation. It can feature as an enhancement to sexual pleasure, or, in some cases, as a substitute or sine qua non. The infliction of pain is used to incite sexual pleasure, while the simulation of violence can serve to form and express attachment. Indeed, sadomasochistic activities are often initiated at the request of, and for the benefit of, the masochist, who often directs activities through subtle emotional cues.
Consensual sadomasochism should not be confounded with acts of sexual aggression. Moreover, while sadomasochists seek out pain and humiliation in the context of love and sex, they do not do so in other situations and dislike simple, unfettered violence or abuse as much as the next person. In short, and in general, sadomasochists are not psychopaths. While psychopathy, or antisocial personality disorder, is a diagnosable mental disorder, sadomasochism is not diagnosable unless it causes significant distress or impairment to the individual or harm to others.
Some surveys have suggested that sadistic fantasies are just as prevalent in women as in men. However, it seems that men with sadistic urges tend to develop them at an earlier age. While some sadomasochistic people are purely sadistic and others purely masochistic, many are varying degrees of both, and may describe themselves as ‘switchable’.
Sadomasochism is a portmanteau of sadism and masochism, terms coined by the 19th century German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing, who spoke of basic, natural tendencies to sadism in men, and to masochism in women.
Krafft-Ebing named sadism for the 18th century Marquis de Sade, author of Justine ou les Malheurs de la Vertu and other books. The film Quills, starring Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, and Michael Caine, is inspired by the story of Sade.
How delightful are the pleasures of the imagination! In those delectable moments, the whole world is ours; not a single creature resists us, we devastate the world, we repopulate it with new objects which, in turn, we immolate. The means to every crime is ours, and we employ them all, we multiply the horror a hundredfold. —Marquis de Sade, Les prospérités du vice
Masochism he named for the 19th century Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, author of Venus in Furs.
Man is the one who desires, woman the one who is desired. This is woman's entire but decisive advantage. Through man's passions, nature has given man into woman's hands, and the woman who does not know how to make him her subject, her slave, her toy, and how to betray him with a smile in the end is not wise. —Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, Venus in Furs
While the terms sadism and masochism are from the 19th century, the phenomena they describe are not so recent. In his Confessions (1782), Jean-Jacques Rousseau bravely speaks of the masochistic sexual pleasure he derived from his childhood beatings, adding that ‘after having ventured to say so much, I can shrink from nothing’. In a different time and place, the Renaissance philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola described a man who needed to be flogged to get aroused. And the Kama Sutra, which dates back to the 2nd century, makes mention of consensual erotic slapping.
The German physician Johann Heinrich Meibom introduced the first theory of masochism in his Treatise on the Use of Flogging in Medicine and Venery (1639). According to Meibom, flogging a man’s back warms the semen in his kidneys, which leads to sexual arousal when it flows down into his testicles. Other theories of masochism spoke of the warming of blood or the use of sexual arousal to mitigate physical pain.
In Psychopathia Sexualis (1886), a compendium of sexual case histories and sex-crimes, Krafft-Ebing did not amalgamate sadism and masochism, understanding them as stemming from different sexual and erotic logics. In Three Papers on Sexual Theory, Freud observed that sadism and masochism are often found in the same individuals, and, accordingly, he combined the terms. He understood sadism as a distortion of the aggressive component of the male sexual instinct, and masochism as a form of sadism against the self—and a graver aberration than simple sadism.
Freud remarked that the tendency to inflict and receive pain during intercourse is ‘the most common and important of all perversions’, and ascribed it—as so much else—to incomplete or aberrant psychological development in early childhood. He paid scant attention to sadomasochism in women, either because sadism was thought to occur mainly in men, or because masochism was thought to be the normal and natural inclination of women.
In Studies in the Psychology of Sex, the British physician Havelock Ellis (1859-1939) argued for the absence of a clear distinction between aspects of sadism and masochism, and, moreover, restricted sadomasochism to the sphere of eroticism, thereby divorcing it from abuse and cruelty.
The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) begged to differ. In his essay Coldness and Cruelty, he contended that sadomasochism is an artificial term, and that sadism and masochism are in fact distinct phenomena. He provided fresh accounts of sadism and masochism, but, unfortunately, I seem unable to fully understand them.
The same can be said for sadomasochism in general. Sadomasochism is hard to understand. Here, I propose several understandings. While some may hold in some circumstances and not others, none are mutually exclusive. Indeed, many of our strongest emotions result from more than just one impulse.
Most obviously, the sadist may derive pleasure from feelings of power, authority, and control, and from the ‘suffering’ of the masochist.
The sadist may also harbour an unconscious desire to punish the object of sexual attraction for having aroused his desire and thereby subjugated him, or, in some cases, for having frustrated his desire or aroused his jealousy.
By objectifying his partner, who is thereby rendered subhuman, the sadist does not need to handle the partner’s emotional baggage, and can deceive himself that the sex is not all that meaningful: a mere act of lust rather than an intimate and pregnant act of love. The partner becomes a trophy, a mere plaything, and while one can own a toy and perhaps knock it about, one cannot fall in love with it or be hurt or betrayed by it.
Sadism may also represent a kind of displacement activity or scapegoating in which uncomfortable feelings such as anger and guilt are displaced and projected onto another person. Scapegoating is an ancient and deep-rooted impulse and practice. According to Leviticus, God instructed Moses and Aaron to sacrifice two goats every year. The first goat was to be killed and its blood sprinkled upon the Ark of the Covenant. The High Priest was then to lay his hands upon the head of the second goat and confess the sins of the people. Unlike the first goat, this lucky second goat was not to be killed, but to be released into the wilderness together with its burden of sin, which is why it came to be known as a, or the, scapegoat. The altar that stands in the sanctuary of every church is a symbolic remnant and reminder of this sacrificial practice, with the ultimate object of sacrifice being, of course, Jesus himself.
For the masochist, taking on a role of subjugation and helplessness can offer a release from stress or the burden of responsibility or guilt. It can also evoke infantile feelings of dependency, safety, and protection, which can serve as a proxy for intimacy. In addition, the masochist may derive pleasure from earning the approval of the sadist, commanding his full attention, and, in a sense, controlling him.
For the dyad, sadomasochism can be seen as a means of intensifying normal sexual relations (pain releases endorphins and other hormones), regressing to a more primal or animal state, testing boundaries, or playing. In her recent book, Aesthetic Sexuality, Romana Byrne goes so far as to argue that S&M practices can be driven by certain aesthetic goals tied to style, pleasure, and identity, and, as such, can be compared to the creation of art.
Many 'normal' behaviours such as infantilizing, tickling, and love-biting contain definite elements of sadomasochism. It is possible to read this article and think that this sort of stuff only applies to a small number of ‘deviants’, but the truth is that each and every one of us harbours sadomasochistic tendencies. In the words of the Roman playwright Terence, ‘I am human, and consider nothing human to be alien to me.’
In almost every relationship, one partner is more attached than the other, leading the less attached partner to become dominant, while the more attached partner becomes infantilized and submissive in a bid to pacify, please, and seduce. Eventually, the less attached partner feels stifled and takes distance, but if he ventures too far, the more attached partner may simply go cold and shut-out or leave. This in turn provokes the less attached partner to flip and become the more enthusiastic of the partners. Eventually, the balance re-establishes itself, until it is upset again, and so on ad infinitum. Domination and submission are elements of most relationships, but that does not prevent them from being tiresome, sterile, and, to echo Freud, immature.
Rather than playing at cat and mouse, lovers need to have the confidence and the courage to rise above that game—and not just by getting married. By learning to trust each other, they can dare to see each other as the fully-fledged human beings that they truly are, ends-in-themselves rather than mere means-to-an-end. True love is about respecting, sharing, nurturing, and enabling, but how many people have the capacity and the maturity for this kind of love?
And, of course, it takes two not to tango.
See my related article, The Philosophy of Lust
Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions and other books.