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The Psychology of Sadomasochism

An attempt to explain sadism and masochism.

Source: Pixabay

[Article revised on 3 May 2020.]

Sadomasochism can be defined as the taking of pleasure, often sexual in nature, from the inflicting or suffering of pain, hardship, or humiliation. It can feature as an enhancement to sexual intercourse, or, less commonly, as a substitute or sine qua non. The infliction of pain etc. leads to sexual pleasure, while the simulation of violence can serve to express and consolidate attachment. Indeed, sadomasochistic activities are often initiated at the request, and for the benefit, of the masochist, who directs activities through subtle cues.

Consensual sadomasochism should not be confused with acts of sexual aggression. While sadomasochists seek out pain etc. in the context of love and sex, they do not do so in other situations, and abhor uninvited aggression or abuse as much as the next person. Generally speaking, sadomasochists are not psychopaths, and often all the opposite.

Sadomasochistic practices are very diverse. One study identified four separate clusters: hypermasculinity, infliction and reception of pain, physical restriction, and psychological humiliation. Interestingly, the study found that homosexual males tended more to hypermasculinity, while heterosexual males tended more to humiliation.


‘Sadomasochism’ is a portmanteau of ‘sadism’ and ‘masochism’, terms coined by the nineteenth century psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing, who spoke of basic, natural tendencies to sadism in men, and to masochism in women. More recent surveys suggest that sadistic fantasies are just as prevalent in women as in men, although it is true that men with sadistic urges tend to develop them at an earlier age.

Krafft-Ebing named sadism after the eighteenth century Marquis de Sade, author of Justine, or The Misfortune of Virtue (1791) and other erotic books.

In the words 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.

Masochism, Krafft-Ebing named after Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, author of Venus in Furs (1870):

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.

While the terms ‘sadism’ and ‘masochism’ are of the nineteenth century, the realities they correspond to are much older. In his Confessions (1782), the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau discusses the sexual pleasure he derived from childhood beatings, adding that ‘after having ventured to say so much, I can shrink from nothing’.

He certainly did not censure himself:

To fall at the feet of an imperious mistress, obey her mandates, or implore pardon, were for me the most exquisite enjoyments…

The Kama Sutra, which dates back to second century India, includes an entire chapter devoted to ‘blows and cries’. ‘Sexual relations’ according to the Hindu text, ‘can be conceived as a kind of combat… For successful intercourse, a show of cruelty is essential.’

Early theories

The physician Johann Heinrich Meibom introduced the first theory of masochism in his Treatise on the Use of Flogging in Medicine and Venery [De usu flagorum, 1639]. According to Meibom, flogging a man’s back warms the semen in the kidneys, which leads to sexual arousal when the warmed-up semen flows down into the testicles. Other theories of masochism centred around the warming of the 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 connect sadism and masochism, understanding them as stemming from different sexual and erotic logics. But in Three Papers on Sexual Theory (1905), Freud observed that sadism and masochism are often found in the same individual, and, accordingly, 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 directed 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 arrested or disordered psychosexual development. He paid scant attention to sadomasochism in women, either because sadism was thought to occur mostly in men, or because masochism was thought to be the normal and natural inclination of women.

In Studies in the Psychology of Sex (1895), the physician Havelock Ellis argued that there is no clear divide between aspects of sadism and masochism. Moreover, he restricted sadomasochism to the sphere of eroticism, thereby breaking the historical link with abuse and cruelty.

The philosopher Gilles Deleuze begged to differ with Freud and Havelock Ellis. In his essay Coldness and Cruelty (1967), he contended that sadomasochism is an artificial term, and that sadism and masochism are in fact separate and distinct phenomena. He provided fresh accounts of sadism and masochism, but, unfortunately, I seem unable to make sense of what he wrote.


The same can be said for sadomasochism in general. Sadomasochism is hard to understand, perhaps, one of those great mysteries of the human condition. Here, I propose several interpretations. Each one may hold in some cases and not others, but none are mutually exclusive. Indeed, many of our strongest emotions can be triggered, or co-triggered, by more than one type of 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 a conscious or unconscious desire to punish the object of sexual attraction (or a stand-in for the object of sexual attraction, or for an original object of sexual attraction) for having aroused their desire and thereby subjugated them, or, conversely, for having frustrated their desire or aroused their jealousy.

Sadism can also be a defensive strategy. By objectifying their partner, who is thereby rendered sub- or non-human, sadists do not need to handle their partner’s emotional baggage, and are able to tell themselves that the sex is not all that meaningful: a mere act of lust rather than an intimate and pregnant act of love. Their partner becomes a trophy, a mere plaything, and while one can own a toy and 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 discharged onto another person. Scapegoating is an ancient and deep-rooted impulse. According to the Book of 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. Rather than being killed, this second goat was 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 ritual, with the ultimate object of sacrifice being, of course, Jesus himself.

For the masochist this time, 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 vulnerability and dependency, which can serve as a proxy for intimacy. In addition, masochists may derive pleasure from earning the approval of the sadist, commanding their full attention, and, in a sense, controlling them.

For the couple, sadomasochism can be seen as a means of intensifying normal sexual relations (pain releases endorphins and other hormones), leaving a mark or memory, testing boundaries, giving form and expression to psychological realities, building trust and intimacy, or simply playing. In her book, Æsthetic Sexuality, Romana Byrne goes so far as to argue that S&M practices can be driven by certain æsthetic goals tied to style, pleasure, and identity, and, as such, can be compared to the creation of art.

Et tu?

And what about you, dear reader? Perhaps you think that this sort of stuff only applies to a small number of ‘deviants’, but the truth is that we all harbour sadomasochistic tendencies. For example, many casual, ‘normal’ behaviours such as infantilizing, tickling, and love-biting contain definite traces and elements of sadomasochism. In the words of Terence, ‘I am human, and consider nothing human to be alien to me.’ [Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.]

Sadomasochism can also play out on a more psychological level. In almost every relationship, one partner is more attached than the other. Characteristically, the more attached partner is ‘the one who waits’.

In A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (1977), the philosopher Roland Barthes writes:

Am I in love? —yes, since I am waiting. The other one never waits. Sometimes I want to play the part of the one who doesn’t wait; I try to busy myself elsewhere, to arrive late; but I always lose at this game. Whatever I do, I find myself there, with nothing to do, punctual, even ahead of time. The lover’s fatal identity is precisely this: I am the one who waits.

The likely result of this asymmetry is that the less attached partner (A) grows dominant, while the more attached partner (B) becomes infantilized and submissive in a bid to please, coax, and seduce. Sooner or later, A feels stifled and takes distance, but if he or she ventures too far, B may threaten to go cold or give up. This in turn prompts A to flip and, for a while, to become the more enthusiastic of the two. But the original dynamic soon re-establishes itself, until it is upset again, and so on ad vitam æternam. Domination and submission are elements of every relationship or almost, but that does not mean that they are not tedious, 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, nurturing, and enabling, but how many people have the capacity and maturity for this kind of love?

And, of course, it takes two not to tango.

Neel Burton is author of For Better For Worse: Essays on Sex, Love, Marriage, and More.

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