Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Sexual Masochism

Sexual masochism can be a paradoxical behavior.

Masochism was the term initially used by the famed Austrian psychiatrist Richard Von Krafft-Ebing, author of the classic text, Psychopathia Sexualis (1931). Krafft-Ebing named masochism after the Austrian writer Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch, whose books often carried a masochistic theme.

Sacher-Masoch also practiced what he preached. He was attracted to dominant women in furs as depicted in his book, Venus in Furs (1869). Apparently, the writer pressured his first wife Aurora Von Rümelin to live out the experiences of his book which she did, but with reservations. Following his death, she wrote about her experiences in her memoir, My Life Confession (Mein Lebensbeichte) (1906).

Bored with marriage, Sacher-Masoch also had mistresses who engaged in his sexual fantasies. For example, he signed a contract with Baroness Fanny Pistor to make him her slave for six months provided she wear furs as often as possible, particularly when she was in a vile mood.

According to the DSM-V (2013), the focus of sexual masochism involves the act of experiencing—over a period of at least six months—sexual arousal from being humiliated, beaten, bound, or made to suffer in some way. To be considered problematic, the fantasies, urges, or behaviors must cause significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas.

Some scholars differentiate between sexual masochism and moral masochism—moral masochism has more to do with self-punishment for bad behavior; sexual masochism—which this article is primarily concerned with—has to do with sexual arousal leading to sexual satisfaction (Kernberg, 1991; Maleson, 1984).

Sexual masochistic behaviors vary depending on an individual’s preference. For example, some masochists like to be tied up and flogged (BDSM); others prefer to be verbally humiliated only; and some are aroused by more severe or dangerous forms of masochism such as asphyxiation, to name a few. Nevertheless, there are many fallacies about masochism which the following list may help to dispel:

  1. Most masochists have their limits and safety is extremely important. The research has indicated that relatively few people get hurt, and when an injury does occur it’s usually the result of an accident or poor judgment (Moser & Levitt, 1987; Scott, 1983).
  2. According to Money & Lamacz (1989), if under control, a sadist and a masochist can make a sexuality compatible match.
  3. Masochists tend to be upper-middle class.
  4. Masochists tend to be well-educated.
  5. Studies have found that masochists are not anti-feminist (Cross & Matheson, 2006).
  6. More men engage in masochistic behavior than do women. The main differences have to do with the specific acts preferred. Women prefer less intense forms of masochism usually related to a relationship (light spanking); men prefer acts that reduce their status as a man (being forced to kiss a partner’s feet or being cuckolded (Baumeister & Butler, 1997).
  7. There are far more masochists than there are sadists (Baumeister, 1988, 1989; Cross & Matheson, 2006).
  8. Prostitutes report a more disproportionate ratio. In fact, one of the biggest challenges for a self-respecting masochist is to find a suitably cooperative sadist.
  9. According to the professional literature, many sadists start out as masochists.
  10. The onset of masochism was found to be 19.3 years of age, although fantasies have been reported in childhood (DSM-V, 2013).
  11. Freud (1905/1953) believed that in every sadist there is a masochist, and in every masochist there is a sadist. He coined the term sadomasochism.
  12. Deleuze (1967) rejected the term sadomasochism. He saw sadism and masochism as distinct.
  13. Both sadist and masochist exert control in the sadomasochistic dynamic. The sadist takes overt control and the masochist prefers it that way.
  14. Both sadist and masochist share the delight in their sexual process and differ from other sadists and masochists (Moore, 2009).

Most scholars break the origin of masochism down into two general orientations: individual pathology (mental illness or congenital defects) and with reference to cultural and social context (gender inequities and self-awareness). Those who practice S&M tend to view it as a mutually sensual and pleasurable role-play related to power and powerlessness (Cross & Matheson, 2006). Here are a few of the theories from the professional literature:

  1. Freud (1906/1953) believed the masochist converted guilty feelings regarding the wish to dominate into masochism. Absorbing much criticism, he viewed it as inherent in females.
  2. Stekel (1920) saw masochism in women as a “will to unpleasure.”
  3. Krafft-Ebing (1931) saw it as a congenital disorder.
  4. Bader (1993) viewed it as punishment for seeking pleasure.
  5. Lego (1992) believed it was the result of unresolved fears of separation or abandonment—viewing oneself as a perpetual victim.
  6. Stoller (1975) found it stemmed from early maternal humiliation.
  7. Califia (1983) saw it as an eroticized exchange of power.
  8. Stolorow and Lachmann (1980) believed masochists were wounded narcissists who sought sadistic attention to build up their sense of self. To be slapped, for example, offered them attention.
  9. Baumeister (1988) believed that masochism was a paradoxical technique for getting rid of one’s sense of self: Stripping away one’s identity in an effort to protect oneself from pain—much like substance use.
  10. Cowan (1982) saw masochism as a therapeutic process that enabled the person to gain personal insight.
  11. Stolorow, Atwood, and Brandschaft (1988) contended that masochism was used to shed a societal image.
  12. Butler (1982) offered that some feminists viewed masochism as a misogynistic concept borrowed from a Western patriarchal framework.
  13. Abrams and Stefan (2012) saw it as an adaptive response to abuse—the anger and shame are integral to sexual arousal.
  14. Solomon and Corbit’s (1974) learning theory (opposite-process theory) postulated that it was a shift away from the body’s homeostasis in order to produce a sense of euphoria.
  15. Money & Lamacz (1989) found that by 8 years old the human mind has fully developed its lovemap which will serve as a template to the end of one’s adult life. The lovemap is a developmental representation or template in the mind and in the brain depicting the idealized lover and the idealized program of sexual and erotic activity projected in imagery or actually engaged in. The authors believed all paraphilias were caused by the formation of abnormal lovemaps during the preadolescent years and that such lovemaps can be formed by any number of contributing factors or stressors during this developmental period.

Baumeister & Butler (1977) found that masochism as a concept has always intrigued clinicians because of its paradoxical nature: How can the experience of pain, loss of control, and humiliation—the key ingredients of masochism—produce or enhance any pleasure, sexual or otherwise?

Now it’s intriguing more and more of the general population. Why did the book, Fifty Shades of Grey (2012) create such a stir? Like Sacher-Masoch, are people bored with their sex lives? Are our Victorian roots fraying? Is there a correlation with our addiction to reality television in that we seem to constantly seek greater levels of stimulation?

Some newcomers to sexual masochism may not be true masochists. But I do think many are dissatisfied with their sex lives and are looking for a jump start to a more adventurous, fulfilling one. Sexual masochism has been found to be compatible with otherwise normal, healthy individuals (Baumeister & Butler, 1997). Cross and Matheson (2006) suggested it may in fact be simply a power game of the sexually sophisticated.

So, is it really appropriate to label it a mental illness? It should certainly be considered problematic if it becomes addictive and interferes with our general level of functioning, or if it is practiced to its dangerous extreme. But then again, it has been proven over and over that anything taken to its addictive extreme can do harm… even exercise.

More from Stephen J. Betchen D.S.W.
More from Psychology Today
More from Stephen J. Betchen D.S.W.
More from Psychology Today