Sadism and masochism
Sadism is the sexual pleasure or gratification in the infliction of pain and suffering upon another person. Medically it is considered to be a paraphilia. The word is derived from the name of the Marquis de Sade, a prolific French writer of sadistic novels.
The counterpart of sadism is masochism, the sexual pleasure or gratification of having pain or suffering inflicted upon the self, often consisting of sexual fantasies or urges for being beaten, humiliated, bound, tortured, or otherwise made to suffer, either as an enhancement to or a substitute for sexual pleasure. The name is derived from the name of the 19th century author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, known for his novel Venus in Furs that dealt with highly masochistic themes.
The words are now commonly used to describe personality traits in an emotional, rather than sexual sense. Although it is quite different from the original meaning, this usage is not entirely inaccurate. There is quite frequently a strong emotional aspect to the sexual desires, taking the form of a need for domination or submission—the desire to be controlled, or to control another, as opposed to a simple desire for pain (which is technically known as algolagnia).
It is often agreed that this desire for dominance or submission is in fact the driving force behind sadomasochism, with the giving and receiving of pain acting only as an active stimulation to reinforce those feelings. This view is supported by the nature of sadomasochistic behavior. A masochist does not in general take pleasure in any arbitrary form of pain, only in pain received under the pretext of enforcing authority, and typically only that of a sexual nature. Likewise, a sadist usually only takes pleasure in pain that is inflicted for reasons of punishment and control, and most often for the indirect pleasure of the masochist. Many sadomasochistic activities involve only mild pain or discomfort. Often they are focused primarily on roleplay.
Table of contents
The biology of S&M
Pain, violence, sex and love all are associated with the release of a variety of hormones and chemicals within the human body. Furthermore, humans have been shown to exhibit sympathetic responses in their bodies while watching, hearing, or imagining such experiences.
- Levels of sex hormone testosterone can be temporarily affected by one's role S&M interactions. Dominant participants often get raised testosterone levels; whereas submissive participants often get depressed testosterone levels.
- Endorphins are released by pain experiences and can be perceived as pleasurable and possibly addictive.
- Lactic acid is released by muscles under strain and can be perceived as pleasurable.
- Brain chemicals such as serotonin and melatonin can be affected by emotional or stressful experiences.
The effects of S&M on body chemistry probably reinforces the behavior and therefore creates psychological states that seek to further such behavior.
The psychology of S&M
The terms sadism and masochism were first used consistently to describe these behaviors by the German psychiatrist Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing in his 1886 book Psychopathia Sexualis, a famous study of sexual perversity. Sigmund Freud, a psychoanalyst and a contemporary of Krafft-Ebing, noted that both were often found in the same individuals, and combined the two into a single dichotomous entity known as sadomasochism (often abbreviated as S&M or S/M). This observation is commonly verified in both literature and practice; many sadists and masochists define themselves as "switchable"—capable of taking pleasure in either role.
Both Krafft-Ebing and Freud assumed that sadism in men resulted from the distortion of the aggressive component of the male sexual instinct. Masochism in men, however, was seen as a more significant aberration, contrary to the nature of male sexuality. Freud doubted that masochism in men was ever a primary tendency, and speculated that it may exist only as a transformation of sadism. Sadomasochism in women received comparatively little discussion, as it was believed that it occurred primarily in men. Both also assumed that masochism was so inherent to female sexuality that it would be difficult to distinguish as a separate inclination.
Havelock Ellis, in Studies in the Psychology of Sex, argued that there is no clear distinction between the aspects of sadism and masochism, and that they may be regarded as complementary emotional states. He also made the important point that sadomasochism is concerned only with pain in regards to sexual pleasure, and not in regards to cruelty, as Freud had suggested. In other words, the sadomasochist generally desires that the pain be inflicted or received in love, not in abuse, for the pleasure of either one or both participants. This mutual pleasure may even be essential for the satisfaction of those involved.
Here Ellis touches upon the often paradoxical nature of consensual S&M. It is not only pain to initiate pleasure, but violence—or the simulation of violence—to express love. This contradictory character is perhaps most evident in the observation by some that not only are sadomasochistic activities usually done for the benefit of the masochist, but that it is often the masochist that controls them, through subtle emotional cues received by the sadist.
Many theorists, particularly feminist theories, have suggested that sadomasochism is an inherent part of our culture. According to their theories, sex and relationships are both consistently taught to be formulated within a framework of male dominance and female submission. Some of them further link this hypothesized framework to inequalities among gender, class, and race which remain a substantial part of society, despite the efforts of the civil rights movement and feminism. However, the degree to which any of these influences actually affect sexuality — either consciously or unconsciously — is unknown, and the validity of this theory of socially-conditioned female masochism is questionable.
There are a number of reasons commonly given for why a sadomasochist finds the practice of S&M enjoyable, and the answer is largely dependent on the individual. For some, taking on a role of compliance or helplessness offers a form of therapeutic escape; from the stresses of life, from responsiblity, or from guilt. For others, being under the power of a strong, controlling presence may evoke the feelings of safety and protection associated with childhood. They likewise may derive satisfaction from earning the approval of that figure (see: Servitude (BDSM)). A sadist, on the other hand, may enjoy the feeling of power and authority that comes from playing the dominant role, or receive pleasure vicariously through the suffering of the masochist. It is poorly understood, though, what ultimately connects these emotional experiences to sexual gratification, or how that connection initially forms.
It is usually agreed on by psychologists that experiences during early sexual development can have a profound effect on the character of sexuality later in life. Sadomasochistic desires, however, seem to form at a variety of ages. Some individuals report having had them before puberty, while others do not discover them until well into adulthood. According to one study, the majority of male sadomasochists (53%) developed their interest before the age of 15, while the majority of females (78%) developed their interest afterwards (Breslow, Evans, and Langley 1985). Like sexual fetishes, sadomasochism can be learned through conditioning—in this context, the repeated association of sexual pleasure with an object or stimulus.
Sadism and masochism in real life
The term BDSM has been created to describe the quite common activities between consenting adults that contain sadistic and masochistic elements. Many behaviors such as erotic spanking and love-bites that many people think of only as "rough" sex also contain elements of sado-masochism.
In certain extreme cases, sadism and masochism can include fantasies, sexual urges or behaviour that cause significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning, to the point that they can be considered part of a mental disorder. However, this is an uncommon case, and psychiatrists are now moving towards regarding sadism and masochism not as disorders in and of themselves, but only as disorders when associated with other problems such as a personality disorder.
Sadism as a motivation for crime
A small minority of disordered individuals commit crimes with a strong sadistic element. This is generally considered to be caused by personality disorders. Many serial killers' murders have strong sadistic elements.</p> </p> Recently, there have been theories that many of these personality disorders have been caused by brain damage.
Sadism and masochism in fiction
In general, the depiction of sadism and masochism in fiction tends to be portrayed from the viewpoint of masochistic fantasy.
Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's novel Venus in Furs is essentially one long masochistic fantasy, where the male principal character encourages his mistress to mistreat him. It inspired a song of the same name, and about the same subject matter, by the pioneering rock group The Velvet Underground, featuring the lyric "Kiss the boot of shiny, shiny leather."
The 2001 movie La Pianiste (released with subtitles as The Piano Teacher) describes a relationship between a repressed piano teacher and her pupil, which ends unhappily when she reveals her extreme masochistic desires to him, which brings the relationship to an end, but not before he has made a disgusted attempt to enact his conception of her masochistic fantasies.
To be written:
- Courtly love as a predecessor of masochism
- Breslow N, Evans L, Langley J. On the prevalence and roles of females in the sadomasochistic subculture: Report of an empirical study. Archives of Sexual Behavior 1985;(14):303–17.
- The Eulenspiegel Society, founded in New York City in 1971 is the oldest SM support group in the US.
- The Society of Janus, founded in San Francisco, California in 1974 is the second oldest SM support group in the US.
- Anita Phillips. A Defense of Masochism, ISBN 0312192584