Since it’s pretty clear you people really like reading about all things tangential to sex, I don’t mind indulging your secret freaky sides every once in a while. Hey, far be it from me to deny you! So in that spirit, this week’s topic is….
wait for it….
The Oxford Dictionary has this to say:[sey-doh-mas-uh-kiz-uhm]
interaction, especially in sexual activity, in which a person enjoys or derives pleasure from inflicting or receiving physical or mental suffering upon or from another person.
Abbreviation: S&M, S and M
The shrinky dink version from the American Psychological Association Dictionary version:
1. sexual activity between consenting partners in which one partner enjoys inflicting pain (see sexual sadism) and the other enjoys experiencing pain (see sexual masochism).
2. a paraphilia in which a person is both sadistic and masochistic, deriving sexual arousal from both giving and receiving pain. —sadomasochist n. —sadomasochistic adj.
The Mark G. Agresti version:
deriving pleasure or gratification from inflicting or experiencing pain.
It’s important to note that both the pain and pleasure given and/ or received in sadomasochism can be physical, emotional, or both. In addition, when it exists in the strictest definition, it is considered a mental illness, but there are all sorts of conditions and considerations- and controversy- that go along with that. I’ll elaborate a little on that later. No matter who you listen to or what you believe, sadomasochism tends to be a rather delicate topic, and strictly speaking, not exactly one you’d discuss in “polite society.” Whatevs. I’m all about taking deep dives into that kind of stuff- it’s actually one of my missions in life- and in fact, my entire profession centers on helping people with delicate issues that aren’t talked about in “polite society.” Despite not being coffee talk, there’s a lot to be said about sadomasochism… including the fact that many people exhibit sadomasochistic tendencies, which is not to say they regularly wear black leather gear or want to tie their partners up and beat them btw. I’d even venture to say that most people, eapecially when in romantic love relationships, exhibit characteristics of sadomasochists. How does that grab you? If you’re thinking Ineed my head examined right about now, then keep reading about the psychology of sadomasochism.
But first, I have to get into where the term sadomasochism comes from, break it down (pun intended), look at its nominal derivation, and how it’s been viewed and analyzed throughout the ages. Let’s just say that shrinky dinks have had a lot to say on the subject.
Captain Obvious says that sadomasochism is the mashup of sadism and masochism, terms coined in the late 1800’s by an Austrian psychiatrist dude named Richard von Krafft-Ebing, who believed that the natural tendency of the male was toward sadism, while the natural tendency of the female bent toward masochism. What!Everrr! In reality, studies show that sadistic fantasies are just as likely to occur in females as they are males, though the masochistic bend definitely develop earlier in males. We now know that, like many things, sadomasochism knows no gender. When you break it down, sadism is defined as pleasure or gratification gained from the infliction of pain and suffering upon another person, while the counterpart, masochism, is the pleasure or gratification of having pain or suffering inflicted upon the self. At the simplest, most basic level, you could say that sadists get off on dishing it out and masochists on taking it. Now, how often are things that simple? Like never, people. And believe me, that’s the case here. But this generalization works just in terms of remembering which is which. That said, there are no clear lines dividing the two, and in practice, they’re often interchangeable and may even coexist in the same individual at different times.
Krafft-Ebing named sadism after the 18th century Marquis de Sade, a French nobleman, revolutionary politician, philosopher, and writer. He is most famous for his libertine sexuality, and he ‘graced the world’ with novels, short stories, plays, and dialogues, including Justine, which is basically about a woman with the same name who travels around the world getting the crap beaten out of her as she goes, and Les prospérités du vice, which roughly translates to something like the pleasures of vice, in which he said:
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.
Two of his most commonly annotated quotes:
“It is always by way of pain one arrives at pleasure.“
“I’ve already told you: the only way to a woman’s heart is along the path of torment. I know none other as sure.“
Sounds like a great guy, right? Evidently, his current day ancestors have been very busy trying to rehabilitate their great great great whatever’s image by creating a line of gourmand treats: wine, pâté, cheeses and such; and supposedly had pitched a Sade line of lingerie to Victoria’s Secret. Another fun fact, the film Quills, starring Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, and Michael Caine, is inspired by the story of Sade.
Krafft-Ebing was a busy guy, naming masochism for a contemporary of his, 19th century Austrian nobleman, writer, and journalist Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, who gained renown for his romantic stories of Galician life. He also authored Venus in Furs, in which he wrote:
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.
Interestingly, evidently Masoch did not approve of this use of his name. Bummer that somebody names something after you and you don’t approve of it. My suspicion is that it’s more likely that he didn’t approve what it was used for, as Krafft-Ebing essentially outed the guy as a masochist. Sadly, no word on a lingerie line for Sacher-Masoch, but I’ll keep you posted.
Sadomasochism as a mashup term was actually coined by none other than Freud, the mother-loving, father-hating Austrian neurologist and psychologist who is widely regarded as the father of psychoanalysis, a therapeutic process designed to make the subconscious conscious by releasing repressed emotions and experiences.
Even The Kama Sutra, which dates back to second century India, includes an entire chapter devoted to “blows and cries.” According to the Hindu text, “sexual relations can be conceived as a kind of combat… For successful intercourse, a show of cruelty is essential.” Seriously?
Now that you’re good to go for the daily double on historical literary references to sadomasochism…
Most of the time, for obvious reasons, we think of sadomasochism and it’s nominal components in terms of sexual behavior only, but they can have broader applications, and this is especially the case in sadism. The quality of being sadistic is most applicable to some notable autocrats of the past and present, and these are actually the first thing that comes to mind when I hear the word. When no other single word could possibly encompass the horror of their being, sadist just works. Think Stalin, Pol Pot, Hitler, Saddam Hussein, and the Kims. I was surprised to even see our 45th President’s name included while looking up a statistic. Hmmm… wonder who submitted that? (Dr. Mark Agresti is not making a statement about any person’s sexual inclination or mental status and is not claiming any political affiliation; this advertisement is brought to you by the equal opportunity offender party.)
Okay, I have no clue how that dude got in here, but you get the idea about sadism. On the other hand, masochists enjoy receiving pain, which, again, may or may not be sexual. Strangely (?) I couldn’t find much in terms of famous or known masochists. The best I could do was a British artist I actually remember from some required art “appreciation” class freshman year, a painter named Keith Vaughan. Evidently, he purpose built some kind of gizmo contraption to electrocute his own genitals. They definitely didn’t cover that part in my class though, I’m pretty sure I’d remember that.
Sexual sadism and masochism can actually be considered to be psychological disorders, as each are categorized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV (DSM-IV) as paraphilias, which are sexual disorders that are characterized by socially unacceptable preoccupations or behaviors. Some other examples of paraphilias include voyeurism, exhibitionism, and fetishism, to name just a few. There’s a great deal of controversy on this topic, and at first glance, I generally think of sexual sadism and masochism as quasi-disorders at best. Proponents of the ‘disorder theory’ claim that because sadism involves causing physical or psychological pain or suffering to another human being, anyone who enjoys it is mentally ill. Opponents say that it doesn’t involve pain or suffering in the ‘classic sense,’ (say whaaat??) and that as long as it occurs with a consenting partner, it should be argued that it is not a psychological disorder.
I say that there are many factors to take into account, but that it should definitely be considered a psychological disorder in certain cases: if and/ or when it causes anxiety or depression to that individual, causes problems that interfere with work, social setting, or family, and obviously when it poses, or is likely to pose, a potential danger to another individual person or group. And in fact, more recent versions of the DSM back me up, asserting that it must “cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning” in order for sexual sadism or masochism to be considered a disorder. I’ll spare you the markers that must be considered to establish that distinction. And you’re welcome for that.
When applied to sexual relationships, sadomasochism is generally termed BDSM, or Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, and Sadism and Masochism. BDSM is generally considered to be an “alternate” sexual preference that includes a variety of sexual identities and activities. Mainstream culture often represents it as reckless, dangerous, and unhealthy; a dark, non-normal kind of sexual preference which typically forces its players to retreat into carefully curated communities alienated from the majority of society. If you actually paid attention to Fifty Shades of Grey, you might have understood that Christian Grey’s reasons for enjoying kink stem from a childhood filled with abuse. Television crime dramas often portray fetishists as seedy, unethical lawbreakers, and that’s probably as a result of the psychological disorder theory more than anything else. Participants or “kinks” often make the argument that dominance and submission are more a power dynamic than a punisher-punishee relationship; and they usually identify themselves in one of three main ways: dominant, submissive, and switch, though the identities are fluid and continuous, and can change depending on the participants’ mood or partner. But if you consider the fact that the terms sadism, masochism, and sadomasochism were coined in the late 1800’s, pop culture wasn’t responsible for making kink the latest fad… it seems some humans have long had a penchant for adventurous sex. Even way back in 1956, when the Kinsey Institute was in its heyday, a study revealed that 50% of men and 55% of women enjoyed erotic biting, evidently as racy as they got when describing kinky sex. Considering all of the historical evidence taken together, I can only surmise that we’re not necessarily having more kinky sex than we always were, but we’re just talking about it- or admitting it- more than before.
Bondage: A form of restricting a sexual player’s movement, ie by ropes or handcuffs, to increase pleasure.
Discipline: A series of rules and punishments typically used by a dominant partner to exert control over their submissive partner.
Dominance: The act of dominating a sexual partner, during or outside of sex. This can include dictating sexual behavior, food habits, and even sleep patterns.
Submission: The act of a submissive partner following a dominant’s actions or dictates.
Consensual sadomasochism should not be confused with acts of sexual aggression. While sadomasochists do seek out pain in the context of love and sex, they do not do so in other situations, and typically abhor uninvited aggression or abuse as much as the next person. Generally speaking, sadomasochists are not psychopaths, and thankfully, the opposite is usually true as well. Also contrary to popular belief, evidently submissives have just as much control over deciding what happens to them as their dominant partner does, and sometimes even more so. Communication between the dominant and submissive is of utmost importance, as that’s where boundaries are set, desires are shared, and permission is given. Consent, in the form of a formal contract, a verbal agreement, or a casual conversation, is the key to healthy expression of BDSM and sadomasochism. There is typically an understanding between all partners that activity could stop at any moment should they be uncomfortable with the intensity of play; this can be done through the use of previously agreed upon safe words that signal others to stop when uttered. I’ve seen references to layers of safe words that are like a traffic light: green means good to go, yellow means proceed with caution, and red means get the hell away from me. That’s sure different than the “red light-green light” we played as kids.
Speaking of games….
Maybe you think that this sort of stuff only applies to a small number of “deviants,” but the truth is that many people, if not most, do actually harbor sadomasochistic tendencies. For example, many casual, “normal” behaviors, like infantilizing, tickling, and love-biting, could be considered as containing traces and elements of sadomasochism. In addition, sadomasochism can play out on a more psychological level- sadomasochism on the DL if you will. Consider the fact that in almost every relationship, one partner is more attached than the other. This phenomenon is just accepted as fact without much discourse, so commonly that it has even been the subject of poetry and philosophy, with the more attached partner being referred to as “the one who waits.”
In 1977, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments 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.
When this asymmetry is examined, 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 them. Sooner or later, (A) feels stifled and distances themselves, but if he or she moves too far away, (B) feels threatened and may go cold or give up. That 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 nauseum. Domination and submission are elements of every relationship (or nearly so) but that does not mean that they are not tedious, sterile, and immature, as Freud points out…endlessly I might add.
Rather than playing cat and mouse, couples need to have the confidence and the courage to rise above the game playing. True love is about trusting, respecting, nurturing, and (healthy) enabling, but not everyone has the capacity and maturity for this kind of love. I see this domination-submission phenoma nd game playing a lot…like a lot a lot, and it can be quite the mess to rectify, as people get comfortable in their roles, whetjer they’re conscious of them or not.
Sadomasochism, BDSM, kink…they aren’t really my thing. Then again, neither is sociopathy, but I can still effectively diagnose and treat patients with it. That said, sadomasochism as a practice is definitely harder to understand than just grasping it as a general concept. I classify it as one of those great mysteries of the human condition that give me a headache when I try to completely untangle them. I’ve of course had patients into all kinds of kink and BDSM, and then again, I’ve also had some who are more “classic” practicing sadomasochists, who can be more challenging to treat. Everybody’s got a backstory that I may or may not be privy to, so I don’t judge and I think I do a pretty good job of treating everybody fairly. I figure that understanding, or at least the most earnest attempt at it, is the best way to deal with anything we may not ascribe to, even as we wish to respect the person who does. Along that same vein, if you’re curious about BDSM and kink, there are websites galore with tips and tricks, even online “academies” where you can learn to be a dom or a sub, or BDSM groups for the over 50 set…you name it, it’s there for your perusal. If you do decide to partake, I can only suggest to communicate, communicate, communicate; be safe, establish a safe word and safe boundaries, and have fun people.
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