Sadomasochism – or SM – can be defined as experiencing (sexual) pleasure by inflicting or receiving physical or emotional pain or humiliation. For some people, SM is an addition to their sex life, while for others it is more of a life style. What motivates people to inflict pain to others?
What is sadomasochism?
Sadomasochism is not a form of sexual violence, but it consists of consensual activities. Sadomasochists are looking for pain and humiliation in the context of affection and sex and despise unbridled violence or abuse like anyone else. In general, sadomasochists are not psychopaths that have some sort of diagnostable mental disorder, as long as these SM activities take place with consent.
Both men and women can have sadistic and masochistic impulses. Most S&M-ers are purely sadistic or masochistic, but there are also people that can ‘switch’ between those.
Next to the sexual pleasure, practicing SM can also create a bond between people. Often it is the masochist (the recipient of pain) that initiates activities and controls them by means of subtle emotional signals.
The term sadomasochism is a portmanteau of sadism and masochism. These terms were first used in the 19th century by the German psychiater Richard von Krafft-Ebing. Krafft-Ebing derived the term sadism from Marquis de Sade, author of many erotic books, such as ‘Justine’ and ‘100 Days of Sodom’. Masochism was derived from the author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, well known from his book Venus in Furs.
Sigmund Freud was the first who combined the words sadism and masochism into sadomasochism. He used the term to describe persons who like to inflict or receive pain. For him, these practices were so related, that he grouped it, event hough the needs were opposite.
Although the term sadomasochism comes from the 19th century, the phenomena is much older. In Confessions (1782) Jean-Jacques Rousseau describes how he enjoyed sexual pleasure when he got spanked in his childhood, for example. And in the Renaissance philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola described how a man became aroused by flogging. But even in the Kama Sutra, which dates back to the 2nd century, erotic spanking is mentioned.
The German physician Johann Heinrich Meibom introduced the first theory about masochism in his Treatise on the Use of Flogging in Medicine and Venery (1639). According to Meibom, flogging of the back is a way to ‘warm the seed in the kidneys’ which leads to sexual arousal ‘when the seed floads to the testicles’. Other early theories mention warming the blood by flogging and to reduce mental pain.
In Psychopathia Sexualis (1886), Krafft-Ebing described sexual related crimes, but he didn’t directly attributed those to masochism or sadism. In Three Papers on Sexual Theory, Freud indicated that sadism and masochism are closely related. According to Freud, sadism was a distortion of the male instinct and masochism was a form of sadism against the own individual.
Freud believed that the urge to inflict pain or to receive pain during sex, was the most common and most important perversity. Like with many of his theories, he attributed that to anomalies in the upbringing oat childhood. He gave little attention to sadomasochism in women, because he believed that sadism was a male trait and that masochism was natural behavior for women.
In Studies in the Psychology of Sex, British physician Havelock Ellis (1859-1939) argued that there is no difference between masochism and sadism and he limited sadomasochism to the erotic field.
Frensch philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) dared to differ. In his essay Coldness and Cruelty, he claims that sadomasochism is just an artificial term and there is a big difference between masochism and sadism.
The complexity of sadomasochism
As with many impulses, behavior and emotions, sadomasochism can not be attributed to a single cause or situation. There are many theories and the truth is that every case is unique and it often constitutes a combination of factors.
One theory says that sadism is a form of learned behavior (operante conditioning – learning by experiencing). This could occur when someone experiences extreme arousal when that person looks at someone who feels pain (for example by watching porn that includes humiliation). This could lead to an association that will lead the person to seek comparable experiences.
The most obvious explanation for sadism is that the sadist gets pleasure from having power, authority and controle over someone else.
A sadist might also have an unconscious desire to punish someone, because that person is subversive. The sexual attraction of the other could frustrate him and might even make him jealous. Especially men that fantasies about sadism, are looking for control over situations where they normally don’t have it. Or they compensate the lack of power and control in their daily live.
Sadists can also see their partner as an object, a toy, or a trophy. You can do whatever you like with a toy. Sadism can also be a form of projection, where feelings of guild, or anger are projected to someone else. Sadists have less interest in the well being of others and are looking less for intimacy. People who fantasies about sadism, are also more able to separate love and sex.
People with a ‘wandering mind’ fantasize more often about people who experience pain. But these kind of persons fantasize about pretty much everything, so a sadistic fantasy is just a sign that they have a vivid imagination.
The masochist takes on the role of submission and helplessness. That can be a form of discharging stress or responsibilities. It can also be infantile behavior to create dependency, comfort and security, as a substitute for intimacy. A masochist can derive pleasure from earning the approval of the sadist, or by enforcing complete attention. In that way, the masochist controls the sadist. It is even possible that the sadist feels pain when he sees how the other person has pain. With his sadism, he actually hurts himself.
But sadomasochism can also be seen as a form in which ‘normal’ sexual behavior is intensified. The pain releases endorphins and other hormones, that give a feeling of pleasure. People who enjoy thrilling and risky sex, are also attracted to sadism.
In the book Aesthetic Sexuality, author Romana Byrne says there is also a strong aesthetic component to SM. Some practitioners strive beauty and style, and derive a part of their identity from this lifestyle.
How odd or normal is SM?
You may think that sadomasochistic behavior only occurs in a small amount of people with deviant behavior. But many of our ‘normal’ sexual behavior also include mild SM, like spanking. Don’t ignore what makes us human. In almost every relationship there is some kind of division of roles where one is more dominant and the other more submissive.
Everyone is different and for each of us sadomasochism means something else. Therefor, it is always important to discuss what are hard barriers and which are more soft barriers that you are willing to explore.