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Shemhazai Library   Content managed by our Librarian, member       Damiane de Mereliot

TdA Member Contributed Articles
Why Our Love Hurts - A Quick Whip Through the Hows and Whys of Sadomasochism

by Antoine nó Pluinceid






S & M, or sadomasochism, derives its terms from the names of two European aristocrats. The Marquis de Sade (1740-1814) and Leopold von Sacher Masoch (1836-1895) were two gentlemen with diametrically opposed tastes, one seeming to derive pleasure from contemplating or inflicting pain on and being in command of women, the other needing to be controlled in order to experience ecstasy.

Although the names of the Marquis de Sade and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch are attached to the terms sadism and masochism respectively, Sade's way of life does not meet modern BDSM standards of informed consent. In fact, most of his writings involve the non-consensual detention and torture of women, rather than being in any way reflective of the current pillars of BDSM practice – safety, sanity and consent.

Although S & M has only had an official definition since the publication of  Krafft-Ebbing’s Psychopathia Sexualis (1890), there are references throughout history to various groups deriving pleasure from pain (for example, the flagellants of the Middle Ages who whipped themselves in order to atone for man’s sins).

One of the more concrete examples of early sadomasochism is the Kama Sutra, which advocates the use of biting, slapping and scratching, dedicating three chapters of its second part to such practices. These practices are also referred to throughout the text, and the appropriate results of their use as well as the allowable combinations of them are discussed in detail: “The wedge on the bosom, the scissors on the head, the piercing instrument on the cheeks, and the pinchers on the breasts and sides, may also be taken into consideration with the other four modes of striking, and thus give eight ways altogether.” The cause of women’s crying out in reaction to these inflictions is assumed to be uncontrollable pleasure, though the text’s clearly male-centric perspective throws this into question, as it almost suggests women should enjoy anything men do to them.

This does of course focus on the pleasure to be derived from receiving pain, rather than inflicting it and, throughout history, it is clear that what we now refer to as masochism has a much better documented past than what we call sadism.

The Virtuoso (Shadwell, 1676) points to a connection between corporal punishment during schooling and later masochism, while the third plate in Hogarth’s Harlot’s Progress shows a birch over the bed, alluding to beating being an erotic specialty for hire even as early as the 18th century.

These covert depictions of the availability of pain as a pleasure commodity are indicative of sadomasochism’s hushed past. Even in the increasingly sexually liberal 20th century, sadomasochism was not given much respect or consideration as a normal sexual preference, only being removed as paraphilia from the DSM of the American Psychiatric Association with the fourth revised edition (published in 1994). 

When Norman Breslow began investigating BDSM, he found that about 25% of the males engaged in BDSM were ‘Versatile’ (Switches), with one-third dominant and the rest submissive (these figures were similar for the female respondents). His work also indicated differences between each gender’s preferences for various activities; men preferred pain and whipping while women favoured bondage and restraint. Transvestitism was more common in men, while women preferred fetishes that focused on shoes, erotic lingerie and verbal abuse (1985, cited in Laws & O’Donohue 2008).

Thomas Wetzstein conducted a large-scale study of the local subculture from a sociological viewpoint, realising that women do not limit themselves to a masochistic role. Much of this modern research is less concerned with what causes sadistic and masochistic urges than describing their mechanisms and characteristics.

But why is it that we find solace and pleasure in such a ‘strange’ manner? There are a few schools of thought in relation to that question, and I will touch on the psychoanalytic, the social and the biological perspectives:

Sigmund Freud (whose theories, admittedly, are largely debunked by now, though certain aspects of his writings are still referred to in both research and practice in the psychotherapeutic field) made both masochism and sadism core parts of psychoanalysis. In his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905), Freud called the tendency to inflict and receive pain during sex "the most common and important of all perversions." He also pointed out that both tendencies commonly occurred in the same individual. This was affirmed recently by Elliott and Brantley in their research, which was published as part of Sex On Campus (1997). This research showed that 15% of homosexual males, 21% of lesbian/female bisexual students, 11% of heterosexual male and 9% of female heterosexual students enjoyed and committed to BDSM, whether in fantasy or practice.

Freud's theories on sadomasochism and the philosophy of Sade fascinated thinkers such as Gilles Deleuze and Simone de Beauvoir. Their writings, though not grounded in formal research (and sometimes far removed from real-life sadomasochism), strongly influenced popular views of the subject in the mid-20th century. Outside of psychoanalysis, views on sadomasochism began to change in the late 20th century with the study of actual behaviour of real-life sadomasochists. Alfred Kinsey noted sadomasochistic tendencies in both genders, reporting about its presence in females in 1953, five years after the publication of his Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male (1948). Kinsey is also reported as having engaged in (for research) and enjoying sadomasochistic practices (DeMarco & Wiker, 2004).

However, Kinsey’s sadomasochism and that of those he studied was constantly cloaked in secrecy and mystery. The first researcher to properly describe the existence of a sadomasochistic subculture was Robert Litman in 1972. Litman revealed that bondage was an established category of deviancy, including humiliation, enslavement, binding and restraining. Through the use of ‘underground press’ to gain participants, Litman also showed a well-developed subculture. His paper – unfortunately for the community – focused on erotic asphyxiation, though its clinical and scientific style ensured that the community was, in its initial exposure, not seen as merely a gateway for those who wished to die. It was much more than that, a way to release negative emotional energy and gain erotic pleasure. The resulting asphyxiation was categorised as the result of certain specific behaviours going awry.

Freud initially saw guilt as an important factor and integrated both tendencies into his theory of psychosexual development. In brief, sadism and masochism were assumed to be a sign of incomplete or incorrect sexual development in the child. He changed his theories on the genesis of sadism and masochism repeatedly, initially claiming that masochism only arose as a form of sadism against the self. He later introduced such concepts as "primary" and "secondary" masochism and sub-forms such as "feminine" and "moral" masochism. In Freud's view, the passivity of masochism was linked to femininity, and the active nature of sadism to virility. He later acknowledged that the repression of aggressiveness in women could lead to masochistic impulses, which could then succeed in erotically binding the inward destructive trends.

Subsequent to this, Elsworth Baker attributed the origin of masochistic character to parental inconsistency, whereas Helene Deutsch postulated that all women are masochistic by nature, reinforcing Krafft-Ebing's and Freud's views. Because of these variations, even the most basic words such as "masochism" have acquired so many different meanings in psychoanalysis that the terms have become confusing for psychoanalysts themselves and incomprehensible to outsiders.

According to the Kinsey Institute, it is important to recognize that a person who engages or fantasizes about BDSM "did not choose the behaviour, nor can the person voluntarily control the behaviour by willpower.” This essentially attributes fetishes to hormonal and brain functions in an individual, which result in a particular brain ‘wiring.’ Such a ‘wiring’ interacts with an individual’s environment and upbringing, resulting in the development of an atypical ‘lovemap’ in early in life.

This perspective might suggest that – in the same way that people can’t control their sexual orientation – how we derive pleasure is pre-programmed into us. In addition, some of these sexual behaviours and preferences are based in simple life experience and are perhaps unrelated to the biological factors previously mentioned. It is not uncommon, for instance, for a woman who is the head of a large company to enjoy time off from that role by playing the submissive elsewhere, which can contribute to relaxation.

The third theory behind BDSM is the most clinical perspective: that of pure neuroscience. Where brain biology is concerned, there are two main postulations as to why people would engage in BDSM.

The first of these centres around the fact that the brain produces endorphins to compensate for pain. It’s even possible to get slightly high as a result of the sensation. The "runner's high" comes from pushing the body painfully for so long that the endorphins kick in; and that's what makes BDSM enjoyable.

In contrast with this, the other biological perspective focuses on how different people enjoy different levels of sensations, and have different sense thresholds. What may be a wonderfully sweet caress to one person may be totally unnoticeable to another, and what may be a delightful spanking to one person may be agonizing to someone else.

However, rather than trying to pin down the reasons behind our desires, we may be better served by allowing that we cannot choose them and recognising that we can (and do) choose how they are manifested in our actions. It is rare that a sexual fantasy or desire would force someone to act upon it (rare, rather than impossible, which is part of why BDSM remains as part of the DSM-IV-TR - the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual, 4th revised edition of the American Psychiatric Association).

Where a sexual desire causes significant impairment or distress in functioning due to behaviours or fantasies, it can be considered a paraphilia. Were the individual able to control the desire, it would not cause the distress or impairment.

No empirical study has found a connection to violent crimes in sadomasochists as had been generally assumed since Krafft-Ebbing. However, throughout history, the link between sexual arousal and pain has existed, and as a result of that, an entire (previously underground) industry has been built up. This industry considers the different documented ways in which humans have previously and currently cause injury or pain to one another, and morphs the devices and implements used for such outcomes into safe ‘toys’ and tools for the sadomasochistic community. While we are still uncertain about why we enjoy the sharper pleasures in life, it’s still interesting to make ourselves aware of the theories regarding the foundations of our tastes. 


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