The Sticky Psychology Behind Sadomasochism

Sadomasochism is nothing new.

Sadomasochism has a complicated backstory, to say the least. But its history is long, dating back hundreds, if not thousands of years.

In fact, no one really knows for sure when the first dom/sub relationship occurred. Plus, there’s a strong chance that early BDSM was not precisely consensual.

There’s not a lot of historical references explicitly discussing BDSM or the master/slave dynamic unless you read between the lines. 

This is because S&M happened in the bedroom (or anywhere there were closed doors), out of the public eye.

But just because there’s a lack of primary sources doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. 

Also, S&M’s origins aren’t the most glamorous. It’s full of characters like self-flagellating clergymen, slave owners, and sexually deviant Nazis.

These kinds of things make modern BDSM look very bad, no matter how much the lifestyle has evolved.

As society becomes more open-minded about sex and greater importance is placed on consent, more people are learning about and engaging in S&M.

So whether you’re dying to break out the bondage gear or don’t know what S&M is in the first place, here’s the psychology behind sadomasochism. 

Sadomasochism - A Woman Holding A Riding Crop
Image by joshuatkd from Pixabay

What is Sadomasochism?

Sadomasochism is giving or obtaining pleasure from applying or experiencing pain or humiliation. It’s usually associated with sexual gratification, but it doesn’t always have to. 

Participants use it to intensify sexual pleasure. Some people might use it as a replacement for sex or find it necessary to get pleasure.

Causing pain stimulates arousal and pleasure while imitating violence can create (or convey) attachment.

In many cases, it’s the masochist who initiates sadomasochistic pursuits, guiding with subtle emotional cues.

Sadomasochists aren’t black-and-white, either although some may regard themselves as only sadistic or masochistic, many switch between roles. 

What Sadomasochism is NOT

Consensual sadomasochism is not the same as sexual aggression. 

Sadomasochists solicit pain and humiliation only in the perspective of sex, affection, and/or love. Outside of that context, they condemn violence and exploitation like anyone else.

Sadomasts aren’t psychopaths; unlike antisocial personality disorder, S&M isn’t diagnosable, unless it produces severe distress or injury to others. 

Some research suggests that sadistic fantasies are as common in women as men. But, these desires seem to emerge at a younger age in men than women. 

Sadomasochism - A Pair Of Hands In Handcuffs
Image by Klaus Hausmann from Pixabay

History, Origins, and Early Theories

Now that we’ve gone over the basics, it’s time to dive into the history of S&M.

Unsurprisingly, this word is a combination of sadism and masochism. Even more unsurprisingly, it was a German psychiatrist named Richard von Krafft-Ebing coined them.

In Psychopathia Sexualis (1886), a summary of sexual case histories and sex crimes, Krafft-Ebing distinguished the terms from each other as they came from separate modes of sexual and erotic reasoning.

In typical 19th-century fashion, Krafft-Ebing believed sadist inclinations naturally occurred in men, and women developed masochistic ones.

Although these words emerged in the 19th century, the concept of sadomasochism itself is nothing new.

Sadomasochism - Marquis de Sade Pic
Source: All That’s Interesting

Origins of Sadism

Krafft-Ebing got the word sadism from infamous 18th-century French nobleman Marquis de Sade, otherwise known as the Father of Eroticism. 

De Sade is unanimously famous for his libertine sexuality and controversial writings. Notable works include:

  • 120 Days of Sodom (1785)
  • Justine (1791)
  • Philosophy in the Bedroom (1795)
  • Juliette (1799)

These quotes give a better idea of why Krafft-Ebing chose de Sade to term his new phrase:

“It is always by way of pain one arrives at pleasure.”

“In order to know virtue, we must first acquaint ourselves with vice.”

“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.”

Origins of Masochism

Venus in Furs (1870), written by 19th-century Austrian nobleman Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, was the inspiration for the phrase masochism. 

Drawing from his own experiences, Sacher-Masoch details themes such as female dominance and what Krafft-Ebing eventually dubbed sadomasochism. 

See for yourself:

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.

Early Historical Accounts of Sadomasochism

People have written about getting pleasure from pain for centuries, but back then, no one really knew what to call it:

  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau: In his book Confessions (1782), the Genevan philosopher discusses how, as a child, he felt sexual pleasure during beatings.
  • Giovanni Pico della Mirandola: The notable Renaissance-era philosopher described a man who could not become aroused without being whipped first.
  • The Kama Sutra: The world’s most famous sex manual, written during the 2nd century, talks about consensual sensual slapping.

Early doctors tried to explain this phenomenon, but of course, they weren’t always right. 

After all, when you live in a sexually repressed society, it’s tough to figure out something this complicated.

Johann Heinrich Meibom (1590-1655)

German medical practitioner Johann Heinrich Meibom proposed the first theory of masochism in his 1693 Treatsie on the Use of Flogging in Medicine and Venery

Meibom hypothesized that the kidneys stored semen, and flogging a man on his back heated it until it passed to the testicles, resulting in sexual arousal. 

Today, his theory seems totally off the wall. But he wasn’t the only one who suggested ideas like this. Others also discussed how sexual arousal could diminish pain.

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

No article about the history of S&M would be complete without mentioning Freud at least once.

In Three Papers on Sexual Theory (1905), Freud combined both sadism and masochism into one word, believing that both are observable in the same people.

For Freud, sadism was a perversion of men’s’ aggressive instinct. Masochism, on the other hand, was a kind of cruelty against the self, making it more unnatural than standard sadism.

He noted that the inclination to apply and accept pain during sex was a prevalent sexual deviation. It stemmed from rough or abnormal early childhood psychical development.

Whether because of societal gender roles, sexism, or the notion that sadism happened primarily in men, Freud hardly examined female sadomasochists. Many thought masochism was a natural characteristic of womanhood.

Havelock Ellis (1859-1939)

Havelock Ellis was a British doctor who wrote Studies in the Psychology of Sex in 1900. In it, he argued for the elimination of any distinction between sadism and masochism. 

Furthermore, he wanted to separate S&M from exploitation and abuse and place it to the realm of eroticism. 

Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995)

While Ellis aimed to alleviate the stigma and consolidate sadism and masochism as one term, French philosopher Gilles Deleuze contested the opposite.

Deleuze’s 1967 book Coldness and Cruelty argues that these two terms are different from one another, making the phrase sadomasochism contrived.

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Modern Explanations for Sadomasochism

Like we said before, S&M is tough to understand. 

More researchers study this phenomenon than ever before, but there’s still so much that goes into it that we may never figure it out entirely.

Some experts study it through a Freudian lens, but others, like Romana Byrd, don’t attribute stunted psychological growth with sadomasochist tendencies. 

Byrd, the author of Aesthetic Sexuality, argues that interest in S&M can also be motivated by particular aesthetic goals associated with fashion, pleasure, and individuality.

English psychiatrist Neel Burton raises a few explanations, but of course, it’s impossible to say for sure.

Sadism

  • Sadists feel pleasure from control and the power that comes with it, as well as the submissive partner’s “suffering.”
  • Some sadists might suppress unconscious urges to “punish” the masochist for causing sexual attraction in the first place. 
  • In some cases, it might stem from impeding the sadist’s desires or inciting jealousy. 
  • By objectifying their partners, some sadists might be trying to make sex less meaningful. Removing the emotional aspect through objectification removes intimacy and makes it an act of lust.
  • Sadists might carry feelings like resentment or guilt and use someone else to remove these emotions.

Masochism

  • For masochists, obedience and helplessness can release tension, feelings of guilt, or the weight of responsibility. 
  • It can also provoke childlike feelings of dependency and safety, which acts as a substitute for intimacy.
  • Likewise, masochists might receive pleasure from winning their partner’s approval. By demanding complete attention, the submissive partner controls the sadist.

But what about switches?

  • For those who play both parts, S&M is a way to augment traditional intercourse. For example, pain releases endorphins that enhance the experience.
  • Some may enjoy reverting to a primal state, testing limits, playing out subconscious or emotional fantasies, or just play for fun.
Image by Klaus Hausmann from Pixabay

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