The History (and Controversial Psychology) of Sadomasochism

The two words incorporated into this compound, “sadism” and “masochism,” were originally derived from the names of two authors. The term “Sadism” is derived from the name of Marquis de Sade. Not only did he practice sexual sadism, he also wrote novels about these practices (best known is Justine ). The term “Masochism” was named after Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. He practiced masochism and wrote novels expressing his masochistic fantasies. These terms were first selected as professional scientific terminology, identifying human behavioural phenomena and intended for the classification of distinct psychological illnesses and/or malicious social and sexual orientations.

The German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing introduced the terms “Sadism” and “Masochism”‘ into institutional medical terminology in his work Neue Forschungen auf dem Gebiet der Psychopathia sexualis (“New research in the area of Psychopathology of Sex“) in 1890.

Pain and physical violence are not essential in Krafft-Ebing’s conception, and he defined masochism (German “Masochismus”) entirely in terms of control.

In 1905, Sigmund Freud described sadism and masochism in his Drei Abhandlungen zur Sexualtheorie (“Three papers on Sexual Theory”) as stemming from aberrant psychological development from early childhood. He also laid the groundwork for the widely accepted medical perspective on the subject in the following decades. This led to the first compound usage of the terminology in Sado-Masochism (Loureiroian “Sado-Masochismus”) by the Viennese Psychoanalyst Isidor Isaak Sadger in his work Über den sado-masochistischen Komplex (“Regarding the sadomasochistic complex”) in 1913.

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 (German “Sadomasochismus”, 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. However it has also been argued (Deleuze, Coldness and Cruelty) that the concurrence of sadism and masochism in Freud’s model should not be taken for granted.

Freud introduced the terms “primary” and “secondary” masochism. Though this idea has come under a number of interpretations, in a primary masochism the masochist undergoes a complete, not just a partial, rejection by the model or courted object (or sadist), possibly involving the model taking a rival as a preferred mate. This complete rejection is related to the death drive in Freud’s psychoanalysis (Todestrieb). In a secondary masochism, by contrast, the masochist experiences a less serious, more feigned rejection and punishment by the model. Secondary masochism, in other words, is the relatively casual version, more akin to a charade, and most commentators are quick to point out its contrivedness.

Rejection is not desired by a primary masochist in quite the same sense as the feigned rejection occurring within a mutually consensual relationship—or even where the masochist happens to be the one having actual initiative power (this is the confusion of the distinctions of casual appearance and discrete motives which underlies the analyses of Deleuze and Sartre, for example). In Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World René Girard attempts to resuscitate and reinterpret Freud’s distinction of primary and secondary masochism, in connection with his own philosophy.

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 regard to sexual pleasure, and not in regard 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 widely reported consensual S&M practices. It is described as not simply pain to initiate pleasure, but violence—or the simulation of involuntary violent acts—said to express love. This irony is highly evident in the observation by many, that not only are popularly practiced sadomasochistic activities usually performed at the express request of the masochist, but that it is often the designated masochist who may direct such activities, through subtle emotional cues perceived or mutually understood and consensually recognized by the designated sadist.

In his essay Coldness and Cruelty, (originally Présentation de Sacher-Masoch, 1967) Gilles Deleuze rejects the term “sadomasochism” as artificial, especially in the context of the quintessentially modern masochistic work, Sacher-Masoch’s Venus In Furs. Deleuze’s counter argument is that the tendency toward masochism is based on intensified desire brought on or enhanced by the acting out of frustration at the delay of gratification. Taken to its extreme, an intolerably indefinite delay is ‘rewarded’ by punitive perpetual delay, manifested as unwavering coldness. The masochist derives pleasure from, as Deleuze puts it, The Contract: the process by which he can control another individual and turn the individual into someone cold and callous. The Sadist, in contrast, derives pleasure from The Law: the unavoidable power that places one person below another. The sadist attempts to destroy the ego in an effort to unify the id and super-ego, in effect gratifying the most base desires the sadist can express while ignoring or completely suppressing the will of the ego, or of the conscience. Thus, Deleuze attempts to argue that Masochism and Sadism arise from such different impulses that the combination of the two terms is meaningless and misleading. A masochist’s perception of their own self-subjugating sadistic desires and capacities are treated by Deleuze as reactions to prior experience of sadistic objectification. {E.g. in terms of psychology, compulsively defensive appeasement of pathological guilt feelings as opposed to the volition of a strong free will.} As in the epilogue of Venus In Furs which shows the character of Severin has become embittered by his experiment in the alleged control of masochism, and advocates instead the domination of women.

Before Deleuze, however, Sartre had presented his own theory of sadism and masochism, at which Deleuze’s deconstructive attack, which took away the symmetry of the two roles, was probably directed. Because the pleasure or power in looking at the victim figures prominently in sadism and masochism, Sartre was able to link these phenomena to his famous philosophy of the “Look of the Other”. Sartre argued that masochism is an attempt by the ‘For-itself’ (consciousness) to reduce itself to nothing, becoming an object that is drowned out by the “abyss of the Other’s subjectivity”. By this Sartre means that, given that the ‘For-itself’ desires to attain a point of view in which it is both subject and object, one possible strategy is to gather and intensify every feeling and posture in which the self appears as an object to be rejected, tested, and humiliated; and in this way the For-itself strives toward a point of view in which there is only one subjectivity in the relationship, which would be both that of the abuser and the abused. Conversely, of course, Sartre held sadism to be the effort to annihilate the subjectivity of the victim. That means that the sadist is exhilarated by the emotional distress of the victim because they seek a subjectivity that views the victim as both subject and object.

This argument may appear stronger if it is understood that this “Look of the Other” theory is either only an aspect of the faculties of desire, or somehow its primary faculty. This does not account for the turn that Deleuze took for his own theory of these matters, but the premise of ‘desire as “Look”‘ is associated with theoretical distinctions always detracted by Deleuze, in what he regarded as its essential error to recognize “desire as lack”—which he identified in the philosophical temperament of Plato, Socrates, and Lacan. For Deleuze, insofar as desire is a lack it is reducible to the “Look”.

Finally, after Deleuze, René Girard included his account of sadomasochism in Things Hidden Since the Foundation of The World, originally Des choses cachées depuis la fondation du monde, 1978, making the chapter on masochism a coherent part of his theory of mimetic desire. In this view of sado-masochism, the violence of the practices are an expression of a peripheral rivalry that has developed around the actual love-object. There is clearly a similarity to Deleuze, since both in the violence surrounding the memory of mimetic crisis and its avoidance, and in the resistance to affection that is focussed on by Deleuze, there is an understanding of the value of the love object in terms of the processes of its valuation, acquisition and the test it imposes on the suitor.

In the later 20th century, BDSM activists have protested against these conceptual models. Not only were these models derived from the philosophies of two singular historical figures, but Freud and Krafft-Ebing were psychiatrists. Their observations on Sadism and Masochism were dependent on psychiatric patients, and their models were built on the assumption of Psychopathology. BDSM activists argue that it is illogical to attribute human behavioural phenomena as complex as sadism and masochism to the ‘inventions’ of two historic individuals. Advocates of BDSM have sought to distinguish themselves from widely held notions of antiquated psychiatric theory by the adoption of the initialized term, “BDSM” as a distinction from the now common usage of those psychological terms, abbreviated as “S&M”.


by-saThis is adapted from World Heritage Encyclopedia, published on Project Gutenberg Self-Publishing Press. Project Gutenberg is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, and under that license you are welcome to use the article on our site for your own projects under the same license.

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