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Sadomasochism, a subset of BDSM, is the giving or receiving of pleasure from acts involving the receipt or infliction of pain or humiliation. Practitioners of sadomasochism may seek sexual gratification from their acts. While the terms sadist and masochist refer respectively to one who enjoys giving or receiving pain, practitioners of sadomasochism may switch between activity and passivity.

The abbreviation S&M is often used for sadomasochism, although practitioners themselves normally remove the ampersand and use the acronym SM or S/M. Sadomasochism is not considered a clinical paraphilia unless such practices lead to clinically significant distress or impairment for a diagnosis.[1] Similarly, sexual sadism within the context of mutual consent should not be mistaken for acts of sexual violence or aggression.[2]


  • Etymology 1
    • Distinction among the subdivisions of BDSM 1.1
  • Psychology 2
    • Historical perspective 2.1
    • Modern psychology 2.2
      • Psychological categorization 2.2.1
      • Forensic classifications 2.2.2
      • Sexual masochists 2.2.3
      • Sexual sadists 2.2.4
  • History 3
  • See also 4
  • References 5
  • Further reading 6
  • External links 7


Portrait of Marquis de Sade by Charles-Amédée-Philippe van Loo (1761).

The term "Sadomasochism" is complicated by the diversity of intent in its application. These terms were often loosely used to refer to cruel individuals or those who brought misfortunes onto themselves. However, these definitions are misleading. Richters and colleagues (2007)[3] examined the common belief that people with sadomasochistic sexual interest are damaged or dangerous. Their research found that BDSM is simply a sexual interest, and it is not a pathological symptom of past abuse or difficulty with sex. 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.[4] These terms were first selected as professional scientific terminology, identifying human behavioural phenomena and intended for the classification of distinct psychological illnesses 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.[5]

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.[6]

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.[7] 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".

In contrast to frameworks seeking to explain sadomasochism through psychological, psychoanalytic, medical or forensic approaches, which seek to categorize behavior and desires and find a root "cause," Romana Byrne suggests that such practices can be seen as examples of "aesthetic sexuality," in which a founding physiological or psychological impulse is irrelevant. Rather, sadism and masochism may be practiced through choice and deliberation, driven by certain aesthetic goals tied to style, pleasure, and identity. These practices, in certain circumstances and contexts, can be compared with the creation of art.[8]

Distinction among the subdivisions of BDSM

The term "Sadomasochism" has been loosely used to refer to the entire umbrella of BDSM. However, this is not accurate as BDSM is a shorthand for the three main subdivisions of the culture: B&D (bondage and discipline), D/s (dominance and submission), and S&M (sadism and masochism).

Bondage and discipline usually involves either physical or psychological restraint, formalized service or punishment, and sometimes sexual role playing, such as costumes.


Historical perspective

Both terms were introduced to the medical field by German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing in his 1886 compilation of case studies Psychopathia Sexualis. Pain and physical violence are not essential in Krafft-Ebing's conception, and he defined "masochism" (German Masochismus) entirely in terms of control.[9] 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, rather than 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 (Todestrieb) in Freud's psychoanalysis. 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. 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 counterargument 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.} The epilogue of Venus In Furs 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 argument, 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".[10] 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 sado-masochism 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 focused 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.

Modern psychology

There are a number of reasons commonly given for why a sadomasochist finds the practice of S&M enjoyable, and the answer is largely dependent on the individual. For some, taking on a role of compliance or helplessness offers a form of therapeutic escape; from the stresses of life, from responsibility, or from guilt. For others, being under the power of a strong, controlling presence may evoke the feelings of safety and protection associated with childhood. They likewise may derive satisfaction from earning the approval of that figure (see: Servitude (BDSM)). A sadist, on the other hand, may enjoy the feeling of power and authority that comes from playing the dominant role, or receive pleasure vicariously through the suffering of the masochist. It is poorly understood, though, what ultimately connects these emotional experiences to sexual gratification, or how that connection initially forms.

Dr. Joseph Merlino, author and psychiatry adviser to the New York Daily News, said in an interview that a sadomasochistic relationship, as long as it is consensual, is not a psychological problem:

It is usually agreed on by psychologists that experiences during early sexual development can have a profound effect on the character of sexuality later in life. Sadomasochistic desires, however, seem to form at a variety of ages. Some individuals report having had them before puberty, while others do not discover them until well into adulthood. According to one study, the majority of male sadomasochists (53%) developed their interest before the age of 15, while the majority of females (78%) developed their interest afterwards (Breslow, Evans, and Langley 1985). The prevalence of sadomasochism within the general population is unknown. Despite female sadists being less visible than males, some surveys have resulted in comparable amounts of sadistic fantasies between females and males.[12] The results of such studies demonstrate that one's sex does not determine preference for sadism.[13]

Psychological categorization

The classification of sadism and masochism in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) has always been separate; sadism was included in the DSM-I in 1952 [14] while masochism was added in the DSM-II in 1968.[15] Contemporary psychology continues to identify sadism and masochism separately, and categorizes them as either practiced as a life style, or as a medical condition.[1][16]

In the current DSM, sadism and masochism, alongside certain other sexual practices, are classified as paraphilias. Since the publication of the DSM-IV in 1994, the criteria for Sexual sadism disorder and Sexual masochism disorder include that: "The fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors [must] cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning". The manual's most current edition (DSM-IV-TR) has not changed the 1994 criteria for masochism: the activity must be the sole means of sexual gratification for a period of six (6) months, and either cause "clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning" or involve a violation of consent to be diagnosed as a paraphilia.[17] The criteria for sadism has had minor wording changes.[14] The other major international classification of mental disorders, the ICD-10 differs from the DSM in a few regards. The ICD-10 combines sexual sadism and masochism into sado-masochism, makes more of a marked distinction between consensual sadomasochistic practices and sexual violence, and suggests that aspects of sadomasochism occur within average sexual relations.[18]

The DSM's criteria for sadism and masochism has been criticized as vague and untested in real circumstances.[19] The inclusion of paraphilias as a whole in the DSM has been a point of debate within the field.[20] One concern is the ambiguous criteria for distinction between common sexual activities with the criteria for paraphilia.[21] Others believe the inclusion of many paraphilias rest on conventional perceptions of normal sexuality, and compare the inclusion of paraphilias like sadomasochism to that of homosexuality which has been removed.[22] The latest version of the DSM, the DSM-5, will be published in May 2013, so it remains to be seen if any changes in diagnosis and criteria will happen.

Forensic classifications

Sexual masochists

Class I: Bothered by, but not seeking out, fantasies. May be preponderantly sadists with minimal masochistic tendencies or non-sadomasochistic with minimal masochistic tendencies

Class II: Equal mix of sadistic and masochistic tendencies. Like to receive pain but also like to be dominant partner (in this case, sadists). Sexual orgasm is achieved without pain or humiliation.

Class III: Masochists with minimal to no sadistic tendencies. Preference for pain or humiliation (which facilitates orgasm), but not necessary to orgasm. Capable of romantic attachment.

Class IV: Exclusive masochists (i.e. cannot form typical romantic relationships, cannot achieve orgasm without pain or humiliation).

Sexual sadists

Class I: Bothered by sexual fantasies but do not act on them.

Class II: Act on sadistic urges with consenting sexual partners (masochists or otherwise). Categorization as leptosadism is outdated.

Class III: Act on sadistic urges with non-consenting victims, but don't seriously injure or kill. May coincide with sadistic rapists.

Class IV: Only act with non-consenting victims and will seriously injure or kill them.

The difference between I-II and III-IV is consent.[23]


The Martyrdom of St. Barbara by Wilhelm Kalteysen von Aachen, a medieval spectacle of ritual execution, reflecting sadomasochism's "polymorphis fantasies" of pain,[24] National Museum in Warsaw

The term BDSM is commonly used to describe consensual activities that contain sadistic and masochistic elements. Masochists tend to be very specific about the types of pain they enjoy, preferring some and disliking others. Many behaviors such as spanking, tickling, and love-bites contain elements of sado-masochism. Even if both parties legally consent to such acts this may not be accepted as a defense against criminal charges. Very few jurisdictions will permit consent as a legitimate defense if serious bodily injuries are caused.

  • "Pain and the erotic" by Lesley Hall

External links

  • Falaky, Faycal (2014). Social Contract, Masochist Contract: Aesthetics of Freedom and Submission in Rousseau. Albany: State University of New York Press. ISBN 978-1-4384-4989-0
  • Newmahr, Staci (2011). Playing on the Edge: Sadomasochism, Risk and Intimacy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-22285-0.
  • Phillips, Anita (1998). A Defense of Masochism. ISBN 0-312-19258-4.
  • Odd Reiersol, Svein Skeid:The ICD Diagnoses of Fetishism and Sadomasochism, in Journal of Homosexuality, Harrigton Park Press, Vol.50, No.2/3, 2006,pp. 243–262
  • Saez, Fernando y Olga Viñuales, Armarios de Cuero, Editorial Bellaterra, 2007. ISBN 978-84-7290-345-6
  • Uebel, Michael (2012). Psychoanalysis and the Question of Violence: From Masochism to Shame, American Imago, 69.4: 473-505.
  • Weinberg, Thomas S., "Sadomasochism in the United States: A Review of Recent Sociological Literature", The Journal of Sex Research 23 (Feb. 1987) 50-69

Further reading

  • Byrne, Romana (2013) Aesthetic Sexuality: A Literary History of Sadomasochism, New York: Bloomsbury.


  1. ^ a b
  2. ^ Fedoroff 2008, p. 637:"Sexual arousal from consensual interactions that include domination should be distinguished from nonconsensual sex acts."
  3. ^ Richters, J., De Visser, R. O., Rissel, C. E., Grulich, A. E., & Smith, A. (2008). Demographic and psychosocial features of participants in bondage and discipline,“Sadomasochism” or Dominance and Submission (BDSM): Data from a National Survey. The journal of sexual medicine, 5(7), 1660-1668.
  4. ^ Hyde, J. S., & DeLamater, J. D. (1999). Understanding human sexuality. McGraw-Hill, Inc. 432-435
  5. ^ Details describing the development of the theoretical construct "Perversion" by Krafft-Ebing and his relation of these terms. (See Andrea Beckmann, Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 8(2) (2001) 66-95 online under Deconstructing Myths
  6. ^ Isidor Isaak Sadger: Über den sado-masochistischen Komplex. in: Jahrbuch für psychoanalytische und psychopathologische Forschungen, Bd. 5, 1913, S. 157–232 (German)
  7. ^ Krueger & Kaplan 2001, p. 393: "The DSM nomenclature referring to sexual psychopathology has been criticized as being vague and not having undergone DSM field trials."
  8. ^ Byrne, Romana (2013) Aesthetic Sexuality: A Literary History of Sadomasochism, New York: Bloomsbury, pp.1-4.
  9. ^
  10. ^ Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness
  11. ^ Interview with Dr. Joseph Merlino, David Shankbone, Wikinews, October 5, 2007.
  12. ^ Fedoroff 2008, p. 640: "...surveys have found no difference in frequency of sadistic fantasies in men and women."
  13. ^ Fedoroff 2008, p. 644: "This review indicates that sexual sadism, as currently defined, is a heterogeneous phenomenon."
  14. ^ a b
  15. ^
  16. ^ Krueger & Kaplan 2001, p. 393: "as with many of the paraphilic disorders, these disorders represent a spectrum between sexual behavior that is socially acceptable and nonpathological and behavior that becomes pathological when an individual begins to suffer subjective distress or an impairment in functioning..."
  17. ^ Letter to the Editor of The American Journal of Psychiatry: Change in Criterion for Paraphilias in DSM-IV-TR. Russell B. Hilliard, Robert L. Spitzer. 2002. Retrieved: 23 November 2007.
  18. ^ Fedoroff 2008, p. 639: "There are several obvious differences between these criteria and those of the DSM-IV-TR. First, the conditions of sexual sadism and sexual masochism are combined. Second, there is an indication that elements of sadomasochism may be present in so-called normal sexual life. Third, there is an explicit differentiation between sexually motivated sadomasochistic acts and those motivated by cruelty or anger in a sexual context."
  19. ^ Krueger & Kaplan 2001, p. 393: "The DSM nomenclature referring to sexual psychopathology has been criticized as being vague and not having undergone DSM field trials."
  20. ^
    • Gordon 2008, p. 81: "The evolution of concepts of deviant sexuality has led to a degree of confusion as to when, if at all, deviant sexuality may be a genuine medical condition rather than a lifestyle choice."
    • Krueger & Kaplan 2001, p. 393: "Others have argued against inclusion of the paraphilias in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual at all, expressing the view that such an inclusion pathologizes particular consensual sexual activity between adults..."
    • Gordon 2008, p. 80: "The construction of at least some of the ‘paraphilias’ as mental disorders has proved almost as contentious as regarding them as sins."
  21. ^
    • Krueger & Kaplan 2001, p. 391: "Many of the paraphilias blend with consensual sexual practices that are not a source of distress or impairment of functioning but rather constitute forms of sexual expression that are chosen and practiced by significant numbers of individuals."
    • Krueger & Kaplan 2001, p. 393: "As any visit to the Internet will demonstrate, many of these behaviors are not seen as pathological or a source of distress at all; indeed there are numerous Internet sites and chat groups for all of the sexual behaviors noted above..."
  22. ^
    • Krueger & Kaplan 2001, p. 393: "Others have argued ... in the same way that homosexuality was once pathologized in earlier diagnostic nomenclature until is was dropped from the DSM, and that the present classification of sexual disorders merely amounts to a codification of social mores. Moser has argued that what is perceived as “normal” sexual activity is socially relative and that society becomes an agent of control over aberrant sexual expression..."
    • Gordon 2008, p. 81: "Such acceptance of homosexuality is, however, not universal... ...Nonetheless the partial release of homosexuality from description as pathological has been accompanied by a loosening of social condemnation towards some other manifestations of sexual deviance such as transvestism and consensual sadomasochism."
  23. ^
  24. ^
  25. ^
  26. ^
  27. ^ Ernulf, K. E., & Innala, S. M. (1995). Sexual bondage: A review and unobtrusive investigation. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 24, 631–654.



See also

Ernulf and Innala (1995) observed discussions among individuals with such interests, one of whom described the goal of hyperdominance.[27]

"Sadism" and "masochism" in the context of consensual sexual activities are not strictly accurate terms. Strictly speaking, a sadist is someone who enjoys causing pain regardless of whether the "victim" consents to it. Likewise, a masochist is someone who fantasizes about or enjoys being beaten, sexually humiliated, bound, tortured, or otherwise made to suffer in all situations. Within BDSM, a sadist will not inflict pain on people who have not consented. Most masochists do not enjoy pain outside BDSM.

In extreme cases, sadism and masochism can include fantasies, sexual urges or behavior which cause observably significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning, to the point that they can be considered part of a mental disorder. However, this is widely considered to be rare, as psychiatrists now regard such behaviors as clinically aberrant only if they are identifiable as symptoms and or associated with other problems such as personality disorder and or neurosis. There is some controversy in the psychology professions regarding a personality disorder referred to alternately as "self-defeating personality disorder" or "masochistic personality disorder", where masochistic behavior may not be in relation to other diagnosed mental disease.


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