The psychology of S&M
The terms sadism and masochism were first used consistently to describe these behaviors by the German psychoanalyst Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing in his 1886 book Psychopathia Sexualis, a famous study of "sexual perversity". Sigmund Freud, 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 (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.
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 comparitively 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 complimentary emotional states. He also made the important point that sadomasochism is concerned only with pain in regards to sexual pleasure, and not in regards 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 consensual S&M. It is not only pain to initiate pleasure, but violence—or the simulation of violence—to express love. This contradictory character is perhaps most evident in the observation by some that not only are sadomasochistic activities usually done for the benefit of the masochist, but that it is often the masochist that controls them, through subtle emotional cues received by the sadist.
Many theorists have suggested that sadomasochism is an inherent part of our culture. Sex and relationships are both consitantly taught to be formulated within a framework of male dominance and female submission. Inequalities among gender, class, and race remain a substantial part of society, and are thought by some to be actively reinforced, despite the progress achieved by feminism and the civil rights movement. Power is sought after, aggression is often rewarded, and violence is glorified in the media. However, the degree to which any of these influences actually effect sexuality—either directly or unconsciously—is unknown.
There are a number of reasons commonly given for why a sadomasochist finds the practice of S&M enjoyable, and the answer is largley 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 responsiblity, 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.
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 from prepubescence, while others don't 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). Like sexual fetishes, sadomasochism can be learned through conditioning—in this context, the repeated association of sexual pleasure with an object or stimulus.
- to do: lifestyle and culture of sadomasochism