Primary Masochism

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Primary masochism is identical to erotogenic masochism as defined by Sigmund Freud in "The Economic Problem of Masochism" (1924c). This name makes official masochism's recognized primacy, at the time, over sadism, which is masochism projected outward.

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920g) Freud had already challenged the anteriority of sadism to masochism: "The account that was formerly given of masochism requires emendation as being too sweeping in one respect: there might be such a thing as primary masochisma possibility which I had contested at that time" (p. 55).

The reason for specifying the primary nature of masochism is to underscore an early fusion of the death instinct through and with the life instinct, occurring internally. Accordingly primary masochism also becomes primal in psychic and instinctual life, prior to any object. Benno Rosenberg further developed this Freudian conception by emphasizing masochism's role as a "guardian over life" and the importance of being able to eroticize increases in tension, and thus unpleasure (1991). This step is indeed essential in tempering satisfaction, thereby opening the way for both hallucinatory wish fulfillment and the constitution of an early internal temporality. At issue, then, is a primary nucleus of the ego.

Primary masochism is opposed to secondary masochism, which is obtained by a double turning around (of sadism back onto the subject and of activity into passivity), as evident in the description of masochism in "Instincts and Their Vicissitudes" (1915c). Given this distinction, the introduction of primary masochism does not invalidate the earlier clinical descriptions. Rosenberg further emphasized that in psychosis, a striking excess of secondary masochism might result not from overly intense sadism, but instead from a far more basic deficit of primary masochism for which secondary masochism attempts to compensate by means of quantity, in an attempt to complete a deficient instinctual fusion.

Denys Ribas

See also: Masochism.


Freud, Sigmund. (1915c). Instincts and their vicissitudes. SE, 14: 109-140.

. (1920g). Beyond the pleasure principle. SE,18:1-64.

. (1924c). The economic problem of masochism. SE, 19: 155-170.

Rosenberg, Benno. (1991). Masochisme mortifère et masochisme gardien de la vie. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.