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Sexual sadism entails sexual behavior in which the mental and physical suffering of a victim is experienced as erotically pleasurable, according to the American Psychological Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-IV (1994). Often understood as a gendered masculine, the controlling active S of S/M (sadomasochism) has a long and controversial history surrounding its peculiar melding of pleasure and pain. In its many facets and expressions, sadism can be understood as pathological, normative, playful, theatrical, abusive, and/or patriarchal. Many theorists and schools of thought have shaped ideas and practices of sadism and its relation to its passive pole, masochism, by questioning and labeling the role of sadomasochistic practices in everyday life. Research on sadism includes lauding such practices as sexually healthy as well as cautioning against their pathological or criminal threat.


The word sadism comes from the name of a historical figure, the infamous Marquis de Sade (Louis Donatien Francois Alphonse de Sade [1740–1814]), a French count, writer, and philosopher. The term was first used by the psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840–1902). Known for a lifestyle of excess, de Sade took part in violent sexual play with prostitutes, engaged in orgies with men and women, and was eventually and repeatedly charged with sexual crimes for which he was forced to serve prison sentences. While in and out of prisons and asylums, he wrote racy yet philosophical novels and plays. De Sade shone a bright light on sexual practices that many people of the age wished to keep in the dark.

In Psychopathia sexualis (1886), Krafft-Ebing defined the four classes of sexual variation as sadism, masochism, fetishism, and homosexuality. He noted that sadism is a fairly common perversion resulting in sensual pleasure and orgasm by cruel acts of mastery. He proposed that sadism shares a relation of opposition and cooperation with masochism, the passive desire to be subjected to pain, force, punishment, and/or humiliation. Krafft-Ebing also coined the term masochism, once again by referring to a real world figure, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, an Austrian writer known for writing erotic novels based on his life experiences. Sacher-Masoch's most famous work is Venus in Furs (1870), a story about a man who becomes enslaved to a beautiful widow.

Concerning sadism, Krafft-Ebing draws a distinction between the physiologically normal sexualized horseplay, marked by biting or pinching in the heat of passion, and more dominating and abusive sexual acts. He claims that there is a space of transition that separates the former and latter sadistic poles and that the range of sadistic acts is traceable. His text thus suggests a continuum of sadistic practices and offers a plethora of varying cases for study. Though labeling and moralizing against certain pathologies rather than structuring a cohesive sexual theory, Psychopathia sexualis was a landmark work for its time—one that opened a path to the work of the pioneering psychiatrist Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) on sadomasochism and his theory of psychoanalysis.


In his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905), Freud referred to Krafft-Ebing's writings and formed his own psychoanalytic theories around the general characteristics of sadism and masochism. Freud's discussion of sadism and masochism, like that of Krafft-Ebing, concludes that the two are "the most common and the most significant of all the perversions" (Freud 1963, p. 23). Sadism is instinctual and tied to a life-preserving aggression. Freud writes of this aggressive quality specifically in males as a natural, biologically determined, desire to subjugate, to quash the resistance of the sexual object and thus ensure coitus. Sadism is the exaggeration of such aggression to the point that the push for violence becomes a dominant, or the dominant, sexual necessity.

In his early view, Freud considered masochism to be a secondary process born out of sadism, though he changed his opinion and saw masochism as primary in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1924). In this second configuring of sadism and masochism, sadism is no longer a foundational reparative outpouring of violence meant to enforce mastery. Instead it is a tool enforcing an always masochistic death instinct. In either case, Freud points to the striking relationship between sadism and masochism—all sadists harbor masochistic tendencies within themselves and vice versa. Though the characteristics of one of these perversions are heightened in an individual, the capacity for the other is always within reach.

By routing our understanding of sadism and masochism through Freud's views of the pleasure principle, theorists like Judith Butler find that a more thorough investigation of sadism and masochism is precluded and subsumed within Freud's generalized and highly speculative theorizing of instincts. Whether one agrees with Butler or not, Freud's writing on sadism and its relation to masochism helped publicize the universality of S/M tendencies and further detailed the complexity and interrelatedness of the two poles. Though Freud's work is still used to delineate and construct normativity, his studies also stressed the universality of neurotic abnormality and helped create a forum for discussing such topics as sadism and masochism.


Labeled as a paraphilia, or aberrant sexual pattern, by contemporary psychologists, sadism is difficult to define because of the wide range of practices attributed to it. To have a psychological diagnosis of sexual sadism, an individual must be recurrently aroused by or participating in sadistic sexual acts for at least six months, and his or her life must be hindered socially or occupationally by such behavior.

Sexual sadism involves the dramatizing of power relationships by utilizing the roles of dominant and submissive characters. The roles reenact power scenarios such as master/slave or teacher/student in bouts of sexualized play. In modern S/M subculture the drama is governed by strict rules for safety. Role-playing itself, of course, is not sexually deviant behavior, but if, in playing that role, the sadist begins to overstep boundaries, a once playful scenario easily becomes dangerous.

Researchers increasingly debate the pathological quality of sadism as the discussion and practice of sadism and masochism become more publicly acceptable. S/M has become a subculture replete with its own garb, toys, stores, and even theme restaurants. Sadomasochistic situations and sexual displays are commonly seen on television and in cinema, and are available through the Internet. Practiced by many generally well-adjusted individuals, sadomasochism may actually be less about pain and humiliation than the creation and re-creation of power scenarios. Though rapists, murderers, and serial killers often have sadistic tendencies, those behaviors represent a very small part of the types of acts seen in the subculture. Criminal sadists desire humiliation of the victim, whereas most noncriminal sadistic behavior is safe, consensual play that is pleasing to all parties involved.


Many sociological studies, especially in the 1970s and early 1980s, worked against the generalized definitions of sadomasochism as pathology by focusing research on the views and practices of actual S/M participants. One study investigated S/M in New York and San Francisco over the seven-year period between 1976 and 1983. Weinberg, Falk, Lee, and Kamel found that S/M adherents mostly kept to themselves and rarely strayed from their clubs, meetings, and stores. The study also noted that the role of pain in S/M fantasy play and procedures was hardly centralized or monstrously abusive; rather, strict rules and safe words were enforced to promote safety and limits. Other studies and surveys demonstrated that instead of a subculture built around pain, S/M centered on dramatic plays of domination and submission and consensual sex, along with creative exploration of fantasy and the usage of toys. These toys included paddles, whips, elaborate costumes, restraints, corsets, and chains, but often were utilized by the sadist with such expertise that they created more overall dramatic pleasure than horrible physical pain.


As in most paraphilias, a number of theories concerning the aetiology of sadism suggest that a childhood event or conflict may have developed into psychologically aberrant behavior. In sadistic adult sexual play or pathology the individual may feel as though he or she is overcoming past victimization by taking on the role of authority and then experiencing erotic pleasure. Childhood punishments, such as spanking or slapping, may also be internalized and reconstructed as highly sexualized acts. Another view highlights the escapist possibilities afforded by S/M behavior. Role-playing allows individuals to lead double lives of sorts—one could be a community leader, worker, or parent by day and master or slave by night. In addition one might not feel responsible for actions performed when one is playing the role because the character is separate from the individual. Danger arises only when a person abrogates responsibility in an S/M situation.

see also Sade, Marquis de; Sadomasochism.


Alloy, Lauren B.; Neil S. Jacobson; and Joan Acocella, eds. 1999. Abnormal Psychology: Current Perspectives. 8th edition. Boston, MA: MacGraw-Hill College.

American Psychological Association. 1994. Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 4th edition. Washington, DC: Author.

Butler, Judith. 1990. "The Pleasures of Repetition." In Pleasure beyond the Pleasure Principle, ed. Robert A. Glick and Stanley Bone. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Freud, Sigmund. 1961. Beyond the Pleasure Principle trans. James Strachey. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Freud, Sigmund. 1963. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, trans. James Strachey. New York: Basic Books.

Hayman, Ronald. 2003. The Marquis de Sade: The Genius of Passion. New York: Tauris Parke Paperbacks.

Krafft-Ebing, Richard von. 1965. Psychopathia Sexualis, trans. Harry E. Wedeck. New York: Putnam.

Paclebar, Anne Marie; Catherine Furtado; Melissa McDonald-Witt. "Sadomasochism: Practices, Behaviors, and Culture in American Society." In Sex Crimes and Paraphilia, ed. Eric W. Hickey. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.

Thompson, Bill. 1994. Sadomasochism. New York: Cassell.

                                            Ana Holguin