views updated


Sadomasochism is a controversial subject. The psychological humiliation or physical punishment of a sexual partner through practices such as bondage and flagellation are commonly identified as characteristic of sadomasochism. As a concept that links sexual arousal to violence, the origins of sadomasochism as a term in modern Western culture are rooted in discussions of sadism and masochism that date back to late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century medical discourse in its exploration of "perversion" as a deviation from normal sexual instinct.


Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840–1902) and Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) were among the most important early commentators on "sadomasochism." Krafft-Ebing and Freud, along with the many psychoanalysts, scholars, and sexologists interested in the phenomenon who followed them, often looked to the past for evidence of sadomasochism in the erotic coding of pain in art, literature, and religious ceremonies in which ecstatic feeling, whether openly acknowledged as sexual or not, was emphasized. From this viewpoint, sadomasochistic themes of pleasurable suffering predate the term sadomasochism by centuries and can be seen as existing in numerous historical periods and cultural forms, from ancient Dionysian rites to eighteenth-century British flagellation brothels, from South Asian sex manuals to nineteenth-century European academic painting. Similarly, the use of emotional or physical punishment to attain sexual pleasure can be found across a number of artistic, legal, sociopolitical, and technological arenas in contemporary life. While inarguably ubiquitous, many of these contemporary articulations of sexual pleasure aligned with acts of violence do not necessarily reference the term sadomasochism, even if they can be recognized as drawing upon established iconic codes and conventions of representation associated with the phenomenon.

Focusing on case histories of common sexual pathologies, Psychopathia Sexualis, Richard von Krafft-Ebing's very popular study, first published in 1886, identified sadism and masochism as two quite prevalent sexual anomalies existing in perfect complementary status to each other. Krafft-Ebing identified sadism, named after Comte Donatien-Alphonse-François, Marquis de Sade (1740–1814), as evident in those individuals who found sexual pleasure in the active role of dominating and hurting others. Its complementary opposite he called "masochism," which he named after the Slavic author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (1836–1895). This newly created term described a subject who achieved sexual arousal through taking the passive role and submitting to abuse and humiliation at the hands of a punishing partner.

Freud is often credited with identifying the term sadomasochism in 1905, in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, in which he argued for the possible presence of both sadism and masochism in the same person. He noted: "a person who feels pleasure in producing pain in someone else in a sexual relationship is also capable of enjoying as pleasure any pain which he may himself derived from sexual relation." In later editions of Psychopathia Sexualis appearing around the same time as Freud's work, Krafft-Ebing observed a similar convergence of the two perversions in the "sadomasochistic" who might experiment with taking one role and then assume the reverse or opposite one in a dialectical dynamic of giving and receiving pain, but he concluded that such experimentation was "usually soon abandoned as inadequate for the original inclination."

As was the case with Krafft-Ebing, Freud's early views on sadomasochism insisted on the structural similarities of sadism and masochism as the active and passive forms of pursuing sexual pleasure through the common matrix of pain. Nevertheless, Freud felt compelled to return again and again to the complexities of each perversion as distinctive and quite complex anomalies linking sexual arousal to domination and submission. He in fact pursued the questions centered on the perplexing internal logic of masochistic and sadistic fantasies through a number of essays such as "Instincts and Their Vicissitudes" (1915), "A Child Is Being Beaten" (1919), and "The Economic Problem in Masochism" (1924). In the first of these essays he asserted that the person's enjoyment depended upon a double identification with torturer and victim, with the masochist first experiencing a sadistic fantasy and the sadist recognizing pain as sexually pleasurable and then "masochistically" enjoying the pain of his or her victim. In "A Child is Being Beaten," Freud established the emergence of sadomasochism in the adult's acting out of fantasies associated with an infantile sexual fixation. Freud's later work complicated sadomasochism through his recognition of the importance of a primary or original masochism (and a primary sadism) that trumped identification with the complementary perversion's preferred subject position as the recipient or administrator of punishment. His ongoing interest is understandable because masochism's manifestation in men, in particular, seemed to defy commonsense cultural norms and that attributed a desire to mastery or even sexual aggression to men as a universal impulse or biological given. He was also fascinated by the fact that these perversions suggested that sexual satisfaction might depend on a search for pain and discomfort.


Sadomasochism became a term of common use in the twentieth century. However, its origins in the complementary association of sadism with masochism were not greatly illuminated by later psychological theory. After World War II, with the defeat and exposure of Nazi Germany, there was recognition of how power could be sexualized and, indeed, how sadomasochism was institutionalized within the Third Reich's mass cruelties. Although sexual liberalization was embraced in the 1950s and 1960s in many European and North American nations, discussions and depictions of sadomasochism as a source of sexual pleasure remained marginalized as pornography, which often identified sadomasochism with the costumes and paraphernalia of the police state, and of the Third Reich in particular.

Within postwar French intellectual circles, the writing of Sade began to be discussed seriously, and Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Gilles Deleuze, among others, addressed various dimensions of the history of sexuality in relation to social controls and norms. Deleuze, a philosopher, created a major milestone in the consideration of sadomasochism with the 1967 publication of Le froid et le cruel, translated as Masochism: An Interpretation of Coldness and Cruelty (1971). Returning to the literature of Sade and Sacher-Masoch that formed the source for the original definitions of sadism and masochism, Deleuze argued for the semiological and clinical impossibility of sadomasochism. In his view, the sexual sadist never really relinquished power over his or her involuntary victim no matter who seemed to be cruel and who was degraded. In this respect, the sadist represents the monstrous exaggeration of paternal power and would never desire a truly masochistic partner who enjoyed the subversive defiance of paternal law that suffering allowed him or her. Likewise, the masochist sought to be the director of scenes that played out his or her sexual fantasies and so needed a partner who could be educated to dominate within the confines of a contractual relationship.

While Deleuze's views inspired many new scholarly considerations of masochism, his dismissal of sadomasochism as a confusion of masochism's and sadism's qualitative differences, foundational fantasies, and psychological origins did not influence the focus on sadomasochism within the circles of identity politics in the 1970s. Sadomasochism became politicized as an important meeting point between danger and sexual pleasure. Within the Anglo-American cultural context, the implications of sadomasochism were much debated among feminists as well as those interested in the formation of gay and lesbian sexual identities. In this debate, Angela Carter's analysis of Sade's writing, The Sadian Woman, articulated the importance of gender difference in sadism's literary model of sexual freedom. Antipornography activists such as Andrea Dworkin and Susan Griffin emphasized the role of sadomasochism in pornography's institutionalized expressions of male rage and the phenomenon's inevitable degradation of women (Griffin 1981). In contrast, Pat Califia (2000) contended that sadomasochistic behavior and the sexual subculture that it created were tools for transgressive and liberating pleasures centered on the performative unveiling of the inequities of patriarchal sexuality. Even removed from the question of how sadomasochism might oppress women, the phenomenon continued to be a highly contested issue in the 1980s and 1990s in gay male communities (Padva 2005). The acting out of exaggerated power inequalities in "leathersex" using costumes and paraphernalia, often associated with the police state, raised questions about why gay men needed to reproduce acts and iconography associated with brutality in order to achieve sexual gratification (Joshi 2003).


Although sadomasochism remains classified as a psychiatric disorder, gay, lesbian, and heterosexual sadomasochistic practitioners in contemporary society resist the longstanding medical view of sadomasochism as a pathology fueled by unresolved infantile conflict or rage. New approaches to sadomasochism in scholarly research frequently incorporate accounts of participants in sadomasochistic organizations and venues who argue for the consensual nature of their interactions, as well as for the self-imposed limits placed on cruelty in interactions using exaggerated dominance-submission to create exciting sexual dissonance. Thus, many contemporary accounts of sadomasochism exhibit more interest in the social construction of the phenomenon than in understanding the psychological origins or consequences of the behaviors (Langdridge and Butt 2004). At the same time that sadomasochistic iconography and themes have come to be represented much more openly in mainstream film, video, television, and print advertising, consensual sadomasochistic sexual acts remain officially suppressed in many countries, both through efforts to control the proliferation of pornography, as well as through laws against bodily harm such as those in the United Kingdom (which concern "offences against the person") and anti-domestic abuse statutes in the United States.

see also Freud, Sigmund; Krafft-Ebing, Richard; Pornography; Sacher-Masoch, Leopold von; Sade, Marquis de.


Califia, Pat. 2000. Public Sex: The Culture of Radical Sex. 2nd edition. San Francisco: Cleis Press.

Carter, Angela. 1980. The Sadeian Woman: And the Ideology of Pornography. New York: Harper and Row.

Chancer, Lynn S. 1992. Sadomasochism in Everyday Life: The Dynamics of Power and Powerlessness. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Deleuze, Gilles. 1971. Masochism: An Interpretation of Coldness and Cruelty, trans. Jean McNeil. New York: Georges Braziller. Repr., Coldness and Cruelty. New York: Zone Books, 1991.

Dworkin, Andrea. 1981. Pornography: Men Possessing Women. London: The Women's Press.

France, Marie. 1984. "Sadomasochism and Feminism." Feminist Review 16: 35-42.

Freud, Sigmund. 1962. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, trans. and ed. James Strachey. New York: Basic. (Orig. pub. 1905.)

Freud, Sigmund. 1963. "A Child Is Being Beaten." In Collected Papers, Vol. 8: Sexuality and the Psychology of Love, ed. Philip Rieff. New York: Collier Books. (Orig. pub. 1919.)

Freud, Sigmund. 1963. "The Economic Problem in Masochism." In Collected Papers, Vol. 6: General Psychological Theory: Papers on Metapsychology, ed. Philip Rieff. New York: Collier Books. (Orig. pub. 1924.).

Gebhard, Paul H. 1969. "Fetishism and Sadomasochism." In Dynamics of Deviant Sexuality, ed. Jules H. Masserman. New York: Grune and Stratton.

Griffin, Susan. 1981. Pornography and Silence: Culture's Revenge against Nature. New York: Harper and Row.

Joshi, Sam. 2003. "'Watcha Gonna Do When They Cum All Over You?' What Police Themes in Male Erotic Video Reveal about (Leather) Sexual Subjectivity." Sexualities 6(3-4): 325-342.

Krafft-Ebing, Richard von. 1886. Psychopathia Sexualis, trans. F. J. Rebman, from the 12th German ed. New York: Special Books, 1965.

Langdridge, Darren, and Trevor Butt. 2004. "A Hermeneutic Phenomenological Investigation of the Construction of Sadomasochistic Identities." Sexualities 7(1): 31-53.

Padva, Gilad. 2005. "Dreamboys, Meatmen, and Werewolves: Visualizing Erotic Identities in All-Male Comic Strips." Sexualities 8(5): 587-599.

Taylor, Gary W., and Jane M. Ussher. 2001. "Making Sense of S&M: A Discourse Analytic Account." Sexualities 4(3): 293-314.

Weinberg, Martin S.; Colin J. Williams; and Charles A. Moser. 1984. "The Social Constituents of Sadomasochism." Social Problems 31(4): 379-389.

                                            Gaylyn Studlar