Sadism and masochism (as medical terms)  

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Sadism and masochism, in the original sense, describe psychiatric disorders characterized by feelings of sexual pleasure or gratification when inflicting suffering or having it inflicted upon the self, respectively. Sadomasochism is used in psychiatry to describe either the co-occurrence of sadism and masochism in one person as separate disorders, or as a replacement for both terms, depending on the theory used. The definitions of sadism and masochism in medicine have been modified repeatedly since they were introduced by the Austrian psychiatrist Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing in the 19th century (Krafft-Ebing 1901).

This article focuses on the development of sadism and masochism as medical terms, leading to their current definitions as paraphilia in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). It does not cover sadomasochism as an erotic practice, discussions of the sadomasochistic subculture or other matters relating to consensual sadism and masochism. However, because this article touches the history of those terms, there are references to BDSM.


Early descriptions

Sadistic and masochistic behavior was known before Krafft-Ebing. In 1498, the Italian philosopher Pico della Mirandola described a man who needed to be flogged before he could have sex (Farin 1990). In 1639, the German physician Johann Heinrich Meibom introduced the first theory of masochism (Meibom [1639] 1718): Based on the contemporary understanding of anatomy, he postulated that flogging the back warms the semen in the kidneys, which causes sexual excitement once it reaches the testicles. Kristian Frantz Paullini modified this in 1698 so that warm blood, not semen, descends from the kidneys, but the basic theory remained unchallenged until Krafft-Ebing. It was expanded by François Amédée Doppet in 1788 to include women by assuming the same effect on the female genitalia (Doppet [1788] 1885).

Also, sadomasochism as a sexual practice was well known in literature before the works of the Marquis de Sade. The Kama Sutra, dated roughly at the 4th century AD, describes consensual erotic slapping. In his novel Fanny Hill published 1749, the British author John Cleland has the protagonist whip a young man in a brothel. In his autobiography Confessions, the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau described his unhappiness at his masochistic fantasies.

Unlike other practices that were previously classified as perversions such as homosexuality or zoophilia, there is no explicit taboo of sadomasochistic behavior in the Bible.

Krafft-Ebing and the Psychopathia Sexualis

Krafft-Ebing published his first version of the Psychopathia Sexualis, a collection of bizarre sexual case histories and sex crimes, in 1886. The terms "sadism" and "masochism" were introduced in later editions. "Sadism" was taken from what Krafft-Ebing knew of the life and writings of the Marquis de Sade (important parts of Sade's work, such as The 120 Days of Sodom, were not published until later). Sade had died in 1814. For "masochism", Krafft-Ebing chose the name of a contemporary, the Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. "Sadism" and "masochism", however, stem from quite different logics of sexuality and erotism, as do Sade's and Sacher-Masoch's work (Gilles Deleuze has exposed this point in his presentation of Sacher-Masoch).

Krafft-Ebing's basic assumption was that all forms of sex not directly related to procreation were perversions. He described sadism and masochism in terms of the theory of degeneration as published by Bénédict Morel. This stated that characteristics such as perversions can be inherited (Morel 1957). In other words, people who engage in what was considered amoral or damaging sexual behavior -- such as masturbation -- could pass these tendencies on to their children, leading to a steady deterioration of humanity's gene pool. This theory has been disproven.

Krafft-Ebing saw a basic and natural tendency in men towards sexual sadism and a natural tendency of women towards sexual masochism, a view that would be expanded by psychoanalysis.

Other contemporary researchers doubted Krafft-Ebing's findings or suggested modifications. The British physician Havelock Ellis noted that enjoyment of pain was restricted to an erotic context (Ellis [1939] 1967). In 1892, Albert von Schrenck-Notzing introduced the term Algolagnia as an alternative form of description (Schrenck-Notzing 1892). However, Krafft-Ebing's theories were adopted by Sigmund Freud and became an integral part of psychoanalysis, thereby ensuring their predominance.

Freud and psychoanalysis

Freud made masochism and -- to a lesser degree -- sadism core parts of psychoanalysis. In Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality he called the tendency to inflict and receive pain during sex "the most common and important of all perversions" (Freud [1905] 1996). He also pointed out that both tendencies commonly occurred in the same individual.

Freud changed his theories on the genesis of sadism and masochism repeatedly, first stating that masochism only arose as a form of sadism against the self. He later introduced such concepts as "primary" and "secondary" masochism and sub-forms such as "feminine" and "moral" masochism. He also saw guilt as an important factor and integrated both tendencies into his theory of psychosexual development. Put shortly, they were assumed to be a sign of incomplete or incorrect sexual development in the child.

Freud's followers such as Carl Jung, Wilhelm Reich and Theodor Reik expanded and modified his ideas, creating new terms and concepts in the process. Elsworth Baker MD attributed the origin of masochistic character to parental inconsistency, as explained in his book Man in the Trap available online at American College of Orgonomy's website as article. Helene Deutsch postulated that all women are masochistic by nature (Deutsch 1930), reinforcing Krafft-Ebing's and Freud's views. Some theorists claimed that the population of whole countries such as Japan should be considered masochistic in a psychoanalytical sense (Nakakuki 1994). Because of these modifications, even the most basic words such as "masochism" have acquired so many different meanings in psychoanalysis that the terms have become confusing for psychoanalysts themselves and incomprehensible to outsiders (Maleson 1984).

Freud's theories on sadomasochism and the philosophy of Sade fascinated thinkers such as Gilles Deleuze and Simone de Beauvoir. Their writings, though not grounded in formal research and sometimes far removed from real-life sadomasochism, strongly influenced popular views of the subject in the mid-20th century.

Empirical research

Outside of psychoanalysis, views on sadomasochism began to change in the late 20th century with the study of actual behavior of real-life sadomasochists. Sadomasochistic tendencies in both genders were noted by Alfred Kinsey as part of his reports. The first researcher to describe the existence of a sadomasochistic subculture was Robert Litman in 1972 (Litman 1972).

The first large-scale empirical study on sadomasochism was conducted by Andreas Spengler in 1977. Spengler, a German physician, used questionnaires to gain basic data (Spengler 1977). His results contradicted most earlier work, especially that of the psychoanalysts, leading him to conclude that previous research was "heavily burdened with prejudice and ignorance" (Spengler 1979). When Norman Breslow expanded on this, he found only five previous empirical studies in all scientific literature, including Spengler's (Breslow 1985). Beslow was also the first to show that non-prostitute women make up a significant part of the sadomasochistic subculture (Beslow 1985). No empirical study has found a connection to violent crimes or evidence for an increased tendency towards sociopathological behavior in sadomasochists as had been generally assumed since Krafft-Ebing.

The realization that far more people than previously assumed practice sadomasochism and that sadomasochists form subcultures led to an influx of researchers from outside medicine. The anthropologist Paul Gebhard described sadism and masochism in a cultural context (Gebhard 1969). Again in Germany, Thomas Wetzstein conducted a large-scale study of the local subculture from a sociological viewpoint, confirming Spengler's results and expanding on them (Wetzstein 1993). One major change effected by these studies was the realization that women do not limit themselves to a masochistic role. Much of this modern research is less concerned with what causes sadistic and masochistic urges than describing their mechanisms and characteristics.

Research and mainstream culture

The results of the empirical studies and an increasingly tolerant attitude towards sexual minorities led to more and more sadomasochists forming public groups, for example the Eulenspiegel Society in 1971. This is especially true in countries where sadomasochism between consenting adults is legal such as Germany [1] or Norway [2]. As a result, sadomasochism became much more present in mainstream western and Japanese culture. Furthermore, sadomasochists themselves have started presenting their own views through books or the media. Examples of this include Maria Marcus in Denmark (Marcus 1974), Pat Califia in the USA (Califia 1980), Vanessa Duriès in France (Duriès 1993), and Kathrin Passig in Germany (Passig 2000).

Sadism and masochism today

The results of the newer studies have led to calls to abolish sadism and masochism as disease categories completely, arguing that the truly pathological forms are adequately covered by other diagnoses. The sadomasochistic subculture added a political dimension to this drive with claims of discrimination and by pointing to the precedent of removing of homosexuality from the list of mental disorders [3].

In response, the American Psychiatric Association modified the criteria for sadism and masochism in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV) in 1994 so that consensual sadomasochistic behavior alone is not considered a sexual disorder anymore. However, in the DSM-IV TR, published in 2000, sadomasochistic behavior can be diagnosed if the patient acts on these sexual urges, even if it is consensual Template:Fact. In 1995, Denmark became the first country to completely remove sadomasochism from its classification of diseases [4].

How sadism and masochism develop and why some people find these practices pleasurable remains unclear. Various current theories include childhood experiences, endorphin-based mechanisms, learned behavior, genetic dispositions, and simple conscious choice. Why consensual BDSM and pathological sadomasochism as defined by DSM IV share some of the same superficial characteristics is also unknown.


The German BDSM-group Datenschlag has an extensive online research bibliography of publications on sadomasochism and related topics [5] as well as a detailed timeline [6]. Both were consulted for this article based on the permission granted in the Datenschlag-license [7].

  • Baker, Elsworth 1980 Man in the Trap MacMillan Publishing Company
  • Boileau, Jacques 1700 Historia flagellantium: de recto et perverso flagrorum usu apud christianos. Paris: Anisson.
  • Breslow Norman et al 1985 "On the prevalence and roles of females in the sadomasochistic subculture: Report of an empirical study". In: Archives of Sexual Behavior Vol. 14
  • Califia, Pat (Name since changed to "Patrick") 1980 Sapphistry. The Book of Lesbian Sexuality. Naiad Press: Tallahassee.
  • Deleuze, Gilles 1967 Présentation de Sacher-Masoch. Paris: Editions de Minuit.
  • Deutsch, Helene 1930 "The Significance of Masochism in the Mental Life of Women" in International Journal of Psychoanalysis, Vol. 11 and later publications
  • Doppet, François Amédée 1885 Traité du fouet et de ses effects sur le physique de l'amour. London, no publisher given. Reprinted and expanded version of the 1788 edition.
  • Ellis, Havelock 1967 My Life London: Spearman. First published 1939
  • Duriès, Vanessa 1993 Le Lien. Spengler ISBN 2-909997-03-0
  • Farin, Michael 1990 Lust am Schmerz: Texte und Bilder zur Flagellomanie. Munich: Schneekluth
  • Freud, Sigmund 1996 Drei Abhandlungen zur Sexualtheorie Fischer: Frankfurt am Main. Reprint of the 1905 edition.
  • Gebhard, Paul H. 1968 "Fetishism and Sadomasochism." In: Dynamics of Deviant Sexuality. Edited by Jules H. Massermann. New York: Grune and Stratton
  • Grosskurth, Phyllis 1980 Havelock Ellis: A biography. New York: Alfred Knopf
  • Krafft-Ebing, Richard Freiherr von 1901 Psychopathia sexualis. Mit besonderer Berücksichtigung der conträren Sexualempfindungen. 11th edition. Stuttgart: Ferdinand Enke.
  • Krafft-Ebing, Richard Freiherr von 1901 Psychopathia Sexualis, with Especial Reference to Antipathic Sexual Instinct: a Medico-Legal Study. Edited by F. J. Rebman, based on the 10th German edition. New York: Rebman Company
  • Litman, Robert E. and Swearingen, Charles 1972. "Bondage and Suicide". In: Archives of General Psychiatry Vol. 27
  • Lolme, Jean Louis de 1777 The History of the Flagellants, or The Advantages of Discipline: Being a Paraphrase and Commentary on the "Historia Flagellantium" of the Abbé Boileau, Doctor of the Sorbonne. London: M. Hingeston. Translation of (Boileau 1700).
  • Maleson, Franklin G. 1984 "The Multiple Meanings of Masochism in Psychoanalytic Discourse", in: Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, Vol 32 (2)
  • Marcus, Maria 1974 Den Frygtelige sandhed. En brugs-bog om kvinder og masokisme. Copenhagen: Tiderne Skifter
  • Meibom, Johann Heinrich, 1718 A treatise of the use of flogging in venerial affairs. Edited by Giles Jacob. London: E. Curll [8]
  • Mirandola, Pico della, 1498 Disputationum adversus astrologos libri duodecim. Venice: Bernhardinus Venetus. Cited by (Farin 1990).
  • Morel, Bénédict 1857 Traité des Dégénérescences physiques, intellectuelles et morales de l'espèce humaine et des causes que produisent ces variétés maladives. Paris: J.B. Baillière
  • Nakakuki, Masafumi 1994 "Normal and Developmental Aspects of Masochism: Transcultural and Clinical Implications". In: Psychiatry Vol. 57
  • Passig, Kathrin and Strübel, Ira 2000 Die Wahl der Qual. Handbuch für Sadomasochisten und solche, die es werden wollen. Hamburg: Rowohlt
  • Schrenck-Notzing, Albert von 1892 Die Suggestions-Therapie bei krankhaften Erscheinungen des Geschlechtssinnes. Stuttgart: Enke
  • Spengler, Andreas 1977 "Manifest Sadomasochism of Males: Results of an Empirical Study" in Archives of Sexual Behavior Vol 6
  • Spengler, Andreas 1979 Sadomasochisten und ihre Subkulturen. Frankfurt/New York: Campus. Full German version of Spengler's results
  • Weinberg, Thomas S. (ed) 1995 Studies in Dominance & Submission. Amherst: Prometheus
  • Wetzstein, Thomas A. 1993 Sadomasochismus. Szenen und Rituale. Hamburg: Rowohlt

See also

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