Anytime one thinks they can apply a universal truth to humanity, it is bound to be contradicted. For example, pain and suffering is believed to be negative because they are not pleasurable. Enter the psychosexual disorder known as masochism. Sexual masochism has long captured the imaginations of psychologists and the curious. Sexual masochism is the active seeking for pain and suffering for purposes of sexual gratification. Coming in many forms, Masochism is so common that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) Edition IV – the manual published by the American Psychiatric Association covering all mental health disorders– categorizes it as being a psychosexual disorder. According to the DSM, there are three important symptoms to be diagnosed as suffering from the psychosexual disorder: First, the need for sexual punishment has to have been recurring for at least six months. Second, the motive for this behavior is in achieving sexual arousal. Third, these sexual urges and behaviors begin to figure so prominently into the psyche of those who suffer from it that it impairs basic social functions. Sexual masochism may contradict every rational conclusion we’ve drawn on pain and pleasure, of love and hate: but, then, why is this submissive and pain-seeking source of pleasure so eternal and common?
Though it appears it many forms, masochism commonly include the use of accessories, such as handcuffs, cages, chains, and ropes. Other acts and masochistic perversions include spanking, whipping, burning, and more extreme forms include beatings and electrical shocks. Sexual masochism is, by the standards of the DSM, a disorder of the mentally ill. But, understanding sexual masochism from that perspective allows a large part of the equation to be disregarded simply because masochism contradicts our basic understandings of sexuality. After all, is love not inextricably intertwined with pleasure rather than pain?
Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing was an Austro-German sexologist who was among the first to explore case studies of sexual perversions in his 1886 text, Psychopathia Sexualis. Before Sigmund Freud released his theories on sexual perversions and psychosexual disorders, this text behaved as the definitive authority on sexual subjects that were highly taboo when published, such as homosexuality, female orgasm, and masochism. “By masochism,” he wrote, “I understand a peculiar perversion of the physical sexual life in which the individual is affected, in sexual feeling and thought, is controlled by the idea of being completely and unconditionally subject to the will of a person of the opposite sex.” Krafft-Ebing gave this absolute submissiveness the name of ‘masochism’ after famed writer, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch whose imagery of females dressed in fur holding whips in his book Venus in Fur became iconic in sadomasochist lore of symbolizing power and dominance.
To Krafft-Ebing, any sexual act whose intention was not to procreate was to be characterized as a sexual perversion. Thus, masochism was a perversion. Masochists were perverts. It is important to note that, during this period, there was a greater focus in science on the behavior of the flesh, rather than the command of the mind. As the human brain began to be researched and understood, new theories popped up attempting to explain the origins of masochism. Sigmund Freud arrived on the scene in the 20th century explaining masochism as the result of an “unconscious feeling of guilt.”
The basis of Sigmund Freud’s psychosexual development theory was that sexuality played a crucial role in our personality development. During individual stages of development, the erogenous zones – the mouth, the anus, and the genital regions – become areas of fixation. If the child resolves these psychosexual stages, then the result is a healthy personality. The risk is that during one of these psychosexual stages, these needs are not met or overindulgence is encouraged. Then, a permanent fixation results in personality disorders and perversions during their adult life. Thus, masochism begins during the phallic stage of psychosexual development with the Oedipus-complex. This disorder is rooted in our childhood urges to remove our same-sexed parent and engage in an incestuous relationship with our opposite-sexed one. As we mature, our murderous anger melts into affection and guilt. As a result, we become submissive to our same-sexed parent and view him/her as a dispenser of punishment. Freud viewed adult masochism as the failure to reconcile past this stage. Freud labeled masochism as a “perversion” as masochists is simply a disorder frozen in time.
The causes of masochism vary depending on how the psychiatrist and psychologist interpret the perversions and masochists. Some assert that it is rooted in histories of sexual and physical abuse as a child. Others theorize that these individuals originally suffer from personality disorders, such as anxiety or depression. Other psychotherapists argue that the psychology community needs to re-examine its understanding of masochism.
“A travesty of our profession is that we continue to try to “cure” a system of beliefs and behaviors,” observes psychotherapist Dorothy C. Hayden in her essay Psychological Dimensions of Masochistic Surrender. “The continuing pathologizing of masochism by keeping it in the DSMIV as a psychopathology and by most therapists’ efforts to “cure” masochists is in part responsible for the continued shame, isolation and low self-esteem of these…. courage people who want to be afforded the dignity of choosing their own form of non-exploitative sexuality.”
[ad#downcont]Popular society claims to be more understanding of masochism. Shops selling whips and leather that promote the bondage and discipline activities associated with masochists are aplenty in big cities around the world. Yet, it remains grossly misunderstood. Our knee-jerk understandings of pain and pleasure will not allow us to comprehend the psychosexual background for why masochism takes the form that it does.