“The perfect counterpart to masochism is sadism,” wrote Austro-German sexologist Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing in his 1886 text Psychopathia Sexualis. “While in the former there is a desire to suffer and be subjected to violence, in the latter the wish is to inflict pain and use of violence.” When Krafft-Ebing wrote of sexual perversions in his analysis, many of these perversions and sexual dysfunctions had been long around, but they were rarely viewed as psychological disorders. Sadism was a concept that was discussed, but given almost mythical status: Tales of Vlad the Impaler’s sadistic methods of torturing and killing inspired Bam Stroker to base the iconic Count Dracula character on elevating him to become a household sadist around the world. It was Richard von Krafft-Ebing that coined the term sadists to provide medical credibility to describe people that were aroused over the prospect of sexually, violently, or psychologically dominating a submissive subject. The etymology of the word sadism is derived from the French author, Marquis de Sade whose political beliefs of freedom unrestrained by morality or law was illustrated in abundance in the sexual perversions described in his novels. Indeed, these sexual perversions were so pornographic that he was incarcerated into various prisons and mental asylums over 32 years. Understanding how sadistic personalities worked became a key focus for psychologists following Krafft-Ebing’s initial analysis.
At the most basic level, psychosexual disorders are disturbances in sexual function due to psychological problems. Contemporary psychology has subcategorized psychosexual disorders into three of its most common forms: sexual dysfunctions, gender identity disorders, and sexual perversions. They are not all mutually independent from one another. In fact, sadism often manifests itself in all three forms. Today, however, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) Edition IV – the manual published by the American Psychiatric Association covering all mental health disorders for both children and adults – categorizes sadistic personality disorders as being a psychosexual disorder and perversion. The manual defines sexual sadism as: “Denoting fantasies, urges or behaviors that involve real acts (not simulations) in which the suffering of another person is found sexually exciting.” Psychosexual perversions involve projecting strong sexual desires towards “abnormal” situations or objects. Perversions include sexual desire for exhibitionism, violence, or even non-consenting adults.
Indeed, nobody can deny the important influence Krafft-Ebing’s work had on approaching sadism from a psychological perspective. Though his interpretations were often unscientific, such as his belief that men were more prone to sadism while women preferred submissive masochism, his underlying belief was in the psychological. Naturally, the difficulty for psychologists in assigning meaning to sadistic personalities is that the level and extent of sadistic violence may vary considerably. For example, the Folsom Street Fair is an annual Bondage & Discipline, Dominance & Submission (BDSM) and leather street fair held on the last Sunday in September in San Francisco’s Folsom Street. Since its inception in 1984, this is an extravaganza that remains one of the few sadomasochistic events performed and supported on a public stage. Indeed, across the world, there is increased visibility in the past few decades of stores that feature items, such as whips and handcuffs, which are popularly used in masochistic play. But, of course, sadism has a darker side if it is not properly channeled and internalized.
The DSM describes several symptoms and signs that sadism may become diagnosed as a more problematic psychosexual disorder, the most important of which is that the disorder “must cause stress or functional impairment.” Reviewing a track record of serial killers, prominent names such as Ted Bundy to Jeffrey Dahmers fit under the umbrella of suffering from a severe form of sadism by deriving pleasure and sexual gratification through torture and murder (to such an extent that they engaged in necrophilia behavior afterwards).
For a psychosexual theorist such as Sigmund Freud, he described sadomasochism in his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality as “the most common and important of all perversions.” Sadism, Sigmund Freud believed, was rooted in an inadequate reconciliation of psychosexual development. Among his more famous case studies involved a man who had obsessive fantasies concerning his fiancée and father having a pot of rats fastened to their buttocks to gnaw into their anus. Among his many absurd conclusions, Freud wrote that these sadistic fantasies were merely symbolic facades for sexual anxieties and insecurities of his patient. The depth of these anxieties was proportionate to the capacity for sadism within the individual.
[ad#downcont]Even today, so little is understood about what makes one more favorable to sadism than non-sadists. Or, what makes one sadist more favorable to one form of sadism than another. Or why some can channel their sadism in a decadent symbiotic relationship with other submissive masochists, like a rhinoceros with a tickbird, while others, such as Vlad the Impaler, are only aroused at the cost of lives. Psychologists often accuse childhood abuse or antisocial personalities to increase the likelihood of sadism in a person. Meanwhile, counseling and psychotherapy believe shaming and removing sadistic tendencies is the best remedy. Maybe in some cases it does. However, a simple flip on the television displaying images of warfare and talk show hosts humiliating others begs the question: Who among us is not at least a bit sadistic?