sadism: psychosexual disorder in which sexual urges are gratified by the infliction of pain on another person.
masochism: psychosexual disorder in which erotic release is achieved through having pain inflicted on oneself.

The terms sadist, masochist and sadomasochism were coined by German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing in his 'Neue Forschungen auf dem Gebiet der Psychopathia sexualis' (1890), and was the result of combining the names of two writers, the Marquis De Sade and Count von Sacher-Masoch, as a means to categorise behaviour of these types. Krafft-Ebing put sadism and masochism on the psychological map and defined them as 'mostly imaginary pleasure and pain'.

This constructed word has continued into modern usage, but is unfortunately confused by many people with algolagnia - the infliction or receipt of pain for sexual pleasure. Although to a minority these words are one and the same, sadomasochism (also known as SM, S&M or S/M) for many is the practice of safe, sane and consensual practices that do not necessarily involve physical pain. Like people, S&M comes in many different shapes and sizes.

A Historical Background on Sadomasochism

The Middle Ages

…the flagellants took the Black Death to be a sign from God that the end of the world was near. Day and night, processions of flagellants wound their way through the disease and war torn countryside. They lashed their backs with rods and chains. They did penance by scourging their flesh. They atoned for man's sins through pain. They exalted God by their pain. They found pleasure in pain.

1770 - Marquis Donatien Alphonse François de Sade (1740-1814)
For the Marquis de Sade, the world of the sadist and the masochist was the only real world, with everything else being 'just sentimental delusion that blinds you to your real nature'. De Sade believed that, both sexually and within the real world, there is just one hierarchy: tops and bottoms. For de Sade, the most important and human experiences were the extreme ones, and in the Marquis' mind the ultimate liberty was the freedom to violate and destroy at will.

Within de Sade's books, he covered virtually all forms of sexuality that, at the time, were considered socially unacceptable. Unfortunately, de Sade's works and practices were written more to shock than to inform, and both the sadists in his novels and de Sade himself often abused non-consenting victims. Because of the nature of his works, and through his 'personal experimentation', de Sade spent nearly half of his life in prison. Of course, within the confines of a prison cell, de Sade had no access to people on which he could experiment. At this time, de Sade had little or no real experience of sadistic acts, other than those in his fertile imagination.

In the name of sexual pleasure, de Sade assaulted, degraded, and mutilated the human body with an encyclopaedic thoroughness.Trevor Jaques

1880 - Count Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (1836-1895)
A Polish Baron, Masoch was a successful, but second-rate novelist with over ninety books to his name. Only one of those books made him famous; his 1874 novel 'Venus im Pelz', or 'Venus in Furs'. Within the novel, Masoch describes his passion to be beaten and bruised by his ideal woman; the she-wolf - part soft white skin, part predator's fur. Venus In Furs, a novel based upon Masoch's life and escapades, established many of the conventions of sadomasochism, such as the dominant mistress and her willing slave. In his private life, though, Masoch's wife was not a dominant woman, but finally agreed to partake in his sexual fantasies after his continued pleadings for beatings and humiliations.

When Krafft-Ebing read Masoch's books, he coined the word masochism as the other submissive side of sadism.

Sadomasochism Today

In today's societies and scenes, sadomasochism is far more practical and rooted to the real world than the works of de Sade and Masoch who gave the practices their collective name.

The general rule for the SM scene is 'Safe, Sane and Consensual' - rules that are closely adhered to by a great majority of the scenes. Unfortunately, as with any scene, you always get the extremists who think that they are above the rules, and have a free rein to perform whatever they want, on whomever they wish to. Through these people and their practices, SM tends to receive a great deal of negative media attention.

The 'rules' of SM speak for themselves:

SAFE: 'The people who participate should not be hurt in any way they do not want to be, nor damaged in any way that will not heal, or that will cause them real problems in their lives.' 1
SANE: 'Participants must not only be careful not to physically damage those they are with, but not to emotionally damage them either.' 2
CONSENSUAL: 'Individuals participate only in activities they choose to do, and no one is pressured to do anything that they do not want to do.' 3

SM has become somewhat of an umbrella term, which now covers a very wide variety of practices. Below are a few examples of 'common' SM practices; to form a list in it's entirety would be the creation of an SM Manual - and there are many informative guides that have already been written, both to purchase and as online references.

Whatever form of SM play is chosen, there must always be a 'Safe Word' agreed by both parties. A common set of safe words is the 'traffic light system' - green is 'Harder', yellow is 'too hard, slow down or lighten up', and red is the definitive 'STOP! Stop NOW!'. Again, different people have their own key words with individual meanings. It is crucial that both parties agree on the 'safe words' before play commences and remember what they are; otherwise the play can become unintentionally non-consensual.

SM and Spirtuality

For some people, SM is not only a way to fulfill sexual fantasies; it is also a spiritual path that they choose to walk. The experience of pain, submission and dominance can put certain people into a deep, trance like state, where some experience visions and revelations. In some cases, these visions can help the individual with certain issues in their life, sometimes the visions are interpreted into magnificent pieces of art, and on many occasions they make the individual feel more 'in touch' with both nature and the divine.

Spirituality within SM is not, however, a modern revelation. Throughout history, many cultures and races have used some form of sadomasochistic practice in order to gain insight into a higher state of consciousness:

  • Mystics have used physical and sexual stress to raise endorphins and engender a visionary experience for centuries. A Mystics ability to endure pain while in trance serves as proof of their spirituality.
  • In the Voodoo religious culture, the Ogoun, a deity of power often infuses devotees with strength and power by slapping them firmly on the arms, thighs and back. Likewise, many bottoms in a B/D scene feel that slaps or blows from a whip infuse them with power.
  • The Babas of India demonstrate their transcendence over sexuality by hanging several large stones or bricks from their penises.
  • The Native American Sun Dance ritual involved cutting two slits into the skin of the dancer's chest above each nipple, and the initiate hanging from the pegs inserted into the wounds. Such tribal ceremonies are described as Rites of Intensification.
  • The ancient Hindu Kavandi ritual entails wearing a frame that's filled with sixty or so spears inserted into the torso. As the bearer rises and moves around, his motion drives the rods deeper into the skin.
  • In the O-Kee-Pa ceremony, the individual 're-discovers a connection with God by ritually piercing the skin and hanging'.

There are many, many more instances, such as firewalking, flogging, piercing, scarification and public humiliation, but these are a whole new node in their own right.

Sadism and masochism have different forms that separate and intermingle, have different backgrounds and perspectives, need specific explanations and work within certain social and historical contexts. Nowadays they represent desires, lifestyles and cultures that seem to be on the rise. The question will become not so much if s/m can withstand an antifascist inquiry but what desires we lust for.

With whatever horror stories you may hear, whatever experiences a 'friend-of-a-friend' may have had, whatever opinions you have about sadomasochism, remember:

S&M is not only about pain - S&M is about communication
S&M is not abuse - S&M is about parity
S&M is not without love - S&M is about the exchange of power
S&M is not demeaning to women or men - S&M is about the exchange of trust

1, 2, 3Quotes taken from the paper 'The History of Sadomasochism' by Ethan Davidson

'On the Safe Edge': A Manual for SM Play' by Trevor Jaques

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