Am I a Masochist?


For as long as I’ve known the word, I assumed I was a masochist. I was always getting in my own way, asking for trouble: clueless at relationship, enabling bullies. I must have some kind of sick need to hurt myself, to fail.

But I never felt turned on by pain. Isn’t that what masochists do?

Women’s Liberation taught me the idea of standing up for myself. Taking care of myself. Asserting myself. I wanted to stop being a wimp. But since the culture had trained me to be one, I needed to begin by refusing to blame myself for it. And to investigate: what is masochism? What is it to me?

Putting Myself Down

Women in our culture are trained to put ourselves down. We are rewarded for it — if only with the gratification of a certain safety. If I never express desires or opinions, if I meekly obey, if I always put others ahead of myself … I can retreat into the woodwork; I can avoid attention, disapproval, abuse. In the words of clinical and research psychologist Paula J. Caplan: “Self-acceptance is a rare commodity in women, since our upbringing has so often emphasized a constant striving for perfection. Being a woman means always having to say you’re sorry, feeling you can never relax[1].”

My mom tells me not to bother giving her presents, and won’t spend money on herself. She doesn’t like to be told she deserves anything. I once told her it troubled me to see her giving up on a longtime desire to visit Paris: it made me feel she was caving in to my dad’s dislike of the idea. She responded, “That’s just the way it is.” Whenever I express enthusiasm with anything, she warns me not to overdo it. I get the message that caring strongly is dangerous.

My dictionary’s definition of “masochism” starts with “gratification, especially of a sexual nature, derived from pain.”

Do we call a cancer patient a masochist, for deciding to undergo the agonies of chemotherapy in order to get respite from the disease?

Then it includes self-destructiveness, along with finding pleasure in self-denial and submissiveness. Putting myself down doesn’t give me sexual gratification. I guess you could say it’s social gratification. So in comparison to sexual masochism, maybe you could call it social masochism. The reality police[2] sometimes call it “moral masochism.” Another recent term for it is “Self-Defeating Personality Disorder.”[3]

Wait a minute: this way of thinking blames the victim. Do we call a cancer patient a masochist, for deciding to undergo the agonies of chemotherapy in order to get respite from the disease?

Social masochism is a pattern of behavior where social or cultural pressures reward suppression of oneself. Women get trained to internalize these oppressive expectations, to take them on as personal values. I’d prefer to call it something without the word “masochism” in it. Calling internalized oppression “masochism” leads to blaming the victim. But people will still use the word “masochism” with both meanings. So I’m going to call them sexual masochism and social masochism.

Challenging the Reality Police Definition

Are there people who get pleasure in normal life, from being humiliated, bullied, oppressed, forced against their will? From submitting to oppressive cultural expectations? [4]

The more I look, the less I think so. Because of cultural expectations, women often seem to. In The Myth of Women’s Masochism, psychologist Paula Caplan debunks this assumption, pointing out that women act in self-demeaning ways not to feel pain, but to cope with difficult situations.

Caplan also doesn’t want to call this pattern “masochism.” The label is too weighted with the idea of enjoying pain. As a result people (especially the psychological establishment, the reality police) conclude women must want mistreatment. Then, ignoring social causes, these people attribute the behavior to female nature.

Caplan attacks the diagnosis, analyzing the faulty reasoning and demonstrating the true causes of the mislabeled behavior. She relates the development of the concept from its inception to her publication in 1985, records her contemporaries’ “expert” opinions, and illustrates the problems with the way the term is used — with story after story of actual women’s experience. Most eye-opening: her lists of situations commonly resulting in women’s being called masochists — but in which women are not behaving masochistically because their purpose is not pain.

This book turned my head around.


In some cases of social masochism, the sufferer consents to the situation as means to a desired goal. Caplan remarks “Throughout history women have frequently had to endure some suffering to get what they enjoyed, but that is worlds away from wanting to suffer[5].” For example…

  • The ability or need to delay gratification.
  • Putting other people’s needs ahead of one’s own.
  • Trying to earn happiness through effort.

These behaviors are socially rewarded, but not intrinsically self-destructive. As long as I don’t put myself down about them, they make me feel good about myself. Nevertheless they frequently prove painful. Caplan describes their Catch–22:

The traditional female is not supposed to be particularly strong intellectually, physically, emotionally, or morally, except occasionally in the service of others. It is this stereotype that leads her to endure unhappiness in order to win approval, acceptance, and even her living as mother, daughter, wife, employee, and patient; then that endurance is taken as evidence of her innate masochism. According to the stereotype she must not express even clearly justified anger or protest; but then her failure to protest or defend herself is taken as further evidence of her masochism[6].

Moreover, Caplan points out, similar examples of these behaviors, by men and by women, receive opposite judgments. She quotes an example described by Andrea Blanch:

There is nothing essentially more masochistic about a housewife running herself ragged waiting on her husband hand and foot than there is about a businessman driving himself to a heart attack to further pad an already solid bank account. The only difference lies in the social value attributed to each activity[7].

The businessman’s behavior, Caplan comments, “is admired, but the housewife’s is considered masochistic[8].”

In 1997 two distinguished professors of social work, Herbert Kutchins, and Stuart Kirk, published a scathing criticism of psychiatric practices, and echoed Caplan:

The psychoanalytic literature on female masochism … mistakenly interpreted women’s self-sacrifice as pain seeking, ignored the fact that women often endure pain in order to achieve some later expected gratification, and viewed some women’s strengths (being nurturing, caring, and altruistic) as signs of personality disorder[9]."

Settling is not Consenting

Another situation Caplan identifies as causing suffering, but not masochistic … I’m going to call “settling.” We settle for suffering when the situation holds no hope of betterment, but traps us. When women struggle with difficult social, economic, and political situations, they are not responsible for the resulting pain. But even if there’s nothing they can do to ameliorate it, or if making a change means taking a big chance they’ll be worse off, they’re often labeled “masochistic” for bearing the pain. If it looks like there are few better alternatives, it can actually be wise to settle for the status quo. Even a matter of avoiding more pain. But there’s still a difference between settling for such suffering, and seeking it.

As a result, Caplan observes

Women’s efforts to avoid pain have been twisted into “proof” that they eagerly seek it out. The most grotesque case of this distortion is the battered wife who stays with her husband because she has good reason to believe that, if she leaves, he will find and kill both her and her children. Such women have often been accused of staying because they enjoy pain and fear[10]."

In fact I would even distinguish between settling and consenting. Plenty of times in my life I have decided it’s the better part of valor to avoid confronting Jesse on subjects we differ severely about. That doesn’t mean I agree with him, or with how he treats me when we differ strongly.

He’s never hit me. What he does starts with a frown wrinkling his forehead. Or the muscles around his eyes tighten… not exactly squinting; I think of it as “scrinching” his eyes: it’s a suspicious look. He raises his voice… just a little, to begin with. He uses a condescending, patronizing tone. Eventually it can get to full-out yelling, in that big bass voice of his.

Intimidation! Can’t think, much less talk reasonably about the problem. If I’m lucky I remember I don’t have to. If I can talk at all I say I’ll deal with it later when I can think clearly. If I’m smart I walk out of the room.

Some of the suffering women settle for comes when we seek goals which are healthy and desirable in themselves, but our upbringing hampers how we can achieve them. Caplan lists six separate ways this happens in relationships between men and women. The one that nailed me was the story of Joanie:

Joanie wonders why she feels more attracted to men who act superior and cold toward her than to men who treat her well. It is because, like most women raised in this culture, she has severe problems with self-esteem. … When a man acts superior, however, any attention or approval she gets from him greatly enhances her self-esteem, since this is obviously a man who does not give praise lightly[11].

Mr. Superior

The summer before I start high school, my family moves. As I get acquainted with new kids, one boy stands out, to my eye: the smartest, most discriminating, best-mannered. Other girls gush over boys they think are “cute” but I know Jesse’s high forehead and strong nose will age well, make him a handsome man. Other boys are more “popular” but this one is so interesting: how could anyone be attracted to anyone else?

His critical mind, his perfectionism, make him the most admirable – and also the most aloof. My girl friend and I dub him “Mr. Superior.” What a challenge, I think. If I can get him interested in me, I will feel proud of myself.

Of course Mr. Superior was precisely the person least likely to give me the attention I craved. I remember this with acute embarassment: what a sick reason to feel attracted! But I still feel that way.

I don’t have to settle for my habitual reaction to my conditioning.

We dated some in high school, but mostly just saw each other all day in the same classes, and in Mrs. Anderson’s Social Club, which our parents enrolled us in so we would learn skills like ballroom dancing and walking through a receiving line. Then we went away to separate colleges. That spring I lost some weight; to celebrate my new figure, I acquired a deep tan and a two-piece bathing suit. It was nothing like today’s bikinis, but in those days just daring to show one’s midriff made it glamorous. When our high school circle all returned home for the summer, I held a swimming party, and finally got the attention I’d been craving from Jesse.

Eventually he asked me to marry him. I was not in love with him, but I didn’t want him to leave my life. There was a good side to that: our friendship means more to me than all the romances I’ve had (and is also, I suspect, a better basis for a relationship). There was also a down side: I married someone with whom I could replicate the pattern of my unhappy childhood. I found someone else as critical of me as my dad, and at the same emotional distance. When I succeeded in getting him to pay attention to me, I was hooked.

Marrying Mr. Superior boosted my self-esteem — temporarily. But I was too well trained in craving attention and approval: the hunger is bottomless. After 47 years of marriage, I still struggle with this. The trouble it gives me does not come from masochism. Like Joanie, I keep trying to achieve a worthwhile end — a secure sense of self-esteem — in a situation where I’m handicapped by how I was raised. [12]

I don’t have to settle for my habitual reaction to my conditioning. I can probably heal distress patterns, with work. I do have to settle for the fact I can’t change my history; I’ll always have those old programs running somewhere in my undermind, little demons muttering their warped stories, trying to persuade me of their view. Still even if I can’t get rid of them, I can see them for what they are, and choose to act outside of their story.

The harder reality I have to settle for, is that Jesse too is handicapped by how he was raised. Trying to change him just makes him feel attacked. My feeling defensive makes him more aloof, more critical. If I change my part of the dance, I have a chance he may change his. But it starts with accepting his patterns I hate, and attending to my own responsibility for my suffering.

Sexual, Social, Female….

What is the relationship between sexual and social masochism? Nineteeth-century neuropsychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing, who probably coined the term “masochism,” was only talking about sexual behavior. These days social psychologist Roy Baumeister maintains that it makes no sense to investigate nonsexual behavior until we have a “solid understanding” of the sexual form:

The danger in describing nonsexual behavior patterns as “masochistic” is that at present it is almost impossible to say what is a false analogy and what is apt. Without a solid understanding of the original form of masochism-sexual masochism-one cannot generalize to other patterns[13].

Calling sexual masochism “original” however, is not accurate. In 1890 Krafft-Ebing started the use of the term in academic circles, adapting language used in underground ads by practitioners of the day to contact each other[14]. Thus historically, sexual behavior was the initial meaning of the term. But that does not mean that sexual masochism is the origin of all forms of the behavior. It does not mean sexual masochism is fundamental or quintessential. This is a logical fallacy.

Soon after that, Freud saw masochism in both sexual and nonsexual behavior — but he too regarded sexual masochism as primary. In 1939 psychoanalyst Karen Horney held this was an error due to the fact that the sexual aspect was the “most conspicuous.”[15]

No one in the time of Krafft-Ebing and Freud was likely to have noticed self-effacing behavior in women, because that was how women were expected to behave; it was considered our nature; it was “normal.” Still today it is the social norm, as Baumeister himself observes when he says “our culture’s ideals of femininity resemble the goals of masochism.” So of course the early theorists noticed the sexual kind of masochism first; of course it was the “most conspicuous.” But for a growing number of people today the self-effacing model of femininity is not so ideal.

Passive, submissive behavior is fundamental conditioning for women in our culture. Men too are conditioned to submit — to the extent that they make themselves fodder for war. The two patterns differ, but both point to an underlying cultural oppression.

Philosopher Claudia Card describes this cultural pattern as the source of sexual masochism:

Sadomasochism [is] enacting, in an eroticized and often playful make-believe fashion, roles of dominance and subordinance that characterize not only authoritarian adult-child relationships within the family or authoritarian religious relationships but, more generally, the norms of a patriarchal, misogynist society that is also riddled with homophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of oppression. On this understanding, sadomasochistic desires have roots not simply in individual psychologies but in society at large; they are not mysterious givens but social constructions[16].

In other words the mentality that puts people down is not dependent on the category of people being oppressed; this kind of violence pervades our culture. The result is social masochism. Social psychologist Erich Fromm wrote extensively on this in Escape from Freedom, which he published after he emigrated to the United States to flee the burgeoning Nazi regime[17]. In his studies of people’s reactions to Nazism, he found a lack of inclination to oppose that oppression, an unconscious fear of freedom, attraction to the appeal of authoritarian political systems, and resulting masochistic submission.

Karen Horney too declared that the social aspect was the basic problem, and cultural factors the cause. In other words, social masochism is the logical candidate for the origin of masochism.

Psychotherapist Maria Marcus calls social masochism “authoritarian masochism,” referring to the subjection to authority Fromm found. In her 1974 book she gives weight to Horney’s analysis — but she hedges:

This does not mean that sexual masochism is “only” a kind of sub-division of ordinary all comprehensive authoritarian masochism, including a desire for subjection at all levels and so at the sexual level as well. It is clearly a very much more independent illness[18].

Marcus concludes this from her own experience in emerging from social/authoritarian masochism while the sexual pattern remains recalcitrant. However, Marcus says, our culture conflates the sexual and social problems, into one “female masochism”:

They maintain that if we are excited by being beaten or dragged about by the hair, this is not because there is anything wrong with our sexuality, but because in the depths of our beings we are slaves — because we are women.

They maintain that since we have been so good at playing second fiddle in society’s symphony orchestra, and since we have taken such a subordinate position in political life, then we can also be kept down in bed – because we were dearly created to be put down. Because we are women.

They set an equals sign between the slightest tendency to sexual masochism and the slightest tinge of authoritarian masochism, making us regard these two things as a higher unit. As we have for so long lived under a double oppression, they maintain (with good old circular logic) that our female nature must itself have been created for darkness and oppression. That is – it has been said – the very best and most feminine thing about us[19].

It is this mishmash, Marcus says, that makes masochism harmful.

Psychologist John Money describes how this picture of women affects girls’ sexual development:

In psychoanalytic and other doctrines of women’s sexuality antedating the women’s movement, victimization in the female lovemap was defined as masochism and as an inevitable and instinctual heritage of womankind. That doctrine still lingers on, incapable of either proof or disproof. It disregards the evidence of the omnipresent ideological heritage that continuously impinges on the developing lovemaps of growing girls, namely of the female as sexually and erotically submissive. All the verbs for sexual intercourse, vulgar or polite, are transitive verbs in which he does it to her[20].

Psychiatrist Natalie Shainess agrees with Paula Caplan that women with these problems get no pleasure from them, but she defines them as one disorder, with the social problem resulting in the sexual one. Masochists (most of whom are women, she says) bring suffering on themselves, primarily by processes of communication that signal their submissiveness and fear. “Observing this,” she says, “many people (including Freud) mistakenly conclude that masochists take pleasure in their suffering. But this is not so. They simply do not know any other way to live[21].”

“Would you…” I started to say to Jesse, and then remembered the time I said that and he blew up:

“Don’t ask me to do something for you when you’ll be offended if I say no. Just say ‘Please do this.’”

I didn’t understand. Phrasing a request in the subjunctive, using “would,” was the polite way to ask. It was how I had been trained to ask for anything. Always. It was proper use of the language. And it was automatic. I didn’t think about how to get what I was asking for; it just came out.

But Jesse felt manipulated by it. To his ears I came across wimpy, groveling.

I was shocked. I was offended. He was over-reacting. He hadn’t been trained in the finer points of English. I certainly wasn’t behaving in a self-defeating manner. And I wasn’t going to cheapen my speech.

Eventually I realized we each had some right to our argument. I decided to try his way, in the interests of better communication. Sometimes I remember. But often, “would you…” still just pops out.

How many other ways do I diminish myself without thinking? Do I do it in sex? I don’t remember ever faking orgasm, but I do remember a game we used to play during foreplay, in the days when we were new to sex together. We were supposed to see who could last longer, before moving on to “the real thing.” I always faked arousal, so that I lost the game. Why? That’s harder to remember. Because I feared I couldn’t really get turned on? Because I wanted to flatter him? Because boys are supposed to win? Because I was bored? My mind shies away from the thoughts….

Marcus’ separation of sexual masochism from the social one makes sense to me. I too have made progress in standing up for myself in the world — and even in private, with Jesse. But the sexual fantasies that get me off offend the woman who stands up for herself.

Does my sexual pattern affect my social self? What other ways does my social conditioning as a woman affect my sexual experience? Can I separate these two forms of masochism? Can I get over their effects without separating them?

Redefining “Masochism”

A Defense of Masochism: the title of Anita Phillips’ book grabbed me. What an idea! Could I find a way to feel better about my self-defeating behavior? But the book turned out to be about a different kind of behavior. In fact, a whole new world, a fantasy world I’d known nothing about. This was my first inkling of the subculture of alternative sexuality called BDSM (for its major categories, overlapping the initials of Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, Sadism and Masochism). This world was built on an entirely different definition of “masochism.”

In 1869 the progressive Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch published a little book, Venus in Furs, about a man who persuaded the woman he desired to treat him as her slave. Apparently fiction — but in fact Sacher-Masoch based it heavily on a real-life relationship he had orchestrated to fulfill his fantasies. [22] In the sexual underground, people began referring to Sacher-Masoch in order to describe similar interests. Then in 1886 Krafft-Ebing described a disorder he called “masochism” in his Psychopathia Sexualis, a reference book on sexual deviance for psychiatrists, physicians, and judges. It caught on in the academic community.

In A Defense of Masochism, Anita Phillips asserts that the term “masochism” should refer only to special practices: imaginary scenarios acted out in physical reality, a form of play. Thus when the early psychiatrists applied the term to other behavior, they used it inappropriately. Although their pronouncement that women are constitutionally masochist was based on circular reasoning from the effects of their repressive culture, they succeeded in reinforcing the cultural expectation [23], and “masochism” became a larger category, applying to self-defeating behavior in the world at large.

By Phillips’ definition, the practices of true masochists are ego-destructive — but only in the fantasy. And the game which uses the fantasy requires careful, active consideration each for the other, in order to set and respect the boundaries of the game: When and where it is played; how much is permissible; what will signal a true “no,” as contrasted to protests within the scenario.

BDSM Revelations

Caplan defines masochism as behavior engaged in for the purpose of enjoying pain (including psychological pain). She proves that a great many behaviors for which women are labeled masochistic… do not in fact meet this criterion. But she also asserts that no women really do get pleasure out of pain or suffering.

Many would disagree with her understanding — especially among the people Phillips calls the real masochists: the followers of Sacher-Masoch. First, disagreeing with Caplan’s definition: because the crux of their practice is usually not pain, so much as power. And second, disagreeing with her ruling out pleasure from pain. For they report that when they do play with pain, it can in fact produce some kinds of physical pleasure.

The real distinction is that true masochists engage in activities producing pain and suffering only in specific circumscribed situations. And the people who have been trained by our culture to be self-destructive do it habitually, all the time.


Pain itself isn’t the point. Even when pain results in erotic pleasure, this does not by itself define masochism. Power must enter the equation, as Simone de Beauvoir explains:

Attributing an erotic value to pain does not at all imply behaviour marked by passive submission. …The embrace leads easily to biting, pinching, scratching; such behaviour is not ordinarily sadistic; it shows a desire to blend, not to destroy; and the individual who suffers it is not seeking rejection and humiliation, but union…. Pain, in fact, is of masochistic significance only when it is accepted and wanted as proof of servitude.[24]

Or as radical philosopher Michel Foucault declared, “S&M is the eroticization of power, the eroticization of strategic relations.”[25]

In 1980 S/M activist Pat Califia commented[26] “The basic dynamic of sexual sadomasochism is an eroticized, consensual exchange of power — not violence or pain.” Within the BDSM community, the terms “power exchange” (especially “consensual power exchange”) and “power play” were rapidly becoming popular. In addition to identifying power as the crux of these practices, the new terms also shed the association of pathology which the terms “sadism” and “masochism” bore. As one practitioner says:

Unfortunately, erotic power exchange is often judged or described based on outdated definitions, …some of which date back to the 1800’s. As a result of this, dominance and submission within an erotic power exchange context are often described as “sadism” and “masochism”; terms (and clinical definitions) which have been formulated to describe mental distortions, not sexual behavior. Sadly, for several decades everybody either involved in or trying to describe erotic power exchange activity has – and many still do – used these terms as well, thus only contributing to the unfortunate confusion of tongues which forms the basis for stereotyping and social stigmatizing[27].

The alternate reality of the ritual “scene” changes your relationship to the psychological conditioning of social masochism. When you can play with it, you take power back from it.

(So what, I wondered, do people into erotic power exchange call themselves? When BDSM began to develop as a movement, the act of wearing leather, a popular fetish in that community, became also a signal, a badge of membership: thus “leatherfolk” applies to S/M as well as the other varieties. Another general label: “kinkster,” someone into kinky sex. That one not only avoids pejorative connotations, it has a sense of humor I like, a playful use of language.) [28]

There’s even a verb “to kink,” which means “eroticizing the formerly non-erotic, or making pleasurable what was formerly not” according to Pepper Mint, on his blog[29] Freaksexual. For example “I kink hard for aliens.”) In order to be more specific, S/M folk often use terms identifying their role in the power exchange: top/bottom; master(mistress)/slave; dom(domme)/sub…. “Queer,” an inclusive word referring to non-normative [30]gender identity, started out in the late nineteenth century as a slur, from its original meaning as “peculiar.” But activists and scholars have done serious reclaiming, to the point that it is now the preferred term for relevant academic disciplines, for example “queer theory” and “queer studies.”)

My sexual fantasies revolve around power; I get the importance of power. But I don’t engage in any kink outside my head. When people interact in the physical world, when more than one individual’s private mind is involved… how the participants interact — the dynamics of power — requires attention. Still, “exchange”? How is power exchanged? What is the tradeoff? This term puzzled me until I read ethicist Claudia Card on orders — or levels — of choice. A higher order encompasses, controls and takes precedence over a lower order. An example of a higher order choice: legislation, which Card says “consists of choices that specify what people are or are not permitted to choose.” In S/M, participants make choices of an order higher than the ordinary level at which they choose to avoid experiencing or inflicting pain (physical or emotional). Their contract expresses these higher order choices:

Each party gives up one kind of power in exchange for another. The S [sadist] gets power over (control over) the M [masochist][31]at the level of the M’s lower order choice, in exchange for submitting to the M’s higher order choices (her form of control over the S), which are expressible through the use of “safe words.” Both agree, at a higher level yet, to abide by this exchange[32].

The simpler term, “power play,” seems to mean mostly the same thing as “power exchange” but without emphasizing that there’s a tradeoff. Since there’s probably always a tradeoff anyway, is it just a way to avoid thinking about responsibility? Or maybe it’s just useful to have an alternative term that’s more general, less challenging.

The term “power exchange” also encompasses an additional, spiritual sense. Keith Kendrick of the Albany Power eXchange explains:

Another development in this new S/M is the spiritual growth from an individual perspective, whether from that of the giver (the “top”) or the receiver (the “bottom”). This spiritual development occurs as a result of learning greater self-mastery, either in the sense of developing the ability to administer pain in such a manner that ultimately provides pleasure, or in the sense of learning to approach pain as a challenge to meet and come to enjoy. Sometimes these two perspectives will be combined in one person (who is indeed fortunate) in his or her ability to “switch” between “top” and “bottom” roles. …

But regardless of whether one is a top, bottom, or switch, the accompanying inner growth brings a sense of satisfaction and sometimes real joy. Then when such personal growth is shared with someone of a similar mind in an S/M play setting, and you know you are enriching the other person’s psychic/spiritual life, the energy between the two people is multiplied in a synergistic effect known as a “power exchange[33].”

In 2006, psychologists Patricia A. Cross and Kim Matheson published findings from three studies they conducted on current understandings of sadomasochism. They reported “These studies suggest, contrary to many academic theories, power, and not the giving and receiving of pain, is at the core of SM.” In other words there can be more going on in BDSM than power play, but power is an essential element.

When I started investigating masochism, I wrote:

How could anyone, no matter how degraded, ever enjoy pain, humiliation, self-destructiveness? Even self-denial, or submissiveness? We get certain satisfactions from them — but at the same time, aren’t they are inherently unpleasant? So I think the experience must always be ambivalent — compounding distress. Anyway, that’s how it is for me.

After reading the testimony of BDSM practitioners, I realize it’s different for them. The alternate reality of the ritual “scene” changes your relationship to the psychological conditioning of social masochism. When you can play with it, you take power back from it.


How do BDSM folk derive pleasure from pain? Endorphins — our bodies’ endogenous, morphine-like defense against pain. They not only block pain nerves, they also facilitate dopamine release, resulting in euphoria. Invoke these guardian angels with just the right amount of pain. Too much, too fast … and they can’t banish it. But in the right amounts, at the right pace, with the right support from breaks for gentle touching… these neuromodulators can handle more, and gradually more…. until the mind is abandoned, and the Bottom goes somewhere both deeper and more transcendant. This is Subspace.

Sex can be involved, but need not be. For example, submissive Lady Wyllo says:

Although I can have some amazing sex during a wonderfully sensual scene there needs to be more to it than that to take me to the heights of ‘subspace’ that I have been able to achieve without any sexual interaction.[34]

The mixed metaphor — “heights” of something “sub” — is telling: words don’t capture these experiences, and people try in wildly various ways.

For example sex activist Clarisse Thorn:

A lover asked me recently to describe how it feels when I go under. It took me a long time to come up with words. I feel blank. I feel dark. Desperate. Engaged. Transcendent. If it’s good enough, I can’t communicate. If it’s good enough, then it becomes hard not to fall in love.

… I got dressed and walked home across the city, feeling as though I was on fire. Alight. It lasted the whole next day; a friend ran into me in the morning and I said “I’m in a great mood!” and she said, “Yeah, it’s pouring off you[35].”

Submissive MS.In10sity says:

Probably the toughest thing to describe to the uninitiated is that elusive thing that many call “subspace.” It’s also known as “headspace” or “flying” or “floating” but while those of us who are experienced know just what this means within our own context, it is a very difficult thing to define.

But she gives it a good try, including…

It can take on a dreamy quality and can virtually paralyze some submissives for a time. It is, in my opinion, also the greatest natural high there is and many have likened it to a “runner’s high” or the release of adrenalin into the system. Some have said it is invigorating rather than a relaxing trance-like state and it has often been stated (I think mostly by those who have never experienced it) that it is only possible to reach subspace through painful physical stimuli. Frankly, that is nonsense; it is more than possible to reach subspace from overwhelming passion and love with no pain being involved at all[36].

Another popular term, “flow,” also gets used in reports of other activities, besides BDSM, that trigger endorphins:

For many people the practice of this contemporary S/M leads to what many psychologists refer to as “flow.” This is a pleasurable and virtually universally sought after psychological experience in which a person is so immersed in his or her experience that to a great extent the “self” is forgotten and time becomes significantly altered, and the person feels enriched from the experience. This is similar to the flow experience that artists and athletes often experience. And just as extreme sports enthusiasts such as skydivers and motorcycle racers often experience this enriching state of being, so do practitioners of this new blend of art and sport called S/M[37].

Sacher-Masoch of course did not call his activity “masochism.” He labeled his protagonist Severin (and by extension, himself) Übersinnlichen. Translation? “Supernatural” seems silly. “Supersensual” is popular, but gets interpreted in diametrically opposite ways: as extremely sensual, or as beyond sensuality. “Suprasensual” clarifies the emphasis on beyond; this seems to fit best, especially considering the final possibility, which refers to transcendence. So did Sacher-Masoch in fact do subspace?

Spiritual Masochism?

Keith Kendrick says power exchange offers spiritual growth. Kinksters’ descriptions of subspace get downright mystical. I wondered: can this constitute a spiritual practice?

Sex activist Lee Harrington, author of Sacred Kink, begins that book describing a variety of ways people discover the possibility:

Some of us have had a moment in the middle of fun and sexual exploration that leads to connecting with the divine or having an epiphany about life that was far from expected. Others have been drawn to the possibilities of finding universal truths between the sheets or in the dungeon for all of their lives. Some are aware that their bodies hold the key towards knowing their spirit, but don’t know which doors of desire to unlock. Others have glimpsed the limitless where they have been told that only debauchery lives, and are looking to go back for more[38].

Changing the Sense of Identity

At BDSM conferences, a popular workshop is “Endorphin Soup For The Unconventional Soul – Self Emergence Through Blood Rituals”:

Stressing the body is often done to indelibly print the significance of a ritual. From Kavadi to the Sundance to firewalking, these practices show sacrifice and can be used to achieve transcendence. Discover a bit of the history of body stress rituals and explore how various body modifications and stresses can be used to recreate useful blood rituals in our lives. We’ll even demonstrate a Kavadi style flesh hook ritual and a modern blood ritual in this class[39].

Ariel Glucklich explains in his book Sacred Pain that traditionally these rituals were performed in order to change the participants’ sense of self. By consenting to the pain, people identified with “higher and more abstract goals than ego.”[40] For as long as we know, cultures around the world have used painful rituals to initiate new people into group membership, adulthood, and mystical experience. For example many West African tribes use scarification, giving permanent testimony to the ordeal of joining the tribe, of coming of age. In the Native American Sun Dance, dancers may ask to have the flesh of their chest pierced with sticks or eagle claws that are fastened with rope to a central upright pole. Then the dancers break free by pulling against the ropes, tearing the piercings open. Glucklich describes multiple meanings for the ritual, including “a sacrificial performance, for the good of others, for the purification of one’s own community, and for the improvement of the world[41].”

Social psychologist Roy Baumeister says masochism is a means of escaping the pressures of selfhood, of deconstructing self-awareness[42].

But psychotherapist William Henkin says that focusing on how kinksters deal with the ego … is missing the point, which is transcendence — that is,

the experience of rising above something rather as one does in a hot-air balloon, without celebrating, highlighting, disparaging, dispensing with, or getting rid of it: to an experience that includes, rather than inflates, negates, enlarges, obviates, or excludes that which is being risen above[43].

Henkin points out how commonly kinksters switch roles, between Bottom and Top. Thus consensual power exchange can effect “that most intense sort of intimacy described as often in ecstatic religious writings as in erotic or romantic ones.” In particular, he mentions the transcendental experience St. John of the Cross called “a union of love[44].” [45]

Current BDSM spirituality often focuses on this sense of a larger reality. Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy say…

Ritual S/M is edge play directed to the purpose of attaining altered states of consciousness, of traveling beyond our habitual perceptual screens to another way of being in which everything becomes special, extraordinary, brilliant. Goals for such a scene might be a quest for guidance or a vision, the pursuit of personal truth and understanding, or the experience of spiritual communion for its own sake[46].

The result is an experience beyond the individual self:

A lovely sense of life being validated as a way to participate in something larger, some energy that is larger than each of us. Through that participation, we also get to discover how deeply and lovingly we are connected with each other[47]."

According to Karen Horney, the pleasure of masochism comes from this experience greater than the individual self:

The kind of satisfaction obtained … consists in abandoning oneself to and losing oneself in something [an experience common to] sexual abandon, religious ecstasy, losing oneself in some great feeling, whether it be produced by nature, music or enthusiasm for a cause." Nietzsche has called it the dionysian trend, and believes it to be one of the fundamental human possibilities for satisfaction. Ruth Benedict and other anthropologists have shown it to operate in many cultural patterns[48].

Paula Caplan prefers to separate this spiritual abandonment from masochistic submission, citing psychoanalyst Richard Robertiello, who says:

Masochism is the turning of destructive drives against the self. …When we talk about a sexual masochist, we are referring to some one who cannot enjoy the sexual act unless it is accompanied by pain, humiliation or submission. I want to distinguish here between submission and surrender. Submission is making oneself less than another person and is a part of masochism. Surrender is the letting go and giving one’s self to the activity one is involved in, so it is very desirable and not at all masochistic behavior[49].

Jungian analyst Lyn Cowan comments:

Psychiatry has consistently equated this desire for oblivion with pathology. In former times, in a less secular age, it was regarded as a striving for union with the Godhead, and its ecstasy was mystical…. [But] if we look for pathology, no doubt we will find it[50]."

Reacting to Christianity’s Role

As I researched BDSM spirituality, at first I didn’t make any connection with the early Christian ascetics. I had known about them, but I hadn’t been thinking of them in terms of “masochism.” Why? I certainly thought these people were perverted, in fact so disgusting I shied away from thinking about them. They seemed just plain crazy. Maybe I simply associated them with the terrible distortions of spirituality I have experienced in Christianity. If religion can teach people — and especially, women — to believe that hating ourselves is what God wants, actually beating oneself up is just another part of this horror. But these crazies antedated the use I knew of the term “masochism”; perhaps that obscured the connection?

Seems to me a similar motivation inspires both the pope and the kinksters. Calling the other path names doesn’t negate its similarity.

Then I learned of contemporary Catholic masochism. Catholic theology today still prescribes mortification of the body — in order to grow in spiritual maturity, as well as to expiate sin. Pope John Paul II whipped himself with a belt, according to the book Why He is a Saint, by Slawomir Oder, the priest assigned to lead the campaign for John Paul’s canonization[51].

Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin says John Paul’s self-flagellation was not masochism:

The first thing to point out is that this isn’t masochism. It’s not the case of wanting the pain out of some sick craving. While there are masochists, anything they do along these lines is not a genuine spiritual exercise. The whole point of self-mortification is that you don’t find the pain attractive but are willing to submit to it anyway for a higher goal[52].

Akin is thinking of the psychiatric definition of masochism as behavior engaged in for the purpose of enjoying pain. The definition our culture was steeped in for years, the definition that led Paula Caplan to assert that the women who wrote Coming to Power were not really masochists in spite of their defining themselves most emphatically so. In their definition of masochism, pain is not the attraction — but the accompanying experiences of power exchange and/or mystical subspace.

If John Paul did not have a “sick craving” for pain, why did he do it? Msgr. Oder gave two reasons: “to affirm the primacy of God and as an instrument for perfecting himself[53].” “Affirming the primacy of God” — to me this sounds like not only submission but the prototype of all authoritarian masochism. “Perfecting himself” sounds like the tradeoff in this power exchange. (Plus even if those were the reasons he believed he did it, I don’t believe JP didn’t enjoy any of the endorphin tripping St. Teresa reported.) Seems to me a similar motivation inspires both the pope and the kinksters. Calling the other path names doesn’t negate its similarity.

On Good Friday in several locations in The Philippines, other Catholics have themselves crucified as self-mortification — with nails through hands and feet, hanging on wooden crosses for several minutes. Although in recent years the church has tried to discourage these theatrical crucifixions, this reenactment is part of a hugely popular local Easter festival, which also includes people walking in procession whipping their backs bloody with split bamboo sticks bundled into a braided cord.

Carpenter Ruben Enaje began having himself crucified in 1985, and as I write this in 2015, has done it every year since. He says of the experience: “When I’m up there on the cross, I feel very close to God[54].”

These contemporary Christian occurences put me off the same way medieval self-mortification does. But the Sun Dance ceremony, still practiced today by indigenous Americans — that I react to differently: with some respect. Why? Partly, I’m sure, because I don’t perceive it as part of the oppression I grew up under. But also I think because it’s performed, in Glucklich’s terms, “for the good of others, for the purification of one’s own community, and for the improvement of the world.” Wouldn’t Christian apologists make similar claims for their tradition? Perhaps … but I haven’t seen any. The emphasis I see seems to be on atonement individuals must make for their own sin. On judging people bad, making them feel guilty, and encouraging them to punish themselves.

William James commented:

The hopelessness of Christian theology in respect of the flesh and the natural man generally has, in systematizing fear, made of it one tremedous incentive to self-mortification[55].

In addition to promoting masochism from physical pain as spirituality, Christianity of course also institutionalized psychological masochism for women, teaching us that abasing ourselves is a spiritual practice was a link here [See “Christianity’s Power Trip.]”

Somehow I have escaped learning to feel putting myself down as a spiritual experience. But I have decidedly been indoctrinated into believing myself bad and feeling guilty.

Shadow Work

So what do we do with the baggage of Christianity’s authoritarian masochism? Well, Glucklich’s “changing the sense of self” can be used to shed conditioning as well as to install it. Some contemporary BDSM play specifically aims to re-vision the Western masochistic heritage. Lee Harrington describes this work in detail, under topics like…

  • “Seeking change, healing or personal identity work[56]
  • “examining past wounds, assumptions and habits[57]
  • “journeying into the astral, exploring your energetic self, connecting with a divine force or finding your place in the universe[58]

Emphasizing the positive, Harrington urges kinksters to journey to their personal underworlds:

Challenge yourself to look at the dark places. What do you feel powerless about? What have you been told is inappropriate? What have you put away? What have you given up? Go there. It might be surprising what you find.

On the path into the shadows of your being you may find that Cerberus, the three-headed dog of Hades, is waiting. He may have the faces of your parents and teachers, the shape of your faith upbringing, the feeling of what you have been told you must be to succeed.

In our culture we have been told that Cerberus, that the keepers to the underworld, are there to keep us in the light and out of Hell. But the reality is, only in Christianity does hell have no purpose and is only about suffering. All other cultures around the world share with us that the underworld is a place to confront our pains, or relive our same experiences from the past until we are able to see what truly was happening in them. We come back from the underworld changed, full of new growth, able to ascend back to the light because the only real death is the lack of growth. What do you need to see, bear witness to, or let go of to be able to have room in your life to grow?[59]

Here’s an example from queer theorist Pepper Mint, who says BDSM enables experimenting with new forms of sexuality, and new ways of handling sexual power relationships:

Let me illustrate using my own sadism. Since very young, I have had a strong streak of mischievous urges, which have bordered on the cruel. Rarely have I actually indulged these urges: I have always been one of the most gentle men you will ever meet. However, since coming to terms with my own sadism, these urges have significantly reduced. I feel like this is due to the new perspective provided by my kink practice. If I am going to cover someone with bruises in a couple days, any other form of physical tension seems entirely petty. Other things seem petty too, like getting angry over pointless arguments. My sadism has given me a new level of equaniminity, one which surpassed my previous even temperament. Notably, these mischievous and competitive traits are generally considered masculine power dynamics. While it is very difficult to be sure of what is happening in my own head (since these processes are largely unconscious), I feel that my sadism may be helping me contain problematic portions of my own masculinity[60].

From a Jungian point of view, the task is not a therapeutic re-visioning. Rather masochism is an essential activity of soul, enabling us to appropriately encounter our shadow, even the suffering. Lyn Cowan calls it an “embrace”:

Like a dance-embrace, with timing and rhythm, give-and-take. Experiencing the shadow means accepting its life within us—letting it, and thus ourselves, live. … Embracing the shadow means experiencing its autonomy. It involves force and passivity, horror and beauty, power and impotence, straightness and perversion, infantilism, wisdom, and banality[61].

Cowan was writing before the explosion of BDSM culture. Her patients, she said, did not actually want pain, and she did not take endorphins into account. More recently Jungian Dorothy Hayden, a sex-addiction therapist, writes with familiarity about kink, describing masochism as “a magnificent spiritual journey[62].”

Novelist-philosopher Marilynne Robinson says

The dear old human experience is a singular, difficult, shadowed, brilliant experience that does not resolve into being comfortable in the world. The valley of the shadow is part of that, and you are depriving yourself if you do not experience what humankind has experienced, including doubt and sorrow. We experience pain and difficulty as failure instead of saying, I will pass through this, everyone I have ever admired has passed through this, music has come out of this, literature has come out of it. We should think of our humanity as a privilege.[63]

Trying to digest all this, I know I could use bettter ways to deal with my shadow. And kinksters’ descriptions of transcendence speak to me. I’ve had a glimpse into that side of reality, and long for more. But getting these spiritual benefits via pain or humiliation… no, that turns me off.

BDSM Experience?

So in this new world of BDSM, how much is relevant to me?

Anita Phillips made me question my dictionary’s definition of masochism as deriving pleasure from being humiliated. That is, question the link between getting sexual stimulation from pain, and getting pleasure from being subjected to bullying, put-downs, psychological abuse, oppression in ordinary life. The link which is taken for granted in our culture, the link the early psychoanalysts made so much of.

Although I’ve been using that common definition of masochism, although I’ve assumed I must be a masochist, still in the day-to-day world I don’t get off — in any fashion! — from being bullied, oppressed, lorded over by someone more powerful. If I don’t react with fear or anger, if instead I stay centered, I can get some satisfaction that I have responded well. It’s not a high or a rush, rather a quiet peaceful affirming sort of glow, the experience I’ve come to associate with the Buddhist concept of punya (“merit”). Nothing like orgasm.

But in fantasy what makes me orgasm — is being overwhelmed.

Forced by Aliens

In all the mental turmoil reading Phillips has stirred up in me, I have begun to enjoy fantasizing being raped — by aliens. They don’t cause me physical pain; rather it’s a psychic shock: they ravish my mental boundaries. For some reason I trust them not to harm me, even though they take me unwillingly. I can’t imagine trusting any man’s harmlessness in forcing me. (A woman? maybe….) I get off on the experience of having my will ripped away, forced to orgasm. And seeing that happen to others (especially men).

In the hardcopy version of this book, I say more, giving details of the fantasy, to document my mental condition. But I’m not comfortable saying more on the Web. It feels like too much exposure; I’m afraid of being harassed.

Endorphin Play

So: Fantasy ravishment, yes. Real-world bullying, no. Nor physical pain — either in fantasy or in the everyday world. I don’t get off on it, and I don’t seek it. I have more than enough already — for example migraines (and pharmaceutical chemicals just make them worse).

However I do have some positive experience working with with physical pain. For example, what I think of as “breathing into the pain.”

Everyone must use endorphins for analgesia all the time, without realizing it.

My aging vagina is dry, and the membranes of my vulva are not as plump, cushiony, or flexible as they used to be. Friction that used to be pleasant — exciting — now feels like a burn. A hard cock pinches the soft tissues against my pubic bone. Deep penetration stretches them too far, so that deep inside I feel something is about to tear, like the lips of my mouth when the dentist pulls them too far open.

Jesse and I have tried to find positions and manoevers that avoid those pains, but not with complete success. So rather than forgo sexual intimacy, I think of the oxygen I inhale as energy, and direct it to the hurt. I ride the whole experience as pure sensation, without attaching a plus or minus value to it. I choose to take in the energy of the pain rather than to avoid it. This takes strength: I can feel how much it takes, to choose that. A spiritual strength. Do I get off from knowing my strength? No, but opening to the energy of pain transforms it to a different kind of high. Perhaps it’s a kind of orgasm; usually I think of it that way because I have no other concept for it. The result is not like subspace, but rather something that that builds between us, that melds us into something greater than two individuals.

Another trick I learned for managing painful intercourse: orgasm before penetration. Jesse and I masturbate me first, as foreplay. I used to assume the reason it didn’t hurt to have him enter me after I’d come, was that I was wetter than I get otherwise. But then I learned that endorphins are released during orgasm.

Everyone must use endorphins for analgesia all the time, without realizing it. Now I start thinking about it, more ways I do it keep coming to mind. For example my hemorrhoids. Often, people use sitz baths to heal them; I decided to try turning the shower gun on mine, with a focused but gentle stream. And moderately hot water: there’s something about the sting it produces, that feels good. I even found myself turning up the heat, to get more sting. And again. The sting relieves the itch, and I think the heat increases circulation. It definitely speeds healing.

After I contracted genital Herpes, the virus never left me: it takes up residence in sacral nerve ganglia. When the dormant virus becomes active again, a raw sore recurs on one of my outer lips. Not so bad as the original infection, but still painful — and it itches, too. I use the same hot water shower treatment here. It smarts, but I like the sensation. Perhaps I learned to like it: wasn’t it unpleasant at first? This sore heals faster too this way. And overriding that itch with the sting — ah, blessed relief. I enjoy ramping it up here, too, on the tender edge of my labia major. In fact, I like playing the stream of heat on my labia even when I don’t need it. I’m sure it increases blood circulation, but I don’t feel turned on, I just like the kick. When I stop the hot water, my vulva’s lips tingle. Where does extreme sensation become pain? Or is the question, when is it aversive? Eventually, I got in the habit of gradually increasing the heat quite a bit, until in order to stand it, I had to sing. Just one note, not a song — but it sort of channeled the energy. Then I could turn up the heat again — and sing out a higher note. And again.

Some headaches, I’ve think I’ve managed with endorphins: before I learned about them, when all I knew about masochists was that they “enjoyed pain,” I decided to try dealing with headaches by pretending I enjoyed them. It’s hard to express, but that’s the best I can describe it. I roll the taste of the pain around in my mind and savor it. Breathe the pain in. Suck on it, like a hard candy. This does have an effect: the flavor changes. What was a piercing needle, becomes a piquant scratch, or itch. An itch that somehow is friendly. Like a healing scab.

But so far I haven’t succeeded using the “pretending” trick on my migraines. For medium-bad ones, Tonglen works (see Recycling Hurt). I breathe in the pain, then send out into the universe its energy, for the good of all beings. As result, I enjoy feeling that my pain serves some useful purpose. I don’t enjoy the pain, and I certainly don’t seek it — but I am making use of it. Does it get me into subspace? I’m not sure. It doesn’t feel transcendent. But it does quiet my mind (or perhaps I have to quiet my mind in order to do it?) — and lessens the pain. I do lose track of my sense of self, and frequently fall asleep.

For the worst migraines, I don’t have the presence of mind to direct energy. My last-ditch pain meditation is just to pay attention to the pain. My mind is tempted to flail around from one hope of relief to another (get me an icepak, turn up the oxygen, stroke my forehead please….), my body to thrash from one position to another. But I know the answer is actually to be still. And when I get down to it, at least it’s not hard to concentrate on the pain. It grabs attention pretty well.

Eventually I space out. I’m no longer “in pain.” Where am I? “I” am no longer anywhere. I have no sense of self, of anything. Is this Sunyata? Subspace? Dissociation? Whatever, it’s a blessing. And I assume there are some endorphins in the mix.

So I can understand, a little, the attractions of endorphin play. But I don’t get any euphoria from endorphins increasing my dopamine. And BDSM doesn’t attract me. Anita Phillips’ descriptions of masochism as art, a world of fantasy play … those appeal to me. But seek pain, or humiliation, at the hands of someone else? Ugh, the thought repels me. Easton and Hardy make it sound so attractive. So mystical. In an online group with some members into BDSM, I asked “Would you recommend my trying it?” The only answer was “It helped me get clear on setting limits.” I decided I didn’t need that kind of help. I’m perfectly clear I want no one wielding that kind of power over me.

Still… is there a memory I have difficulty looking at, buried somewhere in my mind, of a time or two when when the sensory stimulation of pain added to my sexual arousal, when pain itself somehow added frisson to the experience of intercourse? Almost as though the nerves were crossed, as in synesthesia. Or maybe it’s a fantasy, a reaction to all my reading, a wish? A memory of a wish….

Reading Maria Marcus

In 1974, Danish feminist Maria Marcus published Den Frygtelige Sandhed. En Brugs-Bog om Kvinder og Masokisme (The Awful Truth; a Workbook on Women and Masochism); in 1981 it was published in English as A Taste for Pain; On Masochism and Female Sexuality. I discovered it in 2012. It’s the story of Marcus’ struggle to come to terms with her own sexuality. As I am trying to do. The courage of this woman awes me: her dedication to learning and speaking the truth. She bears unflinching witness to the depths of her own soul, examining herself, questioning How? Why? … as well as What now?

Like me, she studied everything she could read in order to understand herself. As I try to, she conscientiously reports her feelings, reactions, experience; she carefully, rationally, analyzes as far as she can; she falls back eventually to metaphor, to story, as the only way to express what she perceives.

She stays rational much longer than I when thinking about Sigmund Freud and his progeny, reporting on ten different authoritative theories of masochism (three separate ones from Freud himself), evaluating their fit to her experience. As I read the views of presumed experts, I cringe. I rage.

I’m squirming in my chair as I write this.

I feel crammed into one box and then another: with shap things sticking from the sides into me: scratching, piercing, tearing me. Or with a foul miasma slowly filling the confined space: gagging, choking, drugging me. I cower and shake, I lock muscles and freeze mind, become a cipher, a cloud drifting away…. I leave Marcus’ book and come back, thinking I must report on these ideas, they are what has formed my culture, formed my expectations. How can I break free of them if I can’t think about them? How can I urge other women to break free if I can’t write what’s wrong with them?. But I just weep and scream inside my head.

Well… when she investigates Wilhelm Reich I relax a little. His philosophy, valuing orgasm as our primary connection to the life-force, the way to be in balance with the universe … that makes sense to me. That’s the intuition I’ve always had too. When he puts the blame for neuroses on the punishment-based power structure of the traditional nuclear family, I cheer. But as Marcus says, he really says “not a word about women.” Nothing about the larger cultural structures enforcing male domination, nothing about the sexualization of that domination. Nothing about how women are brainwashed by that domination into submission socially, psychologically, and sexually. [Reich also doesn’t take into account the voluptuization of pain through endorphin management. But then Marcus doesn’t either, anywhere in this book.]

The things that turn Marcus on are different from what gets me going. The strategy she uses to achieve orgasm is not what works for me. As I read, I keep wanting those differences to give me an out. I’m not really a masochist….

Marcus’ synopsis of The Story of O also disturbs me. I vaguely recall reading the book, long ago; I think I even finished it — but I can’t recall my reaction then. Now as I read I’m slightly turned on … and horrified to be. I feel a little tingle in my loins, and then I shudder and my disgust stops the tingle, mind somehow backing away, refusing to go further. What is done to O is not the kind of thing I imagine in order to turn myself on. Nor as I read do I see myself in O’s situation: rather I see what is done to her as though I’m in the room observing. I’m reacting to what is done to her, not to me: is this sadism?

After Marcus finishes relating the story, but before she’s done with the chapter about it, my mind unearths two fantasies I tried to forget. Both contain strong elements of sexual masochism. I’m squirming in my chair as I write this, disgusted and disturbed by them. Yes, and turned on. Again I struggle with whether to talk about it. I think it’s important to bear witness to how the culture has programmed me. But putting them on the Web scares me. I think putting them in the book will be enough.

Hating my Masochism

Enjoy pain? I hate the idea. I don’t want pain. I don’t want to enjoy pain. I don’t want to derive any satisfaction from self-destructiveness, either. And still I have been trained to. I am afraid of some sadist’s taking advantage of this; I am enraged that it could happen, that it does happen. In effect, I ask for sadism: not by wanting it, but by exhibiting so perfectly the responses that call it forth, by rewarding it.

I behave as a victim, enabling sadism.

Careful paranoia, I am convinced, is how I have succeeded in avoiding being raped so far in my life. Outside of fantasy I have not been a victim of any of the the overt sadistic sexual behaviors, or a willing participant of masochistic ones. It is true that I have practiced breathing into the pain when intercourse hurts, in order to bear it and to concentrate on other aspects of the experience. Is this masochism? Not according to Caplan: because I’m not doing it for the pain. And not according to de Beauvoir: I’m not doing it to abase myself. In fact, do I gain a certain power from it?, from the high of the rest of the experience? But it’s an internal power; there’s no power interaction with my partner.

But I have managed to create a relationship where my partner thinks it’s funny or “good for me” to deny me something when I ask for it, where I’m afraid of his yelling at me and habitually let him have what he wants when he does, where he blames me for his yelling by telling me I’m whining. I behave as a victim, enabling sadism.

I fear and hate this in myself. I hate myself for this. And so I dig myself deeper into self-destruction.

Still this is only half of my masochism, the social part. I can almost forgive it in myself, now I see how unrelentingly the culture programmed it into me. But my sexual masochism I hate more powerfully. I fear it feeds my social masocism. Makes me a victim. Puts me at risk. No doubt the culture trained me in sexual masochism as well as social. But the turn-on creeps me out. I feel infected, damaged: this is not the real me.

Grudgingly, I admit I am a masochist. Bitterly, even. Angrily. I did not choose it. I do not choose it. Can I change it?

  1. Caplan 1985, 119.  ↩

  2. “Reality police” is my favorite term for that socio-legal establishment composed of all variety of psychotherapists, who make it their business to define how the mind should work, and what is “mental health.”  ↩

  3. In 1983 such a category, called “Masochistic Personality Disorder” was proposed to the the American Psychiatric Association. In their 1987 revised edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (The “DSM”) they discussed this under the allternative name “Self-Defeating Personality Disorder.” The category had problems and was not officially adopted. Nevertheless it still has an official code number (301.90), and is used by some.  ↩

  4. Sacher-Masoch’s designed relationships – yes, there were more – weren’t normal life; they were very carefully scripted.  ↩

  5. Caplan, 9.  ↩

  6. Caplan, 222–3.  ↩

  7. Blanch 1974, 1–15.  ↩

  8. Caplan, 2.  ↩

  9. Kutchins and Kirk 1997, 150.  ↩

  10. Caplan, 14.  ↩

  11. Caplan, 4.  ↩

  12. This is a good example of what co-counseling calls a distress pattern, an ingrained set of beliefs and behaviors that operate in an unhappy, habitual, self-fulfilling loop. But it’s not done for the purpose of suffering.  ↩

  13. Baumeister 1989, 3.  ↩

  14. Cutler 2003, 100–101.  ↩

  15. Horney 1947, 112–113.  ↩

  16. Card 1995, 221. Chapter 11 (including page 221) is online as Consensual Sadomasochism: Charting the Issues .  ↩

  17. Fromm 1941. (Published the next year in London as Fear of Freedom.)  ↩

  18. Marcus 1981, 227.  ↩

  19. Marcus, 242.  ↩

  20. Money 1988, 15.  ↩

  21. Shainess 1985, 3.  ↩

  22. In the forward to the Blast Books 1989 English edition of the book, Chris Kraus and Sylvére Lotringer assert “Everything that happens in the novel had already happened in Masoch’s life.” [p. viii.]  ↩

  23. Another example of the kind of misuse of power which inspired the term “reality police”  ↩

  24. Beauvoir 1974, 56.  ↩

  25. Foucault 1994, 169.  ↩

  26. Califia 1980, 118.  ↩

  27. Ambrosio, "Information for Professionals Confronted with Erotic Power Exchange.  ↩

  28. When did a word referring to a bend or twist start referring to sexuality?, In the best-selling Balderdash and Piffle, word sleuth Alex Games tracks it (with quotes and references) from that first use in English in 1678, through Afro-style curls, then more figuratively “queer, eccentric, crotchety”; in 1927 as criminally shifty or dodgy, eventually in 1959 to an association with “the seamier side of sex.” [2007, 185–7].

    Music journalist Jon Savage, in his 1984 official biography of the rock group The Kinks, defined the word in describing how they took it for their name: they

    needed a gimmick, some edge to get them attention. Here it was: ‘Kinkiness’ — something newsy, naughty but just on the borderline of acceptability. In adopting the “Kinks” as their name at that time, they were participating in a time-honoured pop ritual — fame through outrage." [1984, 17]

    But finally Games comments that the word “kink” has moved on, from its association with the derogatory idea of perversion, to “sexually adventurous” —

    and can now be worn as a badge of pride to show that the ‘romance’ or ‘fun’ hasn’t gone out of your love lifre. These days there’s a global design agency called kinky, a Ghent-based record label called Kinky Star, and over in San Francisco the Kinky Salon is building ‘a community dedicated to sex-positive self-expression’. Wherever you look the world seems to be pointing in an ever kinkier direction. [Games 2007, 188]  ↩

  29. Mint 2007.  ↩

  30. “Queer” at Wikipedia comments on this word: “Note that ”non-normative“ does not mean ”not normal“, but rather refers to the privileging of ”normal“ genders and sexualities over the ”non-normative“. ”Normative“ brings attention to the fact that ”normal“ does not exist in a vacuum, but rather is created and reified through structural oppression.”  ↩

  31. Although Card uses the term “sadist,” and it is common to do so, it is not strictly accurate: in S/M, the “sadist” is not truly a sadist. “SlaveMaster” explains: “ The myth of SM is that the perfect pairing is a sadist, who likes to inflict pain, and a masochist, who enjoys pain. This is false. A true sadist only enjoys inflicting pain when there is no consent. Therefore, no sadist would ever waste time with someone who wanted the pain. Masochists are foremost characterized by their controlling natures. They control their relationships so that they gain what they seek from the ”pain giver.“ No sadist would ever agree to the controlling conditions a masochist demands. Therefore, by their nature, sadists and masochists are mutually exclusive personalities.” [SlaveMaster, SM as Spiritual Path]  ↩

  32. Card 1995, 227.  ↩

  33. Kendrick 2000.  ↩

  34. Lady Wyllo 2005.  ↩

  35. Thorn, There It Is.  ↩

  36. MsIn10sity 2001.  ↩

  37. Kendrick, S&M Isn’t What It Used to Be.  ↩

  38. Harrington 2009, 5.  ↩

  39. “Educational Workshops Presented by Fantasies in Leather / Mind & Soul / Tactile & Technique / Endorphin Soup for the Unconventional Soul: Creating Body Rituals,” on the site of Fantasies in Leather. Requires first asserting one’s age on their home page. Then go to the site map, using the horizontal menu bar immediately under the top banner. “Educational Workshops” is under the heading “Tactile & Technique”.  ↩

  40. Glucklich 2001, 152.  ↩

  41. Glucklich, 144.  ↩

  42. Baumeister 1989, 171.  ↩

  43. Henkin 2008.  ↩

  44. Henkin cites James 1958, 312.  ↩

  45. St. John of the Cross, of course, was talking about union with God. It’s okay with me that Henkin doesn’t use God-language. But it does bother me that he’s using this term that William James describes as the highest mystical rapture, to apply to an experience with one’s human partner.  ↩

  46. Easton and Hardy 2003, 194–5.  ↩

  47. Easton and Hardy 2004, 21.  ↩

  48. Horney 1939, 273–4.  ↩

  49. Robertiello 1970, 56.  ↩

  50. Cowan 1982, 98–9.  ↩

  51. Wooden 2010.  ↩

  52. Akin 2010.  ↩

  53. Wooden.  ↩

  54. Uribarri 2011.  ↩

  55. James, 302.  ↩

  56. Harrington, 15.  ↩

  57. Harrington, 16.  ↩

  58. Harrington, 351.  ↩

  59. Harrington, 56–57.  ↩

  60. Mint.  ↩

  61. Cowan, 37–8.  ↩

  62. Hayden 2011.  ↩

  63. Robinson, interview by Fay 2008, .  ↩