Some masochists have testified to a different kind of lowered response: they become unable to become sexually aroused without pain. A letter to advice columnist Ann Landers said “Without intense pain, I cannot enjoy sex. …I wish I could learn how to enjoy sex without pain.”[1] In a similar complaint, Marissa Jonel wrote to Robin Ruth Linden “I was frightened when I felt myself feeling less and needing more real pain to get excited.”[2]

These lowered responses sound to me like addiction. Is S/M addictive? Research I find gives no clear answer. But from what I did find about addiction in general, it sounds like it can be.

Nora D. Volkow — Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse — stresses the role in addiction of the neurotransmitter dopamine.[3] But she admits that genetic, developmental, and environmental factors make a difference too.[4]

Dopamine rises in reaction to both pain and pleasure, and is responsible for that kind of conditioning where we learn to anticipate a reward. When behavior (including taking substances) repeatedly stimulates dopamine, the brain’s fundamental wiring changes.

As a result, the user can develop dependence, characterized by

  • Escalating cravings
  • Extreme sensitivity to the cues associated with the behavior
  • Decreased experience of reward and need for greater doses
  • Weakened willpower
  • Withdrawal symptoms

The term “addiction” refers to resulting compulsive, uncontrollable behavior in obtaining and using the substance.

Ethicist Claudia Card observes that some practitioners of S/M gradually become involved in heavier scenes. Since addictions weaken willpower (in Card’s terms, “diminish freedom to withdraw,”) she suggests that in S/M

over time, what began as a consensual activity may cease to be clearly consensual, not because of communication problems but because of diminished responsible agency on the part of either or both parties.[5]

Marissa Jonel reported this worsening in her letter published in Against Sadomasochism:

There was a part of me that never wanted the sm to end and after a couple of years I was totally addicted to my lover being in total control. Gradually, as our relationship progressed, I became that submissive person in my fantasies. Actually, I no longer had fantasies because they were always acted on.[6]

Her entire relationship with her partner became abusive, and “the violence or severity of sm escalated as the relationship continued.” Eventually she became frightened, but she was so afraid to leave, because of her lover’s threats, that she considered suicide.[7]

One small study does support the hypothesis of masochism as addiction. In 2016, Holly Kurt and Natti Ronel published “Addicted to Pain: A Preliminary Model of Sexual Masochism as Addiction[8],” in which they studied nine masochists. Kurt and Ronel concluded that “the way pain is experienced while mitigated through masochistic behavior creates an addictive process.”

[1] “Mason City, Iowa” 1993. This Ann Landers column appeared in many papers on the same date; see for example A MASOCHIST STRUGGLES TO CONQUER SELF-HATRED 3/19/1993.
[2] Jonel, in Linden et al. 1982, 18.
[3] Zuger 2011.
[4] Volkow et al. Dopamine in Drug Abuse and Addiction / Results of Imaging Studies and Treatment Implications.
[5] Card 1995, 234.
[6] Jonel, 19.
[7] Jonel, 20.
[8] Kurt and Ronel, International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology 61(15)(1760-1774).

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