Baumeister says masochism is escape from the pressure this culture creates around the concept of “self.” In the West at this time, we make more of that notion than any other society ever has. We have to define our own goals and values; we need to feel in control, effective, and good. The self-awareness this requires can be a burden, and we find ways of setting it down. Baumeister says masochism provides one, and compares it to alcohol and drugs, spirituality, physical exercise, extreme sports, and binge eating, among other behaviors.[1] Clearly Baumeister thinks some escape is a good thing.

The ecstasy of subspace inspires glowing descriptions from kinksters, and sounds spiritually nourishing. Janet Hardy says it’s the whole subject of the book Radical Ecstasy:

the experience…whether you want to call it ecstasy or bliss or spirituality or transcendence or whatever, is always at some level about loss of self — about having the precious opportunity to forget, just for a little while, where I end and everything else begins … and float skinless, a burning scrap of energy, boundless through the universe.[2]

But my psychotherapist friend Ada frowns. She says it sounds like the dissociation she sees in victims who shut down, trying to numb themselves to abuse, and then have subsequent trouble establishing a healthy sense of self.

To Erich Fromm, the masochist seeks to escape the responsibilities of personhood — a character fault not only destructive to the individual but dangerous to society. To describe the spiritual condition of the masochist, Fromm quotes a description from Dostoevski, in The Brothers Karamasov, of the man who has “no more pressing need than the one to find somebody to whom he can surrender, as quickly as possible, that gift of freedom which he, the unfortunate creature, was born with.” Then Fromm concludes:

The frightened individual seeks for somebody or something to tie his self to; he cannot bear to be his own individual self any longer, and he tries frantically to get rid of it and to feel security again by the elimination of this burden: the self. … The different forms which the masochistic strivings assume have one aim: to get rid of the individual self, to lose oneself; in other words, to get rid of the burden of freedom.[3]

[1] Baumeister 1991
[2] Easton & Hardy, 2004, 33-34.
[3] Fromm, 1942, 130-131.

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