Biology 202
1998 Second Web Reports
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The How & Why of Sadism and Masochism

By Dena Bodian

Whips...chains...bondage...oh, please, Mistress...Sadism and masochism (S/M), longtime components of fringe society, are becoming more a part of mainstream popular culture. This attraction (either to receiving or inflicting) pain has puzzled doctors and therapists for hundreds of years. From the Marquis de Sade to today's S/M bars, the fascination with this often-taboo subject, although expressed in a myriad of ways, may be grounded in science.

The 1940's brought a Freudian analysis of S/M which stated that a person's enjoyment of pain arose from a sense of early childhood abandonment or abuse. Freud believed that" the sexual life of human revealed that at times there exists an instinct which aims at preserving living substances and... another, contrary instinct that seeks to ...relieve the organism from tension--thus the principle of constancy or the nirvana principle remained salient" (1). Freud concluded "the aim of all life is death," perpetuating the notion that people who find pain sexually arousing are attempting to discover salvation through a death-like state of nirvana. This state, commonly referred to as the S/M orgasm, has often been termed a spiritual experience:

s/m does not stand for "sex magick," at least, not when i do it. but it's still the most spiritual thing i do. i am not calling on some lost pagan god, i am not channeling spirits of dead warriors, or whatever else those silly people call their ritual, but i am having a very transcendent experience. mortification of the flesh, as any ecstatic ecclesiast could have told you, taps into all kinds of emotions that are too pure and too intense for ordinary life. only in a very specific context can i manage to fall that far out of control and reach that bliss-state. i submit to no man. i submit to the pain (2).

Freud is not the only doctor interested in the pathology of sadists and masochists. Richard von Kraft-Ebbing was to the late nineteenth century what Alfred Kinsey was in the 1950's. Psychopathia Sexualis, published in German in 1886, chronicled hundreds of detailed accounts and personal interviews from "sexual abnormals" - who ranged from transvestites and homosexuals to " hideous cases of sexual sadism" ( 3 ).

According to one source, there is a perfectly understandable reason for a historical disparagement of the S/M scene. Most of the available literature was written by medical professionals treating patients who were seeking psychological treatment from the authors of the books! The "studies" completely ignored the many many well-adjusted, happy people who were also into SM...It's easy to conclude SM is harmful when your only experience is with psychologically maladjusted SM people" ( 3 ).

Although it was once commonly assumed that everyone involved in the S/M scene has a death-wish or is a psychopath, the true findings could not be more wrong. Contemporary American culture has seen the rise of interest in S/M - particularly with regard to conventions and publications by people in the field. The fact that consensual S/M activity by people over the age of eighteen is legal in America has been another factor in the attraction. In many parts of the Western world (including Canada and England, to name a few), consensual S/M activity between adults is still illegal and participants are subject to battery convictions. (4).

In the late 1980's, The American Psychiatric Association reviewed the definition of S/M published in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Conditions. This turn-around occurred when America's top psychiatrists were invited to the National Living in Leather Convention. There, mental health professionals had the opportunity to conduct hundreds of interviews (many of which lasted for several hours) with S/M players who were safe, healthy, and happy in the scene. They concluded that "SM can be practiced in a psychologically healthy way" ( 5). It was noted that as much as 7 to 14% of America practices some form of S/M behavior, with "interests at up to 50% of the population" ( 5). It was also noted that those heavily engaged in the S/M scene tended to be mostly college-educated middle class, had better communication skills and well-paying jobs, and were more creative than the average American (6).

So what exactly is it that people find erotic about pain? The answer lies in a neurotransmitter chemical, endorphin which relays information regarding pain. Endorphins are also believed to be responsible for ameliorating pain, as well (7). "The common notions in the S&M subculture are that the real goal is not pain per se, but intense sensation; and that the increased endorphin levels during play mitigate the experience of pain as we commonly use the term" (8).

An overabundance of endorphins have the effect of making one feel faint, a sensation referred to as flying or "spiralling upward" (a href="">9) - unsurprising, considering the fact that this chemical is known as an endogenous opiod. A recent study (10) found that trauma victims with extremely high endorphin levels had similarly poor Glasgow scores. The Glasgow score measures a person's responses, taking into account criteria such as the ability to hold a comprehensive conversation, open one's eyes, and obey verbal commands (11). These criteria are not unlike those used to evaluate intoxication or drug abuse. Unsurprisingly, the study concluded that endorphin serum levels correlate with the state of consciousness, explaining the "giddy" a href="">9) feeling that S/M players have experienced for many years.

The S/M ability to enter a realm of oblivion and alter one's sense of consciousness (commonly known as a high) is not unlike the effects of narcotics. These effects include the reduction of acute pain, decrease in breathing, and can eventually lead into a comatose state. "Opiates stimulate the higher brain centres, but depress the central nervous system" ( 12), which explains why people who are in scene often are not quite aware of the amount of pain they are receiving, or experience the sensations as pleasurable. It also justifies the statement that S/M causes players to feel light-headed and as if they are "floating."

There are various ways of achieving an endorphin high; the S/M culture has developed many of them into art forms. Activities most commonly used in an S/M scene include temperature moderation, knife-play, sensory deprivation, role-play (the point of which is to instill feelings of fear or power), bondage, and flagellation.

However, with the aptitude to create such a feeling naturally and without external chemicals comes a comparable responsibility: one must constantly monitor a player with regard to certain signs of distress which are not always felt by the person involved. "There is a proper etiquette (in which) someone who is trusted... to monitor play and insure that it is safe" (13). This is true both for private scenes (in which it is always the responsibility of the top - or person performing the actions - to ensure the continued safety and comfort of the bottom - person receiving the actions) or whether the scene is occurring in a play party or bar, where there might be more than one couple involved.

Some of the more common safety checks performed in S/M scenes involve ensuring that the person who is receiving pain is maintaining steady breathing, still has warm hands, and can respond to someone asking "are you ok"? - criteria similar to those required of a person who is suspected to be under the influence of a narcotic. A safeword is another element of S/M scenes. It is a password negotiated by both parties before the scene actually starts and means to stop or slow down the play. "Negotiation is the process of determining the practices of sexual and SM activities between a top [dominant] and bottom [submissive]. Negotiating is an ongoing process that is repeated as the players' needs change" (14).

Although there are risks associated with reckless play, this does not mean that S/M is a dangerous activity. "Organized sports cause far more damage than S/M. Accidents can happen during S/M, just as in any other physical activity, but this doesn't constitute abuse...People who support S/M point out that between partners who both fully want to be engaged in it, S/M play can increase sexual pleasure and open up hidden issues of power, which are always present in human intimacy...This high level of communication and personal disclosure is something integral to S/M and can be learned" (15). Not only are trust and open communications crucial for S/M play, they are often legally required. Many organizations and communities have instituted a code to which members are bound. Often known as the Safe, Sane and Consensual Code (16), it defines rights and responsibilities and paves the way for good, healthy S/M activity:

SAFE: All parties have taken the necessary precautions to prevent psychological and physical damage to themselves, including the transmission of any disease.
SANE: All parties are in possession of their mental faculties and are aware of the risks involved in the intended play.
CONSENSUAL: All parties understand the potential risk involved and have consented to these activities. This consent can be withdrawn or modified at any time.

As the most important tool in S/M, communication is used in a myriad of ways. Every aspect of the culture (not only in a scene) relies upon subtleties of meaning to create an understanding between players. One example of this is the hanky code (17), in which a colored bandana, worn in a particular pocket, can symbolize not only what activities a person prefers, but whether he or she prefers to perform the action or have it inflicted on him or her. These signals arose in a time when S/M activity was considered taboo (and often illegal) in the mainstream culture. It demonstrates the ability of S/M players to pay close attention to crucial details - whether on the street or in a dungeon.

Sadism and masochism are a way of gaining sensations outside of the realm of ordinary experience. Done correctly, S/M can be an enlightening and physically stimulating activity which creates a "natural high" in which feelings of euphoria prevail. While many people do not appreciate the sensations often accompanying pain, S/M can be a safe and secure way to harness these feelings into a productive and enjoyable experience. The S/M community thrives on the knowledge that under safe and consensual circumstances, inflicting and receiving pain can be a pleasurable activity which results in the emissions of neurotransmitter chemicals known as endorphins, which produce appreciable opiate-like reactions in the brain and body.

...You desire the feel of metal puncturing your flesh, you relish it. You long to settle into one of the piercing chairs...and brace yourself for the endorphin rush. Ohhhh, it hurts so good. (18)

Works Cited

1. Introduction to Freud

2. Making A Scene

3. Tawdry Town Gate

4. Alt.Sex.Bondage FAQ Part II

5. Some Facts About S/M

6. from a talk given by Viola Johnson [] & Queen Cougar
[], 1998 Leather Couple of the Year

7.Delcomyn, Fred. Foundations of Neurobiology. New York: W.H. Freeman & Co. 1998

8. A Few Words About Pain

9. Scene Report #1

10. Endorphin In Multiple Trauma Victims

11. ABCs of Opiate Narcotics

12. Commonly Used Scales in Neurosurgery

13. What You Don't See

14. The English Palace

15. S/M Roleplaying

16. TES Guide to Safe S/M

17. Hanky Codes

18. ) Best of Phoenix 1996

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This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

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