With the phenomenal interest in the trilogy and the recently released film the question can be posed what this interest tells us about sadomasochistic impulses and fantasies and what they reveal about the human psyche.

What is the underlying meaning of sadism?  This is a very complex question and the following discussion touches on some of the factors that can play a role.

From a psychoanalytic perspective sadism can firstly be seen as a reassurance against anxiety and vulnerability.  If I can do to another what I fears he/she can do to me I do not have to feel afraid and helpless.  If a person can feel  powerful that will decrease anxiety.  What the person fears can be done to him he now does to another human being.  Before sexuality can be enjoyed the person needs to feel sure that he is powerful and not under threat.  An exhibitionist or the person who shows pornography to children enjoys the powerlessness of the victim because it means that I do not have to be afraid of him/her.  This makes pleasure possible that otherwise would have been blocked by fear.   In this way the sadist gets rid of fear by evoking it in others.

If there is an underlying fear of being castrated (inferior, robbed of strength).  This  fear can be dealt with by believing that I am the castrator and not the person being castrated.  These acts of symbolic castration are often playful.  The playful nature of the pain and control inflicted functions to further alleviates fears and created the idea that the terrible things that I fear (eg castration, vulnerability )are  not really so terrible – it is only a game.  I don’t have to feel so scared.

There is skin sadism (the skin is a source of sexual pleasure in beating), anal sadism, phallic sadism (particularly concerned about feeling powerful)  and oral sadism (eg biting).

A second factor that can play a role in such relationships where there is extreme submissiveness is the illusion of unity between the two people.  If someone is completely submissive and dependent on me it creates the illusion of unity and alleviates the fear of abandonment.  If we are one you cannot leave me, you are part of me, you are completely dependent on my whims and needs.

Masochism is an interesting phenomenon, particularly because we know that humans tend to seek pleasure and not pain.  But, with sexuality, pain can be seen as necessary before sexual pleasure can be experienced.  Why?  Pain can be experienced as the necessary price to pay to alleviate guilt feelings about sexuality.  Masochist’s ability to experience orgasm and sexual pleasure is influenced by guilt and anxiety.  Punishment can reduce the guilt of feeling that I am bad for being sexual.

Anxiety is often reduced by taking action (An example would be when you end a relationship because you fear that your partner will leave you.  If you take control and leave your partner before he/she can leave you, you are in control and the pain will not be so overwhelming).  The same can be true in masochism, if there is an underlying idea that you will be punished for being sexual you can take the matter in your own hands and act out a playful punishment where you are still in control of the time, manner and degree of the punishment.

If the masochist is very passive and dependent this can on some level cause the masochist to feel safe.  It might feel similar to being very small and depending completely on powerful parents who will protect you.  Showing extreme helplessness can be an appeal to the stronger person for mercy and protection.

The sensation of pain can be a source of sexual excitement if the pain is not to intense or to serious.

Louise Malan
Clinical Psychologist