Is Masochism a Learned Behavior?

By continuing to browse this web site you are certifying your agreement to its terms of use; please read them if you have not done so already.


July 1994

by William A. Henkin, Ph.D.

Copyright © 1994 by William A. Henkin

<Q> A psychologist named Baumeister writes that masochism is a learned behavior. Do you agree? If so, how do you go about teaching somebody?

<A> You're referring, I think, to Roy F. Baumeister, whose academic research study Masochism and the Self was published in 1989. Rather than use this column to discuss Baumeister's book – which is generally SM friendly, though nothing like a one-handed read – I'm going to address the part of your question that has divided psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists for decades: is human behavior learned, innate, or a combination of the two? Is what we do a consequence of our nature, or how we were nurtured – a result of our upbringing and socialization?

The belief that everything we know is, in effect, hard-wired into our brains – that, in other words, destiny is nothing but biology – has not had much currency for a long time. It is usually an extreme, religiously held view that argues against free human will and places all human decisions in the hands of God or a similarly omnipotent force.

On the other hand, some social scientists believe that virtually all human behavior is learned. Their perspective, generally known as cultural determinism, asserts, for example, that people have no natural predisposition toward aggression. According to pure cultural determinism, therefore, everything we know about being violent – from playground fights to spouse battering to gay bashing to war – is taught to us directly by some identifiable individual(s), or indirectly through cultural example. At its extreme, cultural determinism asserts that because we are cultural beings we cannot even acquire useful scientific knowledge that is not tainted by our gender, our class, our race, or our society.

The social science middle-ground, lately known as sociobiology, claims that we learn at least some specific cultural behaviors on the basis of biological need and evolution. In this view, for instance, prejudice and other stereotypical beliefs that do not stand up to scientific measurement, or even stand the test of reason, express a primitive, species survival mechanism developed to distinguish "us" from "them" at a time in human history when threatening situations demanded immediate defensive responses and the failure to make such a distinction could have been fatal.

What does this have to do with SM? Do I agree that masochism is a learned behavior? Call me a pseudo-sociobiologist: I take a middle ground. When I have looked into the histories of people who have an overt or a secret interest in SM or DS, including me, I have usually found what seems to me to be some learned psychological basis for the interest. For example, some of us appear to have eroticized corporal discipline from our childhoods, some to have eroticized unequal power relations, some to have eroticized particular garments, fabrics, or body parts.

By the same token, I've met many people whose similarly configured childhoods did not lead them to have an interest in SM, as well as people with an interest in SM whose childhoods don't seem to anticipate this part of their adult sexualities. Lots of quite "normal" heterosexual relationships would appear very kinky if nothing changed within them except a reversal of roles: if the woman held the same power over the man that men in our society can still hold over a woman. Many fetishes escape general notice because they, too, have been normalized: we are obviously a society that has fetishized women's breasts, for instance, beyond the mammalian need to find their biology important.

Moreover, what we think of as SM interests can be seen throughout the animal world. For example, whenever two dogs meet they quickly figure out which is the alpha animal. They are not being manipulative, they simply need to know which dog has the active power in their relationship – which one is dominant – so they can know how to behave with one another. And the manner in which they dance their exploration frequently includes sexual behavior. Does this mean Fido is into dominance and submission? Does Rover want to bottom to Fifi? Sex play among mammals frequently also includes biting, scratching, slapping, physical coercion, and other experiences of intense sensation expressed in a power dynamic. Does this mean Kitty likes SM? Or that other animals learn the same way humans do?

Obviously some facets of erotic masochism as we know it in the SM community are learned behaviors – we teach courses in this stuff, for heaven's sake. But our learning is based on a lot of cues, some of which appear to be biological, some cultural.

I don't think anyone has tried it with SM in a formal research context, but as behavioral psychologists have demonstrated repeatedly, you teach almost anyone almost any new behavior pattern by rewarding it in specifically controlled ways, and/or by punishing behavior that does not support the new learning patterns. Just as Pavlov taught his dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, you can teach someone to lubricate or become erect at the sight of a whip.

In theory, you can teach someone to appreciate intense sensation by associating the slap of the crop on the flank with a gentle kiss on the lips, or with an erotic caress. Many submissives who are not masochistically inclined have learned to love surrendering to pain in an erotic context because of the ways that doing so can lead them to deeper realms of submission.

Not everyone will be equally receptive to this sort of schooling, however. Some people are not going to want to learn to enjoy a spanking, while for others the learning will be easier if you don't call it masochism. On the other side of the coin, not everyone who's taken a course in Behaviorism 101 should try to apply what she or he has learned at home.

If you have a partner who is not interested in SM or who doesn't know about it, negotiate before you institute your training. Talk together about what you want to accomplish, as well as how and why you want to accomplish it, then come to some agreements about how you're going to proceed. In this way you minimize the chances that you'll find yourself with an angry or unhappy partner who resents your manipulations. As always in these activities, consent is paramount. If you don't have it you do run emotional and relational risks, and you'll probably find it easier and safer to play with someone who already thinks that getting whipped is fun.

This document is in the following section of this site: Main Documents > Contributing Authors > William Henkin

If you're new to this site, we recommend you visit its home page for a better sense of all it has to offer.