Why Are We Into SM?

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June 1996

by William A. Henkin, Ph.D.

Copyright © 1999 by William A. Henkin

<Q> How did we get this way? Why are some people into SM and some are not?

<A> Ah dear Reader, if I could answer your question definitively I would have written my Nobel Prize acceptance speech by now and packed my bags for Stockholm, for when you ask how "we" got "this way" you do not ask only about our predilection for erotic power play, but about what makes human beings what we are. You ask one of the fundamental questions of philosophy, science, and religion, and I am more flabbergasted than flattered that you think I can answer it.

In the Western world the century we are just departing has been dominated by psychodynamic psychology: by the belief that what happens early in our lives affects how we feel, think, and behave later on, and that early events we experience as profound have a commensurately greater impact on our development than those we experience as unremarkable. While in terms of history this belief has only recently dominated our understanding of human affairs, Freud did have precursors in poets such as Shakespeare –"the child is father to the man" – and, a couple thousand years before, Sophocles, for whom human destiny was guided by those personifications of psychodynamics and unconscious motivations known as gods and fates, which is how Oedipus came to kill his father and marry his mother despite everyone's best efforts to prevent that set of prophecies from coming true.

While in some centuries the question you pose has been seen as one of Free Will, and has been set in theological terms, in our century the ancient question has been formulated among other ways as one of Nature versus Nurture: are we how we are because we were genetically programmed or otherwise born to be that way? Or are we how we are because we were shaped that way by our life experiences?

One modern psychiatrist, the late Robert Stoller, proposed a trauma hypothesis regarding what he called "the origins of the sadomasochistic scripts." According to Stoller (1991), "The major traumas and frustrations of early life are reproduced in the fantasies and behaviors

that make up adult eroticism, but the story now ends happily. This time, we win. In other words, the adult erotic behavior contains the early trauma. The two fit: the details of the adult script tell what happened to the child." (pp. 24-5)

Stoller contended that some people had mastered uncontrollable terror and physical agony from infancy and childhood by working with the pain "in their heads, eventually via daydreams, altered states of consciousness, or genital masturbation, until it was converted into pain-that-is-pleasure: voluptuous pain. They consciously, deliberately, successfully taught themselves to eroticize suffering. Their triumph is their perversion...." (p. 25)

Addressing consensual sadomasochism specifically, Stoller, citing psychologists Otto Kernberg and Ethel Persons, then argued that "the issue is to define not perversion, but evil, the desire to do harm," which, he said, was "better studied ... in terms of capacity for harming or not harming another, for intimacy or failure of intimacy...." (p. 49)

As Stoller was aware, his trauma hypothesis was hardly new: a growing library of research had already led many psychologists to see a set of tendencies: "that battered children grow up to be battering parents, that pedophiles were sexually molested boys, that female prostitutes were often used incestuously, and that serial rapists were often victims of forced or exploitive erotic abuse in boyhood...." (p. 43)

While Stoller felt his hypothesis was "too simplistic" in that it failed to explain "all cases in a category" or "why what seems (with superficial description) to be the same trauma results in different pathologies in different people" (p. 43), he recognized that the problem confronting his hypothetical child was not only to anaesthetize a terror or agony but, "a more brilliant outcome, to transform it into its opposite, an adventure (such as art, scientific discovery, erotic style, athletic competition, or politics): excitement followed by pleasure." (p. 44)

Working independently, Stoller had essentially recapitulated the "lovemaps" hypothesis promulgated a few years earlier by John Money of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, whose theory of "lovemaps" and "vandalized lovemaps" embraces both Nature and Nurture, and therefore exudes a relative, symmetrical, compromising charm. According to Money (1988 [1986]), a lovemap differentiates in the first few years of life, representing a person's idealized lover and what the pair do together in their "idealized, romantic, erotic, and sexualized relationship." (pp. xvi - xix)

The paraphilias, Money writes, are lovemaps "vandalized" by the kinds of traumas Stoller hypothesized. They "range from those that are playful and harmless, to those that are bizarre and deadly." (p. xviii) The latter include asphyxiophilia and lust murder; the former include most fetishism and consensual sadomasochism.

Money observes,

There is no hard-edged dividing line between the abusive and the playful sadomasochistic paraphilias. Nonetheless, many S/M people appear to be permanently anchored on the playful side. With a partner appropriately attuned, it may be possible for the fantasy to be staged as a piece of personal, sexuoerotic theatre. Otherwise, it may remain forever coded in the lovemap as fantasy, exclusively.... Statistically, [these paraphilias] may rate as abnormal, but ideologically they are acceptable (p 49).

Considering masochism as a general rather than a paraphilic term, Freud's disciple Karen Horney (1966) noted that "all masochistic strivings are ultimately directed toward... the goal of oblivion, of getting rid of self with all its conflicts and all its limitations." (p. 248) The Jungian therapist Lyn Cowan (1982), commenting on Horney, observed that "psychiatry has consistently equated this desire for oblivion with pathology. In former times, in a less secular age, it was regarded as a striving for union with the Godhead, and its ecstasy was mystical.... [But] if we look for pathology, no doubt we will find it." (pp. 98-9)

From Horney to Cowan to Stoller to Money and beyond, contemporary sexological and psychological researchers and clinicians who have studied consensual sadomasochism as a form of nonpathological behavior (e.g., Moser, 1979; Baumeister, 1989; Moore, 1990; Hopcke, 1991) have not sought to depathologize what Stoller (1991) called "evil, the desire to do harm," (p. 49) but to distinguish between that sort of sexual activity and what we know as consensual sadomasochism so that the first, which is socially and often personally problematic, can be accurately diagnosed and properly treated, while the second can be freed of the social stigma that frequently attaches to any behavior people still call a "sexual disorder."

As a therapist with a spiritual SM bent I have a fondness for the combined run-up of all these authors' scenarios, but I also note that other issues than psychodynamic theory may obtain in the investigation of your question. For example, SM players have an obvious interest in control and power dynamics, but so have people outside SM who choose careers in the military, or as politicians, doctors, lawyers, and impresarios. While Money and Stoller believe that SM players eroticized some kinds of childhood trauma, they neither say why, nor do they say why other folks did not, which leaves their answers somewhat incomplete.

I also notice, when I walk in the park, go to the zoo, or watch friends' pets at play, that much of what we call SM has some obvious counterparts in the non-human animal kingdom, from whence phrases like top dog, alpha animal, and pecking order all derive. When I see dogs, cats, bears, and birds slap, bite, and restrain their partners I do not know if animal psychodynamicists would hold that Fido, Kitty, Smokey, and Tweety had traumatic youths, or if human beings have simply been more inventive in scripting out their fantasies. The question is not irrelevant for anyone concerned with "natural" behavior, as it was not irrelevant to discover that certain animal species engage in homosexual behavior roughly as much as humans do.

Angelic as some of us may be, we all are animals as well. As animals some of us need more intense sensation to get our attention than others do, and as humans we each have a past that includes some traumatic moments. And like other animals we are all concerned with interpersonal power dynamics, though compared with the numbers who have made this concern the basis for individual assault, gang warfare, and international relations, only a few have eroticized it. Perhaps, by now, yours is really a sociological question, like how we all – very few of us natives – got to San Francisco, and why some people want to be here and some do not. Some of us know, some of us think we know, and some of us haven't a clue. But maybe, now that we're here, it doesn't very much matter.

References cited in this column:

  1. Roy F. Baumeister, (1989). Masochism and the self. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  2. Lyn Cowan, (1982). Masochism: A Jungian view. Dallas, TX: Spring Publications.
  3. Robert H. Hopcke, (1991). "S/M and the psychology of gay male initiation: An archetypal perspective," in Thompson, M. (Ed.), Leatherfolk. Boston: Alyson.
  4. Karen Horney, (1966). New ways in psychoanalysis. New York: W. W. Norton.
  5. John Money, (1988 [1986]). Lovemaps: Clinical concepts of sexual/erotic health and pathology, paraphilia, and gender transposition in childhood, adolescence, and maturity. Buffalo: Prometheus Books.
  6. Thomas Moore, (1990). Dark Eros: The imagination of sadism. Dallas, TX: Spring Publications.
  7. Charles Moser, (1979). An exploratory-descriptive study of a self-defined s/m (sadomasochistic) sample. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, San Francisco.
  8. Robert Stoller, (1991). Pain and passion: A psychoanalyst explores the world of S&M. New York: Plenum Press.

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