Masochism, Violence, and Abuse

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January 1999

by William A. Henkin, Ph.D.

Copyright © 1999 by William A. Henkin

Last October I offered a program for Janus called "Abuse (Survivors) in the SM Community," as I had also done five years ago. I intended the title to imply that the program would cover both the presence and concerns of abuse survivors in the BDSM communities, and also the existence in the communities of abuse itself. In the event, the two hours allotted just wasn't enough time for me to answer all the excellent questions participants asked; when, at the end of the evening, someone suggested I address a few of the outstanding questions in this column, I decided to take up the suggestion, and so, from time to time in the coming months, I shall. In this month's column I'll respond to three very short queries from the Q & A portion of the program that were based on discussions earlier in the program, one of which I touched on in an earlier column a couple of years ago.

  1. Explain "psychological masochism."
  2. Explain "self-inflicted violence."
  3. You described how it is possible to feel abused while not actually being abused. Is the converse also possible – can a person be abused without feeling abused?

<A> 1. When I use the word "abuse" in this answer I mean it the way consensual players use it in BDSM, not the way nonconsensual people do who violate other people's physical or emotional integrity.

First, perhaps obviously, the phrase "psychological masochism" represents to me erotic pleasure from being hurt psychologically. To be hurt psychologically reads to me as a desire to be humiliated or demeaned, and might include verbal abuse, being the subject of an interrogation scene, or forced – consensually, of course, perhaps in a game of consensual nonconsent – to do something one fervently wants not to do.

Second, the phrase could derive from some of the psychological literature from 20 or 40 years ago, when sadist and masochist were the only labels applied to kink, and when all sadists were assumed to be tops and dominant, while all masochists were assumed to be bottoms and submissive. In those terms a person we might now describe as submissive could have been called a psychological masochist.

<A> 2. "Self-inflicted violence," abbreviated SIV, is the formal term used by the psychiatric and psychological communities to describe the behaviors of people who hurt themselves deliberately. The best-known forms of SIV are cutting – people cut their own skin with knives, blades, broken glass, or other sharp objects – and burning – people press cigarettes, cigars, or other hot objects to their skin. Sometimes the phrase is used to include people who bang their heads against walls, or pound their bodies to bruises. In 1993 a graduate student attempted to do a dissertation using the same term for people who do ritual cuttings, brandings, tatoos, and both play and permanent piercings, and made the mistake of writing to Piercing Fans International Quarterly (PFIQ) for help. In response she got dissenting opinions from three psychotherapists in the BDSM communities at the time – Guy Baldwin, Dossie Easton, and me. As I recall, her dean later suggested she change her topic.

There is also a newsletter devoted to people who are or have been involved with SIV, which was on the reading list I handed out at the program and which I've mentioned once before in this column. That is The Cutting Edge: A Newsletter for Women Living with Self-Inflicted Violence, published by Ruta Mazelis. Subscriptions are available by donation; the publisher requests: $10 - $30 per year and asks that professionals or others with adequate resources pay $20 - $30 per year; no one is turned away because of inability to pay, however. The address is P.O. Box 20819, Cleveland, OH 44120.

<A> 3. In brief, yes. For a variety of reasons people who are abused often, regularly, or extensively may shut down their abilities to feel their own feelings or to discern differences among some kinds of behaviors. The classic example is the very young child who dissociates severely so that s/he doesn't even feel "present" during abuse, but feels more like an observer or witness to the event that is happening to her or his body. Dorothy Allison includes a good description of this sort of dissociation in one of her short stories in her collection Trash. This condition is also sometimes seen among people who grew up believing they had to be extraordinarily tough because "men don't cry," or because of some other emotion-negating training.

It may also be that people are sometimes unaware of what they feel because there is no outside validation for it, or no definition for it in their society. Perspective didn't exist in western art until around 1300 CE, evidently because people didn't see with perspective until Giotto di Bondone invented or discovered it and began to use it in his work. That doesn't mean their eyes didn't work the same way ours do, but that they didn't have the... well, the perspective to know they were seeing that way. So also it is quite conceivable that very few women or children felt abused a couple hundred years ago when everyone knew it was the husband and father's prerogative to keep his clan in line by physical force if necessary, though certainly history is full of evidence that people responded emotionally in many ways people do today when they are the subjects of behavior we now call abuse.

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