Out of the Shadows: The Sadomasochism of Everyday Life (Review)

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Review of
The Sadomasochism of Everyday Life: Why We Hurt Ourselves-And Others-And How to Stop by John Munder Ross.
by Non-Famous Lauren

This is a disappointing book that starts off with an interesting question. Unfortunately, the author doesn't take advantage of any but the most superficial concepts of modern, consensual sadomasochism. While I am sure the author has something credible to say on the subject of his patients, his intention of looking to "sadomasochism" for some answers is handicapped by outdated, narrow, and unstudied views of what modern BDSM is like. By failing to do more than pay lip service to the modern view of what consensual sadomasochists are like, the author misses an opportunity to discuss his own question in a deep way.

The primary question the author asks is: What do we do in our everyday lives that undercuts or does damage to our own best interests, and what can we learn from studying sadomasochism about how people might sometimes come to get pleasure from things that hurt them? Excellent question, in my opinion, and there is probably a great deal to be learned from studying this.

But the author has not done it. Instead, despite a weak attempt to be more broadminded, he lumps together those who are pathologically sadomasochistic with thoughtful adult practitioners of consensual sadomasochism. Never mind that the DSM-IV no longer classifies consensual BDSM as necessarily indicating a psychiatric disorder. The author notes this with lots of his own skepticism, and then quickly rolls out the theories of Robert Stoller:

    For those clinicians who have heeded Stoller and who think more about relationships (what psychoanalysts call "object relations"), sadomasochism is the paradigmatic and the most common perversion. The pervert, Stoller argues, not only feels castrated but, more important, is angry because he has been seduced and abandoned, overstimulated and "cockteased." [p.114]
Now it may well be that amongst those in need of help, pathological sadomasochism and its underlying causes, as understood and discussed by Freud, Stoller, and many others since, might indeed be the most useful paradigm. But it does not follow that amongst those who practice modern, consensual sadomasochism (physical or psychological/emotional SM, D/s, or B&D, which is what I mean by the term catch-all term BDSM), pathological sadomasochism or its underlying causes are even relevant. They might be -- but then again, they might not be! No one yet published in the psychology field seems to want to make this distinction clear, though, beyond noting tacitly through the DSM that there do seem to be a lot of perfectly well adjusted folks who do BDSM yet who don't go into therapy because of or about their sexual practices. I guess that those people are not accessible to the psychology profession unless they get out of their offices and actually do some research with an actual random sample.

How does the author's desire to treat consensual sadomasochists exactly like pathological sadomasochists lead the author astray? In his chapter titled "Sadomasochistic Perversions," the author sets out his only description of (modern consensual) BDSM. To his credit, he has read Different Loving, and he summarizes a basic overview of BDSM for the readers of his book in an accurate but very brief section (pp. 115-117). (Though his skepticism of its recent legitimacy in the DSM shows through in such clipped remarks as "Acts of debasement, they say, are really expressions of love" [p. 116].)

The author's then proceeds to claim that "As cultists, sadomasochists have dignified certain texts as classics." The majority of the chapter is then devoted not to any further discussion of real life practices of BDSM, nor even to any case studies of individuals who do BDSM in real life (to parallel the several case studies he follows throughout the book illustrating everday problems). Instead, he devotes the chapter to an analysis of Justine, the Story of O, and Venus in Furs. These are works of fiction! And they are depictions of nonconsensual sadomasochism, to boot! Yet the author makes much of the fact that one of the women in his case studies, who undercut herself in everyday life to the extent that she required his ongoing psychoanalytic care, was "riveted" by and drawn deeper into her problems after witnessing a movie version of the Story of O. This, he implicitly argues, illustrates canonically how even consensual sadomasochism really influences people in the same ways as pathological sadomasochism!

Of course, those fictional works are as distant from the real life practice of BDSM as pornography is from the real life practice of vanilla sex! That doesn't seem to deter the author in his desire to define sadomasochism according to either the pathological forms described by Freud, Stoller, etc., or the "classics" of fictionalized fantasies that people, BDSM and vanilla alike, read or view for casual entertainment. It's as if a Martian came to earth and then reported back to Mars about ordinary sex lives based on the "classic" works of Henry Miller and Nabakov's Lolita.

Once the author gets past this absurdity and sticks to just elaborating on the history of psychoanalytics, describing his patients' errors and obsessions -- how they could improve their lots and break the cycles of self-destruction they are in (from which all of us can learn) -- the book is fine as light reading. So long as I remember to put the word "pathological" in front of "sadomasochism" every time he uses the term, to remind myself that he has not in any way drawn anything from studying real-life BDSM, I can agree with many of the points he makes.

And I enjoyed Chapter 7, which described Freud's changing theories of childhood sexual development, including the concept of moral sadomasochism, which the author suggests as the term for everyday acts of sadomasochism. The theory of the childhood frustrations that lead to this condition are, of course, untested; but there were several suggestive ideas that I found intriguing.

Although the author doesn't manage to support the case, I happen to agree with the author that those who stay in jobs or marriages they hate, or repeatedly get involved with wife-beating spouses or accept verbal abuse from their bosses or spouses, indeed exhibit characteristics that are possibly perverse forms of experiences that people doing consensual BDSM sometimes desire and seek to experience. The difference is that those in BDSM do so with forethought and negotiation, often after considerable introspection and amazement about how they do not behave that way in everyday life. Many submissives have powerful jobs where they are financially and professionally successful and would walk out in seconds on a spouse who ever laid a hand on them or denigrated them nonconsensually. Many doms are gentle, courteous neighbors, spouses, and co-workers, far more self-restained than the average person lest they hurt or disturb the peace of the vanillas they deal with daily. But this book just doesn't get close to finding the reality that people who do BDSM puzzle about in themselves.

What I hoped the author might do when I read this book was for him to ask three questions: 1. What can we all learn from comparing and contrasting pathological sadomasochism, consensual sadomasochism (BDSM), and moral sadomasochism (everyday sadomasochism) about the causes of moral sadomasochism and how to root it out when you catch yourself undercutting your own best interests? 2. What can we all learn from (healthy-enough) consensual and moral sadomasochists about ways to avoid harming oneself or others in every day life? Even if we all have a bit of the sadomasochist in us (which the author argues to be the case), what are successful ways to keep it in check so that it does not cause harm to oneself or others? 3. What are the similarities -- and differences - in childhood experiences that contribute to people's developing into the various kinds of sadomasochists? Is it a question of degree or of kind of experience?

But the author dropped the ball. Ho hum: another typically misguided psychology book for the popular press. I'll just keep waiting for that book that does actually address some of these questions.

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