On Sadism

This post is primarily in response to Tutivillus’ excellent podcast on being a physical sadist. It’s short and clear, so please have a listen to it before you read my post, or it really won’t make a lot of sense. You can listen here.

(Please read Tutivillus’ comment at the bottom of this blog. Apparently I jumped the gun. He assures me that this podcast was only the first in a series and by no means the end of how he would address the issue of being a sadist. So, please keep this in mind while you read. And we will all have to wait for his future posts to see how this goes. I apologize again for jumping the gun. I considered taking the post off, but then I thought… no, there are a lot of people who compartmentalize anyway, so I’ll leave it up)

Firstly, I want to give you my definition of sadism so we won’t get mixed up between the general use of the word and the specific. The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘sadism’ thusly:

Enthusiasm for inflicting pain, suffering, or humiliation on others; spec. a psychological disorder characterized by sexual fantasies, urges, or behaviour involving the subjection of another person to pain, humiliation, bondage, etc. (OED, Online edition, May 16, 2011)

This is NOT the way I am using the word. I have problems with this definition for a number of reasons. Firstly, I don’t accept that it is, necessarily, a psychological disorder. Secondly, the definition infers that sadism is a rare phenomenon. Thirdly, although I think the sadist may derive pleasure from his/her acts, I am not convinced the pleasure is always or entirely sexual.

So, let me define what I mean by sadism. It is the practice of deriving pleasure from causing physical and/or psychological pain in others. I also lean towards including people who derive pleasure from witnessing pain as well, even if they haven’t caused it.

On the face of it, I’m sure many of you will agree with my addendum. However, if  you do, we’re on a slippery slope because that means that anyone who has had a little shiver of schadenfreude is also a sadist. If you’ve ever had a gratifying streak of pleasure at seeing someone ‘get what they deserve’, then you’re in the same boat. And that is really my point. I believe that the vast majority of human beings have a capacity for sadism. And often the vicarious pleasure at witnessing another’s pain may be a lack of courage to inflict it yourself, or the wisdom of self-preservation. You might WANT to cause a person pain, but the social censure or physical risk of doing so would be injurious to you, and so you refrain but are pleased to see it happen anyway.

I don’t want to digress, but I do want to underscore my point that to some extent we all have the capacity to be sadists. I would also like to remove what I consider the tissue of denial that it is okay to enjoy someone’s pain if you feel they deserve it. The bottom line is, if you enjoy it (sexually or otherwise), that is sadism.

Okay, now on to Tutivillus’ podcast. He’s addressing a very specific form of sadist: a person who, within the formalism of a BDSM culture and within the boundaries of consensual agreement between two people who are capable of giving real consent, indulges in acts that cause the other person physical pain.

I strenuously maintain that some responsible and clear-minded adults can and do consent to this because, for any number of diverse reasons, they want it.  If you’re one of those people who just can’t fathom how any sane person could give consent to having pain inflicted on them, then I’ve probably lost you already. But I’m going to try to reason this out with you. Just because you can’t imagine how anyone would want or enjoy pain doesn’t mean that those people don’t exist. It only means you can’t imagine it. You might have a hard time imagining black holes or quantum entanglement, too. And yet they exist. I would ask you to suspend your judgement for a moment and just accept that, to masochists, there is gratification in receiving pain – physical and/or mental. Please have some respect for the choices of others. They’re certainly NOT compelling you to be like them.

Similarly, you may have difficulties in conceiving of why anyone would want to inflict pain on others. Personally, I think this is a little more disingenuous. If you accept my broader definition of sadism, you have probably experienced the urge to hurt someone.  So, just expand on that a little.

It is the last part of Tutivillus’ podcast that interests me most. He addresses the social, cultural and moral codes we have all been brought up with which tell us that a desire to hurt someone is wrong. He suggests ways to overcome that very considerable hurdle and how to deal with the guilt one might feel from indulging in sadistic acts (within the parameters of a controlled and consensual BDSM situation – we are NOT discussing acts of random violence here). His recommendation is to compartmentalize these desires and proclivities. To put them in a situationally based box – both in time and space.

I fully understand his arguments from a practical and intellectual point of view. Guilt is a great inhibitor. It’s not comfortable. It inhibits self-realization. However, I find myself philosophically in disagreement.

Historically, some of the greatest atrocities committed by humans have been facilitated by compartmentalization. “This was my job”, “I was under orders”, “Everyone else was doing it”, “No one stopped me”… I could go on, but it is psychological compartmentalization that allowed people to use these excuses and do what any sane person would agree were terrible things. So the exhortation to compartmentalize worries me. Especially since we as humans seem to be prone to ‘mission creep’: to expanding those compartments to suit our desires or needs.

I also find that ‘walling off’ certain parts of who we are lacks integrity and is essentially unhealthy. It allows us to indulge in simplification and see ourselves as less complex than we really are.

Finally, I question whether guilt is necessarily a bad thing. And I’d like to add that I’m almost positive that masochists experience almost as much guilt for taking pleasure in receiving pain as sadists do for taking pleasure in inflicting it. But here is where I think things get confused. A Judeo-Christian upbringing not only ensures that we feel guilty for giving (and sometimes receiving) pain, it also compels us to feel guilty for enjoying it. I’m asking you to conceptually separate those two forms of guilt.

I’m not sure it is healthy to dispense with the first reason for guilt. I am, however, sure we need to dispense with the second. One requires the participation of another person, the second one doesn’t.

Maintaining a sense of guilt for hurting another person (whether they want it or not) is probably essential for a stable and civilized society. With or without permission, you are involving someone other than yourself.

But deriving pleasure from it is wholly individual. Your ability to derive pleasure from it is yours alone. Whether you enjoy it or not, the pain to the other party is the same. That it gives you pleasure is internal and ancillary.

I acknowledge that there are some mental gymnastics going on here, but Tutivillus’ suggestions also involve the mental gymnastics of compartmentalization. Furthermore, anyone seriously practicing BDSM is fully capable of mental gymnastics. You’d have to be or it would hold very little attraction for you.

I’ve known a significant number of self-professed, practicing sadists in my life. Not because I’m a masochist, but because I am compelled and fascinated by people on both sides of the power divide whose desires lead them to non-normative places at the fringes of mainstream society. That is probably obvious from a lot of the themes in my erotic fiction.

One thing that I’ve noticed is that the vast majority of sadists I’ve met are ferociously humanistic and deeply moral people. It is this humanism and morality that leads them to seek out ‘safe’ situations and environments in which to indulge their proclivities. For the most part, the immoral and unhumanistic sadists don’t bother with BDSM communities or issues of consensuality or safewords. And these people really are a serious problem in a civil society – especially since so many of them find their way into positions of power where they can act out their desires under the veil of authority or in secrecy behind their bedroom doors – with people who are not at all consenting.

So… what’s my alternative to Tutivillus’ advice? Well, I’m not sure I have a complete and neat answer.

I think it is probably healthier for a self-identified consensual sadist to try and integrate that part of who they are into the whole of their being and not compartmentalize. Despite what modern feel-good pop-psychology says, I don’t think it’s necessary to be entirely in love with every aspect of yourself. Acknowledging that there are problematic parts of your personality isn’t bad. It keeps you humble and stops you from being a smug asshole.

I think being a practicing sadist does involve suffering under a certain level of natural guilt – that of causing another person pain. But that can be dispelled by really getting to understand the desires of the person you are playing with. If you can emphatically understand that your partner is gaining something from the pain  you inflict and that it is a positive thing for them, then it is possible to assuage a lot of the natural guilt you feel. Tutivillus’ point on this is excellent. If you agree to this exchange and you do not play your part and give a masochist what they are after, then that’s entirely unfair to them.

Whatever guilt you might feel for actually enjoying the sadism is entirely redundant. Your feelings of pleasure are not what is causing the pain. Your acts are.

I guess this means that I’m advocating allowing a person to feel ambivalent about certain aspects of who they are. Perhaps I just don’t really find that as problematic as a lot of people do. I think that a mature and responsible stance requires us to feel ambivalent about a lot of things. It’s not entirely comfortable, but I think it is a more honest way to live.

Most of us are fully capable of denying ourselves what we want if we have to. So when we chose not to deny ourselves, that is a choice. Choices are seldom entirely without consequences. This is the thorny complexity of free will. I think we should celebrate it and our ability to live with it despite its occasional discomforts.



  22 comments for “On Sadism

  1. May 19, 2011 at 3:31 pm

    As I see it, a lack of guilt and reflection about sadistic behaviour is a scary concept and I think it is just part of the deal within the BDSM space. The sadist is always at risk of being an ‘asshole’ in spite of how masochistic his partner and the negative feelings are nature’s way of keeping him balanced and in touch with aceptable social behaviour, kindness, good manners and a refined life. When a partner is willing to accept that he/she has no control and that the sadist has all control, guilt is the factor that keeps their feet on the ground. They can’t fly. In fact, they are human and bound to the same standards of human behaviour as the rest of us.

  2. Alias
    May 19, 2011 at 5:03 pm

    Very profound post!

  3. May 19, 2011 at 7:27 pm

    Excellent post and response, thank you!

    I am in complete agreement with you. Compartmentalization is one step in the process and, if left there, is not ideal. It leaves the Sadist in a bubble of their own reality (an embryo for sociopathic behavior).

    Since this is a series in the podcast, I’ll cover the “Integration” in the remaining episodes. They involve moving from compartmentalization to ritual (I used to put on leather gloves whenever I did a sadistic scene, later I removed the gloves half-way through the scene…now I don’t wear them at all). After ritual comes acceptance and integration.

    Probably MUCH more complex than it needs to be, but it works!

    Thank you again!


    • May 19, 2011 at 8:30 pm

      Ack! I didn’t realize it was part of a series. I thought you’d left it there. My apologies, Tutivillus. I will put a note to that effect on the end of the post. I also misspelled your name. Also corrected and further apologies.

      • May 19, 2011 at 9:11 pm

        No worries.
        Your comments are valid as ever! If one leaves any process unfinished the results may vary and be unexpected. This is something that worked for me and I adapted it through much training in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Neurolinguistic Programming, Trial and Error, etc. 😉

        I’ve just not met a Sadist (who’s “healthy”) that doesn’t deal with these issues at some point. So I’ve developed classes around BDSM and Sadism. Your input is invaluable.

        • May 19, 2011 at 9:17 pm

          That’s very gracious of you. If I had been you, I think I would not have been as polite. I’d have said something like ‘hey, you opinionated bitch, that was only part 1!”

          Hehe. Thanks for being a lot more polite than could have managed.

  4. May 19, 2011 at 7:34 pm

    both the podcast and your post are thought provoking, always a good thing.
    I am of the generation that witnessed and indeed suffered that sort of compartmentalization.
    I fear that it is ultimately dehumanizing, or so it appears to me.
    Warm hugs,

  5. May 20, 2011 at 12:03 am

    This is an astute and enlightening discussion. But I think there’s one thing that you have left out, which informs my whole experience of inflicting pain on consenting adults for their pleasure and mine. It’s this: I can’t imagine getting any pleasure at all if the person doesn’t actively enjoy it. It’s not enough that they grudgingly consent. My pleasure derives entirely from hearing them groan or squeal and seeing them wriggle and squirm, and knowing that they are deriving intense pleasure from this. So if the harder I hit them the more they enjoy it, then the more pleasure I get too. Whereas to hit a person who doesn’t want it would give me no pleasure at all; on the contrary, I should experience acute distress. For this reason, I feel no guilt at all when spanking a submissive. Whereas I certainly do feel guilty when I experience schadenfreude, which seems to suggest it’s a very different emotion. So does this mean I am not a sadist?

    • May 20, 2011 at 10:00 am

      Hmmm… interesting question. I don’t know that I’m qualified to disqualify you from being a sadist 😛

      My gut says that if you enjoy inflicting pain, but only if your partner is getting turned on by it, that there is more going on here than just sadism. There’s a clear interest in power and being the controlling force in a pleasure feedback loop. And I don’t think anyone could find a moral issue with a situation like that.

      The majority of self-confessed sadists I know do not require that their partner experience pleasure from the pain. Only that they are consenting to the interchange. But it just so happens that many consenting masochists DO in fact derive some kind of pleasure from the pain. And so it’s a happy symbiosis of needs.

      It might be good if an actual sadist weighed in on this. I do have a very slight sadistic streak, but it is extremely repressed and doesn’t involve physical pain at all.

      • May 21, 2011 at 7:12 am

        I’m going to skip over the many good points and other matters regarding the complexities of the topic in order to address this part of the comment –

        “…The majority of self-confessed sadists I know do not require that their partner experience pleasure from the pain. Only that they are consenting to the interchange. But it just so happens that many consenting masochists DO in fact derive some kind of pleasure from the pain…”

        This is more or less my experience as both a sadist and masochist. I rarely top in any manner, but when presented with an eager masochist, my sadistic streak is quite capable of delivering. As a sadist, I limit my partners to those who like the pain, but my arousal is not derived from their pleasure. The extent of my physical arousal from consensually inflicting pain continues to surprise me.

        • May 21, 2011 at 12:56 pm

          Thanks for your response. Yes, this is my basic understanding too. And I’ve had a number of sadists tell me that, in fact, they don’t get off nearly strongly when they play with people who are deeply cross-wired on the pain/pleasure level. They want it to hurt, not make someone feel good. However, the practicalities of a consensual interchange like this usually mean that there is a mutualistic relationship.

  6. May 21, 2011 at 6:33 pm

    OK, well I think you’ve answered my question, at least insofar as it relates to myself. I’m not a sadist in this sense. My pleasure is intimately and necessarily related to my partner’s pleasure. I don’t know in that case what you’d call me and people like me. A top, I guess, or a dom. Or maybe just a wimp! 😉

    • May 21, 2011 at 11:53 pm

      @discerning_dom – In the “kink community” there is an overriding need to categorize ourselves. You simply are who you are, doing what you do. You could call yourself the Great Huzzah! and it would require no explanation other than “Please allow me to demonstrate”.

      Be comfortable with You, the name will follow.

      • May 21, 2011 at 11:57 pm

        You make an excellent point – we do have a nasty habit of defining, labeling, categorizing. And hell, there’s really little point in doing it to yourself when there are so many people who are lining up to do it for you.

        That being said, by nature, humans are ‘chunkers’ of information. It allows us to make order and sense of the world around us.

  7. May 21, 2011 at 9:44 pm

    Despite being a firm believer in compartmentalising, I found myself nodding in agreement for most of this piece… until I got to this: “It allows us to indulge in simplification and see ourselves as less complex than we really are.”

    I don’t at all mean to be judgemental when I say that I do sometimes feel you encourage the complexity in human beings, or even create it. That’s not a criticism – I certainly enjoy the complexity of people – and it may very well not even be true, but from where I stand it often feels that way. While I think we all need to accept that each and every one of us is complex, I don’t think it’s unhealthy to simplify. I think it’s smart. If we were constantly aware of our own intricacies, we would become unhealthily self-centred.

    Furthermore, I don’t think that compartmentalising and accepting/knowing yourself as a whole, are mutually exclusive. You can keep parts of you in separate ‘boxes’ whilst still seeing them all at the same time.

    Or perhaps it’s a matter of terminology. When you use the term “walling off” rather than “compartmentalising”, I agree with you. The first suggests denial and a desire to ignore certain parts of yourself – which to me seems unhealthy and perhaps even dangerous, – whilst the latter seems to be more about keeping particular things separate, which I would see as a good, often essential, activity.

    • May 21, 2011 at 11:55 pm

      When you make a box, it can be made of wood, steel, glass or imagination. Think of a Mime and a Prisoner. Who’s free?

      • May 22, 2011 at 2:46 pm

        Everyone; no one. It’s tricky. But yes, you have the freedom to make your boxes however you wish. I like that.

    • May 21, 2011 at 11:58 pm

      “If we were constantly aware of our own intricacies, we would become unhealthily self-centred.”

      I think that pretty much defines me to a tee.

      • May 22, 2011 at 2:46 pm

        Haha, I’d disagree but I find the self-deprecation somewhat amusing.

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