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.