What I think about when I think about sadomasochism (2021)

You can listen to this musing here, or read it below.

A white tantra guru, the kind that finds energetic bliss through meditation and mantras, once asked me about BDSM. The topic was surrender and submission, and why focus so much dedication on a humble human being when there is the great divine, god, and oneness. From a sadomasochistic perspective, I heard him saying, why go looking for more pain and suffering when there already is plenty around?

Sadomasochism can be considered the birthplace of BDSM when writers and thinkers like Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, Marquis de Sade and Sigmund Freud started to investigate the relationship between pain and eros. It is both confusing and fascinating as it breaks one of the most fundamental dynamics: seeking pleasure and avoiding discomfort. Yet, it’s reoccurring in our culture when sacrificing ease to achieve something worthy of our pain. It’s also in our religions with Jesus dying on the cross and in our bodies experiencing a runner’s high when pushed hard. Evolution made the human body and mind expert at endurance and adaptation. And it makes our short time here on the planet feel meaningful.

When I think about sadomasochism, I think about a controlled exercise of discomfort—starting in the physical pain but soon bridging over into the emotional and spiritual. It is controlled because it is meaningful, ritualized, and intended. I think that sadism is very far from rage because rage is spontaneous, unpredictable, and overwhelming. I don’t believe that sadomasochism either is good or bad per default, but it has to be controlled. Mechanisms like consent, empathy, and consciousness make it more “good”, while mechanisms like manipulation, malice, and ignorance make it more “bad”.

If you are curious specifically about emotional masochism, you can read my text Shame, the road to humiliation.

I often think about a cat catching a mouse when I think about sadism. It isn’t an act of blind rage, rather something meaningful that shows the cat in all its grace. Once the hunt is over, a ritualized game begins. The mouse is toyed with, almost allowed escaping only to be recaptured and proudly put on display. It is a controlled act of pain and humiliation. But does it make the cat evil? There is definitely no consent, empathy, or consciousness shared between the hunter and prey. One could argue a more profound, almost existential agreement between the cat and the mouse in the ecosystem. But on a more human level, what is the difference between a sadistic dominant and an abusive psychopath. Two of my favorite books are Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herrman and the Forked Tongue by Flagg. One is about abusive relationships and post-traumatic stress, and the other about emotional sadism and BDSM. And they describe precisely the same human behavior. But, one book, it’s loving and consensual, and the other abusive and destructive. I believe that the difference is in the sadomasochistic relationship.

There is an agreement in the sadomasochistic relationship. On how far things will go. And I think this is true both for the conscious and consensual BDSM versions and the abusive and destructive versions. There is an emotional reason why someone stays with a wife-beater, like the Stockholm syndrome, addiction, dependency, etc. The known suffering is preferred to the unknown. Once one becomes self-aware and understands that there is suffering and ultimately death, then trying to control that is the logical thing to do. The other path is to ignore it, and that leads to nihilism and hedonism. The sadomasochistic agreement can be conscious, subconscious, or experimental, and it can be fixed or ever-changing. Some people in the BDSM subculture define their agreement in laminated slave contracts and hangs them on the wall, while most vanilla people have an unspoken way of navigating it.

But why does this relationship exists at all? Why are people sadistic and masochistic? Fundamentally, I think, it comes back to control. Exposing oneself to controlled suffering helps to avoid the unpredictable and overwhelming. In a way, it’s similar to anxiety, that being anxious about something helps avoid experiencing it for real. Many find sadomasochism to be a stress release, maybe because the entire being supports masochism, from spiritual beliefs and relational patterns to hormonal releases and meaning-making—the controlled sufferings.

I also think that sadism and masochism ultimately are two sides of the same coin because the focus is on the pain. And therefore on the experience of the person in the controlled suffering. So they are the hero of the story. Comparably meaningless suffering is not masochistic but only self-destructive. Most sadistic people, in my experience, are very emphatic because they want to feel with the masochist; otherwise, it’s not meaningful for them. So sadism is masochism moved outside the self. Creating the two separate roles that stand in polarity allows both to go deeper and form a more profound bond. Read more about this in my text on polarity, if you are curious. Sometimes, I joke that most people get more sadistic and less masochistic as they get older because they get lazier. And out-sourcing suffering is quite common in our culture.

Now back to the guru’s question, why explore sadomasochism in the first place?

I think the answer is two-folded. First, that sadomasochism generates intensity, so it makes us feel alive. If it is perceived as positive, it’s nice, just like the relationship between nervous and excited. The body reaction is the same, raised heartbeat, butterflies in the belly etc. So when life feels dull, one can spice it up with some BDSM. Also, when sexually aroused or in a state of surrender, many people confuse pain and pleasure, and it all turns into intensity. If you are curious about how sadomasochism work on a biochemical level, I can recommend my text Pain and kinbaku, or how I stopped worrying about the pain and started loving the high. Secondly, learning how to be with hardship makes one more resilient in life. That pain and suffering is nothing to fear. In ourselves, when masochistic, and in others when sadistic. The real problem is fear, and when we get consumed by it, we lose control. Hence we destroy the sadomasochistic relationship, and then the actual destruction begins. On the other hand, when we learn that sacrifice and suffering are inevitable, we can truly live life in a meaningful manner. So practicing surrender within BDSM maybe prepares us in meeting god. Or so I told the white tantra guru.

Maybe, I like to end with a word of warning, as sadomasochism isn’t good or bad in itself; it becomes crucial to evaluate one’s practice. To make things simpler, I would like to define three levels.

First, conscious sadomasochism is a happy and curious exploration of what it means to be human. But, on the other hand, perverted sadomasochism is an essential and sometimes overwhelming theme of eros, which often also reflects life in general by finding pleasure in challenges. While pathological sadomasochism results in abusive relationships, unconsciously attracting suffering in life, and is often related to trauma. Finally, all of them activates the eros and are intense and exciting; that is what makes it so tricky.