Why is self-sacrifice sexy? Incestuous fantasy, daydream of abuse, a hero’s journey – those are some crazy connections, I think to myself while reading a summary of the psychoanalytic view on masochism. There are many wild ideas about why people are attracted to sadomasochism, and the truth is that no one really knows, but one thing is for sure: it happens mainly in the head, in the dream-like narratives that play out between the conscious and the subconscious. Bodies bound, skins impacted, nipples clamped, and orders uttered. They are all trip-wires into the mind, or perhaps even soul. In sadomasochistic play, both parties participate in a shared belief that elevates mechanical sex into a mythical expression of eros.
Many esoteric practices may differ in methodology, but they share fundamental similarities that make them compatible. Of course some people enjoy spanking simply the feeling of palm against buttock and intercourse primarily to procreate. But my experience has shown that most people are fascinated by the journey and the deeper meaning it holds. And the questions it awakens us about our eros are; What does it mean, what is the meaning, and why it feels meaningful. Sadomasochism offers the answers with pain, pleasure, exhibitionism, voyeurism, control and surrender.
It is a controlled exploration of taboos that is both safe and brave simultaneously. Most people don’t really want to hurt or get hurt, and consent is crucial to maintaining control. That line in the sand is what separates sadomasochism from abusive and self-destructive behaviour, as Sigmund Freud himself acknowledged. In his essay, The Economic Problem of Masochism (1924), Freud distinguishes between conscious erotogenic masochism and pathological masochism, which is not a conscious choice.
The Masochistic Stories Of Eros
I am a big believer in the importance of the fantasies we weave for ourselves. My focus lies in exploring the stories that our eros tells and the deeper meaning that they hold. Details and chronology are hard to piece together in the stories we tell about our shared experiences. Life is always new and fresh for the conscious mind, and dynamic interaction continuously fosters co-creation. Yet to the subconscious, what we do together speaks a symbolic language as old as time. I’ve seen thousands of people claiming to know nothing about the subconscious and yet in retreats and festivals be able to get immediately in connection with something far deeper than their everyday minds. To consciously be aware of these more mysterious aspects of our eros is essential because we are losing the symbolic relationship with the world, increasingly becoming more fractured beings expressed in their 280-character-long Twitter truths.
In the essay Beating Fantasies and Daydreams (1922), Sigmund Freud’s daughter Anna wrote about common sadomasochistic fantasies of the subconscious. They usually involve a process wherein someone is being ‘forced’ into submission but ultimately filled with pleasure and excitement through it. How exciting to be given this thrilling path in a world overwhelmed by dullness and sameness. I might add that this reflects a longing for belonging.
As a kid, we would play a game called the ‘Vita Stenen’, where we challenged each other with dangerous but exciting dares to temporarily claim the ownership of a white stone. The symbol of power. The girls hunted the boys, capturing and kissing us to spread the girl flu. My kindergarten teacher would tease us with ‘efter bråk blir det barnbidrag’, roughly translating to ‘after fighting, there will be birth’. Years later, someone would be locked in a closet, pretending to be the mailman delivering hugs, kisses and handshakes to random victims in a ritualised game. After growing up, we would find that life had transitioned from a colourful fantasy world full of potential into a grey, harsh reality.
These were and still are controlled fantasies of danger and excitement. As kids, the play was innocent. In the daydream, the dreamer plays all the roles simultaneously. In a sadomasochistic play, the surrounding frame is consent, which makes it safer. Anna Freud described these beating fantasies in her psychoanalysis as disciplinary school institutions, knights and princesses captured and tortured, adoption by evil step-parents, etc. There are tons of shame and taboos around eroticizing such fantasies, even as adults interact with other adults.
Stepping Away From Danger
The stories of our eros are retold in movies, books and theatres, actually, in every single artistic expression you can think of like art, sculpture, music, dance, pottery. The erotic element is transformed into general excitement, and the story is acted out by someone else, with us safely in the audience. Most of the time, it is some variation of a hero’s journey. The protagonist temporarily loses control of all sorts of hardships but eventually wins through some insight, endurance, or transformation. The end is the climax.
There is a vast longing to reclaim the stories of our eros, which started as innocent games, turned into taboo daydreams, and finally ended up as safe heroes’ journeys on the silver screen. It is a thing of profound beauty to allow sadomasochistic play to operate on several levels at once, from the personal to the symbolic, weaving and connecting our common taboo fantasies in a way that both transgresses and embraces the personal.