Sadism describes the experience of taking pleasure in inflicting pain, humiliation, degradation, cruelty, or watching others inflict these behaviors on someone else. People who take pleasure from these acts are known as sadists. Often this pleasure is sexual in nature although this isn’t always the case.
The term sadism comes from the name of the French writer Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade (1740-1814), a French nobleman and writer whose fiction portrayed sexual fantasies, often of a violent nature. In his personal life, he also engaged in sadism, often with sex workers and in many cases without consent. German-born psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing coined the term in his landmark work, “Sexual Psychopathy: A Clinical-Forensic Study.” He also coined the term’s opposite, masochism.
In the BDSM community, the consensual use of sadomasochistic practices are common. For submissives, allowing someone else to control their sexual pleasure can be a turn on, while some measure of pain is said to heighten sensation, excitement and, therefore, sexual arousal. For the dominant in the situation, being in control of another’s person pleasure – and to some extent their bodies and minds – is also a stimulating part of the game. In BDSM, the consent and comfort of both partners tends to be valued, and play often starts with the establishments of limits and safewords to ensure both participants’ safety and integrity.
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Because sexual sadism – both as a psychological concept and as a term – arose from psychopathological study, it was typically seen as a pathological or abnormal behavior, or paraphilia. This line of thought began to shift in the 1970s and 1980s, as more research around the behavior emerged. In recent years, sexual sadism is mostly seen as a form of sexual expression; some research even positions BDSM as a sexual orientation. Either way, surveys have found that up to 46.8% of people have performed at least one BDSM activity in their lives.
In order to be considered deviant, those who fantasize about or act out sadistic desires must feel personal distress about their interest, and/or “have a sexual desire or behavior that involves another person’s psychological distress, injury, or death, or a desire for sexual behaviors involving unwilling persons or persons unable to give legal consent.” The latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) notes that practicing sadomasochism in and of itself does not constitute a disorder.
Thankfully, in the BDSM community, sadomasochism does not typically constitute extremely dangerous or intense activities. A 2014 survey by Dr. Justin Lehmiller found that some of the most common activities among those who reported sadomasochistic experiences included spanking, biting, bondage, handcuffs and verbal humiliation.
As with all forms of BDSM play, partners should negotiate play carefully, agree on a safeword, and ensure that full and ongoing consent is present throughout every scene.
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