Gert Hekma, University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam Research Center Gender & Sexuality,

Abstract: Sadomasochism or SM refers to sexual pleasure derived from pain or humiliation. By way of literature (D.A.F. de Sade and L. von Sacher-Masoch) it became a psychiatric concept in 1891. Until 2005, SM received little attention from the social sciences, with only a few notable historical studies conducted. Since then, the number of studies is quickly growing, mainly with regard to “leather” sexual subcultures and communities. Main topics being discussed include gender, race, sexual orientation, sex work, power, violence, play, transgression, relation to mainstream culture in terms of pathology, prejudice, ideas of closet, acceptance and transgression.

The word sadomasochism refers to sexual pleasure derived from physical and/or psychological pain or humiliation. Coined in 1891 by psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing, the term references the names of the philosopher marquis Donatien Alphonse François de Sade (1740-1814) and the novelist Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (1836-1895). Both men were primarily masochists. Sociological research on sadomasochism, its practitioners and their subcultures is rare. In the arts, the subject is more frequently discussed by literary historians and philosophers than social scientists. Especially the life and work of de Sade has been of particular interest to many scholars.

Although analyses of de Sade may have been some of the first to address issues of sexual pleasure and aggression, there is little doubt that earlier generations took pleasure in eroticized violence, as evidenced in Roman arenas, at scaffolds and in depictions of Christian martyrs or with religious and medical flagellations. The specific articulation of feelings of sexual pleasure in pain dates back to the eighteenth century when Jean-Jacques Rousseau and de Sade expressed these emotions. In Psychopathia sexualis of Krafft-Ebing (1886) the desire for giving and receiving real or imaginary pain is put on a scale. He found it normal when such pleasures were an addition to sexual play, but considered them an abnormality when they were central element of the sexual scenario. The prevention and therapy for ‘perverted’ sexual identities was the work of psychiatrists. Later psychiatrists built upon these foundations by creating new terms for the many specific forms of sadomasochism (whipping, bondage, slavery, uniforms, use of excrements, etc.). The persons who were objects of the psychiatric interest welcomed a new era that saw handbooks of sexology present the rare possibility to identify with these variations of sexual excitement (Oosterhuis 2000). Nineteenth-century England had bordellos for men who enjoyed being spanked based on a pleasure they had learned during boarding school (Gibson 1978).


Oosterhuis (2000) explains the invention of the various perversions as a result of growing self-reflection, individualization and the anonymity that accompanied rapid urbanization. Noyes (1998) has argued that SM became visible in this liberal era at the end of the nineteenth century because this sexual practice so completely contradicted liberal ideals of free will and self-determination. The issue of consent of the masochist partner remains an essential point of discussion in contemporary SM-circles as his/her dependence flatly contradicts modern ideas of erotic equality and free choice. The answer of the aficionados has been that the submissive partner consents beforehand with the choreography of the erotic scene and can stop its continuation with code words or signs. While many outside of the SM community abhor the real or imaginary violence, it’s noteworthy that few practitioners have dared to take pride in its transgressiveness and certainly not when the cruelty surpasses liberal issues of consent. Modern sexual citizens continue to believe in a liberal ideology of free choice and erotic equality that is heavily associated with ideas of mutual love and normative pleasure.

Specialized SM subcultures first developed in Germany around 1900 and only later in other places after World War II. Bordellos played a prominent role in this world along with an emerging gay leather scene. The sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s witnessed a substantial increase in organizations and representations of SM in novels, movies and porn. Imagery of leather and sex toys that were typically only affiliated with sexual undergrounds made a breakthrough to the mainstream in the 1980s with its adoption by the punk scene and in the 1990s through its integration in fashion and music. Notwithstanding its cultural popularity, psychiatric handbooks such as the Diagnostic-Statistic Manual (DSM) continue to consider sadism and masochism to be psychological disorders. Nowadays it’s most commonly known expression is in the gay and straight leather scenes, while the internet has many sites and chat rooms for the manifold variations of SM-desires. Its followers see no reason why psychiatrists and psychologists should declare them insane. Their fantasies are poignant examples of how sexual pleasure is socially constructed as their contents typically rely on external stimuli that reference societal structures such as soldiers, bikers, slavery, rape, spanking, gender and sexual inequalities and medical care while these scenes often regarded as unpleasant, cruel and humiliating are transformed into sexual excitement. Sociologists have rarely taken up this fascinating topic as to exactly how the social has become so deeply embedded in the individual psyche and how power and pain are turned into pleasure.


The earlier literature on SM most often takes a psychological stance in discussing individual manifestations and issues of consent (Phillips 1998). Only a few actual surveys of its practitioners were done, in Germany (Spengler 1979; Elb 2006) and the USA (Gosselin and Wilson 1980). The work of the latter reveals the great variety of SM-desires, while Weinberg & Kamel (1983) compiled the first sociological collection of papers on risk and subculture. These authors were sympathetic to the world of SM while others adopted a more negative stance. General sex surveys asked few questions on sadomasochism, but the data indicate that some 10% of respondents admitted to having kinky fantasies. Historical studies focus on the nineteenth-century history of perversion, the invention of sadomasochism or specialized kinky tastes (Noyes 1998; Oosterhuis 2000). Vandermeersch (2002) traced the path of flagellation from religious practice and medical therapy to sexual specialty. More sociological works studied kinky scenes and desires in relation to spaces (Rubin 1991, 2011) or included personal and emancipatory views or discussions on politics (see M.Thompson 1991; B.Thompson 1994; Califia 1994).


Nowadays, the most frequently used term is BDSM: Bondage & Discipline, Dominance & Submission, SM. The topic has received an enormous boost in interest due to the success of E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey (2011, see Sexualities 16:8, 2013). The recent academic literature includes more sociological and postmodern perspectives than the personal and psychological ones of the past. The collection of Langdridge & Barker (2007, 2014) contains articles that offer a history of BDSM, its psychological aspects and therapeutic qualities, debates on its psychiatric classification, the gay leather culture and discuss whether it is indeed safe, sane and consensual (or risk aware consensual kink) while Lisa Downing shows the limits of BDSM and consent in an article on erotic asphyxiation. Based on empirical material from the London scene, Beckman (2009) offers a clear-cut argument that sadomasochism is a sane practice of freedom and an ars erotica, echoing Michel Foucault’s supportive ideas on leather culture. Newmahr (2011) continues this sentiment with a study on “edge play” in an American BDSM community. Weiss (2012), however, has an opposing view in her study on the Bay Area subculture that she sees as neo-liberal, racist and sexist. While her book is more queer theorizing than engaged ethnography, she opposes ideas that BDSM is transgressive in terms of gender, sexuality and politics as suggested in the work of Foucault and Rubin. The research of Lindemann (2012) on dominatrixes indicates that their sex work is both confirming and transgressing gender and sexual norms and stereotypes. These more recent studies offer more sophisticated and realistic insights beyond hidden undergrounds that excite and incite debate. Nonetheless, BDSM remains highly interesting as it disrupts existing ideas on genders, consent, pain and pleasure, bondage and freedom, sanity and therapy.


Methodological issues involved in researching SM are similar to those regarding other sexual variations (see male homosexuality). Additional problems concern the sometimes criminal and often pathological status of sadomasochism. Research may endanger the safety and privacy of respondents while many practitioners feel ashamed, guilty or insecure on their preferences. Researchers of kinky sex have to be particularly sensitive to the social discrimination that their subjects are facing.

As few studies have been done on sadomasochism, the terrain remains open. Main issues to be addressed include the backgrounds of these sexual preferences in relation to their social context and their subcultural, historical and spatial development. BDSM is so interesting for sociology because it mixes sexuality and violence and eroticizes social inequality, going against a modern trend that only promotes non-violent and equal sexual relations. Additionally, through its many variations, it shows the extent of specificity of sexual pleasures that sociologists generally neglect. The research on sexual scripts, stories or narratives should take kinky variations as its topic because they are a concrete example of the connection between individual desires, social worlds and politics. The social and historical backgrounds of SM-preferences and organization of these scenes are still largely unknown and offer interesting themes for further research in their connection to liberal politics, the rise of individualism and self-reflection, the belief in consent and equality and the denial of violence in sexual relations.

SEE ALSO: Liberalism; Plastic Sexuality; Scripting Theories; Sexual Practices; Sexuality Research: History; Violence


Andrea Beckmann, The Social Construction of Sexuality and Perversion. Deconstructing Sadomasochism, Houndmills: Palgrave, 2009.

Pat Califia, Public Sex. The Culture of Radical Sex, Pittsburgh: Cleis Press, 1994.

Norbert Elb, SM-Sexualität. Selbstorganisation einer sexuellen Subkultur, Giessen: Psychosozial Verlag, 2006.

Chris Gosselin & Glenn Wilson, Sexual Variations. Fetishism, Sadomasochism and Transvestism, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980.

Darren Langdridge & Meg Barker (eds), Safe, Sane and Consensual. Contemporary Perspectives on Sadomasochism, Houndmills: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007.

Danielle J. Lindemann, Dominatrix. Gender, Eroticism and Control in the Dungeon. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 2012.

Staci Newmahr, Playing in the Edge. Sadomasochism, Risk, and Intimacy, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011.

John K. Noyes, The Mastery of Submission. Inventions of Masochism, Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 1998.

Harry Oosterhuis, Stepchildren of Nature. Krafft-Ebing, Psychiatry, and the Making of Sexual Identity, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Anita Phillips, A Defence of Masochism, London: Faber and Faber, 1998.

Gayle S. Rubin, “The Catacombs: A temple of the butthole”, in: Thompson 1991, pp. 119-141, also in her collected articles Deviations, Durham, Duke University Press, 2011.

Andreas Spengler, Sadomasochisten und ihre Subkulturen, Frankfurt: Campus, 1979.

Judith Squires (ed), Perversity, Special issue of New Formations 19 (Spring1993).

Bill Thompson, Sadomasochism. Painful Perversion or Pleasurable Play?, London: Cassell, 1994.

Mark Thompson (ed), Leatherfolk. Radical Sex, People, Politics and Practice. Boston: Alyson, 1991.

Patrick Vandermeersch, La chair de la passion. Une histoire de foi: la flagellation, Paris: Cerf, 2002.

Thomas Weinberg & G.W. Levi Kamel (eds), S and M. Studies in Sadomasochism, New York: Prometheus, 1983.

Margot Weiss, Techniques of Pleasure. BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality, Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2011.