Fifty Shades of Grey: Making Sense of Sadomasochism (S&M)
By Halifax Psychologist, Brad Peters
Many of us are familiar with, or have at least heard of Fifty Shades of Grey – the book (and soon to be film) that became one of the most significant pieces of pop culture in the last couple of years. The story revolves around a female college student who gets involved with a 27 year-old powerful businessman. The younger woman apparently loses her virginity to this man, who later convinces her to sign a non-disclosure agreement and a contract keeping the relationship entirely sexual and one of ‘dominance and submission.’
Full disclosure to the reader – I have not read the book. However, as a psychologist it is my business to know something about human behavior (including sadomasochism), and I am naturally curious about the themes that often make their way into mainstream culture or capture the popular imagination. Since the release of this book there has apparently been a reported surge of firefighters responding to calls where men and women are found trapped in handcuffs. Do these themes tap into something that has an underlying appeal – something that goes beyond mere curiosity? Are only certain personalities drawn to it, or does it speak to something common to the human condition?
In this post I want to say a few words about sadomasochism – outlining what it is and hint at why people might be drawn to it. But first we will need to define the subject matter. Sadism is essentially taking pleasure in inflicting pain (physical or mental) on another person, and is a term that especially pertains from sexual enjoyment derived from hurting or punishing someone. Masochism is the complementary state of taking pleasure in being hurt, abused, humiliated, or punished – especially sexual gratification one might receive from such acts.
For many people (among them psychologists), sadomasochistic behavior is difficult to understand. Why would someone get sexual pleasure from inflicting pain on someone else? Why would someone get aroused by being physically punished or psychologically humiliated?
Psychologists will differ in how they answer these questions. My own response would begin by suggesting that any hope to explain such behavior, must look at their extremity (e.g. use of fluffy handcuffs versus a need to inflict and receive more severe pain or punishment), the degree of psychological distress it creates (if any), and each person’s life history. In short, I don’t think there is a single cause or explanation, and in many cases sadomasochistic play can certainly fall within the range of what we call ‘normal’ behavior. However, with those caveats in mind, I think we can look at some of the general themes within sadomasochism and shed light on them by way of general discussion.
Power and Control
Power and control are key components in the sadomasochistic dynamic. The sexual sadist is acting out a role of dominance in relation to another – one where he or she powerfully submits the other to their will and command. Within such interpersonal dynamics the sadist temporarily feels a sense of absolute control. The world of cause-and-effect is momentarily theirs to manipulate – as is the other person who they hold within their grasp. The world and relationships are artificially constructed to create an order and predictability that they command with aggression (power) and precision (certainty).
“Physical aggression is the main problem of the sadist, the area that he works so dedicatedly in order to bend the complexity and mystery of reality to his will. He wants something solid to manipulate and hang on to, he wants to banish the vague and fleeting by calling experience back to primary things, to bodies and their processes, the basic coin of life. Behind it all, of course, he is burdened by fear as we all are … it is fear that one is daily preoccupied with, as he goes about his life with such tight-lipped dedication to ordering and controlling things” (Becker, 1971, p. 193).
To say that the sadist craves control is tantamount to saying that they seek temporary reprieve from its opposites – feeling a lack of control, accepting that the world and relationships are less predictable and at times emotionally threatening (if one were to risk this kind of vulnerability), and so on. The sadist tries to work around these emotional vulnerabilities by minimizing the other and enlarging themselves – only then do they feel comfortable relating… not as equals, but as powerful master and submissive slave.
“We read in the clinical study of sadists that they can begin to feel normal pleasure with another person only after they have brought themselves out of their own power deficit: they have to experience an elemental outburst of powers in hurting others, in order to relax and feel some kind of ability to relate to others … We see this also in the ‘little’ sadistic aggressions of everyday life when we are belittling others, riding them, pointing out their defects to them. This gives us a feeling of balance, draws us up to a level where we can relate to them as equals, cuts them down to a manageable size” (Becker, 1971, p. 207).
And so one could perhaps argue that these sexually sadistic proclivities (or at least their extreme variants), are sometimes the result of psychological aversions… that it is a side-effect or symptom of the individual working through unresolved or conflicted emotional issues – either from one’s past, or in how the person confronts the uncomfortable realities of the world as it is.
The complementary masochist is working through the same issues by a different means. In some ways they relinquish control – temporarily giving up (or pretending to give up) their freedom, and the burden of responsibility that comes with true self-awareness, agency, and personhood. They find safety and escape from solitude by allowing themselves to merge with the other. They permit themselves to be reduced to a sexual object, powerless and dependent on a master to command them according to their will, thus relieving feelings of guilt that often accompany personal free-will and true choice. Feelings of guilt and shame are also assuaged by acting in ways that satisfy the needs of the exacting ‘master.’ Their existence in this dynamic has purpose – though it is one of sexual utility.
In other ways the masochist is every bit as controlling as the sadist:
“… to experience pain is to ‘use’ it with the possibility of controlling it and triumphing over it. … the masochist doesn’t ‘want’ pain, he wants to be able to identify its source, localize it, and so control it. Masochism is thus a way of taking the anxiety of life and death and the overwhelming terror of existence and congealing them into a small dosage. One then experiences pain from the terrifying power and yet lives through it … (Becker, 1973, p. 246).”
The same ideas can be extended to how the sexual masochist exposes themselves in small doses to feelings of humiliation and shame – emotions that they were perhaps unable to overcome as a child (and thus typically repressed), or guilt-based feelings involved in human socialization, our broader culture, and its expectations; this kind of brief confrontation would be a way to get temporary relief from the tension and anxiety that often conceal unresolved emotions – feelings of helplessness, isolation, meaninglessness, shame, and so on. This is not to say that all sadomasochistic behavior is the result of repressed and conflicted affect – though in many cases I believe this can be true.
Person as Sexual Object
Another, perhaps more general way of thinking about sadomasochistic behavior, is to view it as a method of finding general reprieve from the burdens that accompany higher forms of conscious awareness – the need to reduce a self-aware and fully conscious person to a sentient body (and its simple pains and pleasures). The sexual relationship is not one where each individual relates to the other as a person, but rather as an object.
For the masochist, it is a desire to be reduced, to lose oneself, to be temporarily swallowed whole and to fuse with the more powerful other. The masochist denies (or at least pretends to), their own thoughts, needs, and desires; all of these are secondary – dictated by the other.
“… to have no thoughts or feelings that are different – saves one from the isolation of selfhood. Of course the ‘I’ is lost but so is the fear of aloneness. The enemies of conformity are, of course, freedom and self-awareness. The conforming-fusion solution to isolation is undermined by the questions: What do I want? What do I feel? What is my goal in life? What do I have in me to express and fulfill?” (Yalom, p. 381).
The reduction is one from person to object. The sexual contract in part makes it so – and for all the reasons given, it can be preferable (i.e. more comfortable) for certain kinds of people to relate in this way.
The reader should note that this is a cursory glance at these issues, and is only one psychologist’s take. It should be also recognized that as long as it is consensual and does no harm (physically & psychologically), there is probably little wrong with it – plenty of high-functioning and happy people engage in sadomasochistic behavior (Williams, 2006). In other words, if sadomasochism serves as a kind of defense mechanism, helping people deal with certain aspects of life, then so be it. And at any rate they are not alone – we all engage in defensive strategies … ways of thinking and acting that deal with unconscious emotions and inconvenient truths about certain aspects of reality. And maybe that’s where Fifty Shades of Grey has intuitive appeal – maybe there is something about the present day that causes people to desire absolute control, to unconsciously crave reducing and be reduced… if only temporarily.
Becker, E. (1971). The birth and death of meaning (2nd Ed.). New York: The Free Press.
Becker, E. (1973). The Denial of Death. New York: Free Press.
Williams, D. (2006). Different (painful!) strokes for different folks: A general overview of sexual sadomasochism (SM) and its diversity. Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, 13, 333-346.
Yalom, I. (1980). Existential psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.