Sadomasochism directly touches and sometimes embarrassingly illuminates the degree to which hierarchy, with the immediate implication of power and control, permeates virtually all aspects of social life (Burke 1966; Foucault 1978; Chancer 1992). Aspects of social life that claim for themselves an egalitarian character tend to do so with a self-consciousness that announces its intention to avoid hierarchy It is love, for example, that is supposed to have the power to level all, though the same folk psychology just as easily admits to an inevitable appearance of the dominant and dominated, even when gender does not predict all outcomes.

It should not be surprising, then, that past and current experiences with hierarchy should provide both motives and metaphors critical to the self­recognitions of the individual. The permeation of the sexual by such motives and metaphors should not be surprising. To the degree to which gender costumes power, the manifest significance of gender signs in the construction of sexual scripts speaks to the most general capacity of themes of hierarchy to elicit or give permission for sexual excitement as a general phenomenon (MacKinnon 1987).

The term “sadomasochism”, as discussed below, does not refer to specific individuals, such as sadists and masochists, but to those who participate in the enactment of consensual “sadomasochistic” episodes in which at least one participant explicitly experiences sexual excitement as a result of overt sadomasochistic gestures. Great emphasis must be placed upon “explicit” because suggestions of the sadomasochistic, if only in obscure nuances, may play a role in sexual experiences for many, just as the comedic often disguises the very hostility upon which it depends. Because of the exclusion of hierarchy from most current cultural scenarios legitimating the erotic, themes of hierarchy are often hidden from the other, as well as from the self. Perhaps for that very reason, hierarchical themes tend to play a pivotal role in the processing of those gestures that inspire and reinforce sexual excitement (Stoller 1979, 1985a).

Among the most compelling and earliest of the experiences of hierarchy are those that involve critical dependencies of infancy and childhood. Emotionally infused issues of hierarchy also re-emerge with the ambiguities of adolescence, ambiguities that tend to be accompanied by an enlarged attention to the sexual. These ambiguous themes of hierarchy and power figure pre-eminently, but by no means exclusively, among the experiences that provide both an imagery of occasions and the raw materials of feeling-states from which sadomasochism in both its sexual and nonsexual guises subsequently arises.

There are very few forms of behavior more commonly dialogical than the modem experience of the sexual. It is dialogical in the sense that participation often requires an attribution, accurate or inaccurate, of the emotional responses of sexual partners, as well as a chorus of others who are not present but whose sense of judgment is invoked (Simon and Gagnon 1987; Bakhtin 1981). When uncertainty and dialogical requirements meet, actors are situated as an audience to the unfolding interaction; and, as such, they are split not only between activity and reflexivity but between identification with self and other as well. It may be that the lighting within the sexual chamber is dimmed, as often occurs, not to obscure what can be seen, but to see what is not present but must be seen.

As we read ourselves to meet our own socio-emotional requirements, so do we of necessity read the other. This is a problem that becomes more common with a decline in culturally prescribed specifics of sexual interaction, a situation where each participant has the capacity to betray or embarrass the performance of the other.

The sadomasochistic script plays upon the potential absolutism of hierarchy not merely to experience hierarchy with the relief accompanying the elimination of its attending ambiguities, but to experience the emotions that invariably accompany its exercise: the rage and fear of rage in both the other and ourselves; rage that follows from our inability to be a perfect (guiltless) god or a perfect (will-less) servant of god; rage that follows from bondage to mutual dependencies where we endure an exercise of hierarchic power that occasions an intoxicating legitimacy precisely because of the illegitimacy of the behavior to which it is applied.

Sadomasochism strives to avoid the dialectics of master and slave— Hegel’s con game—which in the “real world” perverts all the energies in dubious confrontations. The purpose of the sadomasochistic contract is to make sure that power is never at stake. The bottom doesn’t compete with his master; he manages with his help to challenge his own limits. The two configurations overlap, both struggle to achieve separately their own singularity.

(Lotringer 1988:22)

Such a “singularity”, however, is fully infused with the dialogical, the social requirements that give permission to experience the desire, as well as the interplay of signifying gestures, without which the activities of each participant lose legibility. In a sense, then, sadomasochism represents an escape from both the practice and legacies of hierarchy by playing past its realistic imperatives, and it does so by creating an objectified locale within which the rules of the intrapsychic dominate, unimpeded by the considerations that tend to turn most acts into the product of both intrapsychic and interpersonal considerations.

The most general approaches to the appearance of sadomasochism have identified three elements: a strategy for managing guilt, continuing repairing of narcissistic wounds, and seeking relief from continuing threats of fragmentation. The latter is seen as increasing as a reflection of the increasing fragmentation and instability of social life (Socarides 1991). These three elements are far from being independent of each other. Each undoubtedly plays some role in the creation of the very possibility of sadomasochism. However, this kind of formulation, conceiving of the sexual as “serving” guilt, the temporary repairing of wounds, fails to see the possibility of the ways in which the guilt and a possible history of narcissistic wounds come to serve a version of the sexual that may arrive permeated and enlarged by our more general history from infancy onwards with the intoxicating experiences of interpersonal power. Guilt may be more important as the metaphoric coinage of sadomasochism than it is as its inspiration.

The social segregation of the sexual ensures its limited claims upon larger, more visible identities; for example, it allows those who are professional aggressors in public contexts to become submissive children within the sexual script as it allows what in public are timid subordinates to become the most demanding despots. In a sense, then, sadomasochism can represent an escape from both the practice and legacies of hierarchy by playing past its realistic imperatives. Consensual sexual sadomasochism emerges as an exercise of hierarchy that occasions authenticity precisely because of the illegitimacy of the behavior to which it is applied; its eroticism and attending sexual excitement create a comforting sense of reality to what otherwise often appears as a childishly theatrical performance. The sexual, often too real to be taken too seriously, can become an occasion f or a visceral conf irmation of a version of self that is not obtainable in other configurations of the self (Lichtenstein 1977).

Though much of the sexual, and sadomasochism in particular, has been viewed as a desire to dissolve interpersonal boundaries, sadomasochism can actually serve to orchestrate a heightened sense of difference between self and other by affirming a felt absolute symbiosis of self and other in a parable of social order. It does so by playing upon divisions within the self, creating an objectified space within which the rules of the intrapsychic dominate, where authority uncovers all secrets, allowing truth, justice, and desire to coincide— albeit momentarily. Sadomasochistic sexual desires, as discussed here, can only be conceived of by segments of humanity capable of contemplating a fragmentation of self as well as a loss of social order.

To the degree that sadomasochism can be seen as “tainting” the sexual practices of many individuals, it may not qualify as an issue of perversion as we have used the word thus far. That is, the degree to which images, gestures or, to employ Stoller’s (1979) useful descriptive term, “microdots” implicating sadomasochistic themes are generally prevalent in both the intrapsychic and interpersonal scripts of individuals should narrow the space between the thinkable and the unthinkable. For some time, film and art critics have instructed us in just how much the erotic is a game of power played within (or at) the rules of power. This is typified in discussion of the predominant representation of women as passive recipients of the male gaze, as the object of desire and only rarely the subject of desire (Berger 1972; Mulvey 1975). An enlarged capacity to empathically comprehend sadomasochistic attractions may account for the nervousness with which the popularization of its clearly related symbols (leather, chains, studs) has been greeted.

It is also important to understand that, as with most forms of sexual behavior, the attributes that appear to encourage a commitment to the specific enactment of erotic desires may be distinct from, rather than essential to, those attributes that give rise to the desire in the first place. While there are critical differences between those who only fantasize and those who risk perf orming a version of the fantasy, such differences may be independent of the shared capacity to dream in certain similar modes.

Sadomasochism looms large on the horizons of the current sexual landscape in ways that require that it be approached as a “disease of desire”. One source of this marginalization is the dominant cultural scenarios that insist upon nonhierarchic motives, scenarios that are allowed to serve lust only in the guise of love, that place all emphasis upon the relationship to the object and very little, if any, upon other motives that might occasion sexual excitement (Benjamin 1972; Simon 1973; Stoller 1979, 1985a). It is possible that the experiences of recent years have created new pressures to modify this position. This has been particularly true for many among recent cohorts who experience the decline of Eros’ imperatives as a crisis of identity, as a crisis of viability. Typical of this shift is the current abandonment of Freud’s idea of genital maturity as occasioning an easy and gentle confluence of the sentimental and the erotic.

There is a growing awareness of the importance of these polymorphous perverse tendencies [e. g. exhibitionistic, voyeuristic, sadistic, and masochistic sexual games] as part of normal love relations, in contrast to their subordination to genital intercourse. I have proposed that normal polymorphous perverse sexuality is an essential component that maintains the intensity of a passionate love relation, and recruits—in its function as the receptacle of unconscious fantasy—the conflictual relations and meanings that evolve in a couple’s relationship throughout time.

(Kernberg 1988:65)2

Kernberg’s observation points us to an important potential bias characteristic of almost all scientific discourse on sex, including the present effort. Established as a central focus, sexuality is too easily seen as possessing a quality of importance that may not be descriptive of many individuals or most individuals most of the time. Related to this bias, perhaps reflecting also the degree to which Freud has influenced the thinking of all of us, there is a tendency to seek the deep sources of sexual desire within the history of the individual. Another biasing aspect is the continuing nervousness about sexual behaviors beyond the most conventional. Oral sex, for example, has only in recent times begun to shed the aura of being inherently deviant. Similarly, same gender sexual interactions seemingly continue to require some basic developmental, characterological or genetic explanation. As a culture we take sex seriously, perhaps too seriously; in its appearance, something emblematic of “true” character is assumed to be revealed.

While inevitably drawing upon the resources of the intrapsychic, at specific times and possibly for growing numbers of persons, specific sexual acts may be engaged in for superficial or contextual reasons. Examples that come to mind are such phenomena as “political lesbianism”, sexual engagements as an act of gender politics, or the use of articles and costumes associated with sadomasochism, including tattooing and piercing, as acts of identification with specific youth subcultures. Similarly, behaviors indicative of the sadomasochistic scripting of sexual interactions may be occurring more frequently not as the unleashing of previously repressed sadomasochistic desires but as a tactic for enhancing and elaborating sexual performances.

Periods of heightened sexual permissiveness frequently bring problems of their own, a kind of sexual anomie of affluence. The sexual, now less a scarce experience in its own right, one less shrouded in silence and less masked by the protections of pluralistic ignorance, faces an implicit challenge to live up to the promises made on its behalf. This challenge has been heightened by an increase in recent decades in the belief that sexual desire is a direct expression of the viability of a relationship. Moreover, this burden of demonstration is possibly being extended over a longer time span than ever before. This is particularly pressing in regard to long-term relationships where marked declines in the frequency of sexual interaction are commonly associated with the length of the relationship (Blumstein and Schwartz 1983). Long-term relations, as Stoller (1985a) noted, provide the comforts of familiarity and predictability (the orgasm of reassurance), but often at the expense of excitement (the orgasm of bliss). The elaboration of sexual play involving elements of the sadomasochistic is one of the few scripting materials available to heighten the production values of interpersonal sex-play, in a context where the orgasm of reassurance, in order to reassure, must be garbed as the orgasm of bliss—or its simulation.

The sadomasochistic charade, particularly for those adapted to the shifting of temporary roles, can sustain a sense of pressing an edge that eroticizes the extended performance beyond the immediately genital. This can be increasingly attractive in a context of communication systems where virtually all are given immediate access to intimacies of social power, but access projected through cool media and where bureaucratic rationalization depersonalizes the causes of frustration and outrage.


The legacies of the moral, social, and psychological significance previously assigned to the sexual continue to color our actual experience of the sexual. Few reared in the Western tradition can be indifferent to the sexual or be unaware of the ambivalences it generates, though the degree to which individuals are affected may differ widely within and between cohorts. The great significance accorded the sexual has tended to privilege it in the sense that its mere presence has often either created a near blinding glare or provoked such nervousness that a detailed examination of what in fact was occurring was nearly impossible.

The growth of an erotic consciousness in the modern West was occasioned, as Foucault (1976) argued, by the oppressive presence of efforts to banish it from visibility. This situation, in recent years, has changed profoundly. Erotic images, direct and indirect, conventional and unconventional, are abundantly visible. Patterns of behavior have changed in numerous ways, and the erotic status of individuals has become a more overt aspect of the reciprocal surveillance that accompanies many aspects of social life. At the risk of dissolving parts of what little we think we may know about sexual behavior, we must begin to address the questions of the changing nature of sexual desires, the changing nature of their uses. Very much in the spirit of Foucault, we must begin to see sexual behaviour as an evolving phenomenon whose meanings and truths are part of the continuing production of social reality, of the continuing production of our current versions of the human.