In traditional psychoanalytic theory, a form of sadism is one of the earliest of instinctive drives to make an appearance, becoming manifest as the second phase of the oral stage (Laplanche and Pontalis 1973). Its appearance is associated with “instinctual ambivalence”, suggesting its inextricable connection to dialectic, to conflict, to choice. (Is it Ernst Kris who suggested that comfort generates object relations, while it is conflict that generates character?) However, it is important to keep in mind that infantile sadism, if this term is at all appropriate, stands in much the same relationship to postpubertal forms of sadomasochism as that in which childhood masturbation stands in relation to adolescent masturbation. Even where similar emotions are involved, the different capacities for self- reflexivity are profound.
The limited part of the clinical literature that has dealt with adolescent sexual fantasy notes the common occurrence of sadomasochistic elements in such fantasies. It is not surprising that this content is predominantly seen as related to the disturbances that bring the adolescent to the clinical setting in the first place. What is missing in this limited literature, and possibly forgotten as part of our own unremembered youth, is the role such sadomasochistic fantasies may have played in the adolescent experiences and psychosexual development of many of us.
Adolescence is commonly seen as a time of enlarged preoccupation with the issues of justice. By the time development reaches a point when justice is a major concern, it tends to occur within the enlarged appreciation of the multiple appearances of hierarchy and uses of both formal and informal power. The heightened salience of justice, hierarchy, and power also coincides with restrictions regarding the direct expressions of anger and promises of retaliation. Further complicating the life of the contemporary adolescent are the seemingly endless ambiguities of expectation and response that often make everyday life a minefield of potential unearned injury, humiliation, and intended and unintended violation.
For some, a preoccupation with justice may reflect an already developed erotic agenda, as in the case where preadolescents are drawn into sexual vocabularies that sufficiently load sexual referents with strong moral connotations such that they become insults of aggressive devaluation even when used in what are patently nonsexual moments. These connotations do endure and enrich the subsequent elaboration of sexual scripts. However, it is more likely that the preoccupation with justice will influence sexual scripts. In the Western experience, the sexual always appears burdened with moral significance, burdened with the possibility of transgression.
In fantasy, sadomasochism rarely depicts explicit images of consensual sadomasochism. Characteristically, sadomasochistic fantasies center on behaviors that are coercive, non-voluntary, and at times brutal. But implicitly transgressivity is not a rejection of justice in the name of the power of unconstrained passion; to the contrary, such fantasy themes are almost always scripted to establish the exercise of personal passion as an instrument of justice. The behaviors represented are acknowledged violations, but always “earned” or, if you will, justified violations. The justifying coinage takes the form of compensatory pleasures, where excesses of pleasure can become forms of abuse, or where deserved punishment and earned retribution become just deserts.
Sadomasochistic images may be rooted in angers and hostilities, focused by and upon the self, not fixed entities but complex and varied responses and reactions. Consistent with this development is the increased appearance of aggressive acts of penetration, including the use of dildos and anal and vaginal “fisting”, in recent lesbian erotica. The gestural potentials of penetration, given the layered history of uses of the sexual, permeates contemporary sexual codes. Much of this focus upon penetration explicitly adopts the language and costumes of sadomasochism, but in most instances it will be sadomasochism in the service of giving dramatic impetus to sexual desires rather than sexual gestures in the service of sadomasochistic commitments (Samois 1982).
The Romantic tradition encouraged a view of the ideal sexual act as a merger of identities. Much of this tradition continues to find expression in prevailing cultural scenarios and the conscious preferences of numerous individuals. However, processes of individuation, dramatically heightened during the past century, correspondingly find expression in the expanding realm of intrapsychic scripts. This trend has been reflected in and shaped by the relative democratization of the right to orgasm, which tended to move master sexual scripts from idealizations of simultaneity and similarity of experience to idealizations of reciprocal attentions that individualize the encounter. Critical to contemporary expressions of sadomasochism is their ability to frame sexual interaction strongly from each separate participant’s perspective; the dominant role contains the appearance of the command and control of gestures and their meaning, while the submissive role remains the center of attention; the former serves as the instrument of justice, while the latter becomes the subject of justice.
At the same time, sadomasochism has the capacity to draw upon the tensions of everyday life in giving renewed meaning to practiced gestures. The residua of such sexual fantasy materials may play a critical role in subsequent adult sexual scripts or, more accurately, the sexual scripts employed during adult years. This later invoking of fantasy materials flows from the capacity of all stages of postpubertal life to generate the risks of injury, humiliation, and violation with their corresponding dreams of survival and retaliation. Additionally, such fantasy materials constitute a repertoire of sexual drama capable of sustaining excitement within the security and predictability of the sexual embedded within the routines of everyday life.
Stoller’s (1979, 1985a) observations on the role of hostility in generating sexual excitement point to hostility masochistically directed towards the self. Sadism is more often the servant than the master of masochism; it is the illusion of the authenticity of the sadist that serves as the source of authenticity for the masochist.