Consensual Sadomasochism: charting the issues

by Claudia Card

From Lesbian Choices(1995, Columbia University Press)

I have saved this subject for last because the topic has been so contested among lesbians (and among feminists, generally; it has not been much contested--at least in print--among gay men), and I wanted to be able to draw freely, in discussing it, on material from earlier chapters.  In a decade of teaching lesbian culture, I have found no topic more divisive in the classroom than consensual sexual sadomasochism.  Yet on no topic has it been more difficult to generate discussion.  There are many reasons.

First, lesbian sexuality suffers from a vocabulary problem, making it difficult to discuss any lesbian sexuality and tempting to borrow others' vocabularies, which are often inadequate or inappropriate. Second, Women's Studies students tend to be acutely aware of potentialities for causing offense through insensitivity.  They realize that the class may include survivors of incest and other child abuse, rape, or partner battery, survivors who are not sadomasochists.  Some students simply find the idea of sadomasochism repulsive.  The class may also include survivors of child abuse who are participants in consensual sadomasochism.  Some participants in sadomasochism also identify as feminists and are deeply offended at the suggestion that they support or engage in rape or battery.  Many sexual sadists and masochists see themselves as members of a sexual minority victimized by prejudice.  Survivors of abuse, on the other hand, may be vulnerable to flashbacks and may find sadomasochist play outrageously disrespectful.  Yet discussion of issues raised by lesbian sadomasochism cannot proceed with clarity without mention of examples of sadomasochistic drama and of playful attitudes.  Finally, students who oppose sadomasochism may suspect its defenders of trying to engage them in sadomasochism through argument and by being outrageous, and defenders may suspect critics of wanting to be so engaged.  These issues put both students and teacher between a rock and a hard place.  The stress of negotiating such tensions in the classroom led me finally to remove the topic from the syllabus.  The ethical and political issues surrounding the topic, however, deserve to be addressed.

The difficulties for nonsadomasochists have been primarily with sadism and with psychodrama that appears to make light not only of rape and incest but also of histories of oppression, such as American slavery and the Nazi Holocaust, drawing upon those histories to construct sex-games.  Many feminists tend to regard masochism as an example of the damage inflicted by oppression.(3)  Many also think of it as passive, whereas sadism appears active, more easily identified with oppressors.  The term "sadomasochism" diverts attention from sadism to masochism, subtly suggesting that masochism is basic, which may not be true.  One of the most sophisticated definitions of "sadism" (evidently that of a connoisseur) includes masochism as a form of sadism, the definition offered by Iwan Bloch ("Eugen Duhren") and quoted by Havelock Ellis in his Love and Pain:
A connection, whether intentionally sought or offered by chance, of sexual excitement and sexual enjoyment with the real or only symbolic (ideal, illusionary) appearance of frightful and shocking events, destructive occurrences and practices which threaten or destroy the life, health, and property of man and other living creatures, and threaten and interrupt the continuity of inanimate objects, whereby the person who from such occurrences obtains sexual enjoyment may either himself be the direct cause, or cause them to take place by means of other persons, or merely be the spectator, or, finally, be, voluntarily or involuntarily, the object against which these processes are directed.(4)
The final clause encompasses masochism, suggesting vicarious hostility to self, and the inclusion of witnessing leaves open with which party, if either, the spectator identifies.  Havelock Ellis proposed the term "algolagnia," literally "pain-lust," as a substitute for "sadism" and "masochism."  However, "algolagnia," like Bloch's definition, seems to ignore humiliation and servitude, widely recognized forms of sadism and masochism.  And like "sadomasochism," "algolagnia" blurs distinctions between sadists and masochists.  Sadism and masochism raise issues worth considering separately.  If masochism is more confusing, sadism is ethically more troubling.

The term "sadomasochism" became popular with Freud's speculation that sadistic and masochistic desires can exist in the same person, that one can move under certain conditions from masochism to sadism or in the reverse direction.(5)  Thus, as a Freudian, one might speak of an individual's sadomasochist potentialities.  The term "sadomasochism" as adopted by contemporary "sadomasochist liberationists," however, refers to a contractual relationship between two (or more) parties.  Sadomasochism so understood has been the subject of political activist defense by members of both sexes in the United States for at least two decades.  The earliest support group of which I am aware is New York City's Till Eulenspiegel Society formed in the early 1970s, open to both sexes, whether gay, bisexual, or heterosexual.  The Samois support group of San Francisco has been probably the most politically vocal lesbian group, publishing a pamphlet What Color Is Your Handkerchief? in 1979 and shortly thereafter, the anthology, Coming to Power.(6)

Although there is no general presupposition in sadomasochist contracts that the parties will exchange roles, individual contracts can allow for role changes, and some "tops" (sadists, a.k.a. "S's") report that they began as "bottoms" (masochists, a.k.a. "M's").(7)  One reason for the move from "bottom" to "top," apparently, is the relative dearth of "tops," especially among women.  In sadomasochist culture, however, such roles, like those of butch and femme (with which they need not coincide), can be fairly settled, signaled to others through dress codes or by various ornaments.  What Color Is Your Handkerchief? described such a code whereby lesbian sadomasochists signal their preference for being a "top" or a "bottom" by displaying a colored handkerchief in the right or left pocket and the kind of activity preferred by the color of the handkerchief.(8)

"Sadomasochism" in this chapter refers to certain pleasures of erotic or sexual desire and erotic or sexual behavior, not to general hostility or self-destructiveness.  I have elected to treat lesbian sadomasochism not as an example of horizontal hostility but as a puzzling set of practices whose participants generally wish each other well and respect each other's choices.  It is a matter of concern, however, that the only things distinguishing the behavior of an S from battery and other abuse may be the motivations of the parties and the consent of the M.  Disagreement is widespread among lesbians, as among feminists generally, over whether (or within what limits) this motivation and consent can make sadomasochistic play all right, ethically, and over the question what attitudes and policies are appropriate for outsiders to take, especially feminists who are not part of the culture.  Pat Califia added to the second edition of Coming to Power a long essay summarizing a history of collision with San Francisco feminists over attempts of Samois to rent feminist space and to participate in lesbian-feminist events, such as marches.(9)  A better candidate for horizontal hostility than consensual sadomasochism may be the sparring that has gone on for more than a decade between lesbian sadomasochist liberationists and lesbian feminists who oppose sadomasochism.  Addressing such differences is now among the issues.

My own approach to sadomasochism initially, to the extent that I thought about it, was the liberal, "sexual preference" approach.  I have not participated in sadomasochist culture.  My knowledge of it comes from participants' writings.  Yet, I am no stranger to sadomasochistic sexual desires and fantasies, nor to their sexual enactment, although my direct expeirence has been neither extensive nor intensive.  For the better part of two decades I have distanced myself from such experiments as a result of forming a different view, more social, less individualistic, in the context of two political struggles:  the struggle of feminists against women's complicity in patriarchy and that of gay men and lesbians against homophobic presentations of homosexuality as violent and dangerous.

My present approach perceives sexual sadomasochism as enacting, in an eroticized and often playful make-believe fashion, roles of dominance and subordinance that characterize not only authoritarian adult-child relationships within the family or authoritarian religious relationships but, more generally, the norms of a patriarchal, misogynist society that is also riddled with homophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of oppression.  On this understanding, sadomasochistic desires have roots not simply in individual psychologies but in society at large; they are not mysterious givens but social constructions.  The direction of my ethical concern has shifted, accordingly, more to the process of their construction than to that of their enactment.  However, beliefs about the meanings and consequences of their enactment remain critical to this concern.  In what follows, I try to clarify, conceptually, what "consensual sadomasochism" is, to distinguish issues pertaining to masochism from those pertaining to sadism, and to sort out some of the critical empirical questions regarding both.  While I do not answer the empirical questions, I explore what might follow, ethically, if certain answers were true.

The Paradox of Masochism

Richard von Krafft-Ebing coined the term "masochism" late in the nineteenth century after the German novelist Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (1836-1896 or 1905), who portrayed the phenomenon in some of his novels, the best-known of which is Venus in Furs (1870).(10)  In Sacher-Masoch's novels, the masochist is a man who seeks, receives and enjoys punishment and humiliation from a woman who willingly dishes them out; the man becomes ever more attracted to her as a result.  This is paradoxical.  Masochism, unlike sadism, sounds like a self-contradictory concept:  how can one enjoy one's own pain or suffering if one's pain or suffering is, by definition, a sensation or other experience that one does not enjoy?  How can one want to suffer, if suffering is, by definition, not getting what one wants?  That some apparently do want and enjoy it is the paradox of masochism.  No such perplexity attaches to sadism, which requires only that one person enjoy causing pain to others.

One response to the paradox of masochism is to accept the contradiction as real and deny that masochism is genuinely possible.  There remains, then, to explain phenomena that appear masochistic.  Two ways readily suggest themselves.  One cites a pleasurable physiological response to pain, claiming that this pleasure is the ultimate object of so-called masochistic desires and that pain is tolerated only as a means to this pleasurable response.  The other is to argue that what a so-called masochist really wants is to please the sadist, perhaps that only the sadist wants to cause pain.

On the physiological response theory, one writer reports that the release of "opiate-like" endorphins throughout the central nervous system in response to stress can produce a "profound sense of well-being," and that this experience may produce an attraction, even an addiction, that looks like, behaves like, an attraction to pain but is really a desire for the euphoria produced by the endorphins.(11)  On this hypothesis, what is sought for its own sake is the euphoria; pain is merely instrumental.  Presumably, if the euphoria could be obtained without the pain, say by injecting a drug, that would be just as satisfying.

The euphoria caused by release of endorphins may explain the apparent attraction of some "masochists" to physically painful experiences.  However, this hypothesis has limitations. Not all masochistic activity involves physical pain.  As Bloch's lengthy definition indicates, the source of excitement may be an illusion of pain, a threat, something shocking.  Just as common are scenes of humiliation, servitude, and nonphysical punishments.  The endorphin hypothesis seems incapable of explaining the attraction where there is no physical pain--unless emotional stress also releases endorphins.  Even then, it may be only part of the attraction.  Alternatively, the endorphin high may explain only what enables some masochists to tolerate pain without explaining why they want to tolerate it in the first place.

The hypothesis of pleasing the sadist may appear more plausible for sadomasochistic play that does not involve the infliction of significant physical pain or stress but involves other sorts of suffering, such as humiliation.  If what the apparent masochist wants is the approval of the sadist, and she would be happy to obtain this approval without having to suffer for it, the appearance of masochism is false.  One might say that she only incidentally plays the role of a masochist, that she does it without being a masochist.  However, if her desire is to please the sadist as such (as a sadist), this desire is as paradoxical as a simpler desire for pain and suffering.  This masochist does not want to please just anyone, but only a sadist; presumably, she would not be as happy to please the sadist without suffering.  If the sadist's sadism is essential to the masochist's desire to please her, submitting to pain is not just instrumental but is what it means to please the sadist.

For masochistic desire to be an intelligible, coherent notion, one needs a sophisticated theory of desire.  Such a theory acknowledges a distinction between "higher order" and "lower order" desires.(12)  A "higher order" desire is not a better one but simply one that is relatively abstract and has as its object--or as part of its object--another, usually more concrete, desire.  Thus, if the desire for a cigarette is a lower order desire (very concrete), the desire to quit smoking, in a way that involves no longer wanting to smoke or even positively wanting not to smoke, is higher order (as is the desire to be able to enjoy or to continue to enjoy smoking).  The objects of the latter desires, to want or to want not to, are themselves other desires.  The object of a higher order desire need not be the existence or cessation, however, of another desire.  The object can be instead the frustration or gratification of another (continuing) desire.  The point is that a higher order desire is one the object of which makes essential reference to yet another desire.  Thus, the desire to continue to gratify one's desire to smoke is higher order, as is the desire to have one's continuing desire for something frustrated.  The latter can be an example of a masochistic desire.  It need not be, of course, if one has an ulterior aim, such as improving one's health.  However, if I want my desire for something to be frustrated in order to experience the frustration, this higher order desire is masochistic.  In frustrating the relevant lower order desire, I am gratifying a higher order one.  Thus, I both get what I seek (on a higher level) and deny myself (on a lower one).

Just as desires can be higher or lower order, so can will or choice, and so can valuing.  A higher order choice (or expression of will) is one that has as part of its object yet another choice.  Legislation is an example of higher order choice.  It consists of choices that specify what people are or are not permitted to choose.  Higher order valuing has as (at least part of) what is valued (or disvalued) yet another value.  An example of higher order valuing is being ashamed of one's vanity.  Nietzsche's project of the revaluation of values was a project in higher order valuing.

Wanting to be humiliated or violated in ways that do not involve physical pain can be understood analogously to desiring pain.  To value being humiliated is to value (higher order) a thwarting of one's (relatively lower order) self-esteem.  To choose to be violated is a higher order choice to allow certain of one's lower order choices to be violated or to allow certain of one's boundaries to be crossed without one's lower order consent.

A sadomasochistic sexual contract expresses higher order choices.  Mutually agreed upon "safe words" (to be discussed more below) used by an M to signal an S to stop or cease escalating activity, make possible further higher order choices.  So understood, masochism is conceptually no more paradoxical than legislation or the idea of a social contract.  For social contracts and legislation express higher order choices that certain lower order choices be thwarted in certain ways.  The obvious difference, of course, is that one does not enter into a social contract, or consent to legislation, in order to experience this thwarting of certain lower order choices or in order to thwart them.  One hopes, rather, that such occasions will not arise or can be minimized.  But why one engages in sadism or masochism is a motivational puzzle, not a conceptual one.

The Contract:  Sanitizing Sadism

Female masochism has received more discussion than female sadism, at least from feminists.  An exception is Lorena Saxe's recent inquiry into whether female sadists should be admitted to feminist events, such as music festivals.(13)  It is frequently observed that many more participants in sadomasochistic culture prefer the masochist role, especially among women.(14)  Men who want a female dominatrix frequently have to hire a prostitute, who would not otherwise be interested.

If voluntary masochism presents a metaphysical paradox, the sadism of consensual sadomasochism presents an ethical one.  Consensual sadomasochism adds to the conceptual complexities of masochism the ethical complexities of a claim to make sadism acceptable by way of a contract.  How can it be right to cause unnecessary suffering deliberately?  The fact that someone is unnecessarily being made to suffer creates a presumption that the person is being wronged.  This presumption is said to be rebuttable by a contract, to which the M consents, explicity or implicitly.  The questions arise, then, whether, to what extent, with what limitations, under what conditions, if any, such a contract can rebut presumptions of wrongdoing.  Recall that, in law, even surgery would be a technical battery were it not for the patient's consent.(15)

Again, one response is to deny that apparently sadistic activities are really sadistic.  The idea here is that the sadist basically aims to please the masochist and that making her suffer is simply a means to doing so.  However, because sadistic desires to please masochists are the mirror image of the latter's desires to please sadists, the sadist is not off the hook simply by claiming that she aims only to please.  Her aim to cause suffering is no more incidental to her aim to please than the masochist's aim to submit to suffering is incidental to hers.

Some uses of the abbreviation "S&M" appear less than candid about what counts as sadomasochism.  One participant in a forum on sadomasochism, for example, claimed that "S&M" has become a generic term for "any inventive sexuality involving spoken or acted-out fantasy, psychodrama, domination and submission, sex toys, or conscious role-playing."(16)  This could lead one to think that masturbating with a vibrator or playing hide-and-seek with a sex partner might be examples of sadomasochism.  The distinguishing characteristics uniting items on this list, it seems, are imagination, make-believe, and playfulness.  In Western culture, perhaps anything that departs from the "missionary position" could count.  Thus practitioners contrast sadomasochism with "vanilla sex."

This make-believe and play understanding of sadomasochism is comparable to an understanding of pornography popular among consumers as simply an explicit portrayal of sexuality that is playful (hence, Playboy) rather than utilitarian, or is intended to arouse sexual desire rather than, say, simply to educate.  Feminist philosophers concerned about pornography as a purveyor of misogyny have worked to expose that what such definitions omit is ethically more important than what they acknowledge, namely, that the material that pornography eroticizes, treats playfully, and presents in a positive light is, in reality, derogatory, demeaning, or degrading to women, and that this is no mere coincidence but is an important aspect of the turn-on.(17)  The target of feminist protest has not been playfulness, inventiveness, or explicitness as such.  It has been material or activity that treats as a source of enjoyment the pain, humiliation, or violence, real or fantasized, that is inflicted on someone who is playing a woman or playing a slave (even if, as is often the case in overt sadomasochistic psychodrama and literature, the someone is in fact male and socially powerful).

Another way to avoid talking about pain, humiliation and violence is to define "sadomasochism" in terms of power.  Lesbian sadomasochists of Samois tend to hold the view that basic to all forms of sadomasochism is an eroticizing of power and powerlessness.  The sadomasochistic contract is presented as an "exchange of power."(18)  Like the playfulness definition, this can be misleading also  Giving up and exercising power need not involve pain, humiliation, or violence.  Still, seeing the sadomasochistic contract as an exchange of power can be clarifying, as long as we understand that the power is exchanged for sadistic and masochistic ends.

"Power" is ambiguous between a more general sense and a narrower sense.  For evaluating the sadism of sadomasochism, it matters what happens with power in each of these senses.  In the most abstract sense, power is potency, the ability to act.  "Energy" and "vitality" are near synonyms of "power" in this sense.  In a narrower sense, power refers to "control," the more specific abilities to determine or check the flow of energy or to determine its direction toward various goals.  The implications of having power in each of these senses are different.  Those in control, for example, often control the energies of others and may do it with relatively little energy of their own.

Candlepower, horsepower, and womanpower are measures of power as energy, not of power as control.  When Audre Lorde wrote of the erotic (in general) as empowering, she meant that it is energizing, not that it is controlling.(19)  Political power, on the other hand, is power in the "control" sense, the ability to determine the uses of energy by means of political norms.  The power "negotiated" in "consensual sadomasochism" is also, presumably, power in the "control" sense, which is also exercised to a great extent by way of norms.  Questions, then, for evaluating a sadomasochist contract include not only how it distributes control but also what its consequences are for the empowerment or disempowerment of the parties in the "energy" or "vitality" sense, perhaps especially whether it disempowers the masochist.

Defining "sadomasochism" in terms of power sounds promising for evaluating the sadism of sadomasochism.  For "oppression" is also definable in terms of power.  To be oppressed is to be rendered impotent, to have one's power in the "energy" sense severely curtailed and depressed in a lasting way.  To be oppressed is--as Marilyn Frye has argued--to be diminished, reduced, molded, immobilized.(20)  Consent may often rebut charges of exploitation, but it does not nullify oppression.  And consent of the oppressed  is, presumably, not freely given.

Let us consider, then, what occurs in a sadomasochistic exchange of power.  On one interpretation, an "exchange of power" between sexual partners seems harmless enough.  It may be characteristic of sexual interaction in general:  taking turns being in control of the other's feelings or sensations.  One does not necessarily give up the ability to control in giving up the "right" to exercise control, i.e., in allowing another to be in control, any more than one need give up one's driver's license in order to allow a partner to do the driving (one need abandon only the wheel).  Such exchanges need involve no pain, humiliation, or violence or even a fantasy thereof.  THe activity may be highly aggressive, vigorous, playful, teasing, and so forth without being at all hostile, violent, humiliating,  or painful (unless one counts as "pain" any stimulation of the pain receptors in the skin, in which cause, stroking is "painful," too).  I see no basis yet for attributions of either sadism or masochism.

The sadomasochist contract, however, need not involve any exchange of roles, any taking of turns.  The sadomasochistic exchange, as such, is different; it characterizes the relationship between a "top" and "bottom" as such, without presupposing that they are going to trade places.  Each party gives up one kind of power in exchange for another.  The S gets power over (control over) the M at the level of the M's lower order choice, in exchange for submitting to the M's higher order choices (her form of control over the S), which are expressible through the use of "safe words."  Both agree, at a higher level yet, to abide by this exchange.  Often, the script of sadomasochistic drama is provided by the M, although who provides the script can vary, as long as the M retains a veto.

This understanding of the contract seems to impose limits on what an S is permitted to do.  To retain the ability to check the S, an M must be aware of what is being done.  LIkewise, to honor an M's higher order choices, an S also must be aware of what she is doing and of what the M wants at the higher level.  The judgment of both must remain unimpaired.  These conditions should rule out significant consumption of alcohol or other drugs.  Some S's, as a matter of principle, abstain from alcohol or other drug consumption prior to and during sadomasochistic sex, and insist that their partners do likewise.  These conditions may also seem to rule out treatment that would prevent the M from using her safe words or the S from understanding them in time.

Abdication of lower level choice by an M need not be disempowering.  Carrying out another's orders may require considerable energy.  However, some classic activities of sadomasochism, such as bondage, do curb agency, not simply control, at least temporarily.  Being tied and gagged with a hood over one's head severely impedes communication.  A clear safe word should be more specific than a groan or a wiggle.  To prevent fatal accidents and keep open the possibility of communication, a sadomasochist agreement should also include advance safety understandings, such as that no one will be left tied up unattended or left face down in soft material that might hamper breathing.  Scrupulous M's are expected to inform S's in advance of disabilities, disorders, or vulnerabilities, such as allergies, diabetes, or heart trouble.  These precautions are taken from an essay on safety in Coming to Power, whose author insists that such advice is only common sense.(21)  For those seeking the thrill of danger, however, that may not be obvious.  Concern for basic safety and keeping open the lines of communication may compete with the pleasures sought.  Constant higher order communication may disrupt the spirit of play, intruding too much reality.  All that is clear is that if higher order consent is to be continuously consulted, such precautions set limits.  What is not clear is that consensual sadomasochists will be interested in continuous consultation.

Because the S is supposed to submit to the M's safe words, and because the M often writes the script, some maintain that the M has more power.  However, that is not obvious, either.  Who can best protect herself when things go wrong?  When the other party, through anger, frustration, or ineptitude, violates the contract?  Aside from withholding information, who is in the best position to violate it?  Retaining the ability to resist the S would seem prudent in case the S does not respond or respond rapidly enough to the M's safe words, although an M may not be much interested in prudence.  The usual response of lesbian sadomasochists has been that an S who does not respect an M's limits soon finds herself partnerless (which may be cold comfort to an individual M).  That suggests, however, a more general consideration.  One's power is in part a function of alliances with others.  Fear of retailation might restrain an S who is tempted to go beyond the contract or disregard safe words.

The situation of men who enjoy playing the M in relation to female prostitutes is instructive here.  In a society that systematically gives men power over women, men usually have enough ability to retaliate that a female S is, ultimately, very much in their power.  On this basis, John Stoltenberg has argued that sadomasochism may be limberating for men in a way that it cannot be for women in a patriarchy.(22)

The position of prostitutes in relation to clients is exacerbated by the fact that they are outlaws.  Lesbians are also outlaws.  As long as a lesbian M can rely on the safe word convention, she has its power at her disposal.  But what makes that convention reliable?  What power backs it?  Bat-Ami Bar On, in considering this difficulty, finds first, that the ability to set limits by safe words is only a negative power (veto) and second, that the power of the safe word is not even possessed by the individual masochist as such but at most by the class of masochists and only insofar as sadists depend for their own gratification on the existence and cooperation of masochists.  In a class situation, she argues, this is like the power that stems from the dependence of the oppressors on the oppressed.  Such dependence "secures the oppressed class against total destruction, although it does not secure all of its members against total destruction.  And it secures none of its members treatment that is fair, enhancing of freedom and respectful of persons...This is the same kind of protection that slaves have in a slave-based economy and which Jews in Nazi Germany lacked because they were considered utterly disposable."(23)

Where a particular kind of sadomasochistic activity diminishes a lesbian M's agency, placing her at the mercy of the S's scruples and competence, the exchange is critically unequal, even though a lesbian S has no better social alliances than a lesbian M.  Setting aside the case of a suicidal M, the S is often better able to act.  Whereas the M may be in jeopardy of unintended injury, or even death, should the S become angry, careless, or misunderstand, the S in such contingencies risks at most being charged with assault, battery, or murder, offenses seldom prosecuted successfully when they are committed in privacy during sexual activity.

Perhaps the fact that sadomasochist contracts are outlaw contracts should give would-be S's and M's reason to be cautious about relying on them.  It might be argued that a condition of rational consent to a contract is adequate assurance that parties to such contracts will in general abide by them, that the contract conventions will be upheld, some reliable saction imposed if a contract is violated.  However, this argument ignores the rationality of risk-taking.  Further, the outlaw aspect may contribute to the thrill of it all.  If enjoyment of risk is a major motivation for engaging in sadomasochism in the first place, the lack of backing for the safe word convention might add to the risks enjoyed.  An M may enjoy being at the mercy of her S's goodwill and competence.  She may even enjoy being at the mercy of luck, perhaps seeing her life in general that way, anyhow.

To summarize, although conditions required by the sadomasochist contract and its conventions in principle impose some limits on harmful behavior, they do so only on the interpretation of the contract as requiring the possibility of continuous communication.  Reliance upon the consent principle, however, would seem to rule out subjecting unconsenting parties to witnessing the enactment of sadomasochist contracts and/or even, in some cases, to witnessing the resulting damage.  Such witnessing, as Iwan Bloch's definition acknowledges, is itself one of the forms that sadomasochistic sexual behavior can take.  Observing this scruple may require considerable restraint in coming out behavior and in political demonstrations by sadomasochists.

Were an M to consent in full knowledge of the risks, it would seem difficult to maintain, if things turn out badly for her, that she was wronged by the S, or that the S acted unethically (whatever one may think of her sources of pleasure).  This leaves open the possibility, however, that both are wronged by a larger society that is responsible for the construction of their desires in the first place.  Whether outsiders to consensual sadomasochism who are members of such a society can have good reason to intervene to stop, prevent, or limit consensual sadomasochism would seem to depend, in part, on the wider social consequences of sadomasochistic indulgence.  I turn next to hypotheses about such consequences.

Social Consequences:   Catharsis, Addiction, or Harmless Compulsion?

From a contract to undergo surgery, the expected consequence is the patient's improved health (and a sizeable fee for the surgeon).  The expected consequences of sadomasochism, however, other than sexual pleasure, are a subject of much dispute.

The most vigorously opposing views most frequently expressed in my classes and in the literature fall roughly into two camps, the catharsis (or safety valve)  camp, and the addiction camp.  Both catharsis and addiction suggest a medical model which has not been generally characteristic of lesbian feminist approaches to sexuality.  Actually, the idea of illness is not basic to the disagreement.  These terms capture deep disagreement about the relationships of sadomasochistic "pretend hostility" to real hostility and about the social consequences of sexual sadomasochism.

On the addiction view, sadomasochism is itself a problem; on the catharsis view, it remedies other problems.  On the catharsis view, sadomasochistic desires are thought to have sources external to the sadomasochistic drama itself--for example, in mistreatment suffered or witnessed involuntarily by the agent early in life--and sadomasochistic play is said to be a way to get rid of hostility safely.(24)  The addiction hypothesis, on the contrary, holds that sadomasochistic play itself gives rise to sadomasochistic desires, intensifying those enacted with a frightening potential to reinforce real hostility.(25)  The conflict between these views was expressed poignantly in astudy of extreme and extensive sadomasochistic activity of male politicians with prostitutes in Washington, DC:  "Is it a principle of catharsis which is operating here, or does this behavior lead to an accumulation of pressure which eventually may cause them to lose control in situations where a disciplined rationality is essential to our very survival."(26)

Also, there is more than one addiction model.  Perhaps some forms of sadomasochism such as those involving acute physical stress or pain, are more likely to be addictive than others in a physiological way, as the endorphin hypothesis suggests.  This might account for the tendency of some masochists to become involved in heavier scenes over time.  It would not, however, explain similar escalations of sadism, except indirectly (that is, in so far as the sadist was responding to or identifying with the escalating desires of the masochist).  The American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual notes under its entry for "sexual masochism" that some "may engage in masochistic acts for many years without increasing the potential injuriousness of their acts" while others "increase the severity of the masochistic acts over time or during periods of stress."(27)  But under the entry for "sexual sadism" the DSM-III-R claims that "usually, however, the severity of the sadistic acts increases over time."(p 287)  If the difference between these claims is warranted, there may be different addictive mechanisms for sadism and for masochism.

The addiction model of sadomasochism need not rest on a physiological hypothesis, such as the endorphin hypothesis.  More simply, it may rest on the observation that erotic or sexual behavior that is satisfying tends to be self-reinforcing.  This view would apply to both sadistic and masochistic satisfactions.  Erotic fixations seem capable of behaving like addictions, in that those who become fixated report being at a loss for how to alter such desires, when they want to.(28)  Perhaps not all participants, however, are fixated.  According to one study based on interviews with men in the middle 1970s, only 16% indicated that they would like sex exclusively with sadomasochism,  while 32% indicated that they would like predominantly such sex, and another 32% indicated that they would like sex equally often with and without sadomasochism.(29)

Those who take sadomasochism simply as a mysterious given of human variation, a sexual preference, a matter of taste, tend to regard lesbianism, bisexuality, and heterosexuality in the same way.(30)  Thus many are puzzled at the apparent hypocrisy or arbitrariness of feminists who support lesbianism but oppose sadomasochism.  Thinking of sadomasochism as a sexual preference suggests the liberal view that participants have only the responsibility not to visit unwanted harm on others, that the exercise of their preferences is otherwise a matter of individual liberty, nothing for others to be concerned about, as long as participants are consenting adults acting in private.  Thus the liberal view encourages a nonjudgmental attitude or toleration within limits.  It also assumes that participants can keep from visiting unwanted harm on others, an assumption that seems unwarranted as long as the sources of such desires are not understood.

In the context of a sexually oppressive and repressive society, the liberal view may give way to a movement to provide social support for the self-esteem of sadomasochists and to offer socially supported space for the exercise of sadomasochism.  Thus liberalism may give way to sexual liberationism which supplants nonjudgmentalism with a positive endorsement.  To gain social support, it usually helps to be able to claim to offer a social benefit.  This is what the catharsis view does in maintaining that consensual sadomasochism provides a safe outlet for potentially harmful and destructive impulses.  For an S, the catharsis view provides justification additional to the consent of the M.  It enables an S to hold that the acceptability of the sadism of sadomasochism is also a function of its cathartic value with respect to hostile impulses of the sadist and self-destructive ones of the M.  The catharsis view need not deny the sadism of the S; catharsis, like happiness, may require a certain motivational detachment of the parties from that end.  That is, catharsis may be more likely if one does not deliberately aim at it, just as happiness is more likely if one does not pursue it too self-consciously.(31)   Yet, the parties might regard the cathartic effects of sadomasochism as tending to justify to others what they do, staving off their interference, if not positively enlisting their support.

Many lesbian feminist sexual liberationists today, like their feminist critics, hold a social rather than individualistic view of the roots of sadomasochism.  Appealing to catharsis, however, they conclude that consensual sadomasochism in an oppressive society deserves the support of feminists and others who would resist that oppression.  Some maintain that the make-believe of sadomasochism can be sources of insight into oppression, that they can indicate a healthy independence of the players from the abuse mimicked, and that they can actually heal damage of oppression.(32)  One contributor to Coming to Power claimed that sadomasochistic sex had enabled her and her partner to save their relationship from destruction by jealous hostilities that were generated by their nonmonogamous behavior.(33)

Thus, whether outsiders are endangered or protected by consensual sadomasochism seems to depend on whether the catharsis or the addiction view is closer to the truth.  On the catharsis view, acting out sadomasochistic desires with a consenting and knowledgeable partner decreases the likelihood that the parties will support or engage in violence against unconsenting others.  On the addiction view, sadomasochistic desires are fostered to a great extent by sadomasochistic activity itself, consensual or not, as the desire for a drug is fostered by using it, and they can become stronger with participation, much as one can come to need more and more of a drug in order to get the same satisfaction that a lower dose produced initially.

On the addiction view, then, the question arises whether "sadomasochistic addicts" will seek their pleasures outside the bounds of the contract, as drug addicts who would otherwise be law-abiding may be led into crime to support their addiction.  Will they find themselves enjoying real domination or subordination in oppressive societies, domination and subordination without consent?  Will sadomasochistic play foster make-believe with respect to real power imbalances and oppression, encouraging indulgence of the fantasy that the power of others is held by consent of the dominated?  A contributor to Lesbian Ethics appears to acknowledge this danger as a problem, calling for watchfulness.(34)  This is not only a concern for would-be S's and M's, however.  It is a concern for outsiders.

Not only does the addiction model suggest that outsiders may be harmed, but also it suggests that the ethical validity of the contract is undermined.  A contract between free and equal adults who know what they are doing ordinarily is taken to nullify complaints of either party against the other, a rule understood in law as the rule that "consent nullifies harm."  More specifically, it nullifies injustice.  Certain considerations are commonly understood to limit the ability of a contract to rebut the presumption that anyone is harmed unjustly; the parties must be adequately informed and their consent must be free (uncoerced).

For addictive behavior, neither of these conditions may be met adequately.  For the information requirement, the parties would have to be aware not only of immediate likely consequences, but also of the likelihood of addiction, information not readily available in a society that does not support dissemination of information about sexual sadomasochism.  Addictions also diminish freedom to withdraw, raising the question whether the freedom condition is met adequately--for either party.  If the M's addiction undermines her consent, the presumption of wrongdoing may also be undermined by the S's addiction, for the S's addiction would call into question her responsible agency.  The observation that addictions diminish freedom to withdraw suggests that over time, what began as a consensual activity may cease to be clearly consensual, not because of communication problems but because of diminished responsible agency on the part of either or both parties.

Catharsis and addiction are not the only possible hypotheses, however.  Neither may be right as a generalization about everything that participants have wanted to include under the umbrella of sadomasochism.  Another suggestion is that sexual sadism and masochism are compulsions rather than addictions, and that like handwashing compulsions, they may not get worse over time, even if they stubbornly resist eradication.(35)  Sadistic and masochistic compulsions, however, still raise some of the same disturbing questions as addictions:  Will indulging such compulsions encourage one also to enjoy vicariously the involuntary suffering of others in society at large, and thus compete with one's motivation to prevent such suffering?   Do such compulsions underlie the current popularity of violence in films and novels? Do they thereby encourage a spread of such compulsions to new generations?

As a generalization, the catharsis hypothesis seems to oppose the addiction and compulsion hypothesis, in that catharsis is supposed to be good for society, whereas compulsion is not supposed to offer any particular social benefit, and addiction seems likely to be socially bad.  Yet some combination of these views may be closer to the truth.  Some sexually sadistic or masochistic desires may have sources in childhood abuse, as the catharsis hypothesis tends to hold, and some kinds of playful sadomasochistic enactment may also reinforce such desires and even intensify them instead of providing a "safety valve" or catharsis.

Similar questions may be asked about the effects of expressing (real) anger.  Does failure to express anger bottle it up until it explodes destructively, whereas letting oneself get angry gets rid of the anger safely?  Or, on the contrary, does expressing anger reinforce it, making one even angrier, instead of getting rid of it, increasing instead of decreasing the likelihood of destructive behavior?  Is repeatedly expressing anger simply a compulsion that some people have?  Perhaps none of these hypotheses is true of all kinds of anger, or of all ways of suppressing or expressing it.  Perhaps there are ways in which each can be true, and the same may be true of the variety of activities that have been called sadomasochistic.

A Possible Reconciliation

My conclusions are in the form of more questions and hypotheticals.  I find far more ethical questions surrounding this topic than are usually discussed.  It may be apparent by now that there are as many questions of right and wrong as there are agents involved and kinds of sadomasochistic activity.  There are questions for masochists, for sadists, for outsiders who believe they may be harmed, for supporters and beneficiaries of the norms that sadomasochism reenacts, and for victims of those norms, and there may be as many ethical questions for each of these parties as there are others with whom they interact.  For sadists and masochists, there are questions regarding their treatment of each other, but also regarding their responses to outsiders and regarding their responses to genuine oppression.  For outsiders, there are not only questions regarding their interaction with sadomasochists, but also regarding their interaction with those who support the oppressive norms that sadomasochistic drama mimics.

What has received most attention are the implications of the addiction and catharsis hypothesis for the ethics of sadists' and masochists' treatment of each other, and for the ethics of their interaction with outsiders and of outsiders with them.  If sadomasochistic sexuality undermines resistance to oppression by eroticizing domination and subordinance, that is cause for social as well as individual concern.  However, it does not follow that social concern should be focused on or directed primarily to consensual sadomasochism itself. Both the addiction and catharsis models suggest that sadomasochism signals underlying social distress.  Even if consensual sadomasochism creates and intensifies potentially harmful and destructive desires, and even if participants in consensual sadomasochism are in that way complicit in maintaining the forces of oppression, sexual sadomasochism does not appear to be a fundamental source in an oppressive society of the hostilities to which it gives vent.

The addiction model suggests that social concern be directed primarily to the relevant social norms of domination and subordinance and to those who profit most from their continuance.  Those who profit most from drug addiction are neither addicts nor those who sell directly to addicts, but those who control both and who need fear no serious opposition to anything they do from those who are hooked and dependent on them for a regular fix.  Likewise, those who profit most from sadomasochism may not be its participants, either, but those whose oppressive social practices are a source of fantasy for participants and who need fear little serious opposition from those whose fantasies they feed.(36)

The catharsis model is also suggestive in other ways than those emphasized by sadomasochists with respect to wider social concerns.  For, like the addiction model, it suggests the question once asked by Audre Lorde in an interview on sadomasochism, "Who benefits from lesbians beating on each other?"(37)  Who profits from this "catharsis"?  Who might otherwise have been the target of sadomasochistic hostilities?

An interesting answer is suggested in a criticism that Sarah Hoagland once brought against sadomasochism as an irresponsible illusion whereby we get to play at having power over each other instead of seeking the real political power needed to end oppression.(38)  If she is right, sadomasochism can sublimate desires for real political power.  Consequently, those with real political power in an oppressive society would benefit most from the sadomasochism of others, as antifeminists may profit most from feminists battling one another over sadomasochism.  Without the catharsis of sadomasochism, participants' hostilities might have been directed against social oppression.  But if we become addicted or compulsively fixated in sadomasochism, eroticizing roles of dominance and subordinance, whatever hostility spills over the bounds of the contracts seems more likely to be directed against those who would resist oppression.  Thus, sadomasochism may purge us of revolutionary impulses, not only by getting rid of our hostilities, but also by redirecting them, channeling them ultimately against ourselves and those who should be our allies.  If so, what sadomasochism eliminates are hostile impulses that might otherwise be used in politically productive ways to bring about real social change.  This would make the sadomasochism of others safe for oppressors.

On the other hand, if empirical investigation were to reveal that participants in sexual sadomasochism are in general as politically resistant to oppression as their feminist critics, that might suggest that neither the catharsis model nor the addiction model captures well the consequences of sadomasochistic activity for real hostility or real destructiveness.

Even if the addiction and catharsis models do capture cooperatively such consequences--if sadomasochistic practice does reinforce socially oppressive norms, refocus potential revolutionaries, keep them too preoccupied and too attached to existing structures to seek real social change--the most important social intervention for critics is not into consensual sexual sadomasochistic activity, but into the oppressive norms that sadomasochism eroticizes:  norms of servitude, cruelty, misogyny, racism, and so on.  What is required to make sadomasochistic contracts unattractive to lesbians and unprofitable to oppressors may be nothing less than a restructuring of society or the creation of a new one.


1. See Marilyn Frye, Willful Virgin: Essays in Feminism (Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1992), pp. 109-19, on impoverished vocabulary for what lesbians do.

2. For an example of such protest, see Alice Walker, “A Letter of the Times, or Should This Sado-Masochism Be Saved?In You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down: Stories by Alice Walker (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovitch, 1981), pp. 118-23.

3. Sandra Lee Bartky, Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression (New York: Routledge, 1990), pp. 45-62, presents such a view of feminine masochism.

4. Havelock Ellis, “Love and Pain,” in Studies in the Psychology of Sex (2 vols.: New York: Random House, 1942), 1:2:105-6, quoting E. Duhren (pseudonym of Iwan Bloch), Der Marquis de Sade und Seine Zeit (3d ed.; 1901), p. 449.

5. Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, trans. W.J. H. Sprott (New York: Norton, 1933), pp. 142 ff; and Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, trans. and ed. A.A. Brill (New York: Modern Library, 1938), pp. 569-71.

6. What Color Is Your Handkerchief: A Lesbian S/M Sexuality Reader, ed. Samois (Berkeley, CA: Samois, 1979); Coming to Power: Writings and Graphics on Lesbian S/M (2nd ed. rev. and expanded; Boston: Alyson Publications, 1982). “Samois,” from Pauline Reage, The Story of O, trans. Sabine d’Estree (New York, 1965) is the place where O is tortured.

7. I use “M” (hereafter without quotation marks to refer to one playing the masochist in a contract and, likewise, “S” to refer to one playing the sadist. 8. The code is reproduced in Coming to Power, p. 66.

9. Pat Califia, “A Personal View of the History of the Lesbian S/M Community and Movement in San Francisco,” in Coming to Power, pp. 243-81.

10. According to James Cleugh, The Marquis and the Chevalier: A study in the Psychology of Sex as Illustrated by the Lives and Personalities of the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814) and the Chevalier von Sacher-Masoch (1836-1905) (New York: Duel, Sloan and Pearce, 1952), Sacher-Masoch was incarcerated in an asylum for the insane at Mannheim in 1895 and his death publicly reported soon thereafter, although he did not in fact die until 1905. On the term “masochism,” see Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Psychopathia Sexualis: A Medico-Forensic Study, trans. Harry E. Wedeck (New York: Putnam, 1965), p. 159.

11. Lawrence Mass, “Coming to Grips with Sadomasochism,” in S and M:Studies in Sadomasochism, ed. Thomas Weinberg and G. W. Levi Kamel (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1983), pp. 53-54.

12. The notion of higher order desires is from Harry G. Frankfurt, The Importance of What We Care About: Philosophical Essays (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 11-25.

13. Lorena Saxe, “Sadomasochism and Exclusion,” Hypatia 7, no. 4 (Fall 1992), pp. 59-72.

14. Paul Gebhard, for example, claims, “Sadists are far rarer than masochists, and female sadists are so highly prized that masochists will travel hundreds of miles to meet them.” Gebhard, “Sadomasochism,” in S and M, ed. Weinberg and Kamel, p. 36.

15. Joseph R. Nolan and Jacqueline M. Nolan-Haley, Black’s Law Dictionary: Definitions of the Terms and Phrases of American and English Jurisprudence, Ancient and Modern (6th ed.; St. Paul, MN: West, 1990), p. 153. See also chapter 6, above, on battery.

16. Ian Young, “Forum on Sadomasochism,” Lavender Culture, ed. Karla Jay and Allen Young (New York: Jove/HBJ, 1978), p. 85. He contrasts this with a narrower sense according to which “S&M” is sex involving pain, either physical (such as slapping or spanking) or symbolic (such as enacted domination or restraint of one partner by another).

17. See, for example, Helen E. Longino, “Pornography, Oppression, and Freedom: A Closer Look,” in Take Back the Night: Women on Pornography, ed. Laura Lederer (New York: Morrow, 1980), pp. 40-54.

18. The glossary in What Color Is Your Handkerchief defined “S/M” as “a form of eroticism based on an eroticized exchange of power negotiated between two or more sexual partners, “ p. 7. Contributors to Coming to Power also tend to work with an understanding of “S/M” as an exchange of power.

19. Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, (Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press, 1984), pp. 53-59.

20. Marilyn Frye, The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory (Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press, 1983), pp. 1-16.

21. Janet Bellwether, “Love Means Never Having to Say Oops: A Lesbian’s Guide to S/M Safety,” in Coming to Power, pp. 69-79.

22. John Stoltenberg, “Sadomasochism: Eroticized Violence, Eroticized Powerlessness,” in Against Sadomasochism: A Radical Feminist Analysis, ed. Robin Ruth Linden, Darlene R. Pagano, Diana E.H. Russell, and Susan Leigh Star (East Palo Alto, CA: Frog in the Well Press, 1982), pp. 124-30.

23. Bat-Ami Bar On, “Feminism and Sadomasochism: Self-Critical Notes,” in Against Sadomasochism, ed. Linden et al., p. 79.

24. Gerald and Caroline Green, S-M: The Last Taboo (New York: Grover, 1974), esp. pp. 45-61.

25. Marissa Jonel (pseudonym) reports that for her the practice was addictive, habituating. “I was frightened when I felt myself feeling less and needing more real pain to get excited. It’s like drugs—you develop a quick tolerance to the pain.” Jonel, “Letter from a Former Masochist,” in Against Sadomasochism, ed. Linden et al., p. 18.

26. James, Bess, and Saltus, A Sexual Profile of Men in Power (1978), quoted by Lawrence Mass in “Coming to Grips with Sadomasochism,” S and M, ed. Weinberg and Kamel, p. 49.

27. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (3d ed. rev.; Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association, 1987), p. 286.

28. For an interesting discussion of the concept of addiction, see Robert E. Goodin, No Smoking: The Ethical Issues (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), pp. 95-100.

29. Andreas Spengler, “Manifest Sadomasochism of Males: Results of an Empirical Study,” in S and M, ed. Weinberg and Kamel, pp. 57-72. See table IX, p. 68.

30. This view is expressed by Pat Califia, “A Secret Side of Lesbian Sexuality,” in S and M, ed. Weinberg and Kamel, p. 129.

31. For a classic discussion of this point, see Bishop Joseph Butler, Sermon #11, in Fifteen Sermons Preached at Rolls Chapel (first published in 1726) (London: G. Bell & Sons, 1976), pp. 164-83.

32. Pat Califia, for example, writes, “Why would anyone want to be dominated, given the risks? Because it is a healing process. As a top, I find the old wounds and unappeased hunger I nourish, I cleanse and close the wounds. I devise and mete out appropriate punishment for old, irrational sins…A good scene doesn’t end with orgasm-- it ends with catharsis.” “A Secret Side of Lesbian Sexuality,” p. 134.

33. Susan Farr, “The Art of Discipline: Creating Erotic Dramas of Play and Power,” in Against Sadomasochism, ed. Linden et al., p. 186.

34. Jeanne F. Neath, “Let’s Discuss Dyke S/M and Quit the Name Calling: A Response to Sheila Jeffreys,” Lesbian Ethics 2, no. 3 (Summer 1987), p. 97.

35. Sandra Bartky, in personal correspondence, called my attention to this possibility.

36. It is possible, of course, for addicts to resist addiction, and yet, the generalization holds.

37. Audre Lorde and Susan Leigh Star, “Interview with Audre Lorde,” in Against Sadomasochism, ed. Linden et al., p. 67.

38. Sarah Hoagland, “Sadism, Masochism, and Lesbian Feminism,” in Against Sadomasochism,/em>, ed. Linden et al., p. 160.