The fervour, with which the world awaited the recent release of the movie version of E L James’s 50 Shades of Grey, cast a light on the growing social acceptance of that which has long been a dark and largely taboo subject.
The demand for and controversy arising from Pauline Réage’s erotic novel, The Story of O, did precisely the same almost 50 years ago, but both works pale by comparison with the writings of Donatien Alphonse François de Sade and Leopold Ritter Sacher-Masoch — for whom the terms sadism and masochism were coined.
Born in France in 1740, the Marquis de Sade spent 32 of his 74 years imprisoned or incarcerated in an asylum.
While he’s best remembered for the sexual encounters described in his work, Les 120 Journées de Sodome, he was, when alive, best known for the fear he instilled in the servants and prostitutes who learnt first-hand his sexual preference centred around extreme violence.
While de Sade’s passion was for inflicting suffering, Sacher-Masoch’s was for receiving it. Born in Austria in 1836, his best-known novel, Venus in Furs, was doubtless influenced by the contract he signed with his mistress, Baroness Fanny Pistor, which made him her slave for six months.
During that time she agreed she would always wear fur to signal she was in a particularly cruel mood.
This novel paved the way for much that is conventional today in the world of sadomasochism (SM).
Of course, ‘conventional’ isn’t a word that’s normally associated with sadomasochism, an activity that involves the inflicting or receiving of pain or humiliation for sexual gratification.
Yet, it’s more mainstream than most imagine. In a Janus Report on Sexual Behaviour, 14% of men and 11% of women had some experience of sadomasochism — and this was back in 1993.
In his book Perv, Dr Jesse Bering writes that in the 19th century, the Apinajé women of Brazil used to bite off a lover’s eyebrows and spit them out while having sex.
He also refers to the early Hindus of India, who heightened consciousness during sexual intercourse, by dulling physical sensations through sadistic acts.
While the breadth of such acts is possibly as broad as the imagination of the participants, Bering throws light on one form of the practice: ‘Consensual tickling isn’t unusual for those into SM and usually it’s quite harmless. But when it’s done mercilessly against someone’s will, tickling is no less than torture.’
For those who enter adult shops and leave with a pair of fluffy handcuffs torture is likely to be the last thing on their minds.
Yet there are others — those with sexual sadism disorder — whose idea of the activity is so dark that it either causes significant distress to the individual, or it manifests in his/her inflicting physical or psychological suffering on non-consenting individuals.
Asked whether BDSM (bondage, discipline (or domination), sadism and masochism) is an innate drive, something that’s naturally within some people, New York City-based sex therapist Dr Stephen Snyder says: “In some, there seems to be a story behind their taste for BDSM; often emotional trauma from childhood. In others, it just seems to be the way they’re ‘wired.’ For them, the potential seems to be innate. Many sex therapists think of kink as similar to a sexual orientation; like being straight or gay. I think there’s some validity to that.”
Dublin based psychotherapist and expert in matters psychosexual Margaret Dunne agrees: “While it’s commonly thought those who engage in BDSM do so because they experienced rape, sexual abuse or trauma, research shows this is more likely to be true of only half of them.
“While 50% might have had a difficult or dysfunctional background and BDSM is their way of acting that out, putting closure on it, or in some way coming to terms with it by releasing anxiety and tension, the rest engage in it because it’s their sexual preference.”
Stephanie Hunter Jones — a Los Angeles based sex-positive therapist who describes herself as a ‘hands on’ intimacy advisor who has worked as a professional BDSM, fetish and kink player — said suppressing natural BDSM desires is harmful as it not only can cause depression, anxiety and low self-esteem, it can also undermine relationships.
“Most people are disconnected from their sexuality because of shame, upbringing, religion, or fear,” she continues.
“Although BDSM play is not for everyone, if more individuals allowed themselves to connect to their desires and passions, they might be surprised at the fantasies that lie within them. If they were able to take it a step further, they would certainly be surprised at how fun sex play is, and how natural it feels.”
Dr Snyder agrees that for those who are strongly into BDSM, suppressing it ‘might never feel right.’
“For such a person, trying to be satisfied with vanilla sex would be like a gay person trying to be in a straight relationship.”
As for whether dabbling in BDSM is like opening a Pandora’s Box; one that may lead to dark places, Margaret Dunne says it can be: “It can be hard to know when you first try something, where it will take you. Just as those who first watch pornography are likely to start out with mild stuff, over time, they need more to get aroused.
“This leads to some becoming desensitised and seeking out hardcore seriously degrading (usually to women) material of the sort that, they tell me, would have turned their stomachs in the earlier days.”
Asked whether it’s true that the heavier side of SM —that involves hurting, cutting and otherwise inflicting injury — is quite rare, Dr Snyder replies: “I believe the more extreme the kink, the smaller the number of people who are into it. But I have no data on this.”
“Every player is different,” adds Hunter Jones.
“Just as every individual’s sexuality is different. There are individuals who want to hurt others and individuals who want to be hurt.
“However, this is a fact of life, one that’s not necessarily tied to the BDSM world. Everyone must use their intuition and stay away from those types of people; unless it’s their thing, and it’s between consenting adults.”
But surely most people don’t really want to hurt others or be hurt? “It’s most common for players to be light, medium, and sensual players; however heavier players usually seek other heavy players,” she says.
The complexity of the desire is explained further by Dunne: “Psychiatrists once believed this was deviant perverted behaviour, a mental health issue, but it’s complex when two consenting adults are involved.
“SM goes against what’s normal and respectful in intimate sexual relations,” she continues.
“Degrading and humiliating is the opposite of making love. One inflicts pain on the other in the search for power, control and satisfaction. This can be a heady mixture and dangerous if lines are crossed, as nobody knows in advance how far things might go. That said, usually it is poor prior negotiation that leads to things going wrong.”
While most would imagine the dominant individual has all of the power, Hunter Jones throws light: “Submissives are actually the ones who’re in complete control of the scene, because they may use the safe word at any time to stop the play.”
“Often there’s a power struggle,” adds Dunne.
“The mental capacity of the person who is on the receiving end may be such that they’re in some way, easy prey. They get reeled in by those who tell them BDSM will deliver a high like they’ve never experienced before.”
As for how agony can deliver bliss, she explains: “Participants report, while they feel the pain initially, they then enter an altered state of ecstasy, at which point the body releases endorphins, and euphoric pleasure takes over. This creates bonding and intimacy between the parties.”
BDSM used to be taboo. Now it’s not. What’s the appeal?
“Individuals, especially females, are hungry for a unique voice of sexual expression,” says Hunter Jones.
“This sort of sex play can heal on so many levels. My clients have used it to work through depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and even sexual trauma.
“BDSM play can even save marriages. It not only enhances sex, it works miracles with the power struggles within relationships. This bedroom play can allow couples to work through issues they’ve been suffering with for years. It’s amazing therapy and it’s hot and sexy fun.”