Sadomasochistic consensual sex play may be gaining some acceptance as a socially or culturally sanctioned sexual orientation. The New York Times reports in a featured story, " A Hush-Hush Topic No More ," that a significant effort is underway in the United States and Canada to "defend the rights" of kinky-sex adherents and to acknowledge the practice as an expression of freedom and normal sexuality.
The recent best-selling books in the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy have achieved their wide popularity (70 million copies sold worldwide) by exploiting the strange, mysterious human weakness to "libidinze" (eroticize or make pleasurable) the experience of being dominated, violated, abused, or otherwise mistreated. One popular website reports quite seriously that the books are introducing youths "to a brave new bondage-loving world."
Kinky sex in a playful setting doesn't have to be a big deal in itself, providing one can take it or leave it. But behind the scenes, deep in our psyche, sexual arousal that is sadistically or masochistically produced tells a remarkable story about human nature. If adherents to sadomasochistic sex play were to examine these psychological dynamics, many would find their kinky pleasures less appealing. With greater understanding, we prefer real love to cheap thrills.
Pursuing sexual pleasure from sadomasochistic practices cultivates a deeper problem. Many people extract unconscious nonsexual gratification (a third-rate kind of pleasure) from their unwitting, stubborn allegiance to painful old hurts, memories, regrets, and sorrows. When sexual sadomasochism is practiced, this dark side of the psyche is awakened and stirred up. The consequences can include considerable emotional disturbance and disharmony, along with the possibility of psychological regression.
Sexual sadism and masochism are just the visible tip of a vast unconscious mass of psychological intrigue. To varying degrees, human beings become entangled in painful negative emotions that harbor elements of nonsexual masochism. People who frequently feel deprived, refused, controlled, criticized, rejected, and abandoned are likely to have "libidinized" their suffering. This means that, through the function of libido, their suffering is made into a bittersweet, third-rate gratification that, registered mostly unconsciously, becomes a compelling experience.
Libido often refers to the sex drive, yet it can be defined more broadly the pursuit of the experience of pleasure. Pleasure is needed, of course, to make life bearable, and it is a feature of the sex drive that compels animals to procreate. Libido does indeed serve to produce many healthy forms of pleasure. Yet some pleasures are obviously perverse. The so-called pleasure experienced by bullies, rapists, and pedophiles all have to do with experiences of power and submission, as does sadomasochistic pleasure. The libido of a rapist or pedophile is activated in the process of victimizing others, and it's even activated when thinking about or imagining such behavior.
Many "normal" people can take perverse gratification in seeing others suffer. They might wish for misfortune to befall celebrities, competitors, coworkers, liberals, conservatives, the rich, the poor, members of other religions and races, and so on. Their penchant for doing this has a sadistic aspect. At the heart of this negativity and malice is a primitive side of human nature, one that, when we dare to look at it, offends our idealized self-image. Yet it's important for us to see clearly how many of our actions and behaviors arise from our subconscious emotional life rather than our more conscious mental life. We tend to act out what is unconscious, and much of these inner dynamics have a negative, self-defeating bias. The great tragedy of modern psychology was to turn its back on Sigmund Freud's essential premise that libido constitutes a biological drive that shapes our personality, influences our behaviors, and frequently produces suffering and self-defeat.
Libido can acquire a masochistic flavor even from early childhood. Think of the child who, in part, experiences life through impressions of being controlled, helpless, criticized, rejected, unloved, betrayed, and abandoned. These impressions live on in the adult psyche as emotional attachments. On the surface, we think we hate these negative feelings and very much want to avoid them. But this negativity, a product of unresolved inner conflict, doesn't easily go away. People can feel, for instance, that they want to be respected and loved at the same time that, unconsciously, they're unresolved with feeling disrespected and unloved. Unconsciously, we expect to encounter these old hurts. We live in fear of them, yet we don't quite know who we are without them. We fear these negative emotions, yet unconsciously we're attached to them. These negative impressions have become libidinized through our stubborn attachment to them. The negative impressions accord with our sense of injustice as we become entangled in feeling victimized, oppressed, disrespected, and unworthy.
We develop an unconscious psychological defense system that's designed to cover up our emotional attachment to old negative experiences. Through our defenses, we often blame others for our negative reactions, convinced their (alleged) ignorance and malice are the causes or sources of our failure, disappointment, self-doubt, or anger. We convince ourselves we're victims of injustice and cruelty. Few of us are eager to acknowledge that our emotional suffering is produced by our willingness and determination to keep recycling it. Humans tap into this unconscious masochism when they experience sexual pleasure from various forms of abuse or denigration. This psychological process compares, perhaps, to the process of extracting opium from the poppy plant or converting the cocoa leaf into cocaine.
It's important to understand, as well, that sadists are really masochists at heart; they get their thrills by identifying unconsciously with the passivity of the masochist. (Even everyday people who take glee in seeing others suffer are identifying with what, in their imagination, that suffering entails.) Sadists claim to get their pleasure from feeling power, but this claim is an unconscious psychological defense against their underlying passivity: "I'm not looking to feel passive or helpless--Look at how much I enjoy this feeling of power." Rapists and pedophiles, for instance, are extraordinarily passive, as evidenced by their unwillingness or inability to regulate their criminal inclinations. Pedophiles and people addicted to child pornography have libidinized their own unresolved passivity as they identify with the helplessness and victimization of the children.The dark side of human nature hides out in us all. It constitutes, for the most part, an emotional affinity for negative experiences. This is humanity's basic neurosis, and it can produce many varieties of self-defeat and suffering that include defensiveness, apathy, self-pity, self-absorption, as well as cruelty, greed, hatred, and violence. We can make this dark side conscious and overcome its negative influence if we're brave enough to see ourselves objectively.