Definitions of Sadism and Masochism and Their Interrelationship


Many have written on the subject of sadomasochism, and indeed, there have been many different definitions and descriptions, as well as perspectives of it, since it was first named as a phenomenon and discussed scientifically. The phenomenon of sadomasochism was a fascination with certain early psychiatrists, who wrote about their case studies of this “pathology,” so that society might examine them and learn from them. While some cases were extreme in their degree of pathology, most assuredly requiring intervention of some kind, be it legal or therapeutic, others were relatively benign, yet still highly stigmatized as abnormal and pathological. Today, while sadomasochistic behavior is still considered by some to be inherently pathological no matter what form it is in, if it is in the form of a consensual relationship, others accept it and even experiment with or indulge in it as a form of sex play.

Baron Schrenck-Notzing, of the late 19th century, was the first to coin a term for the phenomenon we know today as sadomasochism. He referred to it as algolagnia, from the Greek words algos, meaning pain, and lagneia, meaning salaciousness or coitus, believing, as many others did, that pain and the gratification from pain, were the central factors to be considered in the “sadomasochistic complex.” The terms sadism and masochism came about later. The term sadism stems from the fictional writings of the 18th-century French writer Marquis de Sade, who often wrote about seeking sexual gratification via nonconsensual violence. The term masochism was coined by the 19th century psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing, who named this phenomenon after the prominent 19th-century Austrian writer, the Chevalier Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, who expressed his desires for sexual submission in his writings.

In his book, Psychopathia Sexualis, Richard von Krafft-Ebing provides these definitions for sadism and masochism:

“Sadism is the experience of sexual pleasurable sensations (including orgasm) produced by acts or cruelty, bodily punishment afflicted on one’s own person or when witnessed in others, be they animals or human beings. It may also consist of an innate desire to humiliate, hurt, wound or even destroy others in order thereby to create sexual pleasure in one’s own self.” (p. 53. Krafft-Ebing)


Masochism is the opposite of sadism. While the latter is the desire to cause pain and use force, the former is the wish to suffer pain and be subjected to force.” (p. 86. Krafft-Ebing)


 In his 1951 book, The Marquis and The Chevalier, James Cleugh offers what he considers to be the best definition of sadomasochism, which was composed about 1899, by the psychopathologist Eugen Duehren:

“It is the relation, either deliberately contrived or coming about by accident, between pleasurable sexual excitation and the occurrence, either actual or imagined, of terrifying events, appalling acts and destructive exploits, threatening or extinguishing human or any animate life, health or property and imperiling or annihilating the continued existence of inanimate objects; in all such events the human being who obtains sexual pleasure from them may be actually their direct originator or may cause their inauguration by others, or again he may be simply a spectator of them, or else, finally, the voluntary or compelled object of attack by any such agents.”

 (p. 5. Cleugh)


Iwan Bloch offers a very similar definition to Duehren’s in his 1931 book Marquis deSade: His Life and Works, noting that he believes it covers all cases of sadism, including word-sadism, torture, and forms of rape. He also discusses some of the differences in beliefs about sadism and masochism that various psychiatrists have had. For example, he notes that Krafft-Ebing made a very clear distinction between sadism and masochism, believing them to be exact opposites. In fact, Krafft-Ebing postulated that sadism was an essentially masculine disorder and masochism a feminine disorder, even though, as I mentioned above, it was he who coined the term masochist, naming it after the male Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Schrenck Notzing, considered that sadomasochism was one pathology with active and passive roles, the active role being that of the sadist and the passive, that of the masochist.

John Money in his 1986 book Lovemaps, offers a more current and very elaborate and detailed discussion of sadomasochism. Money steers clear of the term pathology, but uses instead the term paraphilia, from the Greek words para, meaning beyond and philia, meaning love. Paraphilia refers to an abnormal behavior in love, or in actuality, an abnormal sexual desire, of which sadomasochism is one. The American Psychiatric Association categorizes sadomasochistic behavior into two separate paraphilias, sexual sadism and sexual masochism, since they are indeed two distinct behavioral entities, even though they are two variations of the same phenomenon, which are often both found in one person. The premise of the sadomasochistic relationship, according to Money, is that there is an unequal distribution of power and authority. Today, it is widely accepted that the erotic pleasure in sadomasochism is in fact derived more from this skewed distribution of power, than from the actual pain being inflicted, as it had been thought in earlier scientific investigation. The degree of pain that is desired varies greatly, and sometimes just the idea of pain can be the turn-on.

            The sadist obtains sexual arousal and gratification from his/her position of power, by the act of inflicting pain upon, or inciting humiliation, intimidation or fear in another person. In some extreme cases, a sadist needs an unwillingly victim in order to elicit erotic response, a situation that might escalate to actual torture, rape, or murder, and one which clearly requires intervention. The pathological sadist who commits a lust murder is the image of sadist that many people have in their minds. However, many sadists find willing victims, their masochistic counterparts, who they do not need to kill in order to obtain sexual gratification.

The masochist, from his/her position of powerlessness or submission, obtains their sexual arousal and gratification by having pain inflicted upon them, or by being subjected to humiliation, intimidation, or fear by another. In some extreme cases, a masochist may need to put their life in danger in order to elicit erotic response, a situation that once again may need intervention. The pathological masochist, for example, one who engages in autoerotic asphyxiation alone or with a partner, is a popular image of masochistic behavior. However, many masochists do not need to go to such life threatening extremes for their sexual gratification.

Money considers the terms sadism, masochism, and sadomasochism to be generic terms that encompass a variety of rituals that can be subdivided into the five categories of corporal punishment, mutilation, bondage, servitude, and humiliation. These rituals are played out by the sadist and masochist using a variety of physical methods, such as kicking, biting, burning, branding, whipping, stretching, cutting, piercing, binding, stretching, squeezing, and penetrating, as well as psychological tactics, such as verbal threats, denigrations, and orders, wearing a variety of uniforms, using miscellaneous paraphernalia, and playing out various roles and relationships, such as master and slave, adult and child, owner and pet.

Tops and bottoms, dominants and submissives, masters and slaves, are other common roles in which people engage in erotic play using a distribution of power, which may or may not involve the infliction of pain. The relationship between the roles is not always easy to define and needs to be looked at in context.  Some people adopt their role and their relationship to their partner’s role, as their way of life, in and out of the bedroom, or dungeon, while others, confine their roles to sex play. In some cases, both partners have both tendencies, and consequently switch roles, while in other cases each person has their clearly defined role as either sadist or masochist, a top or bottom, a dominant or submissive, a master or slave. And sometimes, people mix roles. For example, a masochist could in fact be a top ordering their bottom to inflict pain upon them. Some people in their real world relationships are very dominant, and it is quite common for them to be drawn to passive sex roles.

According to Crooks and Baur, it appears there are fewer individuals with sexual sadistic tendencies than sexual masochistic inclinations. In other words more people eroticize being submissive. This may reflect a general social script that tells us it is more virtuous to be punished than to be an aggressor toward another. Also, according to Elizabeth and Albert Allgeier, more than half the respondents from several questionnaire studies administered through sadomasochistic magazines and clubs, revealed that they play both dominant and submissive roles within the sadomasochistic context. In fact, many people who take on the sadistic role, may do so simply to please their masochistic partner, or for remuneration, and not because they receive any of their own sexual gratification. In fact, they themselves may be sexual masochists, who are awaiting their turn under the whip.




Allgeier, Elizabeth and Albert. Sexual Interactions. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 2000. pp576


Bloch,Iwan. Marquis de Sade: His Life and Works. Brittany Press, Inc. 1931. pp 269.


Brecher, Edward. The Sex Researchers. Boston: Little, Brown, andCompany. 1969. pp354.


Cleugh, James. The Marquis and the Chevalier. New York: Duell, Sloan, and Pearce. 1951. pp 295.


Crooks, Robert and Baur, Karla. Our Sexuality. Pacific Grove: Wadsworth Group. 2002. pp 687


Current Research and Treatment Theories, 1. Retrieved February 12, 2003 from World Wide Web:


Llewellen, R.E. (2001, October 22). Origins and Definitions. Sexual Sadism and Masochism:


Money, John. Lovemaps. New York: Irvington Publishers, Inc. 1986. pp 331


Easton, Dossie and Lizst, Catherine A. The Bottoming Book. San Francisco: Greenery Press. 1995. pp 117.


Stekel, Wilhelm. Sadism and Masochism: Volume 1. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation. 1929. pp 441.


Von Krafft-Ebing, Richard. Psychopathia Sexualis. New York: Bell Publishing Company, Inc. 1965   pp 433.