Kink & BDSM, Sex Ed

3 Reasons People Engage in Sexual Sadism and Masochism

August 7, 2020 by Justin Lehmiller

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Sadism and masochism involve deriving pleasure from the experience of giving and receiving pain, respectively. This can take a number of forms, from spanking to whipping to flogging and beyond (for a look at some of the more and less common sadomasochistic activities, see here).

BDSM practices are popular, but widely misunderstood. A recent study published in the Journal of Sex Research helps to shed some light on the origins of BDSM interests and people’s reasons for pursuing them [1].

This study was based on a sample of 227 adults (age 18+) who reported having engaged in real-life BDSM activities for a minimum of six months. As part of this survey, participants were asked to describe the origins of their BDSM interests in their own words. I wrote about people’s responses to this question in a previous post, which identified eight different factors. 

However, participants were also asked to describe what it is that specifically draws them to these activities—what are their reasons and motivations? That’s what I’m going to explore in this article. What the researchers found was that there were really three distinct types of reasons.

First, and most commonly (mentioned by 46% of participants) was playing with interpersonal power. For many, this involved a power exchange through sexual role-playing. However, for others, it involved being turned on by being physically restrained. 

Here are some examples of what participants said: “The feeling of not being able to control my body’s reactions is exquisite” and “When I am blindfolded and bound, I felt relaxed and…different. Good. Confident. Sexy. Safe.” Many who described this motive explicitly mentioned the importance of trust and having a partner who understands the importance of consent and sticking to boundaries. 

Second, about one-third of participants mentioned that their motive was the experience of receiving pain—physical, psychological, or both. Many of these folks explicitly described the difference they see between good pain and bad pain (e.g., “Good pain, being hit with a flogger. Bad pain, stubbing my toe.”), but many also talked about having a more general appreciation for the feeling of pain (e.g., “I can remember having my ears pierced when I was 7 and liking it, then twisting the posts to feel the pain.”).

Finally, just over a quarter of participants described their motive as seeking an altered mental or psychological state, such as seeking a different level of consciousness, focusing attention, or finding relaxation. Many described experiences of feeling as though they were “floating.” For example, “If I can stop fighting…and relax into what is happening, I go on ‘vacation’ mentally to a place where I feel everything but nothing hurts any more – it’s all warm and fuzzy and I’m floating!” Also, “The good pain triggers something in me. It hurts but also makes me float.”

Participants in this study were not necessarily representative of the broader BDSM community, so it’s possible that there may be other motivations and reasons. However, these results tell us a few important things.

One is that people appear to be drawn to BDSM practices for a wide range of reasons. For example, sometimes it’s about giving and receiving pain, but other times it’s mostly about playing with or exchanging power and having little to do with pain. 

Also, some appear to enjoy pain for the sake of pain itself, whereas others utilize pain to achieve a different mental state, seeking the experience of trance or euphoria (perhaps as a function of the release of endorphins that accompany pain). However, relaxation and getting “into the moment” also appear to be common motives, which suggests that BDSM practices can be therapeutic in the sense that they can take you out of your head and allow you to focus more on the feelings and sensations.

Want to learn more about the psychology of BDSM? Check out these articles:

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[1] Labrecque, F., Potz, A., Larouche, É., & Joyal, C. C. (2020). What Is So Appealing About Being Spanked, Flogged, Dominated, or Restrained? Answers from Practitioners of Sexual Masochism/Submission. The Journal of Sex Research.

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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