Masochism: The True Pleasures of Shame, Pain, & Humiliation

"The greatest pleasures are born of conquered repugnancies." Marquis De Sade

As living organisms our instinct is to survive, pass our genes on to the next generation, and seek that which brings us pleasure and the absence of pain. Masochism is characterized by the tendency to derive sexual gratification from one's own pain and humiliation. At face value masochism contradicts those very instincts of self preservation. We have been socialized to believe that the emotions caused by shame, pain, and humiliation should be avoided for the sake of maintaining one's honor and status. Our very survival, in this increasingly interdependent world, rests on our reputation as dignified, ego-serving creatures. It should be in our nature to maintain and increase our prestige and esteem. To seek that which makes us bleed, degraded, used, and abused is therefore counter-intuitive and should not even exist in our evolutionary wiring. Or should it?

If we are creatures who seek pleasure, then masochists must also seek pleasure. And the source of pleasure for the masochist is not necessarily the physical pain, but rather the psychological experience of escaping and erasing the self through humiliation. Humiliation allows us to shed the tiresome age-old constructs of the Self. When we live a life in which our future and success is determined by what we say and do with others, we construct our own cells with pride and self-respect as the prison bars. In our daily lives we belong to many groups and thus act out many roles. From commitments to obligations, social and interpersonal roles, personal values and goals, our conceptualization of our identity vs. our potential, not to mention the never-ending struggle to control our environment in order to get what we want -- all of this adds to the weight of being ourselves. Humiliation serves as a release from tensions caused by the constant need to maintain our identity and, furthermore, defend our dignity. We finally give in and admit our shortcomings and limitations, the repression is thus lifted and we feel lighter because of it. Masochism, when exercised properly and in a healthy manner, can be therapeutic and spiritually cleansing.

Lyn Cowan, author of Masochism: A Jungian View, writes about masochism as a counter to the current "Me Generation" in therapy:

"Never has therapy been so common, and so assertion-minded. Yet there is an emptiness that all this variety and all these assertions have not been able to fill. We forget that we need passivity training as much as assertiveness training. The psyche is also impersonal (not-I) and transpersonal (more-than-I). Ego cannot speak to the deeper sense of dissatisfaction unless it is willing to descend to the base, the basics and baseness, and also to the collectivity of life apart from its exclusive concerns. Masochism moves 'down and out', radically altering the ego-attitude out of egocentricity. By combining humiliation and pleasure in one experience, masochism may lead to a cure for a one-sided ego which might otherwise drown in its own accomplishments."

The experience of being humiliated is further intensified when sexualized. This is why masochistic men crave to be humiliated by their Mistresses, by a woman who they worship and desire. For them, to be degraded by a woman is the ultimate destruction of their ego and manhood because they need a Woman to validate their sexual desirability and they need Her to procreate, to continue life -- our primary function. For a man to be humiliated by a woman is -- genetically speaking -- to experience his death by virtue of her rejection and ridiculing of his manhood. These emotions, whether consciously or subconsciously experienced, are highly intense and NEED to be sexualized in order for one to cope with such darkness. Sexual pleasure motivates our very existence and perpetuates the species. Therefore if masochism produces sexual pleasure then it balances the shame, pain, and humiliation and intertwine those emotions with the same energy that continues life itself.

Masochism is indeed about embracing the darkest recesses of our humanity. Swiss Jungian analyst Guggenbuhl-Craig wrote:

"Is not the suffering of our life, and of life in general, one of the most difficult things there is to accept? The world is full of suffering, and all of us suffer so greatly in body and spirit, that even the saints have difficulty understanding this. It is one of the most difficult tasks of the individuation process to accept sorrow and joy, pain and pleasures, God's anger and God's graces. The opposites -- suffering and joy, pain and pleasure -- are so symbolically united in masochism. Thus life can be actually accepted, and even pain can be joyfully experienced. The masochist, in a remarkable and fantastic way, confronts and comes to terms with the greatest opposites of our existence."

There is a universal human desire to experience something or someone greater than oneself, to which one could offer allegiance and devotion. Especially in periods of pain and suffering, we seek a leader for guidance and comfort. In periods of feeling lost and unloved, we look for a lover or religion. Masochists feel so much in this world that they need something -- someone -- to contain them, to give them structure, to own them and put them in a finite position in which there is no confusion, no ambiguity. Submission is mental clarity, and when explored within the context of sexual pleasure it becomes intoxicating. Masochistic men are strong-willed and intelligent, they want someone better than them to dominate them for only then can they feel truly inferior if the Mistress is actually superior in every way -- physically, sexually, intellectually. When the Mistress brings them to subspace, their sense of submission is no longer voluntary, they are compelled to submit and to please the Female because they are in awe of Her sexual energy, Her mind, and Her uncanny ability to unlock their masochistic desires. They are overwhelmed, overpowered, they have ceased to exist in their cluttered minds and are finally brought to the moment, the here and now, with sexual intensity and bodily awareness made possible by an external force (a Dominant figure) that sees them at their most raw and vulnerable state. There is nothing they can do but to worship the person who brought them to their knees, ripping their minds out and putting it on display.

The beautiful paradox of masochists is that they want to feel completely out of control by being controlled, forced into an act they would otherwise never do on their own. They want a life that is worth living, rather than conforming to prevailing conventions to the point of becoming numb. Masochists want to feel alive by embracing every spectrum of the human experience. They are not passive by many means, their desires and fantasies are intensely powerful and they will fully exert themselves to find the right Dominant to whom they can give their bodies and minds.

Being alive means to do and to be done to, both of which must be keenly felt in order for the soul to feel whole. As Anita Phillips, author of A Defence of Masochism, writes, "If I can be invaded, or imagine it happening to me, I must exist."

Life is a constant struggle between what we can and cannot control. The masochist gives in to and acknowledges the latter. Submitting to a Mistress who takes control is an extension of submitting to the unpredictability of the universe. When we finally realize how little control we truly have, this knowledge actually brings a certain amount of peace and acceptance. When a masochist gives in to the will of another, he is relieved of control and feels a euphoric blankness that is free of worrying, free of planning, free of trying to learn and anticipate everything he needs to do in order to fight and survive. This is why masochists instinctively kneel, bow, and crawl; the physical posturing of the body reflects the psychological posturing of the soul that is ready to submit by abdicating control.

I find it amusing that nowhere is masochism more glorified than in Christianity, a religion that has controlled and regulated sexuality in the Western world for over two millennia. So many times have I trained slaves with Catholic backgrounds who were heartbreakingly conflicted about their masochistic desires for fear of their souls burning in Hell. However, I wonder if they considered that much of Christianity's theology is built on fundamental concepts of psychological masochism -- suffering, repentance, atonement, denial of the self, martyrdom, sacrifice. The imitatio Christi is a call to suffering to achieve the likeness of Christ. Eleven-century monks practiced self-flagellation in order to cleanse the soul and gain forgiveness (the physical act itself has been known to cause ecstatic emotional intensity, sometimes even sexual pleasure). The potent image of Christ on the cross is masochism incarnated, the "suffering" and "torture" he willingly endured to reach salvation and redemption (perhaps this is what he meant when he said whoever loses their life will find it). The church teaches that only by submitting to the will of God and accepting one's mortality can one achieve everlasting life. Only by suffering a "death" and then be "reborn" can one truly understand what is necessary for our souls and Jesus set the example -- literally, symbolically, spiritually. The teachings of the church is an exercise in ultimate submission -- surrender of the soul to a greater power. Perhaps masochism is rooted in the religious instinct, which I believe is a coping method that was evolved as a way to acknowledge and accept our awareness of death (the burdens of being an intelligence species). Perhaps there is a little masochism in all of us...

Masochism is an escape from ourselves, a release from the burdens of everyday living, a visceral desire to give in and surrender, and a sexual craving that engulfs the mind more than the body.

This is masochism at its core.