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The Difference Between Sadism and Cruelty

The sadist wants to cause physical and emotional pain, but not suffering

Angry mistress with a flogger in her hands.
Shutterstock stock photo ID: 199888853 by quadshock.

What do sadists want?

In the context of BDSM (bondage, dominance, submission, sadism and masochism), being a sadist means giving pain to people who enjoy receiving it—masochists—in ways that they enjoy receiving it. And, of course, within the limits of mutual consent.

This is the original meaning of sadism, since it derives from the Marquis de Sade, a French nobleman who lived in the 18th and 19th centuries and wrote several novels with extreme BDSM content. The fact that sadism is currently used as a synonym of cruelty derives largely from a misunderstanding of the motivation of sexual sadists like the Marquis de Sade. In addition, sadism and masochism were considered psychological diseases for a long time, along with homosexuality and masturbation. This stopped with the publication of the fifth version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR).

To investigate the motivations of sadists, I did an informal survey in Fetlife.com in which self-identified sadists could choose among 18 possible motivations, as many as they want. That is, the answers were not mutually exclusive. For that reason, the percentages I give below add up to more than 100%.

I got 56 people answering the survey. Most self-identified sadists (79%) inflict pain to please the masochists with whom they play. Other common reasons are to establish connection and intimacy (64%), looks like the reactions of masochists and marks on their skin (63%), achieving “top space” (61%), expressing power (59%), getting the masochist into “sub space” (55%), and establishing domination (54%).

The rest of the 18 options in the survey fell below the 50% mark. They included “other”, so that people could list reasons I may have neglected. Only 16% of responders checked this.

“Cruelty” was near the bottom of the list. Only 18% of the responders—10 people—checked it. I gave the following description of this option:

“You like to make people suffer. It’s great that BDSM allows you to express your dark side. You do not try to feel what they are feeling, but rather to dissociate from them.”

Some of the sadists who chose cruelty as their motivation expressed surprise that they were so few. They said that, for them, sadism was about making people suffer. They can do this consensually because there are masochists who say that they seek suffering.

I thought that the difference between sadism and cruelty was clear to self-identified sadists but, apparently, there are different opinions about the meaning of those words. In this article, I explore it in depth.

What is sadism?

“Sadism” doesn’t have its own entry on Wikipedia. Instead, you find these three entries:

  • Sadomasochism, the giving or receiving of pleasure from acts involving the receipt or infliction of pain or humiliation.”

  • Sadistic personality disorder, an obsolete term proposed for individuals who derive pleasure from the suffering of others.”

  • Sexual sadism disorder, a medical/psychological condition for sexual arousal from inflicting pain/humiliation on unwilling, non-consenting victims.”

The first definition implies that ethical sadism is always associated with masochism. Sadomasochism is consensual and mutually fulfilling: the sadist enjoys delivering pain to a masochist who enjoys receiving it. When the infliction of pain is not consensual, we fall into the third definition, in which sadism is a disorder.

Emotional sadism

And yet, a scene can be consensual and feel like it involves suffering. That is why some sadomasochists think that sadism involves cruelty.

What they are talking about is emotional sadomasochism: scenes that use emotional pain instead of, or in addition to, physical pain.

What is emotional pain? Is the distress produced by some negative emotions like fear, sadness, frustration, helplessness, despair, envy, jealousy, disgust and unwanted physical pain.

Here are some examples of emotional pain in kink:

  • The sexual frustration of not being allowed to orgasm.

  • The envy and jealousy experienced in cuckolding by seeing your partner pleasuring another person while you are being denied sexual pleasure.

  • Enduring a physical pain that is devoid of erotic value.

  • Being punished when it is obviously unfair.

  • Being unjustly criticized when succeeding in performing a difficult task.

  • Despair by not being able to accomplish an impossible order of the top.

  • The sadness of being denied affection.

  • Fear and despair at the sadist’s cruelty when realizing that they mean to hurt you.

  • Being used as a sexual object with total indifference towards your feelings.

Some of this may fall under the category of mind-fucking. However, while in mind-fucking there is often an element of pretending or deceiving, in emotional sadism both the sadist and the masochist want to evoke very real emotions. The sadist wants to hurt the bottom.

Here is how an emotional masochist describes how she deals with these feelings.

  1. Emotional masochism is usually confined to the time of the scene. Just like the physical pain of flogging or clamps only happens during a BDSM scene, the emotional abuse is limited in time. After that, the relationship goes back to regular affection, fairness and friendship. There should be emotional aftercare to reset the feelings of the masochist.

  2. Emotional masochists develop a detachment from their emotions. They see themselves from the outside, with a certain dissociation. They speak of a beautiful melancholy, an enjoyment of these feelings. Emotional pain is enjoyed very much is the same way as physical pain.

  3. The sadist does not hate the masochist. Sadists experience a dissociation similar to the one experienced by the masochists, because they want to hurt them and, at the same time, know that the bottoms are enjoying themselves. The scene is based on a consensual agreement.

What is suffering?

We are confronted with a paradox here. While emotional masochists feel negative emotions that most people would avoid, they welcome them. They desire them. They, in fact, enjoy them.

The paradox also works for the sadists. Even though they want to hurt the masochists, they are fully aware that the bottoms are enjoying themselves. And they would not do what they are doing if the masochist were not able to enjoy it.

Perhaps there are sadists who desire to hurt people in a way that they would not enjoy it at all—and therefore would not consent to it. Perhaps these sadists act consensually, not because they would feel bad otherwise, but because of a rational decision to act ethically.

In any case, you see that there are two levels here.

One is the distress produced by negative emotions, which can be enjoyed by an emotional masochist.

The other is real suffering. Things that cannot be enjoyed because they damage the very core of a human being or the things that make life worth living. For example:

  • The death of a loved one, like your spouse, your parent or your child.

  • Having your heart broken when you are abandoned by somebody you love.

  • Losing a job that you love or that you need to survive.

  • Losing a limb, your hearing or your sight.

  • A debilitating, incurable disease.

  • Losing your intelligence, your memory or your sanity.

Personally, I think that we should reserve the word suffering for these types of experiences. Alternatively, we could call it deep suffering.

Pain should mean physical pain, although many people use it to refer to emotional pain. The latter could be called distress, to be more accurate.

I explore this issue from the point of view of neuroscience in my article Pain Is Not Suffering.

Some sadists enjoy real life suffering

Desiring deep suffering on somebody would be unethical, in my opinion. That would cross the line between emotional sadism and cruelty.

Yes, many people desire their enemies to suffer this way, but here we are in the territory of hate.

And yet, I have heard from some sadists who feel pleasure when they see the suffering in their BDSM partners caused by real life tragedies. In turn, these masochists feel relief from their suffering when they see the sadist enjoying it. There seems to be healing in this interaction, which, of course, is fully consensual.

A key issue here is that the sadist eroticizes suffering caused by the random events of life. Unlike what happens with pain in a BDSM scene, the sadist does not inflict this type of suffering on the masochist. That would cross the line into real cruelty.

The enjoyment that these sadists take on suffering may seem weird, even revolting. However, it just takes to the extreme something that a lot of people do. Many of us enjoy the suffering of the characters in a novel or a movie. Tragedies have been popular since antiquity. It is undeniable that what attracts us to these stories is precisely witnessing the suffering of their characters. In that way, we are not all that different from the emotional sadists.

Why do we desire to witness someone else suffering?

Maybe this is the flip side of empathy and compassion. Empathy means that we feel that suffering but, at the same time, we can detach from it because it is not our suffering. That makes us happy that we don’t have to suffer that way. At the same time, the strong emotions involved produce a catharsis in us, a cleansing of our fears and traumas.

When the masochists witness the sadist enjoying their suffering, they can partake in the detachment of the sadist. They gain a perspective on it that they would not have otherwise. Maybe this is why emotional sadomasochism is healing for the masochist.

What is cruelty?

“Cruelty is the pleasure in inflicting suffering or the inaction towards another's suffering when a clear remedy is readily available.” Wikipedia.

I think that cruelty can originate from two different motivations:

  1. Using people as a mean to achieve our goals, disregarding their suffering. This is the cruelty of the slave owner, the heartless landlord or the exploitative employer. The cruel person blocks any feelings of empathy he may have for his victim. There are mere objects for him.

  2. Making people suffer on purpose. Here, suffering is the point. The motivation for doing this may vary. It could be revenge, feeling powerful, enforcing religious beliefs or an enjoyment in the suffering itself.

It is possible that people with antisocial personality disorder are naturally prone towards cruelty.

The second meaning of cruelty is the one that can be confused with sadism.

However, here there is no distinction between emotional distress and deep suffering. While sadist would not inflict deep suffering, cruel people are oblivious to the difference.

Empathy

One way in which cruelty can be differentiated from sadism is the presence of empathy.

Empathy is what makes us feel what others feel.

Recently, many neuroscience papers have come out about the social transfer of pain (Smith et al., 2021). The basic observation is that when two mice have been housed together and one experiences an injury, the other mouse becomes more sensitive to pain.

Humans have that type of empathy, but we also have another type that is absent in animals: one based on theory-of-mind (Bruneau et al., 2012). This is the ability to model the minds of other people inside our own minds. We know what they are thinking and we know what they are feeling. It is much more detailed than the first type of empathy. It is not abstract thought, but consists of real emotions. Thanks to theory-of-mind, we can experience what characters in a movie or a novel feel.

The first type of empathy is automatic, but the second one can be turned on and off.

Empathy makes us suffer when other people suffer (Stevens and Taber, 2021). Thanks to it, we cannot be completely happy in a society where other people are unhappy.

Cruelty is devoid of empathy. Exploitative people have to make an effort to turn off their empathy to avoid experiencing the suffering of those they exploit. This requires some effort. One way to achieve this is to objectify them, to negate that they are human beings that have feelings.

In contrast, the sadist is full of empathy. Feeling the pain of the masochist is the point. If sadists are not aware of the pain that they inflict, they could not be satisfied.

Conclusions

The distinction between pain and suffering implies a distinction between sadism and cruelty.

Sadists like to inflict pain, including emotional pain, but not to make people suffer.

Cruel people dehumanize other people to exploit them, to satisfy their hatred, or because of some religious or political motivation. They do not care about the distinction between emotional distress and deep suffering.

In sadism, empathy is the point.

In cruelty, empathy has to be turned off to keep the cruel person from experiencing the suffering of his victims.

These are not mere semantic arguments. They are ideas that need to be kept in mind to define the limits between ethical sadomasochism and abuse.

References

  • Bruneau EG, Pluta A, Saxe R (2012) Distinct roles of the 'shared pain' and 'theory of mind' networks in processing others' emotional suffering. Neuropsychologia 50:219-231.

  • Smith ML, Asada N, Malenka RC (2021) Anterior cingulate inputs to nucleus accumbens control the social transfer of pain and analgesia. Science 371:153-159.

  • Stevens F, Taber K (2021) The neuroscience of empathy and compassion in pro-social behavior. Neuropsychologia 159:107925.

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