Is it cruelty? Or a desire to dominate? Or a quest for pleasure?
The difference between sadism and cruelty
You may use the words ‘sadism’ and ‘cruelty’ as synonyms. Most people do.
However, I will show you here that they mean completely different things.
Cruelty is to make people suffer with lack of empathy and dehumanization.
Sadism is to derive pleasure from pain in a shared, erotic experience.
The word ‘sadist’ comes from the name of Donatien de Sade, better known as the Marquis de Sade, French aristocrat, nihilistic philosopher and writer. He enjoyed inflicting and receiving erotic pain in the form of floggings, canning, whippings and rough sex. The Marquis de Sade was, in fact, both a sadist and a masochist - what modern people into BDSM would call a ‘switch’. Although most of the things he did would be considered consensual, even by today’s strict standards, Donatien was prosecuted for them and spent long years in jail. He wrote many of his novels during that time. When The Bastille was assaulted during the French Revolution, he was one of the prisoners locked inside.
The confusion of sadism with cruelty derives from the confusing of pain with suffering, something that I discussed in another article, Pain Is Not Suffering.
A survey for sadists in Fetlife.com
You may wonder what is my evidence for what I said above. There are very few scientific studies on sadomasochism, and even those do not directly address the question of what motivates sadists to do what they do.
Sadomasochism is one of the three facets of BDSM. The other two are bondage and dominance/submission. There is a lot of overlap between them.
Sadomasochism is an erotic activity in which one partner - the sadist or top - inflicts pain on the other - the masochist or bottom. The pain is usually physical, but it can also be emotional in the form of humiliation and mind-fucking. Physical pain can be divided between impact (spanking, flogging, paddling, caning, etc.) and non-impact (clamps, needles, hot wax, hot peppers, figging, fire play, etc.). Rough sex and orgasm control are also considered forms of sadomasochism.
There are millions of people who engage in sadomasochism. Fetlife.com has become a gathering place for many of them, a sort of kinky Facebook. So, I posted in Fetlife two surveys to find out what motivates masochists and sadists to engage in sadomasochistic play. The results of my survey of masochists can be seen in this article in Medium.
I designed the questions of my survey to test the following hypotheses:
Sadists inflict pain only to masochists who desire the pain and see it as a positive experience.
Sadists do not inflict pain out of cruelty, that is, to cause suffering.
Sadists empathize with the masochists: they seek to feel their pain.
Sadists derive a sense of power and control from the pain they inflict.
Sadists inflict pain to dominate, discipline and punish the masochist.
Sadists seek mental experiences like altered states of consciousness (‘top space’), catharsis and transcendence.
Riding on the popularity of my survey of masochists, I posted another one in Fetlife directed at sadists: A Survey for Sadists/Tops/Doms: Why Do You Inflict Pain?
By pain I meant any form of pain in a BDSM context, but not real-world punishments or pain in sports, without an erotic or fetish meaning.
Since the label ‘sadist’ carries a lot of stigma, I asked for responses from tops, rope riggers and doms - anybody who gives pain in any way in BDSM.
A mistake of the masochist’s survey was that it included very few options. So in this one I listed 18 different possibilities for enjoying inflicting pain. As controls, I included unlikely responses, like indifference: doing it for no reason at all. One of the options was ‘other’, inviting the responders to provide their own reasons in a comment.
Each option was defined by a keyword - for example, ‘empathy’ - followed by a short explanation of what it meant. People were asked to choose the option even if the description was only a partial match for their experience. These keywords and their explanations are listed below.
The responders could choose as many of the options as they wanted.
I randomized the order of the options, so it could not affect the preference of the responders. I used this randomizer.
There was no control group. Because of the survey depends on people volunteering their answers, there is no group of non-sadists to compare with.
I compiled the responses in a spreadsheet, added the number of responders for each option, and calculated the percentage relative to the total number of responders.
Below, I rank the 18 options from the ones with most responders to the ones with less.
After each keyword, I include, in quotes, the explanation that I gave it in the survey. Further down are the number of responders for that option and the percentage obtained by dividing that number by 56, the total number of responses. I end by giving my interpretation of the result.
1 - Pleasure
“You play with bottoms who are masochistic and derive pleasure from pain. You enjoy sharing that pleasure. It’s really great if they orgasm from the pain.”
Responses - 44
Percentage - 79%
This is a large majority of responders, indeed! It refutes the popular belief that sadists want to make other people suffer. Sadist know that pain is a source of pleasure for masochists and enjoy sharing that experience. This also shows that consent is essential for sadists: if the bottom is not enjoying the experience, they cannot enjoy it, either. Apart from the obvious ethical considerations.
2 - Connection
“Giving a bottom pain helps you establish intimacy and connection with him/her.”
Responses - 36
Percentage - 64%
This is closely related to the previous option. Unlike a cruel person, who is emotionally detached and dehumanizes people, the sadist seeks connection and intimacy with the bottom. A sadomasochistic scene is an intimate, shared experience, just like sex.
3 - Looks
“You pay close attention to your bottoms and enjoy the way they express pain with facial expressions, moans, curses and body movements. You love red bottoms, bruises, rope marks and other signs of what you have done to them.”
Responses - 35
Percentage - 63%
This option shifts the attention to what sadists feel, why they enjoy the infliction of pain. They like what pains looks like. The way pain shows in how the masochist reacts to it. And also the traces it leaves as redness and marks on the skin. In this there is a connection with the masochists, too, because they also enjoy these manifestations of pain. Facial expressions, moans and struggle are forms of communication, ways for the masochists to share their experience with the top.
4 - Top space
“Inflicting pain brings you to an altered state of consciousness that is joyful. It may be a feeling of centering, focus and enhanced attention. Or it may be dream-like. Giving pain frees you from daily worries and quiets your mind.”
Responses - 34
Percentage - 61%
While sub space is a popular topic in BDSM, not much is said about top space, a parallel altered state of consciousness experienced by a sadist when inflicting pain. The fact that so many responders identified top space as one of the reasons why they like to inflict pain indicates that a sadomasochistic scene creates a special mental state in both the top and the bottom. Given the focus of the top in controlling the scene, it is unlikely that top space is an endorphin-driven, dreamy state like sub space. However, this remains to be established.
5 - Power
“Being able to give pain to people is empowering for you. It’s very heady to feel that you have control over their feelings and their attention. You take inflicting pain as a challenge, where you try to push your limits and the limits of the bottom.”
Responses - 33
Percentage - 59%
A large percentage of responders identified the feeling of power as one of their motivations for inflicting pain. This is the converse of the elation that submissives feel in giving up control. It is possible that this feeling of power contributes to top space.
6 - Sub space
“You like to put bottoms in that altered state of consciousness where they feel like floating and dreaming. You feel pleasure by seeing how much they enjoy it.”
Responses - 31
Percentage - 55%
In the survey of masochists, sub space ranked as one of the main reasons why they like pain. Since sadist want to pleasure masochists, it is understandable that they enjoy putting them in sub space.
7 - Domination
“When bottoms receive pain from you, they show you that they submit and surrender. You enjoy how vulnerable the bottom becomes when in pain. You use pain to enforce obedience.”
Responses - 30
Percentage - 54%
Sadomasochism and dominance/submission are considered two different components of BDSM. People who engage in one of them do not necessarily like the other. However, there is considerable overlap, as shown by this high number of sadists who selected domination as one of the reasons why they like to inflict pain. This is consistent with their identification of power as one of the main reasons for wanting to inflict pain.
8 - Healing
“Giving your bottom pain helps her/him relieve chronic pain, depression, anxiety, past trauma or other unhealthy state.”
Responses - 22
Percentage - 39%
This is the first option for which the number of responders dipped below 50%. This is understandable, since only a few masochists are likely to have these disorders.
9 - Mind fucking
“You use pain to put people in a mental state of confusion, defeat and surrender.”
Responses - 20
Percentage - 36%
Outside BDSM, mind fucking is a form of psychological abuse consisting of messing with the sense of reality of a person. However, in BDSM it is done consensually for fun and personal exploration. However, it is an edgy activity, so it’s not surprising that only a minority of sadists selected it. All things considered, 36% is a fairly large number.
10 - Reverse catharsis
“Pain brings out of the bottom emotions like anger, sadness, joy, indignation, shame and guilt, so he/she can process them and get rid of them. You enjoy this process.”
Responses - 19
Percentage - 34%
Catharsis means ‘cleansing’ in Greek. It’s a psychologically healing phenomenon in which bottled-up emotions are allowed to manifest themselves, usually as crying and laughing. A sadomasochistic scene could elicit catharsis in either the top or the bottom. Since this is a survey of tops, I called their experience ‘catharsis’ and the bottom’s ‘reverse catharsis’. This survey reveals that 34% of sadists expect their bottoms to undergo catharsis, but not so much themselves—only 18% identified their own catharsis as a reason for inflicting pain.
11 - Discipline
“You use pain to train somebody to withstand it, to submit, or for some other form of discipline.”
Responses - 17
Percentage - 30%
Discipline is one facet of dominance/submission. One form of discipline is to train the submissive to endure pain for the enjoyment of the dominant, or as a way to demonstrate their dedication. As we can see, a minority of sadists use pain this way.
12 - Empathy
“When you inflict pain, you imagine what it feels like and you enjoy that sensation. You put yourself in the place of the bottom to enjoy the experience from their point of view. You like pain for its own sake. Pain is great. It fascinates you.”
Responses - 15
Percentage - 27%
I expected more sadists to select this option, because I thought that experiencing pain vicariously through the masochist was a large part of the motivation of the sadist. This could mean that the sadist is a covert masochist, like the Marquis de Sade. In my description, I also suggested a fascination for pain as motivation for wanting to inflict it. The survey shows that this is the case only for a minority of sadists.
13 - Punishment
“You use pain to punish people for their wrongdoings or disobedience. Or you do scenes in which you pretend to punish somebody. The idea of punishment turns you on.”
Responses - 13
Percentage - 23%
Punishment is another big component of dominance/submission. Some people have a ‘punishment fetish’: they find it erotic to be punished or to punish others. The survey reveals that punishing only motivates a small percentage of sadists.
14 - Catharsis
“Inflicting pain on others brings out emotions like anger, sadness, joy, indignation, shame and guilt, so you can process them and get rid of them. You feel cleansed after a scene in which you inflicted pain.”
Responses - 10
Percentage - 18%
Only a small number of sadists inflict pain as a way to release their own emotions. In contrast, 34% of them expect their bottoms to experience catharsis during a scene.
15 - Cruelty
“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 dissociate from them.”
Responses - 10
Percentage - 18%
My hypothesis is that sadism is different from cruelty. A sadist derives pleasure from inflicting pain, but not because pain causes suffering. This survey shows that a large majority of sadists inflict pain only when it pleases the masochist. A cruel person, on the other hand, wants to cause suffering. The small number of people who chose this option confirmed my hypothesis. Still, 10 people chose it. Perhaps they do not appreciate the difference between pain and suffering. However, given the explanation that I gave, it seems that a small number of sadists do want to express a dark, cruel side of their mind. Conversely, there might be ‘emotional masochists’ who want to experience, not just physical pain, but negative emotions that could be considered suffering.
16 - Other
“Please describe things you like about inflicting pain that are different from the other ones listed here.”
Responses - 9
Percentage - 16%
Given their small number, I will just quote or paraphrase their responses:
“Helps with my chronic pain.”
“For the sake of kink - it's fun to do something different, something ‘wrong’, something non-vanilla.”
Trust: I like that the masochists trust me to take them on their own journey.
To test the toys and the furniture that I make.
To get “a feeling that all is right with the world” and life is better.
Contrast: “Tenderness, closeness, cuddling, caregiving, and all the other soft and gentle actions feel much better after pain/discomfort/humiliation.”
“A disciplined practice like impact topping has helped with controlling impulsive behavior that has often been a problem in the past through creating an atmosphere and immediate responsibility for my actions.”
“My partners are my art.”
My own submission - Giving pain is my service to the masochist.
17 - Transcendence
“Giving pain brings down your ego. It gives you a feeling of humility and liberation from personal limits. It’s a mystical experience.”
Responses - 6
Percentage - 11%
Mysticism and search for a transcendent experience appeals to some kinksters, particularly those with lots of experience. Although they are few, the survey reveals that they do exist.
18 - Indifference
“You don’t really care how bottoms feel when you beat them or give them pain. You just do it.”
Responses - 1
Percentage - 2%
I included this option as a control, a way to check that the responders were paying attention and could not opt for “all of the above”. It also tested the hypothesis that sadists do have motivations for inflicting pain. The one person who selected this option also selected 9 others, including sub space, top space, catharsis and reverse catharsis, things that seem incompatible with an attitude of indifference.
The preferred options could be grouped into three clusters.
Centered on the masochist. In order of preference, this includes pleasure (1), connection (2), sub space (6), healing (8) and reverse catharsis (10). In these options, the sadist’s motivation is to pleasure, heal and fulfill the desires of the masochist. By and large, these are the main motivations declared by the sadists.
Centered on the sadist. This includes looks (3), top space (4), power (5), empathy (12), catharsis (14) and transcendence (17). The sadist is motivated by his own pleasure and state of mind. Although ranking less than the first cluster, it still includes several options chosen by more than 50% of the tops.
Dominating the masochist. This includes domination (7), mind-fucking (9), discipline (1) and punishment (13). Here the emphasis is on the ability of the sadists to control the masochists, influencing their thoughts, emotions and behavior. It denotes a certain overlap of sadomasochism with dominance/submission. Although less preferred than the other two clusters, these options are still substantial.
The responses strongly support hypotheses 1 and 2. Sadists only inflict pain on masochists who desire it, and do it to pleasure the masochist. Sadists do not inflict pain to cause suffering.
Hypothesis 3 - that sadists empathize with masochists seeking to feel their pain - was not supported by the results. Only 27% of the responders selected this option.
Hypotheses 4, 5 and 6 are valid for some of the responders.
In summary, sadists like to inflict pain to provide a positive experience for the masochists and for themselves. This experience is not just pleasure, but also involves connection, altered states of consciousness, catharsis and healing. In addition, the desire to dominate and control others motivates a type of sadists.