Find out why one in 10 of us is into S&M.
By Marianne Apostolides
Bind my ankles with your white cotton rope so I cannot walk. Bind my wrists so I cannot push you away. Place me on the bed and wrap your rope tighter around my skin so it grips my flesh. Now I know that struggle is useless, that I must lie here and submit to your mouth and tongue and teeth, your hands and words and whims. I exist only as your object. Exposed.
Of every 10 people who reads these words, one or more has experimented with sadomasochism (S & M), which is most popular among educated, middle- and upper-middle-class men and women, according to psychologists and ethnographers who have studied the phenomenon. Charles Moser, Ph.D., M.D., of the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco, has researched S & M to learn the motivation behind it--to understand why in the world people would ask to be bound, whipped and flogged. The reasons are as surprising as they are varied.
For James, the desire became apparent when he was a child playing war games--he always hoped to be captured. "I was frightened that I was sick," he says. But now, he adds, as a well-seasoned player on the scene, "I thank the leather gods I found
At first the scene found him. When he was at a party in college, a professor chose him. She brought him home and tied him up, told him how bad he was for having these desires, even as she fulfilled them. For the first time he felt what he had only imagined,
what he had read about in every S & M book he could find.
James, a father and manager, has a Type A personality--in-control, hard-working, intelligent, demanding. His intensity is evident on his face, in his posture, in his voice. But when he plays, his eyes drift and a peaceful energy flows through him as though he had injected heroin. With each addition of pain or restraint, he stiffens slightly, then falls into a deeper calm, a deeper peace, waiting to obey his mistress. "Some people have to be
tied up to be free," he says.
As James' experience illustrates, sadomasochism involves a highly unbalanced power relationship established through role-playing, bondage, and/or the infliction of pain. The essential component is not the pain or bondage itself, but rather the knowledge that one person has complete control over the other, deciding what that person will hear, do, taste, touch, smell and feel. We hear about men pretending to be little girls, women being bound in a leather corset, people screaming in pain with each strike of a flogger or drip of hot wax. We hear about it because it is happening in bedrooms and dungeons across the country.
For over a century, people who engaged in bondage, beatings and humiliation for sexual pleasure were considered mentally ill. But in the 1980s, the American Psychiatric Association removed S & M as a category in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. This decision--like the decision to remove homosexuality as a category
in 1973--was a big step toward the societal acceptance of people whose sexual desires aren't traditional, or vanilla, as it's called in S & M circles.
What's new is that such desires are increasingly being considered normal, even healthy, as experts begin to recognize their potential psychological value. S & M, they are beginning to understand, offers a release of sexual and emotional energy that some people cannot get from traditional sex. "The satisfaction gained from S & M is something far more than sex," explains Roy Baumeister, Ph.D., a social psychologist at Case Western Reserve University. "It can be a total emotional release."
Although people report that they have better-than-usual sex immediately after a scene, the goal of S & M itself is not intercourse: "A good scene doesn't end in orgasm, it ends in catharsis."
S & M: No Longer A Pathology
"If children at [an] early age witness sexual intercourse between
adults... they inevitably regard the sexual act as a sort of
ill-treatment or act of subjugation: they view it, that is, in a
--Sigmund Freud, 1905
Freud was one of the first to discuss S & M on a psychological level. During the 20 years he explored the topic, his theories crossed each other to create a maze of contradictions. But he maintained one constant: S & M was pathological.
People become masochistic, Freud said, as a way of regulating their desire to sexually dominate others. The desire to submit, on the other hand, he said, arises from guilt feelings over the desire to dominate. He also argued that the desire for S & M can arise on its own when a man wants to assume the passive female role, with bondage and beating signifying being "castrated or copulated with, or giving birth."
The view that S & M is pathological has been dismissed by the psychological community. Sexual sadism is a real problem, but it is a different phenomenon from S & M. Luc Granger, Ph.D., head of the department of psychology at the University of Montreal, created an intensive treatment program for sexual aggressors in La Macaza Prison in Quebec; he has also conducted research on the S & M community. "They are very separate populations," he says. While S & M is the regulated exchange of power among consensual participants, sexual sadism is the derivation of pleasure from either inflicting pain or completely controlling an unwilling person.
Lily Fine, a professional dominatrix who teaches S & M workshops across North America, explains: "I may hurt you, but I will not harm you: I will not hit you too hard, take you further than you want to go or give you an infection."
Despite the research indicating that S & M does no real harm and is not associated with pathology, Freud's successors in psychoanalysis continue to use mental illness overtones when discussing S & M. Sheldon Bach, Ph.D., clinical professor of psychology at New York University and supervising analyst at the New York Freudian Society, maintains that people are addicted to S & M. They feel compelled to be "anally abused or crawl on
their knees and lick a boot or a penis or who knows what else. The problem," he continues, "is that they can't love. They are searching for love, and S & M is the only way they can try to find it because they are locked into sadomasochistic interactions they had with a parent."
Linking Childhood Memories And Adult Sex
"I can explore aspects of myself that I don't get a chance to explore
otherwise. So even though I'm playing a role, I feel more connected
--Leanne Custer, M.S.W., AIDS counselor
Meredith Reynolds, Ph.D., the Sexuality Research Fellow of the Social Science Research Council, confirms that childhood experiences may shape a person's sexual outlook.
"Sexuality doesn't just arise at puberty" she says. "Like other pans of someone's personality, sexuality develops at birth and takes a developmental course through a person's life span."
In her work on sexual exploration among children, Reynolds has shown
that while childhood experiences can indeed influence adult sexuality,
the effects usually "wash out" as a person gains more sexual
experience. But they can linger in some people,
causing a connection between childhood memories and adult sexual play.
In that case, Reynolds says, "the childhood experiences have affected
something in the personality, and that in turn affects adult experiences."
Reynolds' theory helps us develop a greater understanding of the desire to be a whip-bearing mistress or a bootlicking slave. For example, if a child has been taught to feel shame about her body and desires, she may learn to disconnect herself from them. Even
as she gets older and gains more experience with sex, her personality may retain some part of that need for separation. S & M play may act as a bridge: Lying naked on a bed bound to the bedposts with leather restraints, she is forced to be completely sexual. The restraint, the futility of struggle, the pain, the master's words telling her she is such a lovely slave--these cues enable her body to fully connect with her sexual self in a way that has been difficult during traditional sex.
Marina is a prime example. She knew from the time she was 6 years old that she was expected to succeed in school and sports. She learned to focus on achievement as a way to dismiss emotions and desires. "I learned very young that desires are dangerous," she says. She heard that message in the behavior of her parents: a depressive mother who let her emotions overtake her, and an obsessively health-conscious father who compulsively controlled his diet. When Marina began to have sexual desires, her instinct, cultivated by her upbringing, was to consider them too frightening, too dangerous. "So I became anorexic," she says. "And when you're anorexic, you don't feel desire; all you feel in your body is panic."
Marina didn't feel the desire for S & M until she was an adult and had outgrown her eating disorder. "One night I asked my partner to put his hands around my neck and choke me. I was so surprised when those words came out of my mouth," she says. If she gave her partner total control over her body, she felt, she could allow herself to feel like a completely sexual being, with none of the hesitation and disconnection she sometimes felt during sex. "He wasn't into it, but now I'm with someone who is," Marina says. "S & M makes our vanilla sex better, too, because we trust each other more sexually, and we can communicate what we want."
Escaping the Modern Western Ego
"Like alcohol abuse binge eating and meditation, sado masochism is a
way people can forget themselves."
--Roy Baumeister, Ph.D., professor of psychology,
Case Western Reserve University
It is human nature to try to maximize esteem and control: Those are two general principles governing the study of the self. Masochism runs contrary to both, and was therefore an intriguing psychological puzzle for Baumeister, whose career has focused on the study of self and identity.
Through an analysis of S & M-related letters to the sex magazine Variations. Baumeister came to believe that "masochism is a set of techniques for helping people temporarily lose their normal identity." He reasoned that the modern Western ego is an incredibly elaborate structure, with our culture placing more demands on the individual self than any other culture in history. Such high demands increase the stress associated with living
up to expectations and existing as the person you want to be. "That stress makes forgetting who you are an appealing escape," Baumeister says. That is the essence of "escape" theory, one of the main reasons people turn to S&M.
"Nothing matters except you, me and the sound of my voice," Lily Fine tells the tied-up and exposed businessman who begged to be spanked before breakfast. She says it slowly, making her slave wait for every sound, forcing him to focus only on her, to float in anticipation of the sensations she will create inside him. Anxieties about mortgages and taxes, stresses about business partners and job deadlines are vanquished each time the flogger hits the flesh. The businessman is reduced to a physical creature existing only in the here and now, feeling the pain and pleasure.
"I'm interested in manipulating what's in the mind," Lily says. "The brain is the greatest erogenous zone."
In another S & M scene, Lily tells a woman to take off her clothes, then dresses her only with a blindfold. She commands the woman not to move. Lily then takes a tissue and begins moving it over the woman's body in different patterns and at varying speeds and angles. Sometimes she lets the edge of the tissue just barely brush the woman's stomach and breasts; sometimes she bunches the tissue and creates swirls on her back and all the way down. "The woman was quivering. She didn't know what I was doing to her, but she was liking it," Lily remembers with a smile.
Escape theory is further supported by an idea called "frame analysis," developed by the late Irving Goffman, Ph.D. According to Goffman, despite its popular conception as darkly wild and orgiastic, S & M play has complex rules, rituals, roles and dynamics that create a "frame" around the experience.
"Frames suspend reality, They create expectations, norms and values that set this situation apart from other parts of life," confirms Thomas Weinberg, Ph.D., a sociologist at Buffalo State College in New York and the editor of S & M: Studies in Dominance & Submission (Prometheus Books, 1995). Once inside the frame, people are free to act and feel in ways they couldn't at other times.
S & M: Part of the Sexual Continuum
S & M has inspired the creation of many psychological theories in addition to the ones discussed here. Do we need so many? Perhaps not. According to Stephanie Saunders, Ph.D., associate director of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction at Indiana University, "a lot of behaviors that are scrutinized because they are seen to be marginal are really a part of the continuum of sexuality and sexual behavior."
After all, the ingredients in good S & M play--communication, respect and trust--are the same ingredients in good traditional sex. The outcome is the same, too--a feeling of connection to the body and the self.
Laura Antoniou, a writer whose work on S & M has been published by Masquerade Books in New York City, puts it another way: "When I was a child, I had nothing but S & M fantasies. I punished Barbie for being dirty. I did Bondage Barbie, dominance with GI Joe. S & M is simply what turns me on."
Whip Smart: Beyond the Boundaries of Safe Play
While S & M can be a psychologically healthy activity--its motto is "safe, sane and consensual"--sometimes things do get out of hand:
Abuse - It is rare, but some "Tops" get too involved in power and forget to monitor their treatment of the "Bottom." "I call them 'Natural Born Tops,'" says dominatrix Lily Fine, "and I don't have time for them." Also, some bottoms want to be beaten because they have low self-esteem and think they deserve it. They are forlorn, absent and unresponsive during and after a scene, in this case, S & M ceases to be play and becomes pathological.
Boundaries - A small percentage of people inappropriately bring S & M power play into other facets of their life. "Most people in S & M circles are dominant or submissive in very specific situations, while in their everyday life they can play a whole range of roles," says psychology Professor Luc Granger. But, he continues, if the only way a person can relate to someone else is through a kind of sadomasochistic game, then there is probably a
deeper psychological problem.
The Use of S & M as Therapy - People often confuse the fact that they feel good after S & M with the idea that S & M is therapy, says psychology Professor Roy Baumeister. "But to prove that something is therapeutic, you have to prove that it has lasting beneficial effects on mental health... and it's hard to prove even that therapy is therapeutic." In mental health terms, S & M doesn't make you better and it doesn't make you worse.
Dispelling the Myths about Leather
by Jack Rinella
Some think that if you walk into any Leather bar, you'll see people
arrayed in various stages of dress, modeling an assortment of leather,
Levi, and other kinds of uniforms, threatening each other with piercing
stares. They sip or chug their drinks with indifferent nonchalance,
occasionally striking up conversations in hushed tones. Some may play
darts or pool; others circle the area like sharks seeking prey or pace
about like caged lions. A few, dressed in more common street attire
hover on the fringes, desperately hoping to enter this erotic world,
terrified that they'll never survive the ordeal, if they do.
For them, this is the world of Leather, and it isn't what it appears to
be. In fact the scene I just described belies the truth of the Leather
community. For without actual experience, one only sees its exterior
statement. Its heart is far differently clothed. Let me dispel what I
call the "Myths about Leather." I've gleaned these from the many
questions asked of me by readers who aren't into Leather and are often
afraid to find out what it's like.
"It's All Pain." Leather's ruff and gruff exterior and the notoriety
given to activities such as whipping, piercing, and paddling lead one
to believe that our main emphasis is pain. It looks like we are all
sadists seeking someone upon whom to inflict harm.
The number of Leather folk who thrive on injury is remarkably small,
even minuscule. Even those who are into spanking, whipping, and such
use pain as a pathway to pleasure. Seldom, if ever, is it an end in
itself. In fact, the vast majority of tops, when inflicting pain, are
careful not to hurt their partners. Injury is never part of a good
Fact is, most folks into Leather avoid pain and it is often omitted
from scenes entirely, or if it is part of the scene, it is only a small
part of it. In any case, without the assent of both parties, there
ought to be no pain at all.
"You're a Top or a Bottom." The casual observer sees that members of
the Leather community are either dominant or submissive. They hesitate
to join in, since they are often reluctant to categorize themselves
along such strictly drawn lines.
Appearances indicate that there are more bottoms than tops. In
actuality, most Leather folk go both ways. Many in fact switch often,
sometimes in the same scene with the same partner. No one is going to
expect you to act the same way every time with the wide variety of men
and women you are going to meet.
There are those who are strictly top or bottom but in the majority of
instances, roles for a night are determined by mood, the participants,
and their levels of experience. Many people start their Leather journey
as one and move to the other role as they gain experience and learn
more about their own preferences. Besides, it takes time to figure out
what you really like. It took experienced Leatherfolk years to become
who they are. We know it will take you time to.
"You Have to Own Leather." One of the major blocks to entering the
Leather world is the cost of the "uniform". Black jackets, chaps or
pants, and the myriad toys associated with Leather are not cheap. Dress
codes seem to have been posted to keep people out, especially those who
don't have the resources to "dress for the occasion."
In truth, there are ways to enter a Leather bar without mortgaging your
life for the costume. Most bars will let you in with simple working
attire (jeans and flannel or tee-shirt). For areas requiring more
stringent dress, a bare chest will sometimes get you past the bouncer.
On more than one occasion I've loaned a piece of leather to a friend.
In any case, the eventual "attire" will most likely be naked flesh.
"It's Dangerous." In the age of the Epidemic, safety in sexual activity
is an accepted requirement. Leather play seems dangerous, but actually
provides an arena for sexual activity that is safer than more "vanilla"
scenes. Clean toys and role playing don't transmit venereal disease.
You can't get sick from the working side of a clean paddle!
Very satisfactory Leather play need not include fucking or sucking.
Activities such as verbal abuse, body worship, and bondage don't
exchange body fluids. Many scenes end with mutual masturbation, a safe
way to get off.
Many public play parties, especially in the heterosexual scene,
actually forbid sexual activity. They realize that sex is a private
matter and ought to be done in private, at least when itâ€™s a matter
of law and keeping the venue open for another play party later.
"Leather Has Got to Be This Way." The purists among us may certainly
take exception to this remark, but the Leather world only asks for
three conditions: Make it safe, sane, and consensual. Beyond that there is
one way to be part of the Leather scene. As everywhere else, variety is
the norm in the Leather world. Once you meet Leather's participants,
you'll see a wide range of tastes, activities, and preferences. We're
all different ages, body types, personalities. Top, bottom, switch;
anal, genital, oral; physical, psychological; committed, promiscuous,
looking for a special one; carefree, strict, easy-going; leather clad
and practically nude.
The truth of the matter is that very few of us are purists. We leave
those feelings for the judgmental and the righteous who are quite
welcome to practice their masochism in a right-wing church meeting.
There's a Lot of Protocol to Learn. This myth is like the one above.
Having gleaned their information from stroke books and jerk off stories
that titillate with endless Master/slave routines, those who don't
understand the essence of Leather want us to believe that there are all
sorts of established and rigorously-enforced modes of behavior, that
Leather must be done in a very certain, prescribed way. Nothing can be
further from the truth.
The hallmark of real Leather folk is our rugged independence. The old
guard were freedom-minded individuals who tolerated lots of shit
because they wanted to be tolerated as well.
That's not to say that some folks don't have protocols. They do. But
the wise among them realize that what they expect, they expect of
themselves and their partners. They do not impose their ways on others.
They are tolerant and accepting of those who live their Leather life
differently, understanding that it takes all kinds to make the world go
round and that variety, not conformity, is the spice of life.
I Can't bother anyone. OK, maybe there is a lot to learn. We love
teaching novices. Helping someone else know more about Leather is a
real turn-on for most of us. We love to show off what we know, talk
about our favorite fetish, and brag about what we've done. Go ahead, we
want you to ask us.
It's also fun to find a novice. He or she reminds us of what we were
like. We love to see the recognition of discovery on the your face. We
know that you are important to us and to our futures. We want you to
join us. Remember that we all started somewhere. Even Jack Rinella had
to go into a Leather bar, visit a Leather club, and tie someone up for
the first time. There is, after all, as Mom says, a first time for
You see, we're into cow hide, levis, uniforms, jocks, hairy, smooth,
dark and light skin. Older people and younger. Short scenes and long
term commitments. The fact is we're just like everyone else, seeking to
find ourselves and our pleasures. When you walk into that dimly lit,
mysterious Leather bar, there is one idea you can rely on: these men
and women into Leather are just as human as the next person.
Get beyond the myths and you'll find why they're my favorite kind of