Sadomasochism in Modern Literature

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Experimentation in Sadomasochism: Assertion of the Masculine and the Individual in Modern Literature

By Malay Saha

Ashvamegh : October 2015 : Issue IX : Research Paper : ISSN : 2454-4574



Sadomasochism refers to the act of giving or getting pleasure out of infliction or receipt of pain and humiliation. Prevalent among us from time immemorial, sadomasochism as a discourse originated  only in the eighteen nineties with  the Austrian  psychoanalyst Richard von Krafft -Ebing who considered sadomasochism to be a form of subcultural transgression which offers a resistance to the hegemonic conception of  sexual politics. Besides, sadomasochism has some kind of linkage, convergence or underpinning of religion, sensuality, patriarchism, phalocentrism, liberation from the rigid body politics et al. Such instances could be found in the literature of modern and other times.

 Key words: ‘sadomasochism’, ‘masculinity,’ ‘feminity,’ ‘experimentation’, ‘sexuality’


Sadomasochism, meaning the receiving or giving pleasure out of the infliction of pain, is a complex psycho-sexual process that are often found in both men and women. Through sadomasochism, women try to resist the hegemony of male-dominated society and the men, on the other hand, try to savour the feminity by subjecting themselves to pain and suffering or exulting in the pain of others. Though ‘sadomasochism ‘ often gets overlapped with BDSM (Bondage, Dominance, Sadism and Masochism), it is a distinct phenomenon and has sexual underpinning. We will now see how sadomasochistic experiences are portrayed in our literary works and whether it has any  added dimension other than sexuality.


(a) Sadomasochism and religion:

The interrelation between sadomasochism and religion or Christianity is a queer phenomenon. But if we approach the subject of sadomasochism and its origin, we will find that it has linkage and convergence with religion and rituals. Denunciated by many as a form of mental perversion, sadomasochism has connections with religious practices of mediaeval Christians who believed in penance. Mediaeval churches believed that the way one can get salvation is by atoning one’s sins by suffering or shedding blood. To those religious Christians, the body of Christ nailed onto the cross served as an emblem of passion, religiosity and a form of supreme sacrifice. Down from the mediaeval times the practices of fasting, whipping, and other practices of bodily distortions  and sufferings have been in vogue since the ancient times and more often than not they are connected with religious beliefs.

Leo Steinberg in his book “The Sexuality of Christ” argues that the depiction of Christ’s nakedness on the cross is not an erotic or homoerotic image. But Richard Rambuss objects to such a view because, according to him, because it delimits the meaning of body. Body is a polysemous surface where various expressions and implications collude and compete and make the meaning of body meaningful. Anita Philips found significant link between sadomasochism and religious penance. Some might find in sadomasochism an expression of violence and perversion. But there are people who find sadomasochism to be constructive because it breaks and redefines the discourse on body. Mark Jordan observes that sexual sadomasochism lies very close to our pure religious beliefs.

The stories of the Christian martyrs are proofs of the Christian emphasis on suffering and penance. Stories of Christian martyrs attract our attention since they retain their virtue and innocence at the cost of painful bodily torture. The stories of Saint Barbara, Saint Joan and Saint Margaret are examples of the distinct link of religion and sadomasochism. In such cases body becomes a weapon to protest against the injustice or tyranny done to them. The belief that a suffering soul travels to heaven, is similar to the finding pleasures in pain and those who enjoy such show of suffering as that of Margaret are sadists.

The desire to submit one’s self either to God or to another’s will have similarity in the sense that in both cases the mind takes rest and the body suffers. In his Holy Sonnet XIV, Donne writes:

“Batter my heart three person’s God;

As yet but knock; breathe, shine, and seek to mind;

That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me and bend

Your force to break; blow, burn, and make me new.” (lines:1-4)

The poet-persona in these lines wishes to be overthrown and violated, and lose everything that thwarts his unification with God. The choice of words of Donne indicates that the poet wants to be forcefully intervened by God:

                     “Divorce me, untie or break that knot again

Take me to you, imprison me, for I

Except you enthrall me, never shall be free

Nor ever chaste, except you ravish.” (lines:11-14)

This has, blasphemously perhaps, a certain semblance with sadomasochistic experience. Such a radical thought is dismissed by some critics who consider such thoughts as Donne’s attempt at soul searching or toiling for soul-making. With the religious metaphysicals, especially with Donne, physical deprivation and suffering have been ritualistic.

(b) Sadomasochism and the Body Politics:

According to the psychoanalyst and feminist critic Joan Riviere, ‘woman’ wear a public mask of ‘feminity’ to fit into the male images of women as docile and complacent. Their identity is, therefore, constructed and not real. The characters who have sadomasochistic traits in their characters aim at reversing the pre- fixed gender-specific roles of men and women. The females connected with sadomasochistic experiences are guided by feministic ideology and psychoeroticism. And they try to come out of the cornered existence that patriarchy has shoved them into. They revolt against male supremacy and they resist the male qualified oppressions and hierarchical phalocentricism. The avant-garde poets, confessional poets resort to such tactics and the result is pure ‘ jouissance’.

            The males who take pleasure in sadomasochistic experiences have history of being slighted, snubbed, torchered. They also have the psychoerotic complexcity of being castrated. During a period of discernible male hegemony, the female rising the gender ladder and ruling over the men was looked after as the slippage of gender identity in which the subservient male was looked upon as the ‘stereotypical female’. So power can mutilate gender identity. The erotic verse of the Elizabethan period explores such relationships- the relationships between power and gender identity.  The homo-erotic verses of Christopher Marlowe( “Hero and Leander” ), Thomas Nashe (“Choice of Valentine”) or Francis Walshingham (“Lord S[strange]” ) feature beautiful boys and they keep the ‘female power’ out of the ‘male sphere’ for their own particular identities.

Sadomasochism and Sensuality:

It has been clinically proved that sadomasochistic people have perverse sexual or sensual demands. They derive physical or emotional pleasure by inflicting pain upon themselves or upon others. Both sadism and sadomasochism are unhealthy mental states which has much in common with sodomy. A sodomist loves to see others engaged in sexual act. A sadist derive pleasure by seeing others suffer and a sadomasochist likes to inflict pain upon others or upon himself. In all the cases the body is exposed to some kind of exploitation.

         The theorizing and encrypting of pain as  pleasure is found  in the works of Marquis de Sade, Swinburne, Emily Bronte and a host of other writers of all times. In his translation poems such as that of Ovid’s “Amores” the speaker presents himself as a ‘ love’s captive’. Nashe in his “Choice of Valentines” portrays penile dysfunction and premature ejaculation. Shakespeare also expressed sexual submission in “Sonnet No 133”:

“Prison my heart in thy steel bosom’s ward” (line-4)

Again in the same poem he writes:

“I being pent in thee

Perforce am thine, and all that is in me. (lines-13-14)

Submission and sexual enjoyment are all too clear here. Marquis de Sade wrote a number of works that variously portray sexual violence and other subcultural form of sexual behaviour. In his works Sade shows how sex relationships are dependent on power and economics.

              What strikes us most in Emile Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights” is that attitude towards sex, love and pleasure go against orthodox Victorian Morality. In the twenty first century the sadomasochistic fictions like “Fifty Shades of Gray” by E.L James or “The Siren” by Tiffany Reiss have captured our attention to such an extent that it raised the eyebrows of the purists. In the Confessional poetry of the 1930s, there is “courting of experience that kills” but there are also “experience of pain that pleases”. The gluttony with which the confessional poets devour their pain and the clinical efficacy with which they detail their mental trauma or physical wounding is a clear indication that they had masochistic underpinning. Sylvia Plath’s poems like “Fever 103° “, “A Cut “, “Daddy”; Robert Lowell’s ” Life Studies” makes body ‘a spectacle’ or  “an extravaganza”.

(d) Liberation from the stereotypical:

       Denis Altman believes that sadistic and sadomasochistic discourses involve abusive power equations and exploitation. That is what normal people believe it to be as it is in collusion with the culture of violence. On the other hand, it is thought to be a liberating force or a transgressive act that offers a resistance to stereotyped politically correct sexual practices. Those who speak for sadomasochism, offer voyeuristic aspects of aestheticism. What is more, is that it offers imagination a free ride. A subcultural psycho-sexual practice, sadomasochism and sadism offers diversity in a society which is essentially bourgeoise and capitalistic. The confessional poets took resort to sadistic and sadomasochistic tactics and the result was a pure ‘jouissance’.

              Queer theorists such as David Halerpin and Leo Bersani have suggested that sadomasochism shatters subjectivity, dissolves selfhood and thrust the subject outside ideology’s reach. In his “Principle of Masochism” (1920)  Freud cites ‘castration anxiety’ as one of the fundamental principles underlying sadomasochism and which diminishes the maleness of a person. The two instincts that drive us ,according to Freud, are Eros(the desire to live) and Thanatos(the desire to die) .While Eros produces harmony and creativity, Thanatos produces the desire for self-annihilation and aggression. Freud found in sadomasochism a clinical manifestation of Thanatos-a much needed element for living a life. In his “Emotional Perihelion”, Joel Thornton writes about sadomasochism:

                      “Alpha rhythm

Relaxation to angst

Indifference inspired hate

                       Electrified mutiny. Powerful schism.”

Certainly sadomasochism provides mental relaxation to the poet. It provides relaxation from angst and subdued hatred and launches mutiny against the authoritative being.

Sadomasochists find pleasure even in illicit love-relationships. In such lesser known modern sadomasochistic poems as “Taste Me Daddy “we discover how dominance and bondage co-occurs in an incestuous relationship. The daughter who is psychologically fragile, let’s her father into her life and submits herself to him. More often than not, sadomasochistic writers themselves develop sadomasochistic mindset. Christopher Marlowe, who wrote sadomasochistic epigrams, had fascination for feet, shoes and scents of women. British poet Robert Greene , American author F. Scott Fitzgerald, Irish writer James Joyce, French writer Baudelaire, Italian poet Giacomo Casanova were sadomasochists.


So, we find that sadomasochism is not uncommon phenomenon or psychosexual disorder. It is rather a state of mind or an escape route that straightens the tangled threads of the mind. Sadomasochism involves traits like bondage, submission and dominance and, therefore, it often overlaps with BDSM. However, it has to be kept in the mind that the violence that is associated with sadomasochism has nothing to with common forms of violence or sex- assaults. To a great extent it is inherent and genetically inbuilt.


(I) Philips, Anita. “A Defence of Masochism”. Faber and Faber, London, 1999.

(ii) Mills, Robert. “Suspended Animation: Pain, Pleasure and Punishment in Mediaeval Culture” Reaktion Books, London, 2005.

(iii) James, E. L. “Fifty Shades of Grey”. Vintage Books, New York. 2012.

(iv) Freud, Sigmund. “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”. Trans. by C. J. M. Hubbock. London, Vienna: International Psycho-Analytical, 1922.

(v) Steinberg, Leo. “The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance art and in Modern Oblivion”. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1983.

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