The Coining of “Masochism”

By Shannon Stockwell

It was Austrian psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing who coined the term “masochism” in his 1886 masterwork, Psychopathia Sexualis. Often hailed as the father of sexology, he was the first to classify psychosexual “disorders.” He took the name from his fellow countryman, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, author of Venus in Furs. Krafft-Ebing defined masochism as:

A peculiar perversion of the psychical vita sexualis [sexual life] in which the individual affected, in sexual feeling and thought, is controlled by the idea of being completely and unconditionally subject to the will of a person of the opposite sex; of being abused. This idea is colored by lustful feeling; the masochist lives in fancies, in which he creates situations of this kind and often attempts to realize them.

Psychopathia Sexualis is a collection of descriptions of Krafft-Ebing’s patients who had what he considered abnormal sexual fantasies, which also included homosexuality, pedophilia, fetishism, and sadism. The case studies in the chapter on masochism include information about when the patients first experienced a masochistic fantasy, what their fantasies consisted of, and how the fantasies affected their everyday life and relationships. They often provided a physical description of the patient that pointed out any abnormalities that might have hinted at a biological source for the fantasies; for example, “At first sight there was nothing remarkable in the patient’s appearance; but his pelvis was abnormally broad, the ilia [pelvic bone] were flat, and the pelvis, as a whole, tilted and decidedly feminine.”

Case Number 57, that of a 37-year-old married man, is particularly enlightening, because, unlike the other case studies, the patient himself wrote the report. The man could never admit to his wife that he had masochistic fantasies, so when his desire became unbearable he visited prostitutes to fulfill his need—moments that he and Krafft-Ebing referred to as “attacks.” More than being sexually fulfilling, these visits provided emotional comfort: through them, he learned his desires were not all that strange. The patient wrote “According to my experience, the number of masochists, especially in big cities, seems to be quite large. The only sources of such information are—since men do not reveal these things—statements by prostitutes, and since they agree on the essential points, certain facts may be assumed as proved.”

“Venus standing on a heart, holding a sword that passes through another heart. A man kneels beseechingly before her. Around them are vatious hearts, pierced with an arrow, aflame, sawed, stabbed, broken, in a vise, etc,” (1470), by Meister Casper (courtesy Wellcome Library, London)
Over the last 130 years, other “sources of information”—especially the famous mid-century findings of American sexologist Alfred Kinsey—have proved this theory to be true, and in recent decades there has been a growing mainstream acceptance of the BDSM (bondage and discipline, domination and submission, and sadomasochism) lifestyle. While masochism remains in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the American Psychological Association admits that many healthy and psychologically functional people practice masochism. It should be considered a disorder only if the masochistic thoughts lead to nonconsensual behavior, or if they cause the patient significant personal distress. As Stephanie Saunders, the current interim director of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction says, “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”—just as Patient 57’s prostitutes knew more than 100 years ago.

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