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In general, the term masochist refers to someone who takes pleasure in their own pain, suffering, and humiliation.
Most often, you’ll hear it in a sexual context, connected to the world of kink or consensual BDSM (bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism). Think whips, chains, paddles, and handcuffs––although the world of BDSM gets even more creative than that.
A sexual masochist is someone who gets aroused specifically from pain or humiliation, whether physical or mental. At its extreme, sexual masochism can be considered a type of paraphilia––a sexual interest beyond what’s regarded as “normal.”
But for many people, it’s simply a kink that brings extra pleasure to their sexual experiences. And it’s not as taboo as it used to be.
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Masochism vs. paraphilia
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5) considers a sexual interest a paraphilia when someone gets intensely aroused by “deviant” fantasies and acts upon them. But who gets to decide what’s deviant when it comes to sex?
Some paraphilias, like pedophilia or exposing yourself in a crowd, are never okay. But others––like masochist fantasies of being choked, bitten, or spanked during sex––can be wonderful as long as all participants are willing and able to consent. They only become problematic when they harm others or significantly disrupt your life.
Sexual masochism, kink, and BDSM aren’t practices that are hidden in the shadows anymore. A recent study of college students found that 51% of men and 41% of women engaged in at least one sexual behavior considered “abnormal,” calling into question whether those behaviors should be regarded as deviant at all (Castellini, 2018).
If Fifty Shades of Grey and its mildly spicy BDSM scenes sold over 150 million copies worldwide, can sexual masochism really be considered all that deviant?
The general consensus is that masochistic behavior is within the healthy spectrum of human sexual desires, as long as it’s consensual and doesn’t involve any illegal behavior. In fact, there’s evidence that masochism is linked to higher satisfaction with one’s sex life (Joyal, 2017).
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What are masochistic sexual behaviors?
Masochist behavior can take on lots of forms. Mostly, it’s about seeking out pain or suffering and enjoying it.
The pain you seek could be physical; for example, using whips or paddles in the bedroom. It could involve being bitten or burned. Using restraints (possibly painful ones) can come into play here, too.
Or you could enjoy being humiliated and submit to someone more dominating. If these sound like you, you’re not alone. Plenty of people enjoy various flavors of masochism in their sex lives.
But masochism doesn’t have to involve physical pain or discomfort. A different form of masochism is growing online called findom, or financial domination. This is all about getting aroused from being humiliated and degraded, and then paying for that service. The payment itself is actually part of the pleasure for people who enjoy this.
The universe of masochistic behavior is vast, and it doesn’t always involve sex. For example, some people enjoy gambling but get more pleasure from losing than winning, a form of non-sexual masochism (Rosenthal, 2015).
What is sadomasochism?
Sadomasochism is an umbrella term that refers to sexual practices that yield pleasure from doling out (or being on the receiving end) of pain and suffering.
It’s a power play: typically, one person dominates and the other is submissive. The dynamic is mutually beneficial, or sexually pleasing to both parties, and most importantly is consensual.
Don’t confuse sadomasochism with sadism though, which is when someone finds sexual pleasure by causing pain and suffering that is not consensual. Sadomasochism, though it sounds intense (and can be) is ultimately for the gratification and enjoyment of all parties involved.
When is masochistic behavior a problem?
The DSM-5, which is the handbook of all conditions in psychiatry, lists paraphilias (liking something different in the bedroom) separately from paraphilic disorders (liking something that’s a problem).
As BDSM and kink become more accepted as variants of normal sexual interests rather than a “deviant lifestyle,” this distinction can normalize healthy sexual behavior.
So when is it a disorder? Masochist behavior is only an issue if it’s causing problems. This could mean it gets in the way of your day-to-day activities or is causing you or someone else harm that you didn’t sign up for. There’s a diagnosable condition called sexual masochistic disorder for cases of masochism causing extreme distress or harm to those involved.
In rare cases, masochism can be problematic even when consensual. Kinky sex might include some amount of strangulation or suffocation (also called breath play), which can be dangerous and in rare cases has led to accidental death (Coluccia, 2016; Bauer, 2021). If you’re into intense BDSM, safety and communication are key.
Even though some masochistic behavior poses risks, if it makes you feel excited and sexually satisfied, then it’s most likely not a problem. Carry on, find what you like, and play within the limits of what you feel safe and comfortable with.
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How do I know if I’m a masochist?
By definition, you may be a masochist if you enjoy experiencing pain and suffering, especially during sex.
There’s a spectrum of behaviors this can cover, from being simply a glutton for punishment to getting turned by being whipped in the bedroom––or wherever you happen to be having sex. Researchers still don’t know what makes some of us lean towards masochistic tendencies (Konrad, 2015).
If you see masochistic behaviors in yourself, it’s not a bad thing. Figuring out whether you’re a masochist can help you identify what characterizes good sex for you. It can prompt you to say upfront what you want sex to be like and what turns you on. The most important thing is to stay safe and enjoy yourself.
Masochism, BDSM, and kink, in general, are becoming less taboo and more widely accepted as simply another flavor of sexual preference.
There’s power in being able to say what you want, even if it’s a little kinky. But if you have concerns about safety and don’t know how to navigate them, there are many resources and professionals available to help you learn about these topics.
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