top of page

S&M: Meanings & Origins

In BDSM, the terms sadism and masochism refer to the enjoyment of or desire for consensual physical or emotional pain during play or sex. As with all aspects of BDSM, neither the sadism or masochism engaged in require any sexual gratification to be had for the play to be rewarding to whomever is involved. Alongside this, the range of which what one person considers to be their own personal preferred masochism can vary greatly from anothers, as is the same for sadists and what sort of enjoyment they receive and how they receive it. Moreover, sadism and masochism join bondage and discipline, dominance and submission to assert the very psychologically based mindset that we all engage in when experimenting with the fantasy that is BDSM.

'Sadism' is derived as a namesake for the libertine French author and nobleman, Marquis De Sade, being used to describe the act of enjoyment in inflicting pain or suffering. 'Masochism' describes the act of enjoyment in the receiving of pain and is taken after the name of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, who was also an author and Austrian nobleman. You can read about both historical figures below.

In the BDSM sphere, the term sadomasochist can also mean someone who enjoys both the inflicting and receiving of pain during play.

Interestingly, both of the terms 'sadism' and 'masochism' were first coined in 1886, by the Austrian psychiatrist Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing, who released the Psychopathia Sexualis. It is in this clinical-forensic study that other terms such as 'homosexuality', 'necrophilia' and 'anilingus' were also first introduced into medical terminology.

Both sadism and masochism were, until very recently, considered pathological anomalies. It was not until June 2018 that BDSM, fetishism and transvestism were removed from the World Health Organization's International Classification of Diseases (11th Revision). With the removal of the terms from the 'sick list' comes also a removal of a negative stigma toward the global BDSM, fetish and kink communities that will hopefully increasingly dissipate.

[Note: Non-consensual sadism remains on the list WHO ICD and is distinguished from mutually consensual sexual sadism.]


The only known portrait of the Marquis De Sade, by Charles Amédée Philippe van Loo, dating back to 1760

The Marquis De Sade was a politician and philosopher, whose notorious writings and real-life antics spread far and wide. Sade's sexual scandals in the 18th century led to a number of complaints being made against him for sexual mistreatment, with the Marquis eventually being imprisoned and sentenced to death for his sodomy and incapacitation of prostitutes by use of antiquated aphrodisiacs. Sade escaped his first imprisonment within four months of being jailed and, having fled to Italy, he started writing some time between 1772 and 1776. After being tricked into a second arrest and imprisonment in 1778, again escaping and eventually being recaptured, Sade was then transferred to an 'insane' asylum in 1789. It is during this first stint at the asylum where Sade began authoring what he wished to be "the most impure tale that has ever been written since the world exists" - the infamous 120 Days Of Sodom. A year later, Sade was once again free, but this time not by escaping but by political upheaval that rendered his royal order of arrest useless in the time that was the midst of the French Revolution. For eleven years, Sade would continue to write his gothic erotic tales and publish them anonymously, until, in 1801, Napoleon Bonaparte ordered the imprisonment of the unknown author of Justine and Juliette. Sade was arrested at his publisher's office and, to avoid further defamation, his aristocratic family declared him officially insane, having him transferred once more to the insane asylum Charenton. The police orders that detained him restricted him from having access to pens and paper and, after eleven years spent in the asylum, he eventually died - after which his skull was removed to be phrenologically examined.


A portrait of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Artist unknown.

Leopold was known for his romantic tales and idealistic socialist views; an educated and widely prolific non-fiction author of 19th century Austria. Leopold was also a magazine editor for some time and advocated for both the tolerance and integration of the Jewish population in Saxony (a German state) as well as the emancipation of women through raising awareness and support for their education and suffrage. During the 1860s through to the 1880s, Leopold turned from his non-fiction writing to go on to write a number of works that focused more on the folklore and culture of the different ethnicities that inhabited Galicia at the time. In 1869, he decided to compile a list of short stories under the collective title Legacy Of Cain, though he abandoned the project some time in the mid 1880s, but not before the first two of the six planned volumes had already been published. Included in these first two volumes was Leopold's most famous work - Venus In Furs. The tale was a short novel in which expressed Leopold's own sexual fantasies and desires - particularly for dominant women wearing fur. It is known that he would attempt to live out these fantasies in his own personal life with his mistresses and wives - even having signed a slave contract to his mistress, the Baroness Fanny Pistor, whom agreed to wear furs as often as possible - but most especially if she was feeling cruel. Leopold took on the common name of a male servant to be disguised in public as he lived this fantasy with the Baroness, which included plenty of instances of power exchange and a variety of forms of humiliation. During this time, Leopold also tried to include his first wife in sharing his fantasies, though it was against her own preferences and they eventually divorced. As he grew older, Leopold found his mental health declining and, similarly to the Marquis De Sade, ended up spending his last years in an asylum, where he would eventually die in 1905.


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page