My friend Monika recently shared a concern that her sex play with her boyfriend has been spilling over into other areas of her life. Several months ago, her boyfriend requested that she take on a sadistic, dominatrix-like role in their sexual relationship. Sadomasochism (S&M) involves using bondage, spanking, and other types of dominating sexual play, with the sadist being the dominant partner and the masochist being on the receiving end. At first, she was uncomfortable with the request because it was not something she had ever done before. However, after playing things out a little bit, she found the role quite exciting and empowering—her boyfriend also clearly enjoyed their sexual experiences. Now their sexual practices nearly always involve S&M, with her boyfriend getting off being the consenting recipient of (non-injurious) pain during their sexual experiences.1 Although Monika is more comfortable with assuming a dominating role than she used to be, she is not as sexually satisfied as she once was.
S&M used to be considered a psychiatric disorder by psychologists and researchers, but many years of research indicate that there is no evidence of mental disorders among those who enjoy this type of sexual practice.2 Indeed, S&M is very common, with about 1 in 10 adults across multiple surveys reporting fantasizing about or engaging in such behaviors.3 Researchers are also documenting some positive effects of S&M play, such as enhanced adrenaline and endorphin “highs” resulting from the infliction of pain that enhances sexual sensations.3 In Monika’s case, however, she longs for more “vanilla” sex without the S&M and is concerned that her boyfriend will only be satisfied if she continues to play the sadist role.
Of even greater concern to her is the fact that her boyfriend’s bedroom sadist role is playing out in their everyday relationship as well. For example, he refuses to make major decisions and asks Monika to make them, and he plays the “victim” whenever he cannot make obligations promised to her (e.g., “work made me too tired to come to your party”). She feels he does this to resolve himself of life’s responsibilities, and she wonders if his S&M preferences are at the root of this behavior. Although most masochistic people don’t often seek failure or harm in other areas of their lives,4 some psychologists have found that sadistic personalities do exist outside of the sexual arena.1 In other words, a sadistic person may get turned on being sadistic in the bedroom as well as by being the dominant and controlling person in their work relationships.
Over cocktails, Monika asked me: What makes him this way? Was her boyfriend like this because his ex-wife cheated on him, or perhaps because he may have had a bad relationship with his parents? There has been a lot of research looking at the factors that contribute to a preference for S&M, including early childhood/parenting experiences (e.g., absent or abusive parents); however, no simple link has been demonstrated so far. Indeed, most people who develop interests in S&M are older in age (20s to as old as 40s), and sociologists now believe that the practice is more an expression of a social role preference than a psychological pathology.3
No matter the reason for her boyfriend’s behavior, as Monika’s friend the more important issue for me is her satisfaction; she is clearly concerned about what their relationship has turned into. Sexual satisfaction strongly relates to relationship satisfaction,5 so I was not surprised that she was not feeling positively about how her relationship has been progressing since she has become increasingly uncomfortable donning a whip and stiletto heels. After considerable discussion, Monika decided to have an honest and frank discussion with her boyfriend about her wants and needs in the bedroom, as well as in their non-sex life. Although she is concerned that such a discussion might highlight differences between them that could make the relationship end, she decided it was ultimately better to communicate her needs, as she would rather be in a satisfying relationship than in an unsatisfying one.
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1Palerma, G. B. (2013). The various faces of sadism. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 57, 399-401.
2Moser, C. & Kleinplatz, P. (2005). DSM-IV-TR and the paraphilias: An argument for removal. Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality, 17, 91–109.
3Powls, J. & Davies, J. (2012). A descriptive review of research relating to sadomasochism: Considerations for clinical practice. Deviant Behavior, 33, 223-234.
4Baumestier, R. (1988). Masochism as escape from self. Journal of Sex Research, 25, 28-59.
5Sprecher, S., & Cate, R. M. (2004). Sexual satisfaction and sexual expression as predictors of relationship satisfaction and stability. In H. A. Wenzel and S. Sprecher (Eds.) The handbook of sexuality in close relationships (pp. 235-256). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Dr. Jennifer Harman – Adventures in Dating… | Science of Relationships articles |Website/CV
Dr. Harman’s research examines relationship behaviors that put people at-risk for physical and psychological health problems, such as how feelings and beliefs about risk (e.g., sexual risk taking) can be biased when in a relationship. She also studies the role of power on relationship commitment.