The Psychology of BDSM
by Cal Y. Pygia©
I've written several stories, and even a novel, the theme of which is bondage and discipline, or BDSM, a synonym, really, for sadomasochism: "A Lark" ("a dare brought them closer together--much closer"); the five-part "First Timer" series ("a sadistic Dom punishes his male sub"); "Lysistrata Revisited" ("Aristophanes' brilliance saves the day. . . again"); "Nothing At All" ("spankings are fun--for the spanker"), in both gay and straight versions (the gay version is "Nothing At All: Alternate Version"); the five-part series "Quality Control" ("scientists aren't always as dispassionate as they seem"), "The Princess of Pain" ("which suitor would win the princess' hand?"), and the 23-chapter novel "The Sarah Owens Story" ("Sarah gives her all for the cheerleading squad"). I have also written a few others, which have been published elsewhere. Writing these stories has taught me a couple of things about the psychology of BDSM that I think could benefit others who write of wish to write BDSM stories.
First, BDSM is based on cruelty (duh!). There's no getting around that unpleasant fact. To do a convincing job of writing such tales, therefore, a writer must have a cruel streak in him or her--a cruel streak about a mile wide. He or she must understand--and enjoy--the idea of hurting others, of hurting them physically, to be sure, but also of hurting them emotionally and even sexually. He or she must be adept in verbal abuse, in physical abuse, and, of course, in sexual abuse.
Fortunately, he or she doesn't have to be an actual sadist, of course. We're talking fiction here, after all, not actuality. However, the writer of BDSM must enjoy imagining the infliction of prolonged physical, emotional, and sexual abuse upon a victim. When surfing the Internet, such a writer will be on the lookout for images of violence and torture. Tits gone purple from having been hogtied will attract him or her, as will penises and testicles which have been subjected to "cock and ball torture." The writer of BDSM will look for images of breasts transformed into pin cushions; of buttocks spanked raw; of men and women confined to low, narrow, cramped cages or made to assume and to maintain extremely uncomfortable positions.
In "Cruel Art," I summarize the passion of the sadist which is necessary to the writing (and, indeed, the appreciation of) BDSM: "I guess, in my case, at least, spanking art was like a gateway 'drug' to the harder pornographic illustrations of women who are not only bound, gagged, and spanked, but tortured in a variety of cruel, but imaginative, ways. The first time that such drawings produce a penile erection (or, in women, a lubricated vagina) is a bit unnerving, because, well, one is getting off, so to speak, on the sadistic treatment of another person, albeit an imaginary, rather than an actual, flesh-and-blood human being, usually (but not always) of the female sex. Knowing that one is aroused by the spectacle of torture is unsettling. It also demands reflection--on the part of the thinking individual, at least."
This perception is disturbing, but the identification and the understanding of it is not new. Aristotle writes of ancient Greek tragedy's evocation of pity and fear in its audiences as a means to effect a catharsis, or a venting, of these emotions, and Stephen King applies Aristotle's theory to horror fiction, suggesting, in "Why We Crave Horror," that horror stories create fear and disgust, if not always pity, for a similar reason to that for which ancient Greek tragedy evokes pity and fear: to purge readers (or moviegoers) of the base impulses that generate these feelings in the first place.
But the writer of BDSM must also know what it's like to be on the receiving end of the BDSM experience of which he or she writes. In other words, such authors must understand, both rationally and emotionally, what it is to be a victim of another person who is cruel. The BDSM writer must know what cruelty is, but he or she also must know what it feels like to be the victim of such behavior, to be bound and gagged, caged, spanked or beaten, fucked in the mouth and throat or up the ass, branded, impaled, cut, battered, bruised, tortured, shamed, humiliated, and belittled.
That's the bad news, as it were. The good news is that anyone who's survived high school knows, to some extent, what being bullied is like. The victim of BDSM is the same victim as the one who suffered the taunts and terrors of the high school bully, except that, in BDSM fiction, the bullying is much more intense and dangerous than it tends to be among adolescents in most public schools.
In "Cruel Art," I also argue, and I believe that historians, psychologists, sociologists, philosophers, and other students of human behavior will bear me out on this, that "There is a cruel streak in all of us, just as, under the right--or wrong--conditions, there could be within each of us a desire to experience pleasure through pain to the extent that, for us, pain would become no longer merely a means of obtaining pleasure, sexual, emotional, and otherwise, but pleasure itself. To paraphrase Walt Kelly's opossum Pogo, who said 'We have met the enemy, and he is us,' we have met the monster, and it is we. Therefore, the enjoyment of cruel art may be a guilty pleasure, but it is a pleasure, nevertheless."
A dirty little secret of erotic literature is that sexual relations, whether they are between men and women, between men, between women, or between some combination of men, women, and/or transwomen and/or transmen, these relations are not really about love at all.
BDSM, like cruel art, suggests, in no uncertain terms, that sex is about dominance and submission or, in a word, about power and who has it and who lacks it or who takes and who gives it or who seizes it and who loses it. Mostly, it is the participants--one ought not to refer to those who engage in BDSM as "partners," for there is nothing equal, as this term suggests that there is, between those who practice this form of sex. BDSM is a matter of using and being used, of possessing and of being possessed, of symbolically killing or being killed.
In civilized society, we compromise between parties who have different, or even opposing, interests. In other words, through politics (ideally, at least), we provide a give and take that levels the playing field and provides a more fair and equitable way of resolving issues of personal and social concern. Instead of pulling a gun on someone else to drive home our point, we verbalize our threats, usually balancing these attempts to intimidate with gestures of reconciliation, gifts, and praise. We use both a carrot and a stick. We share power with one another. No one is a total winner, but no one is a complete loser, either. Might does not make right; compromise does.
In our reptilian minds and our amphibious souls, however, we like the taste of flesh and blood. We crave the red meat of power unrestrained and of power unleashed. We want to hurt and be hurt, to bind and to be bound, to serve and be served (and, indeed, to service and to be serviced). We are animals. As such, despite the "thin layer of veneer" that has been said to conceal our true, deeper nature, we are beasts of predation and of prey.
To write rousing BDSM, therefore, an author must him- or herself be both sadist and masochist, that is, a sadomasochist or, at the very least, he or she must research the dynamics, physical and emotional, of power as it is given and taken, seized and lost, accepted and relinquished, used and abused. We are all of us sadists and masochists, but the writer of BDSM is both the empowered and the powerless, the god and the sacrifice, the predator and the prey.
As predators, we are hard-wired to thrill to the agony and the ecstasy of pleasure and pain. We like the hunt, the chase, the capture, the torture, and the cannibalistic devouring, whether the last is real and physical or imaginary and symbolic. It is the thrill of the hunt and of the savagery of the chase and the ability to inflict pain--or even death--with impunity that excite on one level and the terror of being hunted, the desperation of being chased, and the horror of being tortured or killed on another level that we seek in reading BDSM. It is the task of the writer of such fiction, therefore, to deliver these goods.
It helps if one can get in touch with his or her own feelings of worthlessness (or understand this feeling in others, at least) in writing BDSM, because, as the story's masochist comes to realize in the concluding chapter of my "First Timer" series, it is a lack of self-esteem (and a dependent disposition) that fuels the masochist's passion:
"Gary was a wimp. He'd done everything that Russ had ordered him to do. He'd proven himself to be Russ' servant, Russ' slut, Russ' bitch. Although he'd tried to reject it, the truth was, as he'd found out, that he was a dependent personality, unable to think or feel or judge for himself. His sense of self, like his sense of self-worth, depended upon other people--people who were only too happy to use him for their own purposes and pleasures, as Russ had done and would continue to do, if Gary allowed it, which, of course, was so likely as to be a foregone conclusion.
". . . But there was another reason that Gary had allowed Russ to use him. Gary regarded himself as a loser. He was a nobody and a nothing. He was so worthless that he deserved to be punished, and, since he was infinitely unworthy, he deserved endless punishment, the crueler the better. Through suffering for others, he might, someday, become worthy by providing a worthwhile service, as had, for example, the whipping boys of the middle ages. It was unseemly that a prince should be spanked or beaten, for he was of royal blood. Therefore, when it was considered necessary that a wayward heir to the throne be disciplined for misbehavior, it was not his ass, but that of his stand-in, the whipping boy's, to be flogged. Gary saw himself as serving a like function for men who were, by virtue of their dominance and aggressiveness, his superiors."
The sadist is motivated by the same feelings of worthlessness, but, instead of turning them inward and directing them against him- or herself, he or she turns them outward, directing them toward someone else. In the process, he or she gains a sense of inflated self-worth, of godlike power. The difference is that the masochist is a dependent personality, who, as such, must depend upon another, the sadist, to give him or her value (if only as a whipping boy or girl), whereas the sadist, although he or she needs a participant, as anyone who is having sex with someone other than him- or herself needs another person, the sadist is autonomous enough to use another for his or her own purposes and to bend the other to his or her own will.
A writer who gets the psychology of sadomasochism right will write more powerful (and believable) BDSM than he or she would otherwise, and, as a result, his or her readers will return for their vicarious sadomasochistic thrills.