While we are dealing here with pain, it is a pain the masochist is capable of transforming into pleasure; a suffering which he, by some secret alchemy he alone possesses, can turn into pure joy.
—Jean Paulhan, Preface to Pauline Réage’s "The Story of O" (1954)
If you were to tell me the first thing that comes to your mind when I say “S&M,” there’s a decent chance that it would be the "Fifty Shades" trilogy. Or perhaps you’d describe some sensual scene lit by flickering candles: an ice cube to a perky nipple, wax dripping onto a shivering naked abdomen, a guillotine mask, a pony harness, a strangled scrotum, and a spring-loaded mouth gag . . . well, now you’re just getting carried away, you perv. In any event, this dominant-submissive (or “master-slave”) dynamic is more common than you may be aware. Around 11 percent of us, irrespective of our gender, have had an experience with sadomasochism. Five percent of men and 7 percent of women also report regularly including “verbal humiliation” in their erotic repertoire. And that’s just those who’d ever admit to such things on a survey.
Most so-called sadists in the S&M community aren’t really that sadistic; nor are most “masochists” willing to commit too much to their masochistic roles. Emphasizing the relative harmlessness on both sides, John Money referred to the average bondage-and-discipline fan as a “velvet dragon.” Although sadism is included in the "DSM- 5" as one of the harmful paraphilias, clinicians aren’t going to favor a mental illness diagnosis for some theatrically inspired woman who likes to occasionally tie up her “prissy little bitch” of a consenting husband and sink her teeth into his buttocks. These things might smart and induce some wincing, perhaps a few tears, but they’re not exactly going to lead to reconstructive surgery or to a major medical claim. Rather, to determine if the patient’s kinkiness qualifies her as a genuine sexual sadist, psychiatrists look for two things: the pain she inflicts must be real rather than playful, and she derives her most intense pleasure from the suffering of a nonconsenting other. Usually, such a person—that’s to say, a paraphilic sadist—will only come to our attention after she’s committed a serious crime, with the courts ordering her to undergo a psychiatric evaluation.
That’s sensible enough, since it hurts so good except when it doesn’t. For horrendous incidents in which deranged individuals attack innocent victims, pain and nonconsensual sex almost always go together. When these two criteria are applied to S&M outliers far off the beaten path from the rest of that community, however, there’s often plenty of real pain and suffering, heaps of it even. Yet the receiving party has also consented to the sex act. Don’t forget that all-important fact about the subjectivity of harm and how it varies from person to person. Cultural differences come into play here as well. And with an extreme masochist the issue of harm can get especially tricky. Screw on your forensic cap, for instance, and consider how you’d analyze the particularly gruesome case of Der Metzgermeister (the Master Butcher) of Rotenburg, Germany.
Before the more recent case of the Cannibal Cop (in which the New York City police officer Gilberto Valle was found guilty of planning to kidnap, murder, and eat a woman—or eat and then murder, the correct order of those last two verbs isn’t clear), there was the tale of Armin Meiwes. That name might dimly light up in your frontal lobes as a distant headliner best forgotten, but to remind you—and apologies for doing so—Meiwes, a computer repairman by trade, was the German cannibalistic sexual sadist who, in the spring of 2001, found a willingly edible sexual masochist for himself named Bernd Jürgen Brandes. “Looking for a well-built 18- to 30-year-old to be slaughtered and then consumed,” read Meiwes’s personal ad on the Cannibal Café website (which, you’ll probably be glad to know, is a website no more). And Brandes, it seems, was looking to be thoroughly digested. That old psychopath Cupid couldn’t have arranged for a more tragic crossing of these lovers’ paths. (Oh right, where’s my head? After our terminology lesson in chapter 4, you’re probably starving to be told the technical name for this cannibalism paraphilia. It’s “vorarephilia,” from the Latin vorare, “to swallow or devour.”)
From the video footage—the whole awful thing was taped from start to finish—it’s apparent that Meiwes (the eater) didn’t coerce Brandes (the eatee) at all. If anything, the coercion was done by the masochist, not the sadist. Brandes even begged a hesitating Meiwes to bite off his penis. There’s no need to hover over all the nasty details, so let’s fast-forward to the kitchen scene, where Meiwes has just sautéed the chomped-off organ in a pan with wine and garlic and the pair is now amicably dining on it together. (Meiwes would later describe it as “chewy.”) Forward still, past that unmentionable bit and so on . . . and then finally to the part when Brandes’s salted carcass is hanging on a butcher’s rack in the purposefully built slaughter room of this house of horrors, where forty-four choice pounds of him would slowly disappear down Meiwes’s esophagus. I’m by no means suggesting that both the S and the M parts of this equation weren’t disturbed men. You don’t need to be a mental health expert to see that. Yet when we try to apply the "DSM- 5’s" criteria of pain and non-consent, there’s some tension here, since Meiwes had explicitly sought out a consenting adult partner. And when you combine consent with a masochist’s apparent death wish, well, you can see how a forensic psychiatrist’s job can be daunting. Diagnosing the only remaining member of this carnal coupling becomes, shall we say, “philosophically problematic,” given the victim’s extraordinarily unique subjectivity.
Attempts to objectify pain and consent for a diagnosis of sadism also run into trouble at the other end of the ouch scale. In this case, it’s not consent that’s the issue (the other person clearly doesn’t want to be doing what the sadist is enjoying); rather, there are some sex acts that don’t appear to our own eyes to be “painful,” at least as we usually understand that term. In fact, they can very well escape our notice altogether as being sexually motivated, but from the actor’s point of view, they’re maliciously so. Take tickling, for instance. Despite peals of laughter and the ear- to-ear smiles associated with tickling, it can be a very unpleasant experience for those on the receiving end of a well-placed feather or incessant forefinger. Consensual tickling isn’t unusual for those into S&M, and usually it’s quite harmless. But when it’s done mercilessly against someone’s will, tickling is no less than torture.
When you combine a sadistic personality with the paraphilia of “titillagnia” (erotic arousal from tickling), the result isn’t anything to laugh about at all. I submit for your consideration a patient described in 1947 by the psychiatrist Emil Gutheil. The man was a married, prominent thirty-nine-year-old lawyer living in New York City (funny how so many of these deviant sex cases are based in the Big Apple) who just happened to have an ineradicable sexual urge to tickle people. This wasn’t some innocuous velvet dragon, however. Instead, his most frequent masturbation fantasies involved tickling a person to death, or at least to the point that the person would foam at the mouth and lose consciousness. (This man’s sexual sadism may have given the case a unique spin, but he certainly wasn’t the first to tickle for malevolent reasons. In ancient China, the courts of the Han dynasty brutalized the nobility by tickling them, since it left no marks on these high-profile figures when they’d be seen in public. Centuries later, a woman in Vienna filed for divorce against her husband, who for years had been tickling her as a form of spousal abuse for precisely the same reason.)
Consistent with the theory of male sexual imprinting, Gutheil believed that the patient’s desires stemmed from him growing incidentally aroused as a seven-year-old boy while being overpowered and tickled by his older brother. Now an adult, the man found intercourse repulsive, and he’d been forcing his poor wife to indulge his vicious tickles. The psychiatrist notes how the sadistic patient was sometimes able to find prostitutes who’d allow him to tie them up and tickle them. “But this type of prostitute was so expensive that he could not afford them for any length of time,” writes the psychiatrist. The man also had a history of paying young boys to tickle each other unremittingly, masturbating on the sidelines while watching them doing so and thereby re-creating the childhood scene with his brother but this time in the role of voyeur.
It’s kind of a pity that this man lived when he did. Today he’d surely have found a more suitable “knismolagniac” (the tickling masochist to the titillagniac’s sadist) or perhaps even the more rarefied “pteronophiliac” (those who obtain their most intense gratification from being tickled with feathers) somewhere online. (If a computer repairman can find a person happy to be swallowed alive these days, an attorney can certainly find someone willing to be tickle-tortured.) Had the patient enjoyed his sexuality with one of those complementary paraphiliacs, the harmfulness of his actions would have been less than they probably were for his wife, prostitutes, and children.
Sadism isn’t the only paraphilic category for which the question of harm can get murky for psychiatrists as well as for anyone who has ever contemplated another person’s unusual sex life. As the lovely Kate Upton reminded us earlier, a universally objective reality simply doesn’t exist in the present domain; what’s harmful to me isn’t necessarily harmful to you, and vice versa. It will change as soon as I put this comma right here, but as of this very moment there are exactly 7,088,343,858 people on the planet. If all but one of these individuals were to experience harm in exactly the same way from a certain sex act, that solitary person is nevertheless just as right (or just as wrong) as all the others combined. This is because there’s no “correct” way to experience a sex act, only individual differences in subjective realities. It may be a moot point, since it’s not logic that guides culture but instead sheer social mass shouldering into it with brute force, but nonetheless 7,088,343,857 shared subjective realities do not add up to a single objective fact. What was harmful to them was not harmful to him, and that, as they say, is that. Or to rephrase: one person’s horror story is another’s erotica. And I’m quite sure our vorarephile Bernd Jürgen Brandes would tell you so too, if only he were still around.
Excerpted from "Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us" by Jesse Bering, to be published October 8, 2013 by Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2013 by Jesse Bering. All rights reserved.