Saturday, 6 October 2007

Sadism

Because of the recent discussion of "SM sadist" vs "abuser who seems to get off on abusing" over at another blog, I've been thinking a lot about sadism. About whether those of us who get sexual thrills from doing consensual things that involve pain (or power, though I'm never sure quite how interconnected those two are or aren't in any given case, and rambling about that is for another post) are similar to those famous monsters prowling the edges of human society, who get off on doing terrible things to people nonconsensually. I've been reading a lot about lust murderers in particular.

And the question for me is: How much is the same and how much is different? I'm working off the assumption that people like me wouldn't do what they do -- I'm not worried about that. I wish I had the source quote now, but I remember someone who had studied both populations mentioning "If you asked members of each group 'Imagine doing these things to someone consensually. How would you feel about that?' the SM sadists would find that exciting, and the others would find that a turn-off." So clearly there is a difference.

But I wonder if it's the same impulse in the human mind, or if even the drive is different (though similar enough to look related.) I think there's a very big desire to say "we're nothing like them" and "it's something else", but I'm not totally convinced. It makes me wonder: am I experiencing similar, or related, feelings to them, but I have ethics that serve as "brakes" -- that stop me from doing or even from wanting to do these things nonconsensually? Is it just that in my case morals trump lust, and they have none?

Or does the fact that, while I may fantasize about nonconsensual situations I have zero desire to actually rape (much less kill -- actually, killing makes no sense. [Count Rugen] Dead people can't feel pain. Why bother with that? [/Count Rugen]) mean that my desires are actually qualitatively different, such that using the same word (sadism) is actually a misnomer?

I don't know. I used to think that these two groups represented two very different types of mind, such that very little related was going on in each. But now I'm feeling like that's probably just an attempt on my part to further distance myself from them: "oh, these couldn't possibly be similar!"

When, really, there's actually a lot in human monsters' stories that sounds familiar: Trauma. Fear of other people. Desire for revenge. Shame, particularly sexual shame. Feeling that real people will never want you. Irrational fear, anger, hate. Overwhelming, seemingly uncontrollable feelings of lust (especially if, as many of these men are, we're raised to believe sex and desire are dirty and shameful.) I think we've all experienced those things (well, maybe not the lust, if we're asexual.)

And why shouldn't a dark impulse (to hurt people for fun) look at least vaguely similar in both, when you get right down to its nature, isolated from everything else? Why wouldn't it be that SM sadists are feeling/noticing/toying with a particularly spooky strain of the gamut of human desires? Every time I've tried to tell myself "this has to be totally different," I then find myself with a profoundly violent fantasy that really makes me wonder if I'm truly in the shallow end of the pool. No, I'd never intentionally do harm. But yes, there BE dragons in these waters. To pretend they're friendly eels is... not on. :)

So I've been thinking: what is it that makes the lust murderers and other such sadists so different, so unreachable? And the conclusion I keep coming to is that it's got at least something to do with empathy. It seems to me that maybe the underlying impulse/connection between inflicting pain and sexual desire is the same, but it manifests very differently in someone who has normal to high amounts of empathy and someone who has little or none.

I remember a while back someone contacting me via LJ who told me that he was fascinated by me because I openly admitted to being a sadomasochist. He mentioned that he'd always found pain "beautiful", both his own and others'. He mentioned having difficulty with empathy, and said things like "I don't understand why other people would be afraid of pain. It's beautiful."

And that, well, predictably, set off some alarm bells in the head of yours truly. Because, well, I can empathize with others, thanks, and if they don't want me to hurt them I have a pretty good idea why not. I might feel sad about this and prefer that we have SM-y fun, but I'm not going to wonder what's wrong with someone for saying "No, that doesn't feel good or 'beautiful' or whatever to me, please don't do it."

So the best I can parse: yes, these desires are probably at least vaguely similar. But they manifest very differently depending on whether you have normal or high empathy levels, or an empathy black hole.

But then the question becomes: why do some people who have normal-to-high empathy levels like to hurt people? And why would that be sexual?

And that's where I personally veer off into spirituality-land again, because reason just doesn't explain it for me, and the idea that there's some either genetic or culturally induced desire for dominance doesn't explain enough, either. I don't have any particular reason I can imagine for being like this. The dominance part I might make sense of in any number of ways: high testosterone, genetics, past traumas inducing a stronger than usual yen for control, societal training. (Some of these make sense to me, some don't. I'm not arguing for any, just saying they can be rationally argued for in ways that are at least somewhat convincing.) But the sadism? The fact that if sex is feeling stale to me all I have to do is imagine someone getting impaled by large metal implements of torture?

That I can't put in a neat box. I'm a mild-mannered nerdy female. Why my sexual desire would be so tied to violent fantasy... I can't parse with sense.

So, like most things that rationality doesn't answer for me, I turn to a spiritual explanation. I think we're here to, in some way, balance out the bad ones. I don't know how exactly we do this. After all, since this presupposes that we're the ones with morals, we can't hunt them down and exterminate or violently reprogram them. Even if we wanted to it's an open question whether it would be safe at all for us to try.

But I still have this feeling that the gods must have noticed the human monsters roaming around, and decided to do something about it. Even if it's just something like -- they were the prototype, and the gods saw them wandering around and went "oh shit" and made sure Version 2 came with empathy centers.

30 comments:

Myca said...

Okay, now you've got me thinking. I'll be putting up a post on this soon. :-)

verte said...

Oooooh, this post is awesome, Trin. And you've set me off thinking about degradation and humiliation (my darkest, deepest desires) and the risk it takes a top to take that on and play with it/me.

First off, here's question for you, and any other toppy types reading: do you get off on other people's distress when you play? Is that part of your sadism?

Certainly, if I'm watching porn I prefer the bottom to look as if she's not enjoying herself, and have felt really fucking guilty about that for a long time.

Similarly, as a bottom/sub, I like to play right to the edge. I like playing with the idea of consensual non-consent and at best I'm happiest when I'm with someone who can really push at my boundaries, take me a little further, a little darker, each time.

HOWEVER, I realise that playing with someone like me is a huge fucking risk for a top. I suppose it's a case of relinquishing self-control, or at least letting it out on a fairly long leash. And that can't be easy when you're enacting fantasy. How do you know when to stop? How do you keep that fantasy on a leash?

Dark Daughta said...

I don't think there's so much difference between people in the life and those who understand their desires as more "normal". I've met some people who understand themselves as being "nice", friendly, loving, fairly tame in the area of sexualness, who try to put much distance between themselves and people who willingly and openly engage in some kind of BDSM. In their style of human engagement, the ways they maneuver through social spaces, professional space, romantic love interests, they've proven to be among the most sadistic, emotionally invested in dominance, humiliation and degradation. They just aren't out about it, don't have enough consciousness of how their own psyche operates, would never ever speak openly about the strong cravings they have. I think most understand the sort of oppression encountered by folks who attempt to ritualize cravings that allow space for power play. Many "nice" folks go to great pains to make sure they stay on the "right" side of these conversations. Thanks for the post.

Trinity said...

"First off, here's question for you, and any other toppy types reading: do you get off on other people's distress when you play? Is that part of your sadism?"

Depends. Are we talking clear, real distress, or are we talking "I know I'm pushing you now" or "I know how much you can take comfortably and I intend to do more (and know you've agreed)?" The first isn't hot -- I don't want to damage people. The second is.

For me personally, though (and I have no idea how true it is for anyone else) very often the fantasy is that the experience goes from sexual to profoundly violent and the whole thing is wanted -- the idea is something more like I have so much power or the experience is so passionate or something that I can do things that cross the line into luridly violent (and, in my fantasies, the line into serious physical harm -- think violent knife fucking, etc) and the other person is still getting off (though perhaps also fearful at the same time). A lot of the thrill is the idea that the consent is still there, despite (or even because of) the violence/the pain, which ideally I want to be very real. The idea that someone can be both scared/pained/overwhelmed and consenting is hot to me.

I do also have nonconsent fantasies but I think those are more about dominance than pain: you're here for me to use, and I'm going to do it regardless. It;s less "I want you to hurt and I don't care if that's in a good way or not."

And there's a lot of the classic, supposedly-the-fault-of-rape-culture "you're just being coy and really want me/this" in many of them. It especially manifests itself in fantasies about fucking men. "I have to 'rape' you because you're a homophobe, but we both know you're going to get off on this," etc.

I know some other SM tops of a very one true way persuasion who claim that desires should only count as sadistic if the fantasy is nonconsent, or that "real" sadists want to be able to fantasize that whatever's happening is nonconsensual even if it is. By that definition a large chunk of my sadism isn't. *shrug* I dunno, it's just generally hotter to me that this is terrible, awful, horrifying, yet the person in front of me craves it anyway.

I don't know why that is. I think part of it is that it makes me feel completely accepted to let that part of me out, the part that wants to smell blood and tear flesh and hear screams, and set something vaguely approximating that but far less risky up and hear an emphatic "Yes!"

"How do you know when to stop? How do you keep that fantasy on a leash?"

For me it's choosing partners carefully. I know who I can let go with and who I can't, and I don't do it with people I just met.

It also helps for me that a lot of my fantasies are more violent than I can ever enact, so I can have something much rougher going in my head if I want more.

Trinity said...

"want to fantasize that it's nonconsensual even if it is" = ie. what they want is: yeah, we're in a scene and agreed to it and negotiated and yeah yeah but I want to pretend we didn't/really scare/hurt you to the point that it seems to my lizard brain that you didn't consent, etc.

Trinity said...

for me personally i'm not picky about who counts as a sadist. yeah, for me the consent is hot itself, but... anyone who thinks I'm not sadistic should have a look at how much I like hurting people, tyvm.

Trinity said...

Myca,

Where's your blog? I'd love to see your thoughts when you're done, but there's no link in your name.

Trinity said...

dark daughta,

Point taken. I've definitely seen the behaviors you point out among people who profess to be nothing like us scary sadomasochists. It seems common among very anti-hierarchy leftists, who are totally keen on pointing out other people's domineering or cruel behavior but use their theory to excuse their own.

I was using "sadism" in an explicitly sexual sense, though. I don't think the people who are abusive about, say, feminisms necessarily experience clitoral tingling when they tell someone she's brainwashed. They may, but I think it's a bit too armchair Freudian to claim certainty.

Bitchy Jones said...

I think about this a lot too. I think I had a wake up call when I was reading about the Fred West stuff and realised I was reading for fun and also for ideas. He had made his victim's face masks out of packing tape and biro casings. I was unduly fascinated - practically taking notes. And disturbed when I realised what was I was doing.

Years later I have a conclusion. I don't think that people like me are sadists + empaths. (Sorry - that sounds weirdly star trek, I thought ti was a word.) I think that sadist-killers are sadists + sociopathy.

Maybe that's just that I think having empathy is more of a norm state than not having it. But I am certain the base drive is the same.

My boyfriend laughed at me once when I said: 'I would never really non-consensually hurt you. I couldn't handle the guilt.

I laughed too and then said: 'Yeah. Thing is, I think that's true.'

Trin: I was very interested in the 'reasons for dominance' you touched on. I'd love to read a post about that

LAS said...

One of my favorite people said recently that they, too, think that high degrees of empathy are a must for the consensual sadist, or else we are just sociopaths. (And, thus, that we sadistic tops are all a little bit of the masochist, too.) So it's interesting to hear this echoed from an entirely different quarter.

Verte -- yes, I get off on distress, crying, squirming, unhappiness. Of a sort. There's another sort that just feels frustrating and makes me feel unhappy and mean and like I don't want to play any more. I can't put my finger on the difference, but it's there -- some scenes, my bottom has been crying and screaming and it makes me giggle, and some scenes, I just want to stop and never touch anyone again, and both were consensual.

Gauge said...

When I'm topping, I get off on what I'm doing, and not just on the "I am doing things to someone else that they want" sense, but in the "I am getting to do all this stuff that I enjoy to someone consensually" sense. I like pushing people who've agreed to be push, I like being in control, I like having that trust given to me. And it is more than just doing things people want me to do to them - if it were just that, I wouldn't have definite preferences for the things I like to do.

But, I generally get intense feelings of guilt as I come down from topspace, of the sort of "what sort of monster am I that I could possibly do that to someone, even though they wanted me to do it, consented to it, and continued to consent?" I'm fine through the scene, and through aftercare, and once aftercare is done, I find that I have to take care of myself a bit, once I'm on my own. Because I think that, for me, stuff comes from what I've been taught to see as a dark place in me, and, well, as much as letting that stuff out in healthy, safe, consensual ways, letting that stuff out still forces me to acknowledge it is there, to a greater extent than thoughts and fantasies do.

And I think you're right that it is empathy that is all the difference. It's why consent is so important and it's also why I'm not emotionally manipulative and controlling in social situations - despite that being the way I was raised to be - because I feel too much for other people to actually hurt or use them without their consent.

And sure I have SM related fantasies that are impractical, impossible, or totally unable to be safe in actuality, but, either they're in my mind as consensual, or the dream starts with consent already having occurred "off-stage" so to speak.

But, still, those fantasies are definitely not of the type of "this is fun for someone" but rather, "this is nasty, dark, scary stuff". I find I do best with holding together the idea that both I am a good, kind, trustworthy person with the fact that I have desires that to me can seem monstrous by acknowledging that both can be true, and precisely because I acknowledge that there are dark, nasty parts of me and that I only let them out to play in controlled, consensual ways, and that I have the empathy with other people such that they don't come out in ways that aren't controlled and consensual.

Trinity said...

"Verte -- yes, I get off on distress, crying, squirming, unhappiness. Of a sort. There's another sort that just feels frustrating and makes me feel unhappy and mean and like I don't want to play any more."

Yeah, that.

Trinity said...

"I think I had a wake up call when I was reading about the Fred West stuff and realised I was reading for fun and also for ideas. He had made his victim's face masks out of packing tape and biro casings. I was unduly fascinated - practically taking notes. And disturbed when I realised what was I was doing."

Yep. I remember reading about the torture implements used in the Salem Witch trials with a friend, staring in erotic fascination and horror all at once.

My friend got squicked that I couldn't stop looking. She stopped me. I got almost angry.

Trinity said...

"And it is more than just doing things people want me to do to them - if it were just that, I wouldn't have definite preferences for the things I like to do."

YES.

"I'm fine through the scene, and through aftercare, and once aftercare is done, I find that I have to take care of myself a bit, once I'm on my own."

That happens to me too. I try to tell bottoms I need them to stay in touch, but many don't. *sadness*

"I find I do best with holding together the idea that both I am a good, kind, trustworthy person with the fact that I have desires that to me can seem monstrous by acknowledging that both can be true."

Yes.

Trinity said...

"Years later I have a conclusion. I don't think that people like me are sadists + empaths. (Sorry - that sounds weirdly star trek, I thought ti was a word.) I think that sadist-killers are sadists + sociopathy.

Maybe that's just that I think having empathy is more of a norm state than not having it. But I am certain the base drive is the same."

I think we're saying the same thing. Not that we're empaths but that sociopaths are "- empathy"

so it's like

sadism = us

sadism - empathy = them

Gauge said...

"I'm fine through the scene, and through aftercare, and once aftercare is done, I find that I have to take care of myself a bit, once I'm on my own."

"That happens to me too. I try to tell bottoms I need them to stay in touch, but many don't. *sadness*"

I'm really glad I'm not the only one who goes through that and feels that way. I feel like I actually need bottoms to stay in touch with me more than I need to have people whom I've had more vanilla sex with stay in touch with me. However, the trend seems to be the opposite, at least in my life, though I generally want to stay in touch with everyone, unless they've given me reason not to.

Habu said...

I just wanted to chime in and mention to Trinity, you're not alone in reaching some of this.

As I read through the first half of the post, I got 'itchy comment fingers', all set to mention that part of the 'difference' in my experience anyway, has been understanding the central role of empathy. But naturally, you beat me to it.

Empathy more as a root way of approaching it (because for many, 'morals' and 'ethics' are often not causalities of actions.)

But also empathy, perhaps not so much as an on/off switch, or the zero sum game of +empathy or - empathy, so much as empathy in varying proportions or situations. (For some sociopaths, it may also be a matter of empathy in relation to most people, animals, etc, but them coming to individual people or 'types' of people and there being a measurable drop in empathy towards them. This can relate to personal history or societal training.)

Those of us who come at it from a Leather or Kinky perspective, ultimately, at the end of the day do care very deeply about the partners we are with (or our own safety).

While we may do or experience 'terrible things', some even leaving intentional permanent markings, hopefully, even if at times questions of consent get beyond language, this is ultimately what both (or however many) partners want.

For most, I think that stems from deep empathy. For the more crass among us, they may view it purely as enlightened self interest (wanting to have access to be with that person again at some later date.) Either way, the thoughts and feelings of the other person do matter to us.

These days, it's popular to talk about various slogans SSC (Safe, Sane, Consensual), or RACK (Risk Aware Consensual Kink, or even PRICK (Personal Responsibility in Consensual Kink. Me, I come at it more along the lines of something (I believe it was) John Preston said-

"A Top Always Keeps His Bottoms Recyclable."

I'd add not merely recyclable so as to be able to go at it again next week, but also recyclable to other partners if that is what they want. They may go with markings, etc, but let those marking be of their own desire- marks they chose to live with.

Anonymous said...

Hi,

I'm a pro sub and so deal with a lot of interesting characters (exclusively male tops/doms). I've found a surprising amount of potential clients to be asbergers, ie have trouble empathising with others. To me, interacting with these tops and exploring their needs for sadism/control is very valid and rewarding experience, if one that needs to be very well negotiated first!
What I feel is happening psychologically with these sorts of top is, they are exploring and exorsizing the pent up feelings they have about their inability to feel and empathize. Being given the space to actually behave how they feel. Just because they don't have empathy, doesn't mean they don't have morals or at least know when they should stop for the sake of legality at least.
Personally, I don't feel that their experiences of sadism are any darker than those with fully functioning empathy glads and as a submissive, interacting with such types (being completely aware of their proclivities, of course) sates my 'wanting to help a dom release their inner nastiness' need in a very deep and wonderful way.
I feel it is not right for 'mainstream' BDSM to either ignore, distance themselves from or think that they are too distinct from those who's sadistic needs are darker than their own, they are after all still looking to relive their needs in a consensual environment.
Sociopathic people need love too!

Anonymous said...

I'm worried that this previous Anonymous is negatively stereotyping Asperger's syndrome people. Not being able to read certain cues doesn't necessarily translate into not understanding human emotion. What is measured as "empathy" in some research, that sees Asperger's people as not possessing it, is not necessarily the same thing as the kind of empathy Trinity is talking about. Not necessarily the same thing at all.

-- Possibly Neurotypical

Trinity said...

"Not being able to read certain cues doesn't necessarily translate into not understanding human emotion. What is measured as "empathy" in some research, that sees Asperger's people as not possessing it, is not necessarily the same thing as the kind of empathy Trinity is talking about. Not necessarily the same thing at all."

Anon: Thank you. Yes, the "not having empathy" thing I'm talking about are people like the "pain is beautiful" fellow I mention in the post, who literally seemed to think that it was odd that people wouldn't want him to hurt them, because pain was so awesome, and wondered why they were overreacting. That scares me, because someone who literally cannot understand that others don't want pain from him has absolutely no reason I can see to refrain from hurting them, save maybe fear of the law.

I don't know about these folks with Asperger's that habu mentions, as I don't know enough about the disorder to be sure what "empathy" measures even supposedly mean there. But... is it possible that when they let their hair down and stop acting "empathetic" it's similar to what I do: no, this isn't that I don't care about you, can't read your cues, etc -- it's that I, with your permission, drop an exhausting social veneer that says nice people don't make other nice people go ouch?

Trinity said...

sorry, I meant anon #1, not habu. it's been a long day.

Anonymous said...

Damn. Why do I always find these threads after they're played out?

I happen to think the empathy aspect is important. I am more of a reaction junkie than a sadist. I get very little from hurting someone because I think hurting is fun. I get lots from watching them go through their limits and endure and enjoy.

I have been told repeatedly I'm not really a top/really kink/etc. And I know bottoms who find me insisting on clear consent and a good understanding of having been granted this right to them off-putting.

Someone earlier discussed that going hard enough into topspace they need the aftercare as much as the bottom and they need to be reassured later/kept in touch with. That's important for me as well.

Trinity said...

"I am more of a reaction junkie than a sadist."

yeah. but for me it's often "either. both. whatever."

which, yeah... to some people that's not sadism. i don't know what it would be, then, though... I want all these different reactions and I want them to come from very intense, and almost violent (ideally in my head, there's no "almost" there, but there are limits to what's actually physically and mentally safe) stimulation.

I'm not sure how that could NOT be sadism, though I know some people think it isn't.

Anonymous said...

" I want all these different reactions and I want them to come from very intense, and almost violent (ideally in my head, there's no "almost" there, but there are limits to what's actually physically and mentally safe) stimulation."

Ahh. There we differ. I have no need for it to come from intense or violent stimulation. Mind you, that's often what's required. In other words, if I can drive someone nuts with a feather and sock puppet, I'd have a grand old time. If I need a knife, I'll have a grand old time.

--victor

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