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.